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Sally Wells celebrates heritage at Pow Wow

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“It was either that or we kids would have to go to school in Oklahoma. So we didn’t have much choice. So we lived with this family during the week, and sometimes we go home on weekends. I was young. It was so rough on us.”

Not only was it heart-rending to be separated from her parents, but Wells was forced to stop speaking her native tongue. The language barrier came down hard and fast.

“When we went to school, they wouldn’t let us speak Choctaw. It was real tough, but we made it,” said Wells, who learned her English on the fly as a first grader. At the time her parents only spoke Choctaw.

A few years into her schooling, the Bureau of Indian Affairs finally provided a bus so that Wells and her Choctaw schoolmates could live at home and commute to school.

But once the Indian children entered junior high, the nightmare began anew. At that point the Choctaw students were sent for nine months to schools in Oklahoma.

“When I finished the sixth grade, the government (Wells’ term for the Bureau of Indian Affairs) sent us to school in Oklahoma. About that time, when I was 12, we moved to Tennessee, Ripley in Lauderdale County,” she said.

“We was being taken away from there by father. They (her parents) found out they could relocate Indian people to a different state (their options were California, Chicago, Dallas or West Tennessee).”

“That was one of the problems of education for them. Often they were jerked up from their homes at 12 and sent to Oklahoma,” said Sally’s husband, Bill. “So most of the kids didn’t go. They dropped out.”

Resettled in Tennessee in the early 1950s, Sally went to public schools and graduated. In 1968 she met Bill, who was born in Sherwood, Tenn., in the local drugstore and they began dating. They married Sept. 14, 1968.

“We went through a lot of different storms together,” he recalled. “The first time we went to her rez, I pulled up to the motel, and she said, ‘I’m gonna sit in the car.’ I asked why, and she said, ‘They might not let you have a room.’ So I went inside and got a room.

“Then I said, ‘Let’s go into the restaurant and get a sandwich before we go to bed. She said, ‘Well, you go get it,’ and ‘I said, ‘No, we’re going in.’ We walked in. In the very back of the building was the chief, Phillip Martin, sitting by himself. We sat down with him and had our sandwich. She was scared that they wouldn’t serve her because she was Indian. There was a lot of discrimination back then. That was what she was used to.”

Bill met Sally’s family members who lived on the reservation and found that one of her uncle’s was not too happy that she married a man who was not an Indian.

“One night he told me, ‘When you marry a Choctaw, you a Choctaw.’ After that, we got along pretty good,” Bill said.

Today, about 300 Choctaws live in Lauderdale County and about 5,000 remain on the Mississippi Choctaw Indian Reservation. When Sally returns to visit sisters in West Tennessee, they communicate in the Choctaw language. Bill cannot speak it, but he understands what they are saying.

In 1972, Sally and Bill moved to Smyrna. “In my vision, this is where I want to be,” said Sally of the town where they raised their two daughters.

Bill worked for the state of Tennessee as an appraiser for 40 years, and Sally was employed by Indian Health Services in Nashville, where she taught new employees how to use the computer system. She retired in 1997 after 12 years.

“Back home, the reservation was changing,” Sally said. “Things got better. The government built a high school. So when I had a daughter, Shari wanted to know more about her Indian culture. She went back to high school at the Choctaw reservation and later got an anthropology degree at Northern Arizona University.”

Proud of her ancestry, this morning Sally wears a traditional Choctaw dress that her mother made. A half diamond design appears on the dress. The diamond symbol represents the rattlesnake to her tribe.

“Today Choctaw people wear traditional dress only for special occasions. When I was a kid, we wore these dresses all the time,” said Sally, who is also adorned in white moccasins, beads, necklaces and earrings.

“Their dress is regalia, not a costume. It’s from their heritage that they wore and still wear,” Bill said. “Most of their dresses were made by them or their family and handed down. The term ‘costume’ offends them. These are clothes their forefathers wore with pride.”

Sally and Bill have been involved with each of the Native American Indian Association (NAIA) of Tennessee’s fall festivals. This year, Pow Wow 2010 marks the 29th annual event.  The Pow Wow began after some conversations Sally had with Ray Emmanuel, executive director of the NAIA.“Ray and I talked about how we knew there were more Indians in Tennessee. We thought we can invite people and see how many Indian people there are,” Sally said.

“We started out in Mt. Juliet at Suggs Creek Saddle Club,” Bill said. “We had a picnic the first year. The next year we expanded and grew a little bigger, so it turned into a festival. It just got to a point that the highway patrol came to us and said you are going to have to do something because of the traffic.”

After several years at Hermitage Landing (now Nashville Shores), the event found a permanent spot at Long Hunter State Park. The initial Pow Wow in 1981 drew 50 participants. Last year’s state Pow Wow attracted more than 10,000.

“We have Native Indian drummers and dancers from all over the U.S. and Canadian Indians,” Bill said.

“It’s fun to watch the dancers in their regalia as they do the different styles of dancing and traditional dancing.”

A variety of vendors will also sell such handiworks as beadwork, jewelry, feather work, baskets, wood carvings, paintings and masks, and there will be such fare as fry bread, tacos, hominy and other Indian delicacies.

The Tennessee State Pow Wow, an educational and entertaining event for all ages, is a fund raiser for the Native American Indian Association of Tennessee, which has about 1,500 members. The group’s goal is to build the Circle of Life Indian Center in Nashville.

Ken Beck may be contacted at kbtag2@gmail.com.

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