Finding My Choctaw Ancestors


Their trail of tears led to the temple.

The blizzard of 1831 was one of the worst ever. The people huddled by the campfires, their hands and feet blue from the zero-degree cold. They had little food, and tents and blankets were scarce. Most of the children were barefoot; three-fourths of them were naked.

Men, women, and children died in great numbers that winter. These people were the first of the Choctaw Nation to travel the “Trail of Tears,” as it became known among the native Americans who were forced to leave their lands and relocate in Oklahoma.

Throughout that winter, the Choctaw continued to battle hunger and disease, hoping that spring would bring relief. It didn’t. Torrential rains added to their misery, swelling the rivers and turning the roads into muddy quagmires. It took them nearly five months to walk the 550 miles from the Mississippi-Arkansas area to their destination in Oklahoma.

A second group of Choctaw left for Oklahoma the following year. This time the U.S. government provided more food and supplies, eliminating the threat of starvation that had plagued the first group. But an epidemic of cholera swept down the Mississippi and spread throughout the region. Heavy rains added to the suffering, and many of the Choctaw were forced through miles of swampland, swollen rivers, and dense forest.

They buried their dead along the way.

I had no knowledge of the pain and suffering of the Choctaw Nation until I developed an interest in family history. I learned that my Choctaw great-great-great-grandmother, Betsy Perkins, had left Mississippi with the tribe and had walked the “Trail of Tears” to Oklahoma. I placed her name in my family records, but I thought that I could do nothing further on that line. As far as I knew, no further information was available.

But on Sunday, 11 September 1983, at about three o’clock in the morning, I had a dream. I dreamed that I saw a native American woman with long braids streaked with gray. She was stirring something in a cooking pot. In my dream, I was in her home. Stretched animal skins formed the walls and roof, and peeled poles of clean natural wood supported the walls, which were lashed together with rawhide. The home was small in circumference, but the roof was high enough for me to stand comfortably.

The woman spoke with me, and we conversed for some time. I was at ease in her presence and felt her warm hospitality. I don’t remember what was said, but she told me her name over and over again—Nanah-ku-chi. Another woman was with her, holding a child about two or three years old. They were all dressed in what appeared to be buckskin—it was chamois-colored and simple in design.

Three times the Spirit prompted me to get up and write, until I finally climbed out of bed and found paper and a pencil. I then sat at the dining-room table and wrote the words that came into my mind.

The Spirit made known to me that, if I were faithful, I would be led to find my ancestors’ names, and that Nanah-ku-chi, one of the women I had seen in the dream, was my ancestor. I seemed to hear in my mind, “Now is the time to labor for thy dead.”

I felt prompted to go to Philadelphia, Mississippi, where I would be given the names of those whose temple work needed to be done. “Be faithful, and it shall come unto thee line upon line,” the Spirit seemed to say. I have always believed in personal revelation, but this experience carried with it a force far beyond what I had expected.

After completing what I was prompted to write, I returned to bed. I had been asleep only a short while when Bradley, my three-year-old son, suddenly awakened me. “Indians, Indians. I dreamed about Indians,” he said. I was astonished; I felt that his words were an affirmation of my own dream. I was even more astonished when I later asked him about his dream.

“An Indian came to our house,” said Bradley. “He was an Indian chief.”

“How did you know he was a chief?” I asked.

“He said he was a chief,” Bradley replied. “He asked me for some bread. I took him to the kitchen to get some. He said, ‘No, not that kind of bread.’”

“Were there other people with him?” I asked.

“Yes,” came the answer. “They were waiting for him.”

Later, as I sat in sacrament meeting thinking about the dreams, I silently prayed for guidance that I might be able to find the information necessary to do my Choctaw ancestors’ temple work. I felt impressed to acquire a copy of a record I had seen some twenty years earlier at the National Archives in Washington, D.C. It was the Choctaw-Armstrong Roll of 1831, and it contained records of the Choctaw before their trek over the “Trail of Tears” to Oklahoma. This census had on record some three thousand heads of families and represented about seventeen thousand people. I had photocopied the pages from it that dealt with my ancestor named Betsy.

I wrote to the National Archives, requesting a microfilm copy of the entire record. I also contacted the Church Genealogy (now Family History) Department in Salt Lake City and asked whether temple work could be done for people listed on the record. I then asked for and obtained permission to help do name extraction work on the Choctaw-Armstrong Roll.

I also went to Philadelphia, Mississippi, as I had been prompted. There, on the Choctaw reservation, I learned the story of the Nanah-weya. Archaeologists think that the Choctaw are probably of Mayan descent, because their language, customs, and culture are similar to those of the Mayans. Choctaw legends tell of their migration from their old lands, where they had been persecuted. A prophet had told them of a land waiting for them, where they would be safe. Two brothers, Chataw and Chickasaw, led the people out of the old land.

The people followed the “leaning pole,” a sacred pole placed in front of the leaders’ camp each night. Some legends say that a medicine bag was tied to the pole. Each morning, the people traveled in the direction the pole leaned. They carried their ancestors’ bones with them.

When they reached northern Mississippi, a tremendous rainstorm took place. The people thought that in the morning they would find the sacred pole flat on the ground because of the rain. Instead, the pole stood straight, buried deep in the mud.

That is where the people stayed. In the new land they held a great council to decide what to do with their ancestors’ bones. The decision they made was to build a large mound and inter them there. This mound, called the Nanah-weya, means “leaning mountain,” or “mother mound.”

I asked a Choctaw from Oklahoma if he knew the meaning of the word Nanah-ku-chi. He told me that it means “to bring out of the mountain.”

“You have said it just the way the Choctaw would say it,” he told me. “Nanah means mountain; Ku-chi means ‘to bring forth.’” I concluded that the words I had heard must have meant that the names of the Choctaw dead should be brought out of obscurity so that the Choctaws’ temple work should be completed.

My trip to Mississippi bore great fruit. There, in a courthouse, a woman gave my aunt and me a copy of some family records. Later, when I read through it, I was amazed. Before, I had had only three names on that particular family. Now I had more than sixty pages of information! There, at the beginning of the line, was the name of Ikenaby, an Indian chief who had lived during the early 1800s and who had married a white woman by the name of Kearney.

I continued to help with the work on the Choctaw-Armstrong Roll. Lorraine Nievar of Ardmore, Oklahoma, whose ancestors are Choctaw and French, also helped with name extraction work on the record. When our work was complete, 1,500 names from the record were sent to the temple in Dallas, Texas, so that Sister Nievar and her family could help perform their ancestors’ temple work. Another 1,500 names were sent to the Logan Temple, where many of my friends and neighbors have helped us with the work.

I believe that many members of the Choctaw nation who lived during the early 1800s have accepted the temple work completed in their behalf. As I participated in baptisms for the dead one Saturday morning, I felt their gratitude. During one particular temple session, I was asked to speak to the members of a Logan ward. While we sat together in the temple’s chapel, I told them the story behind the names they carried that night. I remember that temple session as one of the most sacred I have ever attended.

I recall feeling a vivid sense of light and joy at one particular point in the session. I thought of my son’s dream. My friends and neighbors were now giving the “bread of life” to those who had asked for it. I again felt that those whose work we were performing, though unseen, were grateful for the opportunity to accept the gospel. Though they had once walked the “Trail of Tears,” now they could walk the straight and narrow path of joy that leads to eternal life.

Many native American records have been compiled by various organizations. More than seven hundred Indian census records are available through the National Archives in Washington, D.C. Films of such records can also be obtained through the Church’s Family History Library in Salt Lake City, or through local branch family history libraries located in stake centers in many parts of the world. It is now possible to do more temple work for native American ancestors than ever before; many of them are eager to receive the saving ordinances of the gospel.

I learned just how eager they were one spring day while driving to Salt Lake City to talk with a woman there. Suddenly, I felt that I could hear the sound of drums beating. I seemed to see an Indian woman, dressed in an oversize plaid shirt, a Navajo skirt, and a silver medallion belt. The seat beside me was empty, but I could sense her presence.

When I arrived in Salt Lake City, I felt prompted to ask the woman with whom I had the appointment whether she had any Indian ancestors. “But Carolyn is blonde and blue-eyed. She’ll think I’m crazy,” I thought to myself.

When I met Carolyn in her office, the prompting for me to ask was just as strong as it had been in the car. So I asked.

“Yes,” she said. “My grandmother was Cherokee and was adopted by the Navajo.” She told me about how her “Granny” had worked as a nurse for many years with the Navajo in Arizona, Oklahoma, New Mexico, and Texas. Later, I asked Carolyn about the clothing her grandmother had worn, and she described the clothing I had seen the woman wearing.

I told Carolyn about the temple work we had done for the Choctaw. She was thrilled about the possibility of doing the same work for the Cherokee. The Cherokee were the second nation to walk the “Trail of Tears”; there is a record of the tribe in its entirety from 1835—before they had settled in Oklahoma. Carolyn is now doing extraction work on that record, preparing names for the temple.

I know that my Choctaw ancestors desired the blessings of the gospel. My love for my ancestors has grown as I have learned about them. Though they suffered great hardship in mortality, they are now receiving the great blessings of the temple.

[illustration] Illustrated by Ted Heninger

Linda S. Stokes, a fashion designer, is a Primary teacher in the Logan Thirty-third Ward, Logan Utah East Stake. The Choctaw is one of the few native American tribes in North America for which temple work is being done through the Church’s name extraction program. Individuals with Indian lineage who are interested in having temple work done for their ancestors should contact their local priesthood leaders.