Choctaw members represent tribe at Congressional Cemetery

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WASHINGTON – Three members of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma – Terry Cole, Eugene Taylor and Presley Byington – were on hand May 19 as representatives from the tribe, along with members of the Cherokee, Muscogee (Creek) and Pawnee Nations of Oklahoma, and the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate Nation of South Dakota, at the Congressional Cemetery in Washington, D.C., for “A Time of Rededication and Story-Telling.” They joined Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., and Reps. Jim McDermott, D-Wash., Lois Capps, D-Calif., and Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, along with Robert Holden of the National Congress of American Indians at the historic cemetery to honor the Native Americans who died at the nation’s capitol while there in the service of their tribes.

The Congressional Cemetery serves as the final resting place for many of the leaders, lawmakers and government officials responsible for the shaping of the early government of the United States, as well as 36 Native Americans. Included in that count of Native Americans are two chiefs of the Choctaw Nation – Chief Peter Pitchlynn and Chief Pushmataha, who were honored at the rededication ceremony.

Also honored were Chiefs Tuck Arusa Lix Ea of the Pawnee Nation, Daniel Aspberry of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, Kangi Duta of the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate Nation, and Capt. John Rogers Jr., William Shorey Coodey, and Judge Richard Fields of the Cherokee Nation and William Wirt, a friend of the Cherokee Nation.

A small chapel with stained glass windows, situated in the middle of the thousands of centuries-old tombs and headstones, housed the dozens of observers, which ranged in age from the elderly to preschoolers, who came to witness the rededication, storytelling and music of the Native American men who were buried there, as told by members of their respective tribes.

The event, whose purpose was “to find common ground – sacred ground – among the living,” was sponsored by the National Congress of American Indians and was hosted by the non-partisan, nonprofit group Faith & Politics Institute, which is known for building bridges between different parties, different religions and different ideologies, according to Dr. Robin Fillmore, director of programs for the organization.

“We saw this (event) as a way to build bridges between nations – to bring together tribal nations and members of Congress to shine a spotlight on the negotiations, on these good feelings that we can have for one another if we can come together in a common and sacred place,” Fillmore said. “We had the service rededication and the reading of the Resolution of Apology to the Native Americans which took place by Republican Sen. Sam Brownback, who was one of the instigators on that piece of legislation and who worked hard to make sure that piece of legislation took place.”

The reading by Brownback of the Resolution of Apology to Native Americans, which was signed into law by President Barack Obama Dec. 19, 2009, was a step in a positive direction for the tribes present. Tribal representatives shook Sen. Brownback’s hand and many accepted the apology on behalf of their tribes.

Brownback, addressing Native American’s directly, said “There is a rich history here and there is a past wrong. … The U.S. government saw Native Americans not as people, but as a problem. This apology is an effort to start a reconciliation process to rebuild relations and it starts now.”

The apology, which includes seven acknowledgment and apology points on behalf of the United States, acted through Congress, to the Native peoples of the United States, is for the “years of official depredations, ill-conceived policies, and the breaking of covenants by the federal government. … the many instances of violence, maltreatment and neglect inflicted on Native Peoples. … and expresses regret for the ramifications of former wrongs and its commitment to build on the positive relationships of the past and present to move toward a brighter future where all the people of this land live reconciled as brothers and sisters.”

NCAI representative Robert Holden, who is of Choctaw and Chickasaw descent, addressed the audience by telling a story from Charles Dickens’ meeting with Chief Pitchlynn. He told of how Dickens asked Pitchlynn what he thought of Congress and he replied, “Congress wants to take dignity from the Natives’ eyes.”

“Well, today, that dignity is taking a long step in being restored,” Holden said. “And from this day we all will do many important things together. It starts here with this (apology), this long process. This is a historic event in the history of this nation.”

Following the ceremony inside the chapel, which included a song played by Byington on a handmade flute and a song by Muscogee (Creek) Nation Second Chief Alfred Berryhill, the two-part event continued outside with a tour of the gravesites of the interred Native Americans and a storytelling at each by a member of that person’s respective tribe.

A group of tribal representatives and the staff of the nearly 34-acre Congressional Cemetery, which was founded in 1807 as America’s first de facto national cemetery and the interment place to nearly 60,000, spent the day before the ceremony cleaning and grooming the lawn areas surrounding the headstones in preparation for the tours.

Presley Byington of Idabel portrayed Chief Pitchlynn, who was principal chief from 1864 – 1866. Pitchlynn was a well-educated man by any standards at the time, white or Native American, and a strong proponent of education for Choctaw children. Upon completion of his term as chief, he moved to Washington and spent the rest of his life in service as a delegate for the Choctaw tribe, devoting his time to Choctaw claims for lands sold to the U.S. government.

According to Byington, who told stories of Pitchlynn to those in attendance, he probably did as much good as a delegate in Washington as he did as chief. “We all have our roles in life and that was his,” said Byington, who was dressed head-to-toe in traditional Choctaw dress from Pitchlynn’s era. “He did so much good for his people.”

Chief Pushmataha, a regional chief from around the 1800s up until his death in 1824, was portrayed by Eugene Taylor of Ada. Taylor is also employed by the tribe as a security officer at the tribal complex in Durant. He portrayed Chief Pushmataha in first-person and dressed in Choctaw warrior regalia, telling of his journey to Washington. He told how he fought alongside Andrew Jackson and the American Army during the War of 1812 and how if he’d known the betrayal they’d later face from Jackson he “probably would have killed him then and there.”

Taylor finished by telling of how Pushmataha became ill when he came to Washington on business for the tribe and how he told Jackson on his deathbed, “When I die, let the big guns be fired over me.” Upon his death, Pushmataha was given a grand military funeral. “I feel honored to have been able to portray him.” Taylor said. “He was one of the greatest leaders of our tribe.”

His headstone states: “Pushmataha, a Choctaw chief lies here. This monument to his memory is erected by his brother chiefs who were associated with him in a delegation from their nation, in the year 1824, to the General Government of the United States. Pushmataha was a warrior of great distinction. He was wise in council, eloquent in an extraordinary degree, and on all occasions, and under all circumstances, the white man’s friend.”

Choctaw Tribal Historic Preservation Officer Terry Cole felt honored to visit the cemetery and give rededication to Chiefs Pitchlynn and Pushmataha, both of whom he gives credit for guiding the tribe to where it is today. “To become a great nation, as we have, there must be great leaders such as those who are laid to rest here. These men were great leaders.”