Long time ago wasn’t no folks on them sand flats.… Them Cajans sprung up right out’n the ground. Some say they come from animals—coons and foxes and suchlike—but that ain’t right. Just sprung up out’n the ground.
— Carl Carmer, Stars Fell on Alabama (1934)
The article is “Extinction by Reclassification: The MOWA Choctaws of South Alabama and Their Struggle for Federal Recognition.” The site presents the article attractively and in a paginated style reminiscent of the original printed article.* All of the footnotes are reproduced faithfully.
Matte was president of the Alabama Historical Association in 2006. At the annual meeting in Fairhope she gave a memorable address on the subject of the MOWA Choctaws and their fruitless quest for federal recognition as an authentic Indian tribe. (In 1979 the Alabama Choctaws coined the name “MOWA” from the names of the two counties they inhabit, Mobile and Washington.)
Because their identity as Indians was politically and commercially inconvenient, they were long ago labeled “Cajans” (sic). According to Matte, even John R. Swanton’s canonical 1948 report The Indians of the Southeastern United States refers to them only as “Cajun Indians.” The Bureau of Indian Affairs has rigorous documentary standards for proving the cultural continuity of a tribe — standards that the Alabama Choctaws cannot satisfy with their mostly oral traditions.
Ms. Matte began inquiring about the “Cajans” while working on a history of Washington County. She went on to spend hundreds of hours building trust with reclusive Choctaw elders and interviewing them. In time she published her findings in a book, They Say the Wind Is Red: The Alabama Choctaw, Lost in Their Own Land.
She has continued to do research in support of the tribe’s case for federal status, and it was her 2006 address that first made me aware of the issue.
While I can see the point of the BIA’s protections against too-lenient grants of tribal status, no such standards are going to provide adequate protection against Abramoff-style fraud, which uses political connections and bribes in lieu of factual evidence. A corrupt tribal chairman in Massachusetts, or a squad of sleazy political operators who squeeze money from Indian tribal governments, should not determine how all Indian petitioners are treated.
Instead of merely imposing an onerous burden of proof on MOWA applicants and waiting for them to give up, the Bureau should compare evidence for the applicants’ Indian heritage with counter-evidence favoring other explanations of the historical facts. In this case it is difficult to come up with a more plausible explanation of known facts about the “Cajan” community than by allowing their Choctaw origins. It’s not right to conclude that they might be Choctaw, but then again they might be Cajun, or they might have “sprung up right out’n the ground.”
* Jacqueline Anderson Matte, “Extinction by Reclassification: The MOWA Choctaws of South Alabama and Their Struggle for Federal Recognition,” Alabama Review 59 (July 2006): 163-204. ↩