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Native Americans

Choctaw treasures: From New France to Old France

Indigenous tribes across North America are increasingly invested in discovering the whereabouts of ancestral artifacts – sacred and everyday – that European explorers and colonizers took, sometimes by force, and deposited in collections back home across the Atlantic Ocean. Once they locate such objects, including human remains, many tribes are asking for them to be repatriated, while others want to study these various elements of their cultural patrimony as a way of re-engaging with and reviving past practices.

Woman with long dark hair wearing a black blazer and smiling
Cady Shaw (BA ’99), director of curation at the Choctaw Cultural Center

In 2016, the Tribal Historic Preservation Office of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma (CNO) reached out to representatives of the Musée du quai Branly – Jacques Chirac in Paris, France, to discuss items in their extensive global-cultures collection that might be Choctaw in origin. Those discussions led to Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma representatives examining virtually some of the Choctaw items in the Parisian collection and using them as the basis for creating replicas for display at the soon-to-open Choctaw Cultural Center in Durant, Oklahoma.

TU communications alumna Cady Shaw (BA ’99) is both a member of the Choctaw Nation and the director of curation for the Choctaw Cultural Center. Drawing on her long professional history of Indigenous cultural interpretation, programming and museum administration, Shaw oversees the center’s collections, archives and exhibits, including collaborations with external organizations. “Working to tell the Choctaw Story and preserve it is an incredible honor,” Shaw remarked. “I’m very much looking forward to the Choctaw Cultural Center opening to the public this summer and being able to see visitors experience this special place we’ve built.”

Princely curiosity, Choctaw patrimony

One of Shaw’s current projects involves liaising with her counterparts at the Musée du quai Branly – Jacques Chirac who received a grant to support further research on the Choctaw items in their collection as well to mount an exhibition and programming that includes them. It is planned that the exhibition – “The Curiosity of a Prince” – will open to the public at the Municipal Library of Versailles once COVID-19 has abated.

woman wearing a black mask and blue gloves while handling a small metal pot
Cady Shaw handles an iron cooking pot brought to Indian Territory by Choctaw citizens during the removal from their homelands in the Southeastern United States. (Photo by Chris Jennings – Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma)

The prince in question is Charles-Philippe, Count of Artois, the younger brother of King Louis XVI. Beginning in 1785, he began assembling a “cabinet of curiosities” filled with natural and human-made objects from around the world. These included items from various corners of France’s global colonial empire, which, until 1803, included the vast territory known as Louisiana, part of the ancestral home of many Choctaw people. In an essay published to coincide with the French exhibition, which Shaw helped to coauthor, it is observed that “acquiring knowledge about Indigenous communities was integral to European empire-making and Choctaws were no exception. . . . Across the globe, European empires collected items and featured them in curiosity cabinets and later in museums and universities.”

Some of the notable Choctaw items held by the Municipal Library of Versailles and set to appear in the Musée du quai Branly – Jacques Chirac exhibition are moccasins made out of bear paws and deer hide; a headdress made of bison and deer hide, birch bark, metal, wood, deer hair and raven, jay and turkey feathers; and a complete gar fish that was preserved and fashioned into a quiver to hold blowgun darts.

“While staff at the Musée du quai Branly – Jacques Chirac are creating the exhibition,” Shaw noted, “the Choctaw Cultural Center was able to help curate the exhibit featuring  the Choctaw objects.”

“The education I received at TU has been invaluable throughout my career. From the PR classes in communications to the western history classes, each helped inform where I am today.

“I was deeply influenced by Professor James Ronda of the Department of History and Professor John Coward of the Department of Communications. Their passion for Native American history and representation always stuck with me, and their instruction ignited the passion in me to change course in my career and pursue work in history and museums.

“I still talk to Professor Coward today. In fact, he recently sent me a picture of one of my essays he had kept. It’s rare that a professor can still inspire you 20-plus years later and, in my experience, TU has many such professors.” – Cady Shaw (BA ’99)

a poster written in French saying Curiosité d'un Prince and depicting a Choctaw Indian headdress
Marketing poster for “La Curiosité d’un Prince,” a collaborative exhibition between the Choctaw Cultural Center in Durant, OK, the Musee du quai Branly – Jacques Chirac and the Municipal Library of Versailles. Note: Due to COVID-19, the date of the exhibition has changed from what is shown on this original design.

What this means in practice is that Shaw has participated in virtual meetings dating back to 2019 regarding the exhibition and has given input on its content and design aspects, including which items to showcase and images to use. She has also written an online essay, which will appear soon on the French museum’s website, about the Choctaw Cultural Center and how this exchange of information has led to items being recreated for display in that space.

Indeed, the Versailles exhibition’s marketing poster features a feathered headdress that is believed to be Choctaw in origin from the 1700s. This headdress was used by modern Choctaw artisans to recreate a similar piece that will be on display in the Choctaw Cultural Center.

“We would like to express our gratitude to the whole team at the Choctaw Cultural Center for their investment, ideas, creativity and the will to share with us their knowledge and feelings regarding the objects and their history,” said Paz Núñez-Regueiro, the head curator of the Americas at the Musée du quai Branly – Jacques Chirac. “We feel very privileged to be conducting this project with the Choctaw Nation.”

Ancestral traditions and national sovereignty

Beyond historical interest, the Choctaw Nation is invested in reconnecting with Choctaw items residing outside the community in order, Shaw noted, “to reclaim and revitalize our ancestral knowledge and traditions.” According to Shaw, “Being able to reconnect with those items has allowed Choctaw makers and artists to recreate cultural practices that hadn’t been seen or created by Choctaws in hundreds of years. It helps our tribe fill in cultural information that empowers us to tell a more complete story of who our ancestors were.” A prime example of this is the headdress mentioned earlier, which served as the model for a recreated piece made for a Lifecast figure to wear at the Choctaw Cultural Center.

Choctaw headdress made of feathers, leather and other items
Feather headdress created by Choctaw artist Les Williston in 2019 for display at the Choctaw Cultural Center. It is made of leather, red fox, bear and bison hides, along with the assorted eagle, hawk and buzzard feathers. Williston’s design was heavily influenced by and based on an original headdress dating from the 1700s held in the collections of the Musée du quai Branly – Jacques Chirac.

When Choctaw people today learn about their ancestors’ techniques and, thereby, contribute to the revitalization of the tribe’s traditional arts, this “enriches our culture and our knowledge of our ancestors,” Shaw remarked. “It is important for us to make those connections to Choctaw cultural knowledge and production techniques from the past and preserve them for the future.”

Alongside this issue of cultural patrimony, there is also a political dimension to the work Shaw and her colleagues at the Choctaw Cultural Center are carrying out. This involves her people’s sovereignty and the concept of geopolitical relationships. In this regard, Shaw underscored, the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma is a sovereign nation, meaning the Choctaws have the power to govern themselves. “As is our inherent right,” she continued, “we have had a nation-to-nation relationship with France for over 250 years and it is revitalized today by this partnership with the Musée du quai Branly – Jacques Chirac. This exchange of knowledge and partnership is helping strengthen those relationships and elevating our partnership.”

From Durant to Paris and back

Looking to the future, Shaw and her colleagues at the Choctaw Cultural Center hope, once it is safe, to be able to travel to France to visit the exhibition and take part in the adjacent cultural programming. Back home in Oklahoma, they also foresee at some point being able to bring the Choctaw part of the exhibition to Durant so that members of the tribe and others can enjoy and learn from these remarkable material witnesses of Choctaw life centuries ago.


Are you fascinated by the idea of researching and curating the objects and histories of cultures near and far? If so, you’ll want to learn more about TU’s interdisciplinary master’s program in museum science and management.

TU Law welcomes new faculty expert in Indian and health law

This summer, The University of Tulsa College of Law will welcome Aila Hoss as a new assistant professor of law. Hoss is currently a visiting assistant professor at Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of Law, where she leads courses on property, food and drug law, health policy and opioid epidemic policy. At TU Law, Hoss will focus her teaching on Indian law, legislation and property.

We wanted to get to know our new colleague better and introduce her to the TU community, so we conducted a short question-and-answer conversation with Hoss.

Indian law is an important element in your career. What drew you to this field?

I attended the University of Oregon School of Law, which has a nationally ranked environmental law program. While there, it became apparent to me that environmental issues resonated most with me when discussed in the context of population health. With this new awareness, I began to explore public health law as a potential career. I interned with a small obesity prevention nonprofit during my first summer of law school.

While working as an intern, I learned about health inequalities facing American Indian and Alaska Native populations. This led me to take classes in federal Indian law and tribal law. I was fortunate enough to be at a law school that offered these courses, but even more fortunate that tribal leaders, attorneys and judges from the area served as guest speakers.

What are some of the major projects you have worked on in Indian law?

Alongside tribal partners, I have served as a faculty member of a course focused on working effectively with tribal governments. This two-day course was available to state, federal and local agencies working on public health issues in Indian country. I have also developed a variety of resources on tribal emergency preparedness law to support tribes and their partners when navigating emerging issues, such as Zika, Ebola and natural disasters.

Professor Aila Hoss sitting on a bench in the summertimeWhat are you presently focusing on in this area?

I am currently collecting and analyzing state laws that support or require consultation or engagement with tribes. There are a variety of models to support tribal-state engagement but lots of opportunity for improvement. Analysis of state legal requirements may facilitate intergovernmental partnerships.

Thinking about Indian law broadly, what are some of the major currents today that warrant exploration by law students and professors?

Continued challenges to the Indian Child Welfare Act are something advocates, practitioners and scholars have been watching closely and need to continue to do. The law is essential for keeping connections between Indian children and their tribes, but these challenges are also a product of a larger movement to undermine tribal sovereignty and the unique status of tribes.

You also have expertise in health law. Would you tell us about some of your work in this area?

I practiced public health law as an attorney with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. While with the CDC, I provided legal research support to tribal, state and local governments as they sought to improve public health within their communities. For example, a jurisdiction might have high rates of vaccine-preventable diseases and would reach out to us to learn about how laws could improve vaccination rates in the case of health care workers or school vaccination requirements.

Law, however, can also be a barrier to public health. An example would be laws that criminalize substance use disorder. Sometimes, it is not always clear what the impacts of a law are on health, which is why public health research is so important.

Are there any intersections between health and Indian law?

Absolutely! In fact, the tribal leaders who guest-lectured at my law school about their experiences promoting and protecting tribal sovereignty in their communities inspired my interest in the intersection of health law and Indian law.

Tribes pass and implement laws that impact public health. Federal laws also create complex jurisdictional structures between tribes, states and the federal government. This necessitates additional research and scholarship on how these federal laws impact tribal health outcomes.

You come to us highly recommended as an instructor. What is your approach to teaching? Why do you enjoy it?

My goal as an instructor is to make law more accessible and approachable for my students. One way I do that is through storytelling. Every law has a few stories to tell, whether its purpose, passage or unintended consequences. Few things are more engaging and memorable than a good story, which is why stories are such good teaching tools.

I love teaching because I love to share my energy, time and expertise with my students. I also enjoy getting to know my students, learn from them and support them in their goals.

What are you looking forward to in Tulsa and at TU Law? What new opportunities do you envision?

It has been a real privilege to be able to work with tribes and tribal-serving organizations in different parts of the country, but it is a dream come true to be able to teach Indian law in Indian Country and to be at a law school with so many native students.

In addition to being a highly accomplished researcher and professor, would you give us a glimpse of Aila Hoss the person?

I’m an Iranian American, and my family moved around a lot when I was growing up. My folks live now in Atlanta, so that city feels most like home. Southern Indiana also has a special place in my heart because my husband grew up there on a small farm.

My husband is also a lawyer. He practices criminal defense and family law. We met during the first semester of our 1L year at the University of Oregon, and we supported one another throughout law school, the bar exam and our legal careers. Today, we are the proud parents of a Sharpei pup named Neville.

We’re both really thrilled to be moving to Tulsa. The warmer weather will be great, and we are looking forward to exploring new areas for hiking. I love to cook and share Persian food, so I’m excited by the prospect of a longer growing season and harvesting my own vegetables for the dishes I prepare.

TU Law student deepens knowledge of federal Indian law during congressional internship

For nine weeks during summer 2019, University of Tulsa College of Law rising 2L student Julie Combs joined 11 other Native Americans from across the United States to live and work in Washington, D.C., as congressional interns supported by the Udall Foundation.

“The Udall Foundation Native American Congressional Internship program places emerging indigenous professionals at the crux of policy and tribal-federal relations on Capitol Hill,” explained Mona Nozhackum (Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation), a program coordinator with the University of Arizona’s Native Nations Institute who oversees the Udall Foundation’s internship. “The unique distinction between the Udall internship program and others is the emphasis placed on the experiential learning opportunities and skills gained throughout the program that students can then take back to serve their own communities and native nations. I had the privilege to witness Julie’s transformational growth throughout the summer. I know that she will be a valuable asset to her people as she adds to her cache of tools and skills to drive dynamic and innovative change across Indian Country.”

Earlier this year, we reported on Combs’ receipt of this prestigious internship. Now back in Oklahoma, Combs shares a report on her experiences in the nation’s capital, the people she met, the work she undertook and the knowledge and resources she developed.

By Julie Combs (2L)

Wilma Mankiller, the first female principal chief of the Cherokee Nation, once said, “In the context of a tribal people, no individual’s life stands apart and alone from the rest. My own story has meaning only as long as it is a part of the overall story of my people. For above all else, I am a Cherokee woman.” This summer I had the distinct privilege of serving in the 24th class of Udall Foundation Native American Congressional Interns. While I anticipated opportunities for personal and professional growth through the internship, I have had the greater opportunity to hear and see the overall story of my people.

My cohort comprised 12 individuals from 10 tribes and 10 universities During our time in D.C., we were each placed in a federal agency or congressional office and had the opportunity as a group to meet with elected officials, staff at native advocacy and public interest organizations, as well as firms that work on behalf of tribal nations. I was placed as a legal intern at the U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI), Office of the Assistant Secretary-Indian Affairs (AS-IA).

Julie Combs with her Udall Internship cohort along with Assistant Secretary Indian Affairs Tara Sweeney in the Hall of Tribal Nations at the Department of the Interior
Julie Combs with the other Udall interns and Assistant Secretary-Indian Affairs Tara Sweeney in the Hall of Tribal Nations at the Department of the Interior

My work

While at the DOI, I served under Assistant Secretary Tara Sweeney, the first Alaska native and the second woman to oversee Indian Affairs. Working in the office, which carries out the federal trust responsibility to the 573 federally recognized tribes, conveys a certain weight for a native individual due to the DOI’s complicated – and often unfortunate – history of dealings with tribal nations. With that in mind, I was pleased to find the desire to do better by our people was shared by the many native employees of Indian Affairs, some of whom have worked there for over 30 years.

I had the honor of working with senior legal counsel in the AS-IA hallway and attorney-advisers in the Office of the Solicitor on a wide array of issues. I gained valuable legal skills and new knowledge in areas of the law that I was previously unaware of, such as self-determination and self-governance, wildland fire contracts, tribal-state gaming compacts, the HEARTH Act, whaling and fishing rights, Bureau of Indian Education (BIE) policy, federal administrative law and Indian Country investment taxation. Working at the DOI’s headquarters also gave me the unique opportunity to interact with a variety of bureaus and offices. In the span of one day, I could have a morning meeting in the DOI Office of Wildland Fire and then head immediately to the BIE hallway for a meeting on school funding.

For my final presentation, I chose the topic of the effects of the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) regulations for the Opportunity Zone tax incentive on development in Indian Country. This project allowed me to work with an attorney-adviser in the solicitor’s office who had previously worked at the Department of the Treasury in the IRS Office of Indian Tribal Governments. One of my main tasks was to draft memos for the assistant secretary on how tribal nations might best attract outside investment due to the unique status of Indian lands. It was exciting to see firsthand the intersection of federal Indian law and tax law, two areas I hope to practice in going forward in my career.

My fellow interns

Our Udall cohort became extremely close-knit this summer. We hailed from tribal nations stretching from Maine all the way to Oregon and California, and many places in between. I particularly enjoyed my time with the other four law students. Two of us were at the DOI, and the other three were at the Department of Justice.

We each hope to work in different areas of federal Indian Law and were able to share the knowledge we gained in different agencies and offices with each other. While this summer has given me an interest in Indian Country investment and land rights, my new friends are interested in areas such as cultural repatriation, Indian Country crime and water rights.

Deputy Assistant Secretary for Policy and Economic Development Mark Cruz, Julie Combs and Assistant Secretary-Indian Affairs Tara Sweeney
Deputy Assistant Secretary for Policy and Economic Development Mark Cruz, Julie Combs and Assistant Secretary-Indian Affairs Tara Sweeney

Another remarkable thing about the Udall Foundation internship program is the extensive and welcoming network of former interns. Indeed, Udall alumni in D.C. are having an impact on Indian Country in advocacy organizations, leading law firms and every branch of government. I had the privilege of working under two Udall alumni in the AS-IA hallway: Deputy Assistant Secretary for Policy and Economic Development Mark Cruz and Tyler Fish, White House senior policy adviser and tribal liaison. I am confident that the members from my cohort will follow in the legacy of these remarkable people and have a significant impact on our tribal nations.

 

Lessons I learned

A special moment this summer was when our cohort met with Rep. Deb Haaland (D-NM), one of the first native women to ever serve in the U.S. Congress. I was able to share with her how incredible it was to meet her, as my grandmother and her mother never lived to see a native congresswoman. Many of the native leaders we met this summer, including Rep. Haaland – who is, herself, a lawyer – shared the sentiment that Native American representation matters immensely in the legal field because indigenous perspectives are often lost in the U.S. legal system to the detriment of native communities.

Congresswoman Deb Haaland and Julie Combs
Congresswoman Deb Haaland and Julie Combs

I will take many of the lessons I learned this summer in D.C. with me well into my legal career and beyond. More importantly, I hope to bring home some of the knowledge I gained to my people, the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, and my fellow students at the College of Law through my position as the president of the Native American Law Student Association.

For the interests of native communities to be protected and championed, it is imperative that the groundwork is laid at the tribal, state and federal levels for future generations to enact even greater change. The work I will do in Indian Country is already marked with the care and dedication of the generations that have gone before me – that is the story of my people.


TU Law and Indian law

TU Law has a lengthy and robust record of teaching and research in the area of Indian law. In addition, the College of Law Mabee Legal Information Center holds an impressive collection of Native American and indigenous peoples materials, including many rare primary materials as well as influential treatises in print. See where your own interest in Indian law can take you with a JD from TU Law.