The MOWA Band of Choctaw Indians are a state-recognized American Indian tribe located in southern Alabama, primarily in Washington and Mobile counties. The MOWA Choctaw Reservation is located along the banks of the Mobile and Tombigbee rivers, on 300 acres near the small southwestern Alabama communities of McIntosh, Mount Vernon and Citronelle, and north of Mobile. In addition to those members on the reservation, about 3,600 tribal citizens live in 10 small settlements near the reservation community. They are led by elected Chief Wilford Taylor. They claim descent from small groups of Choctaw people of Mississippi and Alabama who avoided removal to Indian Territory in present-day Oklahoma at the time of the 1830 Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek.
Since the late 20th century, the MOWA Choctaw have attempted to gain recognition as a federally recognized tribe. They have encountered difficulties in trying to satisfy documentation of continuity requirements of the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA). So far they have been unsuccessful in gaining recognition. In addition, the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians and the Poarch Band of Creek Indians, both federally recognized tribes that operate successful gambling casinos in the area, oppose recognition of the MOWA Choctaw Band.
This area of frontier Alabama had been inhabited for thousands of years by indigenous cultures. The Mississippian culture is believed to have been ancestral to the historical tribes of the Muskogean-speaking Creek and Choctaw.
The first European settlers in Mobile and southern Alabama were Roman Catholic French and later Spanish. English and Scots traders before the American Revolutionary War were followed by settlers arriving in the early 19th century.
During the antebellum years of the cotton kingdom, the wealthiest white planters were the ones most likely to take mistresses from among enslaved African-American women and to have more than one family, with the “second”, or shadow family, having mixed-race children.
Some Native Americans who came to this area were refugees after the Creek War. Others were Choctaw who refused removal to the Indian Territory in 1830. By their treaty, they were allowed to stay as state residents if they gave up Choctaw self-government. In 1835 the state government built an Indian school at Mount Vernon, Alabama, with labor supplied by the Choctaw. Before the American Civil War, the Choctaw were at risk in periodic “Indian roundups” by the federal government, as well as in raids by slave traders.
Whites in Alabama and the South hardened racial lines as they worked to restore their social and political dominance after the Reconstruction era. Following paramilitary intimidation at the polls, whites regained power and disfranchised most Blacks and Native Americans, and many poor whites after the Reconstruction era through passage of a new constitution and laws making voter registration more difficult. The state government arbitrarily included the Choctaw and other Native Americans remaining in the state among the “colored” or black freedmen population, in part because whites had observed intermarriage between the groups. According to hypodescent, the whites thought that black ancestry outweighed a person’s cultural identification; they discounted mixed-race Choctaw as not really Indian. Through racial segregation during the Jim Crow years, the state effectively barred blacks and Choctaw from the use of most public facilities. Because the freedmen could no longer elect representatives, the legislature consistently underfunded services for “colored” (blacks). Combined with blacks in a binary system, “consequently, American Indians living in the South became a group of people who officially did not exist. They were made, in effect, extinct by reclassification.”
“In the 1890s the state legislature defined a mulatto as anyone who was five or fewer generations removed from a black ancestor. By 1927 the state legislature defined mulatto as any person ‘descended from a Negro’.” The one-drop rule was an example of hypodescent classification that often went against appearances and the community with which a person identified. Alabama passed laws imposing Jim Crow and divided society into only two races: white and “colored”. They created legal segregation by two races, but in Washington and Mobile counties, there were too many mixed-race people to fit into those simple categories. Another factor affecting this was the region’s relative isolation up until World War II.
During the Jim Crow era, which lasted deep into the 20th century, the state senator L.W. McCrae popularized the term “Cajan” for the mixed-race population along the counties’ frontier. The difference in spelling indicated recognition that the people were different from the Acadian descendants (Cajuns) in Louisiana. People also called the people “Creoles”, as they seemed similar to the mixed-race Creoles in the next state, although their European-American heritage was primarily English and Scots-Irish rather than French, reflecting the major European settlers in Alabama. The surnames among Cajans and Choctaw descendants are primarily English or Scots. As of 2006 about 5,000 of self-identified Choctaw live along the Mobile-Washington county line.
Mid-twentieth century magazine articles described varied speech and cuisine that borrowed from black, Creole, American Indian and European-American traditions. In one article from 1970, the Cajans were described as the “Lost Tribe of Alabama”. The terms of Cajans and Creoles were both used by the white majority population to reflect their perception that the Choctaw also had black heritage; this was part of the way the white society divided Alabama society into two parts: white and all other.