Along with apple pie and burgers, a slice of American history was served Saturday at the Grange Hall in Orangevale, where 300 Chickasaw Indians from Northern California celebrated their dances, stories and culture with their chief, Bill Anoatubby, governor of the tribe, from its headquarters Ada, Okla.
Anoatubby and others recalled the Chickasaws’ comeback from poverty and near extinction to become one of the most successful tribes in the nation, now with a dozen gaming establishments led by the 500,000-square-foot WinStar World Casino, which employs more than 3,000 people and takes in more than $500 million a year, the chief said. What began as a bingo parlor in a peanut field just north of the Red River in Thackerville, Okla., in 1992 is among the world’s largest casinos, he said. The tribe’s more than 100 businesses – from medical centers to racetracks, TV stations to publishing – push annual revenues to close to $1 billion.
The Chickasaw nation, which some anthropologists believe migrated from Mexico more than 2,300 years ago and resettled in Mississippi, was nearly wiped out by wars, disease, drought, famine and relocation. More than 500 died on the Trail of Tears in 1837 as they were force-marched to Oklahoma. Thousands of others who had survived as small farmers in Oklahoma were forced to seek better lives in California during the parched Dust Bowl years of the 1930s, which explains why more than 900 Chickasaw live in Northern California, Anoatubby said.
David Clubb, co-chairman of the Northern California Chickasaw Connection hosting Saturday’s Piominko Day gathering – named after a Chickasaw chief who fought alongside George Washington’s troops – said the Grange was familiar territory for his grandparents, farmers who fled “dust storms like they have in Saudi Arabia” in the 1930s to become migrant farmworkers in the Central Valley.
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“Because of the stigma attached to being Native American, most of us were told we were Mexican – I was in my 20s until my mother finally told me I was Chickasaw Indian.”
Sybil Alexander of Lincoln said she grew up in Tishomingo, Okla.
“We lived in a one-room cabin with no electricity or running water, and had to stand on the road and hitchhike 14 miles to school because we had no transportation,” she said. “We grew veggies, and my job was to raise chickens, which I hated. Life was very, very hard but as members of this nation, we were always taught to be happy, no matter what we were going through.”
Alexander, 74, said that when the family moved to Point Richmond in the 1940s so her grandfather could work in the refineries, “my grandma told me we would not be welcomed, so I had to lose that accent right now.”
Tribal historian Jessie Lindsey said there were 10,000 members when the tribe began fighting the French in 1736.
“Fifty years later we were down to 2,500 with only 500 warriors when in 1786 we signed a treaty with the U.S. to ‘bury the hatchet,’” Lindsey said. When the Chickasaw traveled the Trail of Tears with the Cherokee, Choctaw and Creek Indians, “we weren’t allowed to bury our dead along the trail so we just covered them with blankets and kept moving,” Lindsey said. “When we got to Oklahoma, we were told we couldn’t speak our languages or do our dances until 1934, so we’d go into the woods and do our ‘Long Dance’ at daybreak. Today, we teach our language in our schools and we just had over 300 people dancing for 31/2 hours.” Lindsey then led members in the “Friendship Dance” that brought the Chickasaw, Choctaw and other tribes together for centuries.
There are only 150 full-blooded members left. But the Chickasaw nation has about 58,000 citizens throughout the United States, including several thousand in California, Anoatubby said.
Unlike many Indian nations – including a number of California tribes – the Chickasaw don’t have a blood-quantum requirement. Members must show they’re lineal descendants of Chickasaw, who were granted 160-acre allotments by the federal government under the Dawes Act of 1887. “My grandma, who was born in 1904, was half-Chickasaw and half-Choctaw, and my grandsons are one-thirty-second,” said Barbara Kaelin of Tracy.
“You see people in this room who are red-headed, blond, brown-haired and black-haired,” Anoatubby said. “It’s not about how you look. ... We have a bond that cannot be broken, this wonderful heritage that we can rely on. It doesn’t matter where you live, you’re still Chickasaw.”
Though the tribe doesn’t give out per capita casino payments to members like most California casino tribes, “if someone needs a hand up, we should provide that,” Anoatubby said.
California members could apply for a variety of programs Saturday: $22,000 a year in college scholarships, $6,000 a year for technical school, a $200-per-year clothing grant for children, $600 a year for special-needs tutors and $500 for special-needs activities, free books for preschoolers, free or low-cost dental services provided through Shingle Springs Tribal Health in Placerville, a $150 eyeglasses benefit, over-the-counter or through-the-mail prescription drugs for those older than 60, $3,000 for a home purchase, $500 a year to help seniors with utility bills, $5,000 for home repairs or handicap retrofitting and $2,500 for burial expenses.
“It varies from person to person, based on their need,” said Angela Black, tribal health coordinator. Members can get help at (866) 466-1481.
Northern California Chairman Phil Reynolds, 65, who had an ancestor on the Trail of Tears, said he had a heart attack several years ago and the tribe “pays for my daily medication, I get my dental work done at no cost, they help pay my utility bill and my grandson Conner just received a bank card for clothes. We have voting rights, and we’re glad to be Chickasaw.”
Call The Bee’s Stephen Magagnini, (916)321-1072. Bee researcher Pete Basofin contributed to this report.