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Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma

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    Move Story
    Mary Ayn Tullier of Choctaw Nation addresses the media during a press conference at Harold Hamm Diabetes Center about the MOVE Diabetes study. Other researchers at right include Tamela Cannady, Kevin Short, Ph. D. and Jennifer Chadwick, Native American Programs Coordinator for HHDC. Photo by Zach Maxwell

    Choctaw youth participate in diabetes prevention study

    Choctaw Nation

    Durant, Okla. - The Choctaw Nation is participating in a bold new diabetes prevention study called MOVE, launched by the Harold Hamm Diabetes Center at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center.

    Researchers conducting the study and staff members from Choctaw Nation Health Services Authority recently announced the study involving youths from Hugo and Talihina. Participant screenings and fitness tests are conducted at the Diabetes Wellness Center in Talihina and at the Hugo Wellness Center.

    The study asks a simple question: If we pay kids to go to the gym, will it lead to lasting lifestyle changes that promote good health?

    The research is funded by a grant from the National Institutes of Health, to focus on how to motivate young people to make lifestyle changes that can help them avoid health problems. Choctaw Nation leaders, recognizing the high incidence of juvenile diabetes among tribal members, asked to participate in the study.

    “We’ve developed new protocols for treating diabetes in children, but nothing in terms of teaching those at risk to avoid the disease,” said Kenneth Copeland, M.D., co-principal investigator of the study. One in three children born today will develop diabetes at some point in their lifetime; that number increases for Native American children.

    “Studies have demonstrated that incentive programs help adults meet their goals in weight loss or smoking cessation programs,” said Kevin Short, Ph. D., co-principal investigator and associate professor in pediatric diabetes and endocrinology at the OU College of Medicine. “But no one has ever considered whether financial incentives can improve health outcomes in younger populations.” Tamela Cannady, Director of Preventive Health for Choctaw Nation, said participation in the study has had an immediate impact for its young volunteers.

    “This is making a difference in their self esteem. They are holding their heads higher,” she said. “We have a job at Choctaw Nation to make people’s lives healthier.”

    Mary Ayn Tullier, a research study coordinator from Choctaw Nation, said some of the participants “had no idea how to exercise” and many had never ridden a bicycle.

    “We coach them and give them compliments to keep them going,” she said.
    Study participant Emily Greger, 14, of Moyers, has taken her participation in the study to the next level by joining her school’s basketball team.

    “I really like it because there is so much at the gym you can do,” Greger said. “I like the people at the gym. They’re just like a big family. This makes you feel great because you are helping yourself.”

    She got a friend to participate in the study because both have family members with type 2 diabetes. Emily’s mother, Dawn Greger, who has type 2 diabetes, is supportive of her daughter’s participation in the study because “it teaches her to be more active and take care of herself.”

    Type 2 diabetes in teens and young adults has risen sharply in the past few years. Researchers hope the study will help them find effective ways to help prevent diabetes in young people.

    “We hope this research will help us develop prevention programs that effectively address how to increase the physical activity levels of all youth as well as model incentive programs for future use in the Choctaw Nation and elsewhere,” said Short.

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    Chilis Exterior

    The Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma Bringing Chili’s® Grill & Bar Franchises Along With 80 New Jobs to Southeast Oklahoma

    Durant, Okla. - Residents of Atoka and Poteau will soon be able to enjoy a casual lunch or a night on the town at Chili’s® Grill & Bar. The development of the two Chili’s restaurants will be the newest additions to the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma’s Franchise Division.

    The restaurants will bring a new dining option to communities in central Atoka County and north central Le Flore County, as well as for those traveling through these areas. Both Chili’s will be built adjacent to the existing Choctaw Nation Travel Plaza and Casino Too’s, located at Highway 69/75 and Highway 3 in Atoka and at the junction of Highway 271 and Highway 112 in Poteau.
    Chilis Logo

    “We are excited to bring a popular, nationally recognized restaurant brand of Chili’s caliber to these two towns. Even more importantly though, we are thrilled with the jobs these two restaurants will create for the areas’ residents” said Choctaw Nation’s Chief Gary Batton.

    The Atoka location will provide 40 jobs and will be the first casual dining restaurant brand with a national footprint in Atoka. The Poteau restaurant will also provide 40 jobs to the surrounding area. Construction for the Poteau location is set to start this month and the restaurant is expected to open in August 2015. Construction is scheduled to begin March 2015 for the Atoka restaurant, which has an expected completion date of October 2015.

    Chili’s® Grill & Bar is the flagship brand of Dallas-based Brinker International, Inc. (NYSE: EAT), a recognized leader in casual dining. Chili’s offers a variety of Southwestern-inspired, classic American favorites at more than 1,550 locations in 30 countries and two territories. In addition to Chili’s, Brinker owns and operates Maggiano’s Little Italy®. For more brand-related information, please visit
    Chilis Interior

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    Dylan Buffalo

    Dylan Cavin Shares the Story of His Art

    By Brandon Frye
    Choctaw Nation

    Durant, Okla. - Dylan Cavin is a multimedia Choctaw artist who portrays native and Oklahoma-oriented subjects in his work in unexpected ways. He says he first learned to appreciate art as a child reading comic books, finding himself drawn to particular illustrators and noticing their unique methods.

    “It got me to draw the same pictures, put things on paper, and start falling in love with the way a pencil stroke looked,” Cavin said. “That lead to me seeing other artists’ signature styles, what made them stand out, and that made me love the art even more.”

    He carried this sentiment over to the way he views his own art now, as a journey of self-exploration.

    “Artwork is the journey of finding yourself, and what comes out is a signature,” he said. “I see my art as a progression in finding that signature in myself. I don’t feel like I’m there yet, and for me, that’s one of the bigger parts of being an artist, never quite being satisfied and always pushing yourself.”

    His journey took him from his childhood appreciation of comic books to winning awards in high school, and then on to receiving college scholarships and earning his Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from the University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma (USAO). After graduating, he started working as a graphic designer, a career he has continued for 10 years.
    Dylan Headshot

    “For me, it’s nice working the graphic design job and then coming home to work pencil, paper, paint brush, and canvas,” he said. “I work nine-to-five. After I get home, I will eat dinner with my wife, relax for a bit, then I usually have set aside time to work on whatever grabs me. It is really nice to come in and work with my hands.”

    When he settles down to his studio, Cavin says his approach is very blue collar. He works, he puts in the time. He picks up whatever strikes him first, whether it’s working with pencil and paper, or getting some canvas out and working with acrylic paints “It is a process, you have to put the work in. I don’t necessarily know when the piece is done. Some pieces will sit in the studio for three, four, or six months. Other pieces take no time.”

    Cavin said, In the comic book world, he can see the entire process that goes into the work, from the pencil to the inking to the actual painting of the cover. His own artistic method seems to mirror this hands-on, continuous process with multiple layers.

    The result is a hybrid–an assortment of complimentary and active graphites, inks, paints–a mix of old and new visuals, purposefully designed by artist Dylan Cavin, often worked onto interesting backdrops such as notes, ledgers, and book pages. He works to control the design of his art, but Cavin also appreciates the uniqueness and unplanned expression of each piece.

    “Art is something you can’t recreate. With the drips and washes you see in my work, I plan to do it, but I don’t know how it will come out. You can see brush strokes with a gradient you know you will never be able to do again. It is expression, putting in that work, finding that unexpected outcome,” Cavin said.

    Cavin’s work often shows subjects important to the Choctaw Nation and its heritage, such as the buffalo and historical figures. It is part of his attempt to explore, in himself, what it means to be Choctaw, and what it means to be Oklahoman. He said he feels a responsibility to convey the feelings he gets from such subjects, and a desire to allow the viewer a connection with it.
    Dylan Works

    “For me, the Native art really hits home for doing something that means Oklahoma to me. A lot of times I relate Native with myself, and that translates into what I find around me, whether it be a bison, or a longhorn, or the scissortail. That’s what comes out,” he said.

    Looking forward, Cavin plans to keep pushing his work, showing his art at every possible venue. He said If he is not pushing himself, his art is not being seen. “If you are not there to talk about your work, then people aren’t going to be as interested about it,” he explained. “Once you are there and talking about it, it takes on a different story.”

    Dylan Cavin’s artwork is currently on display around the Choctaw Nation. A scissortail flycatcher, made from paints on an old note, is even perched on the wall of the Biskinik offices. A collection of his work is for sale at the Choctaw Welcome Center in Colbert. His work is also spread across the state and globe. Tribes 131 in Norman has shown his artwork. He has had several pieces on display at the University of Oklahoma’s student union on the medical campus. Cavin has shipped artwork around Oklahoma, to Texas, and even to places like Moscow. He has shown art in New York and in Santa Fe. And USAO recently hosted Cavin’s one-man show at the Nesbitt Gallery in Chickasha.

    “Doing native art, especially within the Choctaw Nation, it has almost opened up an extended family I didn’t necessarily know I had,” Cavin said. “But once you get out there and start showing, it’s a very warm crowd.”

    Watch an exclusive interview with Dylan Cavin here.

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    Choctaw Nation to Offer Native American Entrepreneurial Empowerment Workshops in Durant, OK.

    Durant, Okla.– Choctaw Nation, Native American Business Resource Center, Business Development and Marketing are thrilled to hold a training workshop in partnership with REI Oklahoma and ONABEN (Our Native American Business Network). This small business development workshop will be provided in Durant, OK at REI (2912 Enterprise Boulevard), on Tuesday January 20 and Wednesday 21, 2015 (9am-4pm).

    All Indianpreneurs are invited to attend and strongly encouraged to register for this FREE two-day course for small business development. The training workshop will benefit anyone who operates or is considering operating a small business.

    This workshop will cover business concepts indispensable for anyone starting up or running a small business. Instructors will also identify and help participants avoid common pitfalls. The training will provide comprehensive information on topics important to aspiring entrepreneurs and small business owners related to business planning, access to capital, basic bookkeeping, human resources, problem solving and marketing a small business.

    Choctaw Nation and ONABEN will present this training, in partnership with REI OK. The event is free to attend and open to the public. All class materials and refreshments will be provided to participants at no cost.

    Workshops are based on the ONABEN curriculum, Indianpreneurship®. ONABEN is a 501(c)(3) corporation headquartered in Portland, Oregon, created in 1991 by four Oregon tribes to encourage the development of a private sector on their reservations. The group is driven by its mission to support Indigenous individuals, economic development organizations and communities by increasing opportunities for sustainable economic growth through culturally relevant entrepreneurial training and organizational development. For more information about ONABEN, please visit

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    Billy Hamilton
    Billy Hamilton, Small Business Services Manager with the Choctaw Nation, talks with a group of native business owners about the practicalities of starting and running a business during one of the “Indianpreneurship” workshops.

    Choctaw entrepreneurs gain tips on running their business

    By Brandon Frye
    Choctaw Nation

    Durant, Okla. - Three departments with the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma (CNO)–The Native American Resource Center, Business Development, and Marketing–are holding a Native American entrepreneurial empowerment training workshop called Indianpreneurship in Durant, Okla.

    Rural Enterprises Incorporated, known as REI Oklahoma, and Our Native American Business Network (ONABEN), partnered with CNO to provide the workshop, meant to inform native business owners of vital concepts for anyone starting up or running a small business.

    Business planning, access to capital, basic bookkeeping , human resources, problem solving, and marketing a small business are all topics covered during the two-day event. The classes and workshops are based on ONABEN’s curriculum, the organization pursues the mission of supporting indigenous individuals by increasing opportunities for sustainable economic growth through culturally relevant entrepreneurial training and organizational development.

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    Agriculture Secretary visits Choctaw Nation

    Thomas Vilsack meets with tribal officials on 1-year Promise Zone anniversary

    VilsackTonubbeeFood_Web U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Thomas Vilsack toured the Choctaw Nation Food Distribution Center in Durant on Thursday as part of an overall progress report on the one-year anniversary of the tribe’s designation as one of President Barack Obama’s Promise Zones. Secretary Vilsack said the facility, which opened in June of 2014, was one of many Choctaw Nation initiatives aimed at improving the well being of low-income families while creating jobs and business opportunities.

    “Whether a senior citizen on a fixed income or a family struggling, this is an opportunity for you to have access to nutritious food and sufficient quantity to take care of your family,” Vilsack said after a tour of the facility led by Jerry Tonubbee, Choctaw Nation Director of Food Distribution. “What’s nice about this particular facility is it gives people the opportunity to choose and feel like they are in a grocery store setting.”

    The Secretary also sampled some muffins made by Carmen Robertson, a tribal nutritionist and host of Cooking With Carmen, a Choctaw Nation-sponsored show that encourages healthy eating habits for food distribution program participants.

    But the tour and taste testing were just a small part of Secretary Vilsack’s visit to Durant on Thursday. He met with Chief Gary Batton and Assistant Chief Jack Austin Jr., as well as several tribal leaders and regional leaders from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. “Choctaw Nation was the first tribal area to be designated under our Promise Zone Initiative,” Vilsack said. “I wanted to get a reading on how well we’ve done over the last year. $4.6 million has been invested by a variety of federal agencies.

    “I got a good sense today from leaders of the next steps in the process. Very, very great plans, hundreds of millions of dollars in potential investments that could take place, thousands of jobs that could be created – that’s the promise of Promise Zones.” Secretary Vilsack and Chief Gary Batton met and discussed several items of interest to the Choctaw Nation.

    “It was a great opportunity to visit with Secretary Vilsack on the progress of our Promise Zone initiatives,” said Batton. “We’ve been successful in creating more jobs and are looking forward to implementing plans to continue improving the economic future of Southeast Oklahoma.” Sara-Jane Smallwood, Director of the Choctaw Nation Promise Zone Initiative, said the tribe was able to show its progress during the first year of the 10-year designation.

    “The Secretary’s visit is a historic way to mark the one year anniversary of the Promise Zone,” she said. “We were able to demonstrate the steps we have accomplished so far. With the Secretary and Chief Batton providing leadership and guidance, it will make a tremendous impact on southeast Oklahoma over the remaining nine years of the Promise Zone.”

    USDA officials in attendance of this meeting included Director of Tribal Relations Leslie Wheelock, NRCS State Conservationist Gary O’Neill, and Rural Development State Director Ryan McMullen. Also present were Ouachita National Forest Supervisor Norm Wagner and Durant Mayor Jerry Tomlinson. Secretary Vilsack said it was up to local leaders such as these to work with Choctaw Nation to implement the plans outlined in the tribal Promise Zone Initiative.

    “There is a very aggressive plan here. The challenge now is to figure out: How do we make that vision a reality, how do we invest in infrastructure,” Secretary Vilsack said. “This is a Promise Zone that is really living up to its responsibilities of being bold and thinking big… This is all about figuring out how to extend paychecks, how to better prepare people for great jobs in the future and how to build those jobs here today. That’s the president’s vision, and after seeing what I saw here today, I’m pretty sure that’s the vision of the Choctaw Nation as well.”

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    Please visit the Choctaw Nation Health Services Authority website regarding times, location, and information.

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    Registration has begun for the 2015 summer camps. Complete your Application today.

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    Native Master
    Masters students Jennifer Kemp and Twahna Hamill (left to right) with professor and advice Chris Wesberrq on the front lawn of Southeastern Oklahoma State University as students play stickball behind them. Kemp and Hamill are both working to earn master’s degree in Native Studies.

    Native Studies master’s degree offered at SE

    by Zach Maxell
    Choctaw Nation
    The first participants in a new Native-themed master’s degree program at Southeastern Oklahoma State University have taken to (online) classrooms as of January.

    The Oklahoma State Regents for Higher Education approved the degree plan last fall. Its official name: The Master of Science in Native American Leadership, known in academic circles by its acronym, MSNAL.

    “Southeastern is recognized around the country as a leader in providing higher education opportunities and services to its Native American students,” said Southeastern President Sean Burrage, a Choctaw Nation tribal member. “This innovative master’s degree certainly enhances the programs we have in place at the university.”

    Co-directors of the new program are Dr. Bryon Clark, a dean at SE and an associate vice president for academic affairs at the university, as well as Chris Wesberry, director of the school’s Native American Center for Student Success.

    “The MSNAL is a result of university faculty and staff working with tribal partners to develop a degree that includes Native American topics and leadership concepts,” Wesberry said. “With this degree, students are able to take courses such as ‘Effective Communication Through Presentations’ while also taking ‘Geography and Treaties.’ The combination of historical and culturally relevant courses and courses focused on leadership skills is very unique.”

    The curriculum was two years in the making, Wesberry said, and includes a required 32 hours from a list of courses with titles such as “Developing the Native American Leader” and “Current Topics in Indian Country.” All classes are online, with students in five states currently enrolled, but live classes could be on the horizon.

    At an average price of $10,000, Wesberry said the Native master’s degree is very affordable compared to those offered at other universities. Coupled with tribal member and employee incentives at the Choctaw Nation, the value becomes evident. “It’s really catered to tribal employees who work 40-plus hours a week,” Wesberry said. “It’s not limited to them, but (tribal employees) were definitely our target. You have to have some leadership skills in all management positions.” Southeastern’s partnership with the Choctaw and Chickasaw nations was enhanced recently with the announcement of a $1.1 million, four-year grant from the U.S. department of Education Office of Indian Education. This Early Childhood Teacher Preparation Grant will assist native students pursuing degrees in early childhood and special education.

    There are currently 30 participants in the master’s program being taught by five instructors. Southeastern also offers an MBA (accounting) program with an emphasis on Native American Leadership. For more information on these new degree tracks, contact Wesberry at (580) 745-2376. Or visit: Southeastern Oklahoma State University

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    Cordell in front of sign
    Cordell Zalenski credits a pair of Choctaw Nation internships, as well as success on the football field, for helping pave his path to academic success.

    Athlete-scholar takes success from football field to workforce

    By Zach Maxell
    Choctaw Nation

    Durant, Okla. - Cordell Zalenski is the embodiment of a successful college student.

    Zalenski is a 2012 graduate of Durant High School and is pursuing a degree in accounting at Harding University in Searcy, Ark. He is on an athletic scholarship for football, playing defensive positions for the Harding Bison.

    He has completed two summer internships within the Choctaw Nation and will be branching out in 2015 with an internship at WalMart corporate headquarters in Bentonville, Arkansas.

    For Zalenski, each experience has been a stepping stone toward greater successes, in the classroom, on the football field and in the real world. His summer internships at Choctaw Nation—with Chahta Foundation in 2013 and Health Services in 2014—were eye-opening experiences.

    “I really learned a lot those two summers, it was a blast,” Zalenski said on a recent holiday visit to Choctaw Nation headquarters in Durant. “It really helped me, working on those projects, to get real-world experience.”

    He also worked with the summer youth employment program, now called Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act, while in high school. He credits that program, as well as Seth Fairchild at Chahta Foundation and Kellie Elliott at Health Services, for helping him achieve major milestones on his collegiate path.

    But, let’s be honest: This really starts on the gridiron.

    Zalenski was a stand-out defenseman for the Durant Lions, which earned him a spot on the Harding roster. The Bison have finished 9-2 for the past several seasons and once again reached the Division II playoff bracket this past December.

    Zalenski played in 11 games, racking up nearly two dozen tackles, three quarterback sacks and a forced fumble. “I did have a blocked kick, but it’s not on my stats,” he said. “I remember feeling it.”

    With a red-shirt season behind him, he has two seasons of eligibility remaining. Thoughts of a college transfer have given way to loyalty to his Bison teammates, and Zalenski says he plans to remain a Bison this coming fall.

    “We have really high aspirations and we know we can do better,” he said. “We have really good guys, a team full of leaders. It’s going to be a fun year.”

    But the off-season takes a lot of work. “You’re usually sore all the time,” he said of the winter and spring work-outs.

    “It’s every day training, a lot of working hard to get better. It sounds old-fashioned,” Zalenski said. “It’s just being able to run every play as fast as you can, waking up and eating a lot of protein shakes, training your body to take blows so you can last through the season.”

    Then of course there are accounting classes and the big internship awaiting him in the summer. “My mom’s more proud of the academic side, I think,” he said.
    Cordell in Action

    Connie Zalenski’s pride in her children goes way beyond academics or athletics.

    “I admire each and every one of them,” she said of her three children, two of whom also work at Choctaw Nation. On Cordell, she says: “I am proud of his faith in God. He takes it into the classroom and onto the field. He doesn’t just talk it, he lives it.”

    As a single parent, she received support from the Choctaw Nation as well as their local church in Lane while the kids were growing up. She said Cordell has been “a real positive role model” for his young nephew who has been adopted into the household.

    Zalenski said his mom is urging him to return to the Choctaw Nation, which he said he may do after “testing the waters” outside of the 10 ½ counties. His mother works in the tribal accounting office, while brother Waddell Hearn Jr. is in marketing and sister Amber Hearn is a therapist at WindHorse, a tribally run facility in McAlester.

    But first, there is the matter of a 12-game football season starting this September: “Hopefully, I’ll be wearing some (championship) rings,” Zalenski said.

    It could be the latest in many successes ahead for this Choctaw athlete.

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    Lowmans Valentine Couple
    Jerry and Shirley Lowman as the Valentine Couple in the 2015 Choctaw Nation calendar. Photo by Pollaro Video

    Spotlight on Elders with Jerry and Shirley Lowman

    By Zach Maxwell
    Choctaw Nation
    Smithville, Okla. - Jerry and Shirley Lowman have dedicated much of their lives to Choctaw traditional music, dancing and artistry.

    Some of this happened by chance and some by design. Both were raised in isolated, woodland communities in northern McCurtain County, mostly after World War II. Both spoke only Choctaw until entering nearby grade schools.

    They met in high school, married soon thereafter and built a hardscrabble existence in the Smithville area. The isolation kept families – and long-standing traditional life ways – intact in the wooded hills near the Arkansas border.

    As young adults in the 1970s, they could see some of the activities that made a distinctive Choctaw culture were fading from the Oklahoma landscape. As other native nations enjoyed a cultural renaissance in the wake of “Wounded Knee ’73,” the Lowmans joined a determined group of Choctaws in keeping tribal music and dancing alive.

    Both also participate in various forms of native expression. For Shirley, it’s in the form of beadwork. And for Jerry, his work as a silversmith allows him to create rings and key chains in themes both ancient (such as stickball) and modern (such as the OKC Thunder logo).

    The Lowmans’ special contribution to Choctaw chanting and dancing goes back more than 40 years with some trips to learn from our Mississippi kin. These efforts earned them an invitation to lead tribal dances on the capitol grounds at Tvshka Homma this past Labor Day.

    “When (Choctaw language instructor Terri Billy) asked us to chant at Tvshka Homma, we felt so honored,” Shirley said. This honored couple was featured as February “Choctaw valentines” in the 2015 calendar, in a photo of them in full traditional attire from the same event.

    The Lowmans will celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary this June.

    Jerry grew up in the Watson and Buffalo areas, as well as several years in western Oklahoma before returning home at age 18 upon the passing of his grandmother. Shirley was born “at home” into the Ludlow family in the community of the same name. Both describe an upbringing of hard work, rural isolation and a struggle to adapt to English-speaking classmates and teachers. Shirley’s parents, including mother Minnie (Bonds) Ludlow from Bethel, had 11 children but no electricity until Shirley was grown.
    B&W Lowmans

    Jerry’s mother was a member of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, but his vivid memories of childhood centered on his grandparents. “(Grandma) used to wear an apron all the time,” he said. “And she would go barefooted. She would never wear shows. Maybe when she went to church but when she went to town, she went barefooted.”

    Jerry worked at a pallet company, chicken processing plant and U.S. Mortar but settled on working the nearby “log woods” until 1998. Shirley and her family would travel to Texas to “pull cotton” or, closer to home they would find work “peeling poles.”

    This work involved stripping small trees of their bark with a draw knife so they could be made into fence posts. Jerry called it a “running thing” in the 1950s, with post yards all over the piney hills of far southeastern Oklahoma.

    “A machine does it now,” Shirley said of the post work. “Dad used to tell us, you better get an education because a machine will take this over in the future.”

    Wages were low and indeed, peeling poles became a thing of the past. Once the Lowman’s daughter reached schooling age, Shirley applied to work as a teacher’s aide in the Johnson O’Malley program. She retired a few years ago after 35 years as an aide and bus driver for Smithville schools.

    In the early 1970s, the Lowmans were part of a large group who joined Pastors Gene Wilson and John Bohanan on a journey to eastern Mississippi to visit the Choctaw Reservation at Pearl River.

    “Gene was in charge of Christian education and he wanted to do cultural things for the Choctaws here,” Shirley said. “He wrote a proposal and received a grant. For me, culture was something I never thought about: Who we were, where we came from.” They visited Nvnih Waiya, even as local Choctaws warned them not to go inside the cave. “They said, ‘Something is going to grab you,’” Jerry said.

    “I was kind of afraid but I followed the trail and made it to look at the real Nvnih Waiya,” he said. “You see the big mound out there and say, ‘How did people build something like that?’ It is something to see Nvnih Waiya out there.”

    They also experienced first-hand the racism of the Deep South in the wake of the Civil Rights era – something they said was absent from rural Oklahoma at the time. The Lowmans shared stories with Terri Billy about their Mississippi visit, where white business owners refused to let them do laundry and others denied them shelter at a church after their car broke down.

    And it took a few visits to the Mississippi Choctaw Indian Fair, but soon the Lowmans were in contact with people like Tony Bell and Prentiss and Amy Jackson – keepers of the time-honored dances and chants of the Choctaws.

    “If a person wants to learn, he’s going to have to be really dedicated to want to learn it,” Jerry said of the chanting. “My goal was to chant, to learn. We practiced just about every week and finally got it down the way it’s supposed to be done.”

    They speak of three dance styles: Social dancing, animal dances and the War Dance. Over the years, the Lowmans were at the head of a group that took the dances to fairs, festivals and parades across the Choctaw Nation.

    Jerry said the animal dances honor the contributions that various creatures made to the Choctaws. Dances honoring turtles, ducks and of course the rattlesnake are meant to show appreciation to these creatures for providing food or protecting crops from nuisances.

    Jerry also spoke of the rarely seen Ribbon Woman Dance that honors the four directions and offers a chance for a historian to tell the Choctaw story while a couple chants in very low tones. The Lowmans said their group employed this dance but they know of no pictures or videos of this particular dance.

    Like the language, there are subtle differences between Oklahoma Choctaw dancing and the Mississippi style. But both are flourishing in recent years thanks to a new generation of Choctaws on both sides of the river following in the footsteps of honored elders such as Jerry and Shirley Lowman.
    Watch the interview here.

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    Raven Reenactment
    Raven Baker, in 1800’s style Choctaw dress, cuts sausage in preparation for the day’s meal. Behind are visitors of the park interacting with students involved in a cooking demonstration.

    Choctaw Nation participates in Battle of New Orleans reenactment

    By Ryan Spring
    Choctaw Nation

    On Jan. 8, 1815, a group of Choctaw warriors helped Andrew Jackson save the United States from a massive British invasion at the end of the War of 1812. Two hundred years later to the day, Raven Baker and Caleb Sullivan, two youths from the Choctaw Nation traveled to New Orleans to participate in the celebration of the anniversary of this battle.

    Mentored by Ryan Spring of the Choctaw Nation Historic Preservation Department, Raven and Caleb were part of the National Park Service’s “Recognizing our Roots: Choctaw Youth Living History Program.”

    Each year, this program works with Choctaw students from the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, the Jena Band of Choctaw Indians, and the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians, to learn about the history of the battle and the War of 1812. At the end, students from each of the three Choctaw tribes are able to come together on the original battle site, Chalmette Battlefield, and participate in a reenactment where they portray the lifestyle of the Choctaw people who fought at that battle in 1815. In October 2014, these Choctaw youths traveled to Jena, Louisiana, to participate in the 2nd Annual Tribal EXPO hosted by the Jena Band of Choctaw Indians. At the EXPO the students were fitted into period clothing, learned history on the War of 1812 and the Battle of New Orleans, and instructed in military drills from the period. They were also able to see Choctaw basketry makers, potters, leather workers, finger weavers, and other artists.

    On Jan. 8, the day of the bicentennial had arrived and the students were excited to begin showing what they had learned as a battle reenactment took place. Men began to construct tents, build a Choctaw palmetto shelter, gather firewood, and carry buckets of water. Meanwhile the women began to build a fire and prepare the food that everyone would be eating that day. Soon, after the camp was set-up, hundreds of visitors began to arrive. The students now had to put their skills to the test to teach the eager visitors about Choctaw culture and history. In between musket firing drills and tending the camp, the students demonstrated stickball, teaching visitors fundamentals of the game. During downtime the youths were able to visit other camps such as blacksmiths, powder horn makers and the British camp.
    Caleb Reenactment

    If any parents or students are interested in participating in the “Recognizing our Roots: Choctaw Youth Living History Program” next year, please contact Ryan L. Spring with the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma Historic Preservation Dept. at (800) 522-6170 ext. 2137 or send an email to Students must be from the ages of 14 to 17 and must be a Tribal Member of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma. More details will be available this September.

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    A Choctaw with stories to tell

    by Lisa Reed ralph_williston
    Music man …teacher… author … educator … ’teller Ralph Williston of Dearborn, Missouri, is spending his “retirement years” continuing a legacy handed down by his father. One of his favorite stories is of his father.

    “My father, Henry S. Williston, was known as the ‘music man’ in high school because he could play any instrument,” Ralph said. “My twin brother and I were born when he was teaching music at Chilocco Indian Boarding School near Ponca City, Oklahoma. As children and teenagers, our home was always filled with music.” Like his father, Ralph is known as the “music man” at his church and, also, like his father, Ralph is a teacher and ’teller.

    “A full-blood Choctaw, my father was born in Indian Territory on an unknown date around 1906 or 1907 in a log cabin outside of Broken Bow, Oklahoma. His parents died when he was a child. His only memory of his father was hearing him playing the violin as he was coming home after playing for a dance. Dad ended up at Chilocco Boarding School where he turned to music to overcome the oppression of those days. One of the reasons that Choctaw was spoken ‘very little in our home’ was the result of his experience in boarding schools … as he said, ‘I would get my fingers hit hard with a ruler if I talked any Choctaw word so I had to learn and speak what was called English’.


    “Dad ran away from Chilocco with a friend, Harrison,” Ralph tells as he weaves a pattern in the fabric of his heritage. “Dad and his friend hopped trains until they got to Bacone Boarding School near Muskogee, Oklahoma, where he finished high school. My middle name is Harrison, named in honor of his good friend. ¬“Dad, as a high school student orphan, sold his land allotment on his home land because he was told that he had not paid his back taxes,” Ralph said. “He saved his money so that he could attend Northeastern Teachers College (now Northeastern University in Tahlequah) where he earned a bachelor’s degree in music education. He became one of the few Choctaw with a college degree and this was during the late 1930s, the depression years. Dad served in the National Guard in those days and remembered that he was part of a circle of guardsmen around a plane that had a strange name …Spirit of Saint Louis!

    “As a teacher Dad returned to the same boarding school (Chilocco) where he had so many memories and taught music to natives of all grades. He would spend 25 years teaching thousands of children, youth, band and vocal music in public schools in Wyandotte and Fairland where he fell in love with Mable, my Mom. Dad also taught in Quapaw, Commerce, and Webbers Falls, Oklahoma. He taught in Pamona, Kansas, where I graduated high school third in my class of 13. Dad went back to school in Mexico and then taught Spanish for another 10 years. He earned a master’s degree from Pittsburg State University Pittsburg, Kansas, where I would also earn my master’s in science education years later.”

    While growing up Ralph and his twin brother, Rolland, hiked and visited homes in the small Oklahoma communities where they lived. Ralph’s love of ’telling grew as they absorbed memories and stories handed down through the ages. Rolland eventually became the Native American Specialist for a World Church and invited Ralph to visit a number of native tribes.

    “I would sit all night and listen to the native storytellers,” Ralph remembers. “When I came home from these trips I would first tell some of these stories to our young children. I discovered that the magic of those old stories actually held their attention. Then I went to an elementary class, a library event, then a church and church camp…and watched the children as I shared some of these stories. They didn’t move! The rest is history … that started over 30 years ago.”

    After collecting several stories, his adult children encouraged him to put the “Great Spirit” stories into books. He began the “Little Eagle” series of books in 2000 and now has nine self-published books including seven large-format books for children – “Catch A Rabbit,” “Attacked by an Eagle,” “Follow the Trail,” “Fur From a Bear,” “Corn Seed Test,” “Lost,” “Swim the River” – and two chapter books, “Trapped on a Cliff” and “Snake Bit.”

    In them, a young boy, Little Eagle, is given challenges by his grandfather and often finds himself in trouble. He remembers that his grandfather always said, “Ask the Great Spirit for help.” He listens and follows the guidance and passes his tests toward becoming a village scout. Ralph has now collected 40 stories including those of a young girl, “White Dove,” and her native adventures which he hopes to get into books someday, he says.

    “Former Councilman, historian and storyteller Charley Jones was an inspiration,” Ralph said. “I remember when I shared my father’s story of ‘How the Great Spirit Created Man’ with Charley, his eyes just glowed. “I shared with Charley how Dad had told that story for 35 years to thousands of children and adults and how I now get to tell that story to another generation in his honor. When I sit down with the children, I sometimes wear the same necklace that he wore when he sat down with the children.”

    One story always leads to another and Ralph enjoys remembering Charley asking, “Did you hear how the Choctaw would get their plants to grow tall?” Part of that story became the basis for the “Corn Seed Test” book.

    Ralph believes every story has a “deeper meaning” and it is this “deeper meaning” that makes it a tradition.

    “The Choctaw of the past adopted the good around them and one was the importance of education and books,” Ralph said. “Now, the oral stories are coming alive again and can be remembered because of both the oral and written traditions. Children of all ages need these stories about how the natives taught their children.”

    So, like he has done for over 30 years, Ralph continues to sit down on a blanket, looking the children in the eye and telling these old and now new again stories to children and youth in schools, libraries and churches. If a child asks, “What is the Great Spirit?” Ralph tells them that is just one of the Native names for the Creator known as God.

    “Trapped On a Cliff” has been reprinted and the classic “Catch A Rabbit” is now out of print. Two favorite stories, “Fur from a Black Bear” and “Follow The Trail,” are stories that children want to hear again and again and have told Ralph that they now tell their children and they hope that they will tell their children’s children.”

    In his retirement, Ralph visits 15 to 20 schools annually. Along with his captive storytelling ability, he also teaches writing workshops, gives motivational presentations called “The Challenge” and “Super Science Goodies…making wise healthy choices” to all ages. The challenge presentations are aimed toward sharpening the listening and visual skills of middle- and high school-age youth. The multimedia presentation includes the “4 T’s” of writing short stories along with the “Ralph Williston Writing Contest.” All students are provided the beginning of a story and they compete by writing the best endings. The writing workshops are for third- through 12th-grade level and sometimes include as many as 300 students a day.

    Over the years, Choctaw Storyteller Tim Tingle and Councilman Ted Dosh have invited Ralph to share stories at the festivals and schools in their areas. “When this man speaks, the children listen,” said Councilman Dosh when he had introduced Ralph once at a council meeting. In February and March, Ralph will begin a tour of 15 schools in Texas, then Colorado, then Kansas, then … Now this is a Choctaw who has stories to tell.

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    Gateway to Talimena National Scenic Byway

    Talihina, Oklahoma
    April 11, 2015
    Talihina School Gym located on HWY 1 & 271

    Head Staff
    MC - Vernon Tehauno, Comanche - Shawnee, OK
    Head Singer - Al Santos, Ottertrail Drum - Apache, OK
    Head Man Dancer - Thorpe Sine, Ho Chunk - Glenpool, OK
    Head Lady Dancer - Leslie Realrider, Cheyenne/Caddo - Norman, OK
    Head Gourd Dancer - Don Stroud, Cherokee - Tahlequah, OK
    Arena Director - Bill Takes Horse, Crow - Colbert, OK
    Honor Guard - Choctaw Nation Color Guard
    Club Princess - Haylee Brooke Himes
    Little Miss Club Princess - Cheyenne Kylnn Bearstops

    Program 2PM - Gourd Dance
    5PM - Supper
    6PM - Gourd Dance
    7PM - 10PM - Grand Entry & Inter-Tribal Dances
    Tiny Tot Contest 6 & Under

    Arts & Crafts
    Cake Walk
    Door Prizes
    Food concessions provided by local group

    Public welcome - No admission fee - Bring Pow Wow chairs
    All princess clubs and drums welcome

    A&C Booth Contact - Mary Himes (918) 917-3246
    Laura Durant (918) 917-7363
    or Carol James (918) 567 2539

    $30 booth space plus item donation - Tables/chairs not provided

    Not responsible for thefts/accidents - No firearms, alcohol or drugs

    This event is sponsored by the Talihina Indian Club with assistance of the Oklahoma Arts Council and the National Endowment of the Arts

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    Joy Culbreath KTC
    Joy Culbreath taking the Oath of Office administered by Bobbie Wilson, KTC Board Clerk.

    Kiamichi Technology Centers Appoints New Board Member

    By Kiamichi Technology Center

    The Kiamichi Technology Centers’ Board of Education has selected Joy Culbreath to fill the unexpired term of Zone 5.

    Mrs. Culbreath has dedicated her entire career to education. She spent twenty-seven years at Southeastern Oklahoma State University working in TRIO programs and teaching in the Business Department. After retiring from Southeastern in 1993, she began working for the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma where she has spent the last twenty-two years. She recently retired from her position as Executive Director of Education for the Choctaw Nation.

    During her time with the Choctaw Nation, Mrs. Culbreath was very instrumental in creating a number of new programs and scholarships that helped Choctaw tribal members reach their educational goals. “It’s taken total dedication,” Culbreath said about the growth. “I’m a visionary. I’ve always tried to plan and look for what we can do to help children a generation from now.”

    Shelley Free, Superintendent is pleased with the Board’s selection stating, “She is a welcome addition. With Joy’s extensive experience in education, her positive impact on students and her overall passion for people, she will be an asset to Kiamichi Technology Centers.”

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    Christian McGowan Artist

    Artist Interview with Christian McGowan

    By Brandon Frye
    Choctaw Nation

    Sherman, Texas - Choctaw artist Christian McGowan of Denison, Texas, paints and illustrates imaginative and bright expressions for the people who encounter her work. She graduated, having studied drawing and painting at the University of North Texas, and is currently making a business out of sharing her visual stories.

    You might recognize McGowan’s art for her use of ink and watercolor, her caricatures, or the animals she tends to put into her paintings and drawings.

    Her fondness for animals began at an early age. She was born in Spokane, Wash. and moved as often as her father’s position as a doctor required.

    She did not stay in one place for long, “But there was always one constant, and that was animals,” McGowan said. “Animals are everywhere, books about them are everywhere.” So it was a natural step for those animals to make their way into her art.

    It was later in life, around the age of 12, that she learned of her Choctaw heritage, according to McGowan. “I was told later on that my relatives were of Choctaw blood. I thought most of the animals that I had drawn could be tied into the Choctaw stories.”

    An example might be a huge buffalo standing over a field of Indian paintbrushes, one of McGowan’s earlier paintings.

    With her art, McGowan likes to take things from around her and insert a dose of her own imagination into them.

    “I see the things around me, but with the mundane things, I feel like I need to push them, make them pop,” she said. “Imagination comes out, I have the freedom to do that.”

    She recently drew inspiration from her grandmother’s cooking. “I found a cookbook that has a lot of good pictures, and I thought it would be really cool to illustrate that sort of thing myself,” she said. “My grandmother makes a lot of strawberry-based foods. So I painted those strawberries, and now she has the original painting on her wall. It shows how much of her work inspires me and my work.”

    She says art is the thing she is best at, and she feels it is a calling. The urge to produce art comes quickly, leaving McGowan searching for the nearest pen. But she is also able to keep a steady stream of personal deadlines and goals. Either way, like with animals, art is a constant in McGowan’s life.

    “I sometimes question myself, ask why I do this,” McGowan said. “I want my art to carry a message. If I am not working on something, I get anxious. I need to be working on something, drawing something, telling people stories.”

    To those who enjoy her art, McGowan said once her art is out there, you can take it for what it is, make your own meaning. Or if you want to see her in it, know her through her art, that is fine as well.

    Watch the interview here.

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    Pride Linda Kukuk
    “Pride,” scratch work on clayboard by Linda Kukuk.

    In the Spotlight: The Art of Linda Kukuk

    OKLAHOMA CITY, OK– Award-winning Choctaw artist Linda Kukuk is featured in a one-woman show opening March 1 at the Red Earth Art Center in downtown Oklahoma City. In the Spotlight: The Art of Linda Kukuk continues through March 31 as it highlights the diversity of Native American artists. Kukuk is a life-long resident of Oklahoma City and a self-taught artist who has been painting and drawing since early childhood.

    Kukuk specializes in detailed watercolor on scratchwork drawings done on black clayboard. She is a “Signature” level member of the International Society of Scratchboard Artists (ISSA), and loves to combine various watercolor techniques with her scratchwork creations.

    “The art of Native Americans is not just about Indian themes, but encompasses an eclectic mix of subjects and styles,” she says. “My philosophy about art is ‘…have fun, no rules!’”

    Kukuk participates in local, national and international art shows, and has won many awards for her paintings. She has participated in numerous shows including the Red Earth Festival, Oklahoma City Festival of the Arts, International Society of Scratchboard Artists Show, Oklahoma Art Guild National Show, Downtown Edmond Arts Festival and Arts Festival Oklahoma.

    She is a published artist and is represented by the Red Earth Art Center in Oklahoma City, Howell Gallery in Nichols Hills, and Tatiana Art Studio, Moscow, Russia. Her work is in private collections throughout the US, Russia, South Africa, Japan, Europe and New Zealand.

    A reception to meet the artist is scheduled Wednesday, March 18 from 5-7 pm at the Red Earth Art Center. The event is free and open to the public.

    Red Earth, Inc. is an Allied Arts member agency and is funded in part by the Oklahoma Arts Council, National Endowment for the Arts, Oklahoma Tourism & Recreation Department, and the Oklahoma City Convention & Visitors Bureau.
    The Red Earth Art Center is open free to the public Monday through Friday at 6 Santa Fe Plaza next to the historic Skirvin Hilton Hotel in downtown Oklahoma City. Visit or call (405) 427-5228 for additional information. Red Earth, Inc. is a non-profit organization with a mission to promote the rich traditions of American Indian arts and cultures through education, a premier festival, a museum and fine art markets.

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    To enhance our awareness and understanding of he oaks and expectations of a new cultural center to be developers for the Choctaw Nation, we want to hear from you!

    We hope you will share some information with us in this community survey as we continue our journey to share our Choctaw story and culture…

    Take Survey here.

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    Chester Teaches
    Chester Cowen teaches Martha Plunkett about beaded neck dresses during a class held at the Durant community center on March 4.

    Proud Choctaw Artist shares his story

    By Brandon Frye
    Choctaw Nation
    Chester Cowen was born to a Choctaw mother and Chickasaw father in Chickasha.

    His parents stressed learning family history to the young Chester, and he would spend time with his Choctaw grandmother, often staying with her for three months in the summer.

    “I was between first and second grade when I was sitting at my grandmother’s dining room table drawing the poinsettias on the Christmas table,” Cowen remembered. “Those are the first times I remember spending prolonged time in an artistic area.”

    He added his early days doodling were mostly play, he didn’t get heavily into his own art until a little later in life. His interests in art and culture were apparent throughout, though, and after finding role models and elders to guide him, he found himself interacting more with Native art and identity.

    “My first beading experience was in 1957, when a Comanche elder, George McVey, taught me Comanche style beading,” Cowen said. And because he did not have Choctaw beaders close to him, he would attend events and have elder women criticize his work.

    Chester was 18 when he learned from McVey, and their relationship even lead Chester into traditional dancing and traveling with a dance troupe.

    By the time he entered college at Oklahoma University, he was studying cultures across the globe through their art, and producing his own as a student double majoring in Anthropology and Art.

    During his exploration into art and culture, he had waited on camel paths in Ethiopia bargaining to buy the combs riders would wear on their heads. Chester said he could tell a lot about the engravings on these combs, about the person who made and wore them.

    He also spent time in Guatemala looking into Mayan materials. He constantly came in contact with earthenware pottery. Pottery was one of his artforms of choice. He enjoyed it so much, and produced so much, that professors in the art department would exclaim they couldn’t afford to have him.

    “Pottery is where I first got into art, hands-on, extensively. I would still like to get back into it, but when you are working with ceramic bodies, you have to keep a particular kind of schedule,” Cowen said. “So, that was one reason for moving into something like beadwork. With beadwork, I can fold it up, and then open it up any place and work on it when I have a slot of open time.”

    Now, beadwork is what Chester Cowen is known for, and though he makes it a point to be knowledgeable in regards to the beading of many cultures, he specializes in Choctaw beadwork.

    “The Choctaws mainly do two types of stitches in their traditional beadwork: net beading is the predominant one for almost all women’s materials, and if we move to men’s material, we see more standing beads, which is an exclusively Choctaw stitch,” Cowen said.

    With standing bead stitching, the beads are literally standing on edge, they don’t have another bead supporting it on each side. This stitch can be found on items such as baldrics, or belts worn over the shoulder, among other pieces.

    Net beading resembles a fishing net, and is associated with places where the streams are fairly large, where the people practice the harvesting of fish using nets. “With the construction of nets, you are doing basically the same construction as when you make a net-beaded collar,” Cowen explained.

    “You’ve got to stop and think about from where the Choctaws were removed. If you don’t think that you are dealing with fishing, then you’ve really got to get down there and get swamped,” he added.

    According to Dr. Ian Thompson, Director of Historic Preservation, Choctaws have been a fishing people for thousands of years. Before removal, in the summer time, Choctaw people netted fish, speared them, shot them with fish arrows, poisoned them, trapped them, and “noodled”. Ian also said some Choctaw groups went to the coast each winter to gather clams and catch fish, to smoke and store for the next year.

    To honor these Choctaws of the past, Chester Cowen starts all of his beadwork pieces by threading the first bead without the use of a needle. “This is in respect and honor of the work done by our ancestors before Europeans introduced metal needles,” Cowen said.

    Choctaw-specific beadwork doesn’t stop there. Design and color also play a large role in making beadwork ours.

    “What are the colors used in traditional Choctaw beadwork?” Cowen asked, wanting to give a quick lesson.

    “Primarily, until about the 1950’s, it was dominated by red, white, and black. The symbolism was white being death or ancestors, the red and black however were the colors of warriors. And so you have the concept of longevity of the tribe represented by the bones through time, but you have the fact that it existed as a tribe by the defense of that color. Those three colors, simple as they are, express a whole lot. We have existed for a long time, and we will continue to exist. And that is just the color alone, before we get to what the patterns are saying,” he explained.

    Chester stressed these concepts are owned by the people, not the individual making a piece of art. “Since I tend to work with the older forms of Choctaw beading, my inspiration comes from the examples that the people have left behind, the unsigned examples. Because that’s one of the things about beadwork, it’s kind of hard to do a signature.”

    Hard though it may be, Cowen has found a way to occasionally place a signature on his beadwork pieces. He used the rim of his ball cap, which he often wears, to illustrate this signature.

    “I will do a particular row of lane stitch beading, showing two rattlesnakes converging. This comes from one of the legends of origin for the Choctaw people, that we and the Chickasaws were at one time the same people. When the tribe got to the Mississippi river, there was a splitting of the tribes. When my father and mother got married, it was the two tribes coming back together, and I am the offspring of that coming back together. So I use the rattle snake, the guardian of our stomp dance grounds, as the motif for designating that’s who I am,” Cowen explained.
    Chester Hands

    Cowen has found much success with his beadwork, having his artwork on display in museums and for sale at locations in Oklahoma, Texas, and across the U.S. He said he owes some of that success to his tendency to donate his work to organizations, especially the ones aimed at preserving and teaching the culture.

    He is a proponent of the Choctaw culture and historical art, and this is one of his biggest drives. “I’m not out looking for awards,” he said, “but I do enjoy teaching, and trying to continue the tradition, and exploring the tradition. I’m 75, I’m going to be around for x-amount of years. This is an old tradition within the tribe. I want it to continue and be an active tradition, and you only do that by passing it on.” Chester Cowen believes everyone needs to be able to relate to their individual history, and do that by going back to the places and people where their blood takes them. He also believes we should be proud to express that identity.

    “So, what are the simple things we can do to allow a Choctaw to identify themselves as Choctaw?” he asked. Then he pointed out simple things like the earrings a woman wears every day, a ball cap a veteran might wear, or the belt buckle he wears most times when he goes out.

    “For me, this helps to give the person an identity, and a pride, and a way of showing it. There is no question when you look at these things that you are dealing with a Choctaw. If you pass me in the hallway or on the street, you can tell that I’m Choctaw and proud of it!”

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    Promise Zone Summit
    Promise Zone Summit participants are shown in a roundtable discussion in Durant on March 5. (Photo courtesy Choctaw Nation)

    Key players from local, tribal and federal stakeholders gather for the event

    Choctaw Nation hosted the first Promise Zone Summit on March 5 and 6, a two-day event which brought federal, tribal and local partners together for the common goal of improving the lives of rural Oklahomans.

    “It’s encouraging to see everyone come together to improve the lives of not only tribal members, but all the people of southeast Oklahoma,” said Jesse Pacheco, Senior Executive Director of Tribal Operations for Choctaw Nation. “I look for good things to come from this meeting.”

    Wintry weather put a dent in the first-day agenda at Choctaw Resort and Casino, but organizers adapted and the 75 people who attended were able to break into four focus groups.

    The second day of the summit was a tour of Choctaw Nation facilities, properties and Promise Zone potential beneficiary sites in six counties. A dozen people representing the tribe and several federal agencies were able to experience the rural challenges and the economic potential of the Choctaw Nation.

    President Barack Obama has identified the Choctaw Nation as the first tribal area among a group of nationwide “Promise Zones,” areas of economic hardship such as rural Kentucky and inner-city Philadelphia. Along with Promise Zone designation comes a variety of potential incentives for business development and job creation in economically depressed areas.

    Tina Foshee-Thomas, mayor of Idabel, attended the summit to gather ideas and suggestions to improve the recent status McCurtain County has gained: The most unemployed county in Oklahoma.

    “We’re right in the corner of the wood basket of Oklahoma,” she said, referring to the timber industry. “But we recently lost a potential industry because we don’t have the natural gas they needed. We have a hard time getting retail to locate there because of our size.”

    Still, Foshee-Thomas can see a lot of potential in McCurtain County – and plenty of ways where the Promise Zone designation can step in to help things along. “Idabel is the gateway for one of the largest tourism areas in Oklahoma. (The summit) gave me some ideas, to offer incentive loans for small businesses to come in. It’s been very helpful.”

    Ryan McMullen, State Director for USDA Rural Development, led one of the four round-table discussions about community development. “It was an outstanding conversation in putting pieces together in which communities can partner with Choctaw Nation,” he said.

    Other discussions focused upon business, education and agricultural issues. Participants included Southeastern Oklahoma State University President Sean Burrage, Durant City Manager James Dunegan, as well as representatives from the US Public Health Service, FEMA, US Department of Health and Human Services and Housing and Urban Development (HUD).

    A day-long tour offered the opportunity for some of the Promise Zone partners to visit a wellness center and greenhouse in Atoka, Choctaw Nation Hospital in Talihina, the tribal museum at Tvshka Homma, Winding Stair scenic byway and small businesses in Clayton.

    Are you in the Promise Zone? To see an interactive map of the Choctaw Nation Promise Zone, go online and visit here.

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