Have you ever read a novel narrated by a ghost? Choctaw author and storyteller Tim Tingle’s How I Became a Ghost is just such a book, and it’s this month’s selection for the Reading into History Family book club. We’ll be meeting to discuss this remarkable book this Sunday, March 6, from 2 – 4 pm here at the Museum. This important work of historical fiction follows young Isaac and his family on the Trail of Tears, the forced relocation of Choctaw and Cherokee Native Americans during the 1830s from their ancestral lands in modern-day Mississippi, west to Arkansas and Oklahoma. This Sunday, we’ll discuss Isaac’s adventures both as a boy and a ghost navigating this treacherous trek. Tim Tingle is coming all the way from Texas to meet with us and see artifacts in our Library collection related to the book. Though full of tragedy, Isaac’s story is also a testament to the unbreakable bonds of family, love, and culture. We asked the author some questions about his book to get readers excited for Sunday. Read on and join us this weekend in the second floor classroom for a fascinating event. Remember, no RSVP is required and the program is free with Museum admission!
How I Became a Ghost is a story about the experiences of the Choctaw Native Americans along the Trail of Tears. Why did you decide to write a book about this event?
From the time I was old enough to talk, I was told by my uncles about my great-great-great-great grandfather, John Carnes. He was ten years-old when his home was burned to the ground in the middle of the night, along with his neighborhood church and most of the homes in his town, in what’s now central Mississippi. His family fled to the nearby woods, with only the clothes they’d worn to bed. For my family, this was the beginning of the Trail of Tears. John survived the trek west, but his mother did not. Rather than bury her in the woods, they carried her body all the way to Indian Territory so she could be buried near their new home.
Growing up, I was the middle child of five and we were surrounded by books. Even before entering school, I knew I wanted to write a story about a young boy on the Trail of Tears—though I did not hear that term till high school American history classes. My grandmother made us all promise we would never tell anyone we were Choctaw. A few years before she died, in 1972, the entire family decided to be proud of who we were, are, and forever will be Choctaw Americans. As a further celebration of this heritage, book two in the series, When A Ghost Talks, Listen will be released at the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C., on June 4.
How did you conduct research for this book? Were there any primary sources that you drew from?
I have amassed a library of over 100 books on southeastern American Indian history, fiction and non-fiction both—most dealing with the trail. Since the late 1980s I’ve read every article I can find on the subject and have made several trips through the Library of Congress for original documents. I have conducted and recorded over 300 hours of oral history interviews with Choctaws, eager to discuss their families’ Trail of Tears stories. Researching and describing the Choctaw Trail is my life’s work. It began before I could read, listening to stories at my grandmother’s house in Pasadena, Texas. My goal is to write two books per year in this series as long as I can write.
What new stories or information did you learn about the Trail of Tears in researching and writing this book?
As a graduate student with a focus on Native Studies at the University of Oklahoma from 1998 – 2003, I learned of the mysterious death of General Pushmataha. He was the most powerful and respected Chief of the Choctaws in the early 19th century and was invited to Washington, D.C., by then Senator Jackson, to discuss Indian removal. Pushmataha served under Jackson as a U.S. general during the War of 1812, and they had developed a close friendship. Pushmataha was very outspoken in his opposition to Indian removal and was also known for his love of the drink. Jackson secured a sum of $2,500 for alcoholic beverages for Pushmataha during the month of his stay in D.C. Pushmataha died of some form of food or alcohol poisoning and never returned to the Choctaw Nation. He was buried in the Congressional Cemetery, not far from the grave of John Phillip Sousa.
What three words best describe How I Became a Ghost?
Shilombish never leave
Want to know what a “shilombish” is? You’ll have to join us this Sunday. See you then!
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Any views, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in this program do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.