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Storytellers gather in Muskogee


Storytellers gather in Muskogee

Figure 1

  A group from Coalgate and Crowder traveled to Muskogee for the 5 Tribes Story Conference on Oct. 18. They are joined in this photo by author/storytellers Greg Rodgers and Tim Tingle and the 2013 Short Story Contest winner, Benjamin Zeller, and his dad, Steven Zeller. The conference continued through Oct. 19 with featured artists including Tingle, Rodgers, Dr. Clara Sue Kidwell, Dr. Phillip Carroll Morgan, Rilla Askew, Roy Boney Jr., Dr. Les Hannah and Joe Bruchac.


Choctaw Short Story Contest winner

Tribal Seal 'Understand' Choctaw Seal

Editor's Note: The Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma and the Five Civilized Tribes Museum sponsored a Choctaw Short Story Contest in conjunction with the 2013 Five Tribes Story Conference. Following is the winning entry. We hope you enjoy it as much as we do.


Lake Providence Swamps, Mississippi Winter, 1831 A.D.

  We weren't prepared for death. Really, we weren't prepared for anything. Well, anything like this.

  Another scream pierced the heavy air. Byhalia covered her ears to shut out the wailing and ran harder. Her bare, blistered feet crunched the snow covering the swamp floor. For the hundredth time, Byhalia stumbled and reached out to catch herself. She uncovered her ears, and the screams returned, sending chills up her spine. With every scream that echoed through the cypress trees came the frightening possibility that…

  "No." Byhalia grunted.

  Pushing the thought out of her mind, Byhalia gritted her teeth and ran on. The going was treacherous, and one unlucky step could break through thin ice, sending her plunging into the swampy waters below.

  Byhalia could not have cared less.

  She ran until she collapsed. Snow sprayed everywhere, soaking into her tattered animal hide dress and onto her steaming skin. The wailing screams were gone, and Byhalia made no effort to move from her prostrate position in the snow. Swirling sheets of white flakes began accumulating; both on Byhalia and on the ground.

  A swarm of thoughts were buzzing in her head, begging her to listen to their whisperings.

  What if all my chukachafa die?

  What if I'm the only one of the okla left alive?

  What if I die?

  Thoughts of death and despair continued to flow. Byhalia felt like each one was slowly chipping away at her sanity.

  Eventually, she could take no more. Staggering to her feet, Byhalia stumbled forward until she reached the shelter of an ancient cypress tree. She dropped to the ground, sitting cross-legged in the snow. With a trembling hand, she drew her father's hunting knife from its leather sheath, averting her eyes from her frostbitten fingers and trying to forget that there were only four on her left hand. Byhalia took a deep breath and squeezed her eyes shut, hoping Chitokaka would receive her spirit, or at the very least, that Nalusa Falaya would not devour her soul.

  With that final thought, Byhalia's muscles tensed and she drove the knife toward her pounding chest.

  At the same instant, something- or someone- struck her from the side, throwing her to the ground. Byhalia let out one blood-curdling scream and everything went black.

  "Now hold still…" A fuzzy voice was saying. "I'm trying to help you here."

  Byhalia opened her eyes a crack to see the world a swirling gray and white blur. "Where-" she stopped short as a sharp pain tore through her shoulder. Screaming, she tried to roll away.

  Something pinned her to the ground, forcing her to stay. "Hang on, there!" The faraway speaker yelled. "We're almost done."

  Two moments later, the burning stopped, leaving only a dull throbbing in its place.

  A gentle hand helped her to sit up, supporting her back. "There. Sorry about that. How are you feeling?"

  Byhalia blinked. Her eyes focused, and she could make out the lazy drifting of thousands of snowflakes. A small glade ringed by cypress trees lay in front of her. Her shoulder still burned, but the rest of her body was freezing.

  "Well? Are you feeling better?"

  Byhalia started and looked at the figure sitting next to her. "Oh!" She cringed at the harsh sound of her voice. "Yes… yes, I am." Grimacing at the throbbing of her shoulder, she added, "I think."

  A grin split the face of the young man sitting next to her. He looked a year or two younger than Byhalia's sixteen, wore tattered deerskin leggings and moccasins, and no shirt. His face was long and gaunt, but his black eyes held a cheerful twinkle.

  "Good." He was saying as he adjusted a lopsided eagle feather that stuck out of his black braid. "You're lucky I happened along when I did."

  Both were quiet for a moment, staring into the snowy glade. The boy was rubbing something on the snow.

  "Here," he said, offering Byhalia her father's hunting knife. "I believe this is yours."

  "Oh." She accepted the knife awkwardly.

  What am I thinking? Byhalia thought. He saved my life, I should thank him! Still, part of her wondered if she had really wanted to be saved at that moment.

  She was opening her mouth to say something when the boy abruptly spoke. "By the way, what did you think you were going to do there? Commit ilebi?"

  Byhalia felt her bronze cheeks burning.

  "Um… I wasn't really going-" She stopped herself before she lied.

  "Wasn't going to…?" He prodded.

  Unable to meet his gaze, Byhalia looked away and shrugged. "I just thought that… well, it might be better if I…" Her voice trailed off.

  The hand that was supporting her back reached up and patted her shoulder. "No. I understand." Removing his hand, the boy folded them in his lap and gazed out at the swirling snowflakes. "I've thought the same thing myself these past few moons."

  "But, enough of this," He slapped his legs as if to punctuate his statement. "I'm Nashoba."

  Byhalia nodded. "Halito, I'm Byhalia."

  "And what brings you out in a blizzard while half the okla is dying?"

  "That." Byhalia sighed.

  "What?" Nashoba raised an eyebrow. 

  Spreading out her hands, Byhalia explained. "Only my youngest brother is left alive, and that may be short-lived. The medicine man is trying to heal him, but the cold and fevers may prove beyond his skill. This may be his…" She choked and whispered around the lump in her throat. "…his last night."

  "Oh." Nashoba said quietly. "I'm sorry." Gently, he patted Byhalia's knee. "Again, I know how you feel."

  "Thank you, but that really doesn't make it any better."

  "I know."

  "But how do you know how I feel? It's not as if your whole chukachafa have passed on to hatak illi shilombish aiasha."

  "Well…" hesitated Nashoba, re-adjusting his eagle feather.

  Byhalia shot Nashoba a sidelong glance. "Yes?"

  "They have." He said flatly.

  "What?" Byhalia was taken aback. "But, I thought I was the only one so far to lose this many!"

  "You are." Nashoba continued to stare blankly out into the snowy woods. When he did not speak, Byhalia turned toward him with an expectant look. She coughed.

  Still without looking at her, Nashoba said, "Yes. I have-" he paused. "Well, I had two sisters younger than I still alive when we started this okpulo journey of death and sorrow. Now…"

  "They're gone?" Byhalia finished.

  He nodded. "One of them is. The other is very near to the end. Unless the medicine man is able to work a miracle, she will die of the swamp fever."

  "And your parents and relatives are… where?"

  "They all died when one of the white man's plagues swept our tribe."

  "So… why did you and your sisters live?"

  "Because," Nashoba answered quietly.

  "They made me take them away south to live in the Pine Hills in an attempt to escape the plague."

  "And it worked?" Byhalia leaned closer so she could catch his answer.

  "No. It didn't. We all died in the hills."

  "What?" Byhalia jerked her head back.

  Laughing, Nashoba grinned at her. "Of course it worked! How else would I be here?"

  "Oh." Byhalia was thoroughly confused at his sudden change of attitude. "But, why are you laughing? This really isn't funny, you know. Three-hundred-some Choctaws lost and dying in this okpulo swamp!" An angry edge entered her voice. "Why are you even here? Your only living relative is dying!"

  Still smiling, Nashoba stood up and brushed the snow off his tattered deerskin leggings. "I came out for a calming walk, and you are lucky that I did." He held out his right hand to Byhalia. "Come on! We should both be getting back."

  But instead of taking his hand, Byhalia gasped and recoiled from his touch. "What happened to-"

  "Oh." Nashoba looked at where his fingers should have been. Instead, there were only five blued nubs. "Frostbite." He hurriedly thrust it behind his back. "I didn't mean for you to see that. I'm still getting used to only having one good hand."

  Wide-eyed, Byhalia could only stare at him. Her one missing finger suddenly seemed inconsequential. "But how did you-"

  Nashoba raised the forefinger on his left hand. "Uh-uh. No questions about the hand, please. I've answered plenty of questions for right now, anyway. Now," he offered his good hand to her. "Let's get up and be off. I don't know about you, but I'm freezing. And, I would rather keep the rest of my appendages attached if I can help it."

  Now that she thought about it, Byhalia was shivering intensely. Grabbing his hand, she let him pull her to her feet. "Yakoke," she said quickly.

  Nashoba nodded and started back through the swamp and cypress trees, following a faint trail of footprints.

  "By the way," he was saying. "I'm sorry about your shoulder. Still, I suppose it is better than the other option."

  "It's fine." Byhalia mumbled.

  How can he be so happy while in the midst of such tragedy? She asked herself.

  Nashoba's footsteps slowed, and he turned his sparkling black eyes on Byhalia. "Are you alright?"

  "Hm?" Byhalia returned his gaze.

  "I asked if you are alright."

  "I just don't understand!" Byhalia said, exasperated.

  "Don't understand what?"

  "You!" said Byhalia. She gestured to Nashoba. "How can you be so…joyful while surrounded by death and suffering? You've already lost your hand, most of your chukachafa, and now you're about to lose your final sister! I'm quite sure I would have died by now, if I were you."

  Nashoba shrugged. "Well, part of it is that I don't let thoughts of despair take root in my mind, or else Nalusa Falaya will eat my soul." He looked hard at Byhalia. "You do know that, don't you?"

  "Of course!" Byhalia tried to sound nonchalant. "Everyone knows that."

  A smile flickered on the corners of Nashoba' s cracked lips. "Good. And you asked how I live through all this?"

  Byhalia nodded.

  "It's simple, really. Through all the okpulo choices I've made, and equally okpulo things that have happened to me, I've always remembered that life is what you make of it. Unfortunate events are bound to happen, but feeling depressed never helped anyone. It's like now: I made the decision to walk to this 'new land' of the Choctaws instead of riding in wagons or boats. I had hoped the benefits the white men provided would allow me to take care of myself and my sisters. Now, I see that it was one of the worst choices I ever made. Nothing will be able to return my sisters to me." He paused for a few moments. "Some would say that your fate is set when you are born. I disagree. Your destiny is yours to make; you just need the courage to face it."

  Byhalia nodded, silent. She thought of what he had said, and a small spark of determination and life seemed to spread through her shattered heart.

  As they came closer to the camp, the screams returned. But this time, Byhalia did not cover her ears.

  Nashoba stopped a stone's throw away from the campsite. "Well, here we are." He said cheerfully.

  A pit formed in Byhalia's stomach. She started to move toward the medicine man's chukka.

  "Wait." She felt Nashoba's hand on her shoulder. He turned her so she was looking directly into his dark eyes. "I know you're still thinking about what I said, and wrestling with sadness over your loss. But, remember, if you ever need anything, I'll be here for you, as long as I'm alive." He smiled, his teeth reflecting the firelight. "Don't lose hope, we'll make it out of this makali swamp somehow."

  "Yakoke." Byhalia said quickly.

  Squeezing her shoulder, Nashoba released his grip. As she turned to leave, he whispered after her, "Understand, your life is what you make it, Byhalia."

  And for the first time in many moons, Byhalia smiled.

Figure 3

Benjamin Zeller, seated, autographs a copy of his story, Understand,' for author/storyteller Joe Bruchac.

Glossary of Choctaw Terms:

- chukachafa: family
- okla: tribe
- Ilebi: suicide
- okpulo: bad, vile, etc.
- yakoke: thanks (when spoken quickly)
- makali: evil, vile, bad, etc.
- Nalusa Falaya: the Soul Eater (the devil)
- hatak illi shilombish aiasha: the afterworld
- halito: a friendly greeting
- Chitokaka: The Great Spirit
- chukka: dwelling
This article and others came from the Choctaw Nation Biskinik. To see more news please refer to the following sites.



Sounds of Choctaw - Social Greeting
Sounds of Choctaw - Weather
Lesson of the Day