Choctaw student connects with Mississippi roots

August 2, 2018

TUPELO, Miss. (AP) — He has never lived in Mississippi. But the state is home in a way much deeper than his own birth.

“This is my homeland,” said Thomas Olive, standing at the Natchez Trace Visitor Center on a recent day in Tupelo. “I always get goosebumps when I talk about it.”

Olive, 24, is from Durant, Oklahoma. He is also Choctaw. Alongside Alyson Chapman, who is Chickasaw, he completed an internship from June through the end of July at the Natchez Trace Parkway, working in Ridgeland and Tupelo.

Through research and educational outreach, Olive and Chapman helped the parkway make real the story of the people who first called Mississippi home.

Even in the early years after statehood in 1820, the Choctaw and Chickasaw tribes still held as much as two-thirds of the land in Mississippi. The federal Indian Removal Act of 1830 forced the Chickasaws and almost all Choctaws to accept relocation to Oklahoma.

Natchez Trace Parkway Ranger Jane Farmer in Tupelo was instrumental in coordinating the summer internship.

She saw the presence of Olive and Chapman as a way to interact more meaningfully with the history and culture of Mississippi’s native inhabitants.

“It helps us learn more about the heritage of the people rather than just having to read it in a book,” Farmer said. “They can teach us. We can experience it.”

Olive spoke in a like-minded way. He hopes that his very presence at a place like the Natchez Trace is an emblem of the way Native Americans remain a vital and ongoing part of the American story and the Mississippi story.

“I think the Trace is heading in the perfect direction to not only keep the culture behind the glass window but to literally let people experience it when they are here,” Olive said. “It’s not archaic. It’s living and breathing still today.”

Among their summertime contributions, Olive and Chapman conducted research for a temporary panel display on the uses of fire. Olive’s contributions to the panel delve into the use of fire in the traditional cultivation of river cane, while Chapman’s contributions highlight fire’s cultural significance for Native Americans in the area.

Other information on the display will highlight the ongoing use of fire as a forest management tool.

The temporary exhibit should go on display at the Natchez Trace Visitors Center in Tupelo sometime in the next couple of days and will be up through the middle of September, Farmer said.

Some of the research on river cane and fire will also make its way into a pamphlet under development by the Trace, Farmer said.

Olive, 24, is a student at East Central University in Ada, Oklahoma. Credit hours earned during his internship at the Trace will allow him to complete a bachelor’s degree in Native American studies.

Up next for Olive is a master’s degree in Native American leadership at Southeastern Oklahoma State University.

He is considering a career in the National Park Service or Choctaw leadership.

But wherever his future leads, his Choctaw identity will define him and Mississippi will remain a touchstone of that identity.

“The Natchez Trace has definitely become a part of my life,” Olive said. “It’s an amazing trip to the mother land, an eye-opener, literally a cultural enlightenment.”

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