Discovering The Past Through Song

by Norah Hutchison

For Oklahomans with family roots in the state’s tribal nations, history is much more than words on a page. It’s alive. 

History passes from generation to generation, influencing one’s identity and connecting one’s roots. These stories deserve to be heard today because of their value to the lives of modern-day people. 

A chief’s story

A story that has reached ears and touched hearts comes from the poetry of Peter Pitchlynn, a mixed-race Scottish-Choctaw chief during the time of the Trail of Tears. 

A key figure during the forced removal of the Choctaw Nation, Pitchlynn played a vital role in establishing the tribe’s national government in the 19th century. Not only was Pitchlynn a gifted leader and diplomat, but he also had skill with the written word, particularly verse. Pitchlynn wrote three significant poems channeling his emotions and thoughts about what was happening in his time. “Will you go with me?”,  “Take Me Home” and “Walk on Jawbone” voiced the thoughts of many Native Americans during that dark period in history as they were forced from their homes. The songs were full of longing and painful nostalgia for what once was, but also of strength, showing the Choctaw people’s iron will to survive and adapt. 

These powerful poems have found their way into the present to once more make an impact. And it is Pitchlynn’s own descendants who are bringing his voice into modern times through the power of music. 

Choctaw past, our present

As a descendent of Pitchlynn myself, this was an impactful journey for me to connect with my heritage and be able to serve as a voice to bring the past into the present through song. 

My father, Scott Hutchison, an experienced songwriter and producer, took Pitchlynn’s words as the chief poured his soul into poetry and set them to music. The project was a journey for those involved as we learned to connect in Choctaw culture. My father and I were able to learn about our Choctaw culture as well as more about our ancestor as a person through our interpretation of his poetry. 

Through my journey of exploring Choctaw history in this project, I discovered Pitchlynn’s inspiring story. Although I had heard of him before, I was surprised to learn he was my ancestor. As I delved deeper into my tribe’s history during this project, I gained a greater appreciation for the legacy of this remarkable leader.

My father carefully adapted Pitchlynn’s words, keeping them true to their source while creating melodies and music around them for them to be sung. He brought them into the modern age. 

He masterfully combined traditional and modern elements to resonate with audiences today, borrowing from folk and country music, as well as Native American song, to create compelling works befitting Pitchlynn’s poems. 

My father’s work on this project began after he became interested in Pitchlynn and his poems. He was inspired to set these poems to music. He started practicing and experimenting with using the poems as lyrics and finding the right music to set them to.

I was brought into the project early on as he began to experiment and figure out the melodies. I sang with the melodies he was trying as the songs started to come together. During this phase, we were finding our way to the music that would fit these words and bring them to life. It was fascinating to watch how the stories in these poems came alive through music, creating powerful imagery in each of the poems-turned-songs. 

The poem “Take Me Home Again” came to life, bringing the longings of a Choctaw to go back home before the forced removal known as the Trail of Tears. The Choctaws adapted and survived, but they longed for the ancestral lands they once called home. The melody of this song is full of longing, nostalgia and sadness, as well as hope, as the narrator reminisces about home and the memories of it.   

After this stage of brainstorming, another singer was brought in as backup to create the element of vocal harmonies. Everything was beginning to come together. 

The songs were recorded at Hankin Charles’ Studio. He also played bass and was the engineer of this project. Charles was incredibly enthusiastic about this project, bringing his own creative energy. 

While I had been taking singing lessons and performing music, I had never been to a recording studio to actually record. This was an exciting and brand-new experience for me, practicing and then becoming immersed in these songs to record them professionally. We spent a few weeks recording our voices, and the instruments used such as guitars, and bass then adding flutes and drums later. 

My father reached out to Gareth Laffely, a well-known Native American musician. Laffley specializes in flute but also plays bass, drums and guitar. Laffley ended up adding a traditional touch to the songs. 

“You know how the Indian songs start and end with a drumbeat? I wanted to fade in like that, so you’re listening to this music and there you are in 1831, hearing this song on the wagon train. I was really glad about the way he did that,” my father told me.

It was a triumphant moment to finish these songs, but the work wasn’t over. 

My father reached out to a Choctaw artist named Jane Umpsted, also a Pitchlynn descendent. She is well-known in the Choctaw Nation for her mural portraying the Trail of Tears. We used a picture of that mural as the cover album for the songs. At this point, the Choctaw Nation was interested in this project and had generously provided funding to help cover additional costs of producing CDs and other leftover studio costs. CDs with the songs are being sold at the Choctaw Cultural Center in Durant — the very place that houses Umsped’s grand mural sometimes plays the CD’s songs over the speakers as guests explore the tribe’s culture. 

During one of my visits to the Cultural Center, I saw the mural and heard the songs as I looked up at it. It was a truly profound experience that left me feeling deeply moved. The project’s goal was to bring history to life, and I felt as though I had been transported back in time. The experience was made even more special because I had played a role in making it happen. My father and I hope the songs allow others to share in this transformative moment. 

Choctaws learn of the project 

After the project was officially finished, Charles Shadle heard about the project. Shadle is a senior lecturer in music at MIT, where he teaches composition, music theory and music history. Shadle is also a proud Choctaw and has created musical works reflecting his own heritage. 

“I think the history of any people who are that large group that sort of occupies such a prominent position. Twenty percent of Oklahoma is Choctaw Nation. It is bigger than Connecticut,” he said of the nation’s third largest tribe. “We’re present in a way that’s kind of interesting to me. Because we’re not sort of on the outside of society, the Choctaw Nation. We’re part of the community. … So I think it’s an image of Choctaw people that is both mixed in with their identity and sort of shows how they live within a culture that’s not necessarily Choctaw. And that they sort of change it and adapt it, and, frankly, improve it.”

He added: “Not every Native American tribe has that kind of privilege.” 

As for the project, he said, “it seems to me absolutely authentic. … You know, these are professional musicians making professional music, right? So you didn’t have to ever say, well, it’s dealing with Native American subject matter, so we’re gonna give it a pass on musical and technical quality instead of like, no, this is this is beautifully produced music.”

Shadle said the songs evolved musical traditions from Pitchlynn’s 19th century as well as modern influences such as folk music. And this contributes to their resonance. 

“If one of those songs went on a radio station in southeastern Oklahoma, there would be a really broad spectrum of listeners who would really enjoy it. It would be meaningful, it would sound like their music,” he said, adding that non-Choctaws would also find it relatable. 

“Making a bridge to the past, you have to do that in such a way that the bridge feels like something people can recognize,” he said. 

Shadle’s own creations bring Choctaw music to life. Currently, he is working on pieces  involving traditional Choctaw hymns. This dovetails with our Pitchlynn project. 

“We want to make sure that something of the Choctaw identity can be, you know, understood by people who come from a wide range of interests musically,” Shadle said.

Having a moment 

Choctaw culture is increasingly finding its way into popular culture. One well-known example is Disney’s “Echo,” a television show that was made with funding from the Choctaw Nation and prominently features Choctaw culture throughout. And Americans are becoming more familiar with the Choctaw Nation’s pivotal role in generously supporting the Irish people with food during the worst of the potato famine of the 1840s. 

Then there’s the broader awareness of Native American actors stemming from Reservation Dogs, Killers of the Flower Moon, and Lilly Gladstone’s historic best actress nomination for the latter. 

Native American culture and Choctaw culture are having a moment, and we hope our small efforts contribute to this improving awareness. After all, Choctaw history isn’t just our history — it’s everyone’s history.

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