Honoring Nations: Jeannie Barbour: Chickasaw Press

Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development

Jeannie Barbour, creative director for the Chickasaw Nation, shares the history and success of the Chickasaw Press and discusses how it serves as a concrete expression of Chickasaw self-governance.

Native Nations
Resource Type

Barbour, Jeannie. "Chickasaw Press." Honoring Nations symposium. Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development, John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University. Cambridge, Massachusetts. September 18, 2009. Presentation.

"[Chickasaw language] and good morning. It is an honor to have the opportunity to make a presentation about the Chickasaw Press to you all this morning. I would like to thank the Honoring Nations staff for their hospitality and the great work that they do with Indian tribes. It is obvious by your accomplishments that you have asked yourselves the same all important question, 'How can I best contribute to my tribal community?' The basic necessities of housing, healthcare and education provide communities with positive quality of life, but we must also be vigilant in the preservation and revitalization of each of our unique cultural practices and lifeways. Tribal language, history, arts, traditional healing practices and oral tradition define who we are as a people. Our elders are honored because of their knowledge of these things and we recognize these things will help prepare our children for life in a complex world. Throughout history, Indian people have recognized the need for civic engagement.

Encouraging civic engagement has always been an essential mandate for Chickasaw government and its people. It is the belief that all citizens can contribute ideas, energy and action for improving their communities. After Oklahoma Statehood in 1907, there was a systematic effort by the federal government to dismantle not only Chickasaw government but Chickasaw society as well. This had a devastating effect on tribal communities. Many Chickasaw people left as a result of relocation policies of one sort or another, draining the Chickasaw Nation of vital human resources and knowledge. However, Chickasaw people practiced civic engagement by supporting one another through the long dormant period that was the first part of the 20th century. They continued to meet. They continued to practice stomp dance, share their songs, speak the language and band together as a unique and distinctive people. Astute members of the tribe began to take advantage of opportunities presented by history's events in the 1960s and '70s. By the 1980s, the Chickasaw Nation was seeing the fruits of their vision for economic self-sufficiency. Through diligence and hard work over the past 30 years, the Chickasaw Nation has experienced incredible governmental and economic revitalization. Tribal members who had left were invited to return to the Chickasaw Nation, bringing with them skills and knowledge that would benefit all Chickasaw people. Tribal members that chose to remain outside the boundaries of the nation were also embraced. Chickasaw leadership recognized the need to develop programs designed to reconnect some of these people with traditional knowledge, history and practices still present in many Chickasaw communities in Oklahoma. There was a lack of documented Chickasaw history available. Only a handful of historical accounts of Chickasaw history existed. Very few of those were written by Chickasaw people or even from a Chickasaw perspective. It was decided that a solution to this challenge was to generate our own research and scholarship.

The Chickasaw Press was created in 2006 as part of a larger initiative to help in this process. Community involvement in the planning and establishment of the press was considered vital. A committee of Chickasaw individuals and others with knowledge of publishing, writing, scholarship and research were brought together to discuss the structure and the mission. The group prepared a proposal outlining their plan, which was presented to tribal leadership for approval. In a very short time, the Press was up and running and publishing books of significance to Chickasaw people. The Press is neither a vanity press for public relations nor a print shop for brochures and pamphlets. Instead, it was designed on the model of a peer-reviewed university press. Eight staff members consisting of individuals trained in editing, graphic arts, writing, marketing, publicity and sales are employed by the Press. Currently we are building the necessary support structures for the Press to achieve sustainability. These include tribal funding and a Press business plan looking toward self-sufficiency; also, programming to recruit and create Chickasaw historians and scholars.

The Chickasaw Press publishes books about Chickasaw history and culture. This knowledge is critical to the preservation and continuance of a shared Chickasaw cultural identity, particularly as our population increases both within and outside of our boundaries. Generating and publishing our own research is not only an act of ownership over our own history but is also an exercise of self-determination and cultural sovereignty. Since Chickasaw Press's inception and including our new releases scheduled for the end of this month, we will have published three biographies of important Chickasaw historical figures; one volume of Chickasaw history essays; a companion volume of oral histories and profiles; one book of Chickasaw poetry; two professionally photographed pictorial essays of contemporary Chickasaw society, culture; and a volume of paintings of Chickasaw elders by renowned Chickasaw artist Mike Larson. In an effort to provide information about other tribes as well, a biography of a noted Potawatomi artist is scheduled for release through the Press in the fall. Dozens of oral histories, citizen interviews, contributions by Chickasaw poets and photos of contemporary citizens populate the pages of these books. Some of the books are replete with images of Chickasaw contemporary and traditional arts, traditional games and food. Places of natural beauty and historic significance within the Chickasaw Nation are also showcased.

The books, in important ways, make Chickasaw history and the contemporary culture come alive. It is not unreasonable to suggest that any nation needs its own literature to be viable in the modern world. These books encourage civic engagement simultaneously, on a national level and on a personal level. Chickasaw people are hungry for this kind of affirmation. Although we do not have measureable data at this time, the creation of the Chickasaw Press and the tribe's division of history and culture have sparked a greater interest in and more discussion of Chickasaw history. Press staff members have participated in the development of history classes spanning ancient Chickasaw history to present day. Four hundred people attended the first session in December of 2007. Seven hundred attended the class the following spring.

The Press has also participated in revitalization efforts of Chickasaw language by sponsoring the publishing of the language book Let's Speak Chickasaw. This book is in its second printing since its release just a few months ago. Some of our books deal with sensitive areas of Chickasaw life and history. There has been reluctance in the past to publish oral traditional stories handed down from generations of Chickasaw storytellers. These stories represent, in important ways, information about the Chickasaw universe and tribal people's place in that universe. Our official tribal storyteller and her chosen apprentice started working this week with a Press staff writer and editor to document some of the tribe's traditional stories before they are lost. Tribal storyteller Glenda Galvan told the Press, 'For the first time, because the Chickasaw Press exists, I feel confidence in our ability to publish and thereby preserve these sacred stories accurately and respectfully.' She had been approached by other publishers down through the years about these stories and had rejected each inquiry. She also told us only now that the Chickasaw Nation has a tribal publisher makes her feel comfortable about sharing her stories that have been passed through generations of her family.

Because the Chickasaw Nation hopes to create new generations of Chickasaw researchers and scholars, it is establishing a new state-of-the-art cultural center/research center as well as Department of Chickasaw Studies, all within the Division of History and Culture. Our goals are number one, to interest young Chickasaws in researching and writing about Chickasaw history and culture, and to recruit Chickasaw scholars to come home to work as in-house faculty in the Chickasaw Studies Department. We value traditional oral knowledge as well as academic knowledge. The research center, Chickasaw Studies Department and Chickasaw Press serve as part of an overall infrastructure to facilitate the teaching and learning of Chickasaw history and culture. The Chickasaw Nation realizes that it is not an island unto itself. Tribal citizens live and share civic engagement responsibilities with non-Indians in Oklahoma communities. An ever-present challenge facing the Chickasaw Nation is that non-Native people know very little about tribal sovereignty, self governance or Chickasaw history. Sharing history with others through these tribal initiatives addresses this issue in a non-confrontational manner. The better others understand the Chickasaw Nation and its people, the better its government can work with them in government-to-government relationships.

In closing, as a director I would like to say the Chickasaw Press stands as an original and significant example of tribal self-governance. It is based on Chickasaw values of community, sharing and education. Its specific mission is to revitalize and strengthen tribal cultural identity. The Chickasaw Press is based on the following beliefs: that history and culture are dynamic and alive; that knowledge of tribal history creates a shared identity and understanding of our current circumstances and needs and a basis for future decision-making; that we should take ownership of our history and practice ethical, culturally appropriate research methods; and that if more of our neighbors know about us, the more effectively we will be able to sustain productive government-to-government relationships and good will.

American Indians are not an extinct people. Their cultures have a past, a present and a future. Generalizations about Native people contribute to stereotypic notions that make no allowance for individuality or for any possibility of change over time. Cultural identity should be maintained and valued. Indian people have made a substantial contribution to the world and specifically to America. It is important that Native writers express themselves.

In the interest of civic engagement, it is important that presses print their work. It is our hope that other tribal nations will consider developing their own presses. We are currently writing a handbook outlining the process we took in this endeavor. When it is complete, we will share the booklet with Honoring Nations to distribute to those of you who are interested. Again, thank you. We at the Press wish each and every one of you every success in your work." 

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