Annual Chickasaw church tour set for Sept. 28

This article appeared in the September 2022 edition of the Chickasaw Times

Chickasaw churches have hosted many events throughout Chickasaw history, both in Indian Territory and Oklahoma.

Serving as cultural and social hubs, Chickasaw families would often travel in wagons and on horseback to these churches. There, they were free to socialize in Chikashshanompa’ (the Chickasaw language), and sing and share in traditional meals. Gatherings often lasted for several days.

“Our churches are where we gathered,” Chickasaw Nation Pontotoc District Legislator Lisa Johnson-Billy said. “It’s where we gained strength and spiritual insight. In the old days, you just stayed there all day long.”

Chickasaw churches would also serve as the historical birthplace of the Seeley Chapel Movement, which sought to reestablish self-determination in Chickasaw government. The movement resulted in the appointment of Chickasaw Nation Governor Overton James in 1963, as well as the election of Gov. James by the Chickasaw people in 1971. This was the Chickasaw Nation’s first election since Oklahoma statehood in 1907.

Chickasaw churches were soon located across the Chickasaw Nation in Indian Territory, present-day Oklahoma. It was here Chickasaws practiced their faith.

While many Chickasaw citizens in Oklahoma may be familiar with the cultural history of Chickasaw churches, those who were raised outside Chickasaw Nation treaty territory may wonder why many Chickasaw Nation events begin with an elder leading prayer.

During a stop at a community council meeting in Nevada, Mrs. Johnson-Billy realized some of the attendees may not understand that cultural connection.

“Here in Oklahoma, any time we start a meeting, we always have an elder pray,” she said. “Unless (Chickasaw citizens) were born and raised in Oklahoma, they have no idea that we have this long-established system of Chickasaw churches.”

From this realization, Mrs. Johnson-Billy said she arrived at the idea of a church tour during Chickasaw Annual Meeting and Festival, when many Chickasaw citizens would be visiting from out of state. The first Chickasaw Church Tour was hosted in 2018 at Sandy Creek Church in Fillmore, Okla. Sandy Creek is the oldest continually functioning Chickasaw church in the Chickasaw Nation.

Mrs. Johnson-Billy was uncertain the idea would take off. She and other legislators decided to offer rides to Chickasaw citizens to the first event. When 86 people expressed interest in the tour, she realized this idea resonated.

“This thing spread like wildfire,” she said.

They managed to get a Chickasaw Nation bus to take attendees – many of whom had come to Oklahoma for Chickasaw Annual Meeting and Festival from more than 10 states – to the event.

“They love it,” Mrs. Johnson-Billy said. “They love the opportunity to hear the language. They love the opportunity to hear the rich history and the connection we have to our faith.”

The second year’s church tour took place in 2018 at Boiling Springs Church south of Allen, Okla. A traditional meal was added to the festivities. More than 100 people attended, including Governor Bill Anoatubby.

The public health restrictions put the Chickasaw Church Tour on brief hiatus, but this year the tour will resume during the week of Chickasaw Annual Meeting and Festival.

This year’s tour, open to all Chickasaw citizens, will be 6 p.m., Wednesday, Sept. 28, at Okchamali Blue Baptist Church, 74836 Blue Church Road, Mill Creek, Okla. Pastor Larry and Joanna Hawkins will lead a service of traditional singing and preaching in both Chickasaw and English, followed by a traditional meal.

Okchamali Blue Baptist Church was founded in the early 1900s.

A bus will leave from the Chickasaw Tribal Legislature building in Ada to take everyone to the church. Anyone interested in riding the bus must RSVP by calling (580) 436-1460.

Mrs. Johnson-Billy hopes this tour is offered for years to come and that visiting Chickasaw citizens can connect with this important facet of tribal culture.

“The goal is to be able to every year go to a different church and provide that traditional experience for Chickasaw citizens who don’t live in Oklahoma,” she said. “It’s always a great time.”