Choctaw numbers increase slightly in Mississippi

Published 3:07 pm Friday, November 28, 2008

Sonja Monk plans on someday becoming a tribal leader with the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians.

Right now, she is a working mom who attends the University of Southern Mississippi and is helping her son find a beagle he can train for hunting.

Monk, 30, also is one of a handful of Native Americans at USM dedicated to making sure their culture is understood and celebrated, while the number of Native Americans continues to grow slowly in Mississippi.

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The U.S. Census Bureau counted 12,280 Native Americans in Mississippi in 2006, representing 0.4 percent of the state’s population of 2.9 million. In the 2000 Census, 11,652 Native Americans were counted.

The census allows people to identify their own ethnicity but doesn’t require documentation showing membership in a tribe.

The Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians has 8,151 registered members, spokeswoman Wilma Simpson said. That number only includes those with at least 50 percent Choctaw blood, a legal recognition of tribal inheritance.

Tribe membership has been increasing with about 100 names per year for the past three years, Simpson said. One possible reason is an increasing birthrate and a decreasing annual death rate. The Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians is the only federally recognized American Indian tribe in Mississippi.

“I try to keep in the know,” Monk said. “It’s good that we’re growing and starting to get stronger.”

She’s majoring in library information science and intends to become a tribal archivist. She’s minoring in political science.

“We need more of a voice in Congress and the Legislature. There’s more business out there than just casinos. We have some good businesses and need to expand them more. I don’t want my tribe to be stereotyped,” Monk said.

Monk commutes from Philadelphia to Hattiesburg on Tuesdays and Thursdays. She works for the tribe the rest of the week. She lives with her husband Sam and their two children, Kathryn Grace, 7, and Josiah, 10.

As president of the five-member Golden Eagle Intertribal Society, Monk works with other students at USM.

USM identifies 50 students as Native American. Only nine of those are registered Choctaw.

The Golden Eagle Intertribal Society has seen more people get interested with the annual spring Powwow and the Medicine Wheel garden on campus.

“You don’t have to be Native American to belong,” Monk said. “We build a stronger native presence on campus. Native is a general term. We want to teach here about our diversified culture.”

A member of the society, Cody Roth, 18, of Philadelphia said the group is looking for more members.

“We want to open Southern’s eyes about Native Americans,” he said.

He’s studying forensic science and sees his future in law enforcement.

Roth and Monk have scholarships from the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians that pays for tuition, room, board and books, plus a stipend.

Monk also won a scholarship to a summer program at Cornell University to work with Native American archives. That connection could lead to USM acquiring a collection of documents, something Monk is pursuing with Diane Ross, a university archivist. Ross said USM is in the initial steps of the process.

Monk also would like USM to start a Native American studies program.

Psychology professor Tammy Greer, who sponsors the Golden Eagle Intertribal Society, said USM officials and Choctaw representatives are arranging meetings to begin the first discussions about what such an academic program might include.

“There’s a wide opportunity for USM to welcome Native American students,” Monk said. “There are places outside Oklahoma, you know.”