Three members of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, Terry Cole,
Eugene Taylor and Presley Byington, were on hand Wednesday, 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-KS) and Reps. Jim McDermott (D-WA),
Lois Capps (D-CA), and Mazie Hirono (D-HA), along with Robert Holden
of the National Congress of the American Indian (NCAI) at the historic
cemetery to honor the Native Americans who died at the nation's
capitol while there in the service of their tribes.
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.
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.
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.
event, whose purpose was "to find common ground sacred ground
among the living," was sponsored by the NCAI and was hosted
by the non-partisan, non-profit 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.
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," said Fillmore. "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."
reading by Sen. Brownback of the Resolution of Apology to Native
Americans, which was signed into law by President Obama on 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 the Native American's directly, said "There
is a rich history here and there is a past wrong
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."
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
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."
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 had asked Pitchlynn
what he thought of Congress and he replied, "Congress wants to take
dignity from the Natives' eyes."
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," he concluded.
the ceremony inside the chapel, which included a song played by
Byington on a hand-made 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.
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.
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," he said.
Pushmataha, a regional chief from around the 1800s up until his
death in 1824, was portrayed by Eugene Taylor of Ada. Taylor is
also an employee of 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."
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
Cole, the Choctaw Tribal Historic Preservation Officer, said that
he 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," he said. "These men were great leaders."