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Choctaw Indian Fair

Choctaw Indian Fair - Choctaw

Established here in 1949, the annual Choctaw Indian Fair, formerly known as the Green Corn Festival, showcases the cultural traditions of the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians including food, arts and crafts, stickball (kabotcha toli), and the Choctaw Indian Princess Pageant. Since the late 1960s, the Fair has regularly featured major country artists including Charley Pride, Waylon Jennings, Jerry Lee Lewis, Randy Travis, Blake Shelton, and Philadelphia’s Marty Stuart, who met his future wife, country star Connie Smith, when she performed here in 1970.

The Choctaw Indian Fair became a major destination for country music in Mississippi beginning in 1967, when then Nashville-based country producer and songwriter Bob Ferguson began booking artists with whom he worked, including Connie Smith. An anthropologist with a long relationship with the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians, Ferguson later married a local Choctaw woman and moved here. Booking duties were later assumed by another country music insider and Philadelphia native, Marty Gamblin. The establishment of annual shows with multiple country stars brought in many people from outside the area, as have the many country acts booked at the Choctaw-owned casinos that opened in this area after 1994. The Fair has also served as a platform for touring Native American artists including Redbone, Indigenous, the Klaudt Family Band, Crystal Shawanda and Shane Yellowbird, and Billy Thunderkloud and the Chieftones.

The Fair evolved from the Green Corn Festival, a traditional celebration of the harvest season shared by Native American groups across the Southeast. The subsequent growth of the Fair can be seen in terms of the Choctaws’ longstanding efforts to make their presence better known in Mississippi, where they are the only federally recognized tribe. One of the major highlights of the Fair, the stickball tournament was once used to settle disputes but is now played solely for entertainment and bragging rights. Revitalization projects beginning in the 1960s reversed a relative decline in traditional sewing, beadwork, music and dance activity.

The vitality of Choctaw culture is particularly notable in the three types of traditional dances at the Fair, which fall into the categories of “war,” “social,” and “animal”—with the latter mimicking the behavior of animals including raccoons, snakes, and ticks. The dances feature lines of men and women in traditional clothing who are guided by lead dancers and chanters, with the tapping of their chanting sticks. Their tradition of “house dances” bears similarities to other southeastern country music traditions including the Anglo-American square dance and the French cotillion. Presented at both the Fair and in informal social settings, “house dances” feature musical accompaniment by fiddle and guitar. The repertoire of fiddler R.J. Willis (1934-2020), for instance, included rural dance standard “Sally Goodin” and a cover of Bob Wills’ 1941 hit “Take Me Back to Tulsa.” The Choctaw fiddling tradition goes back to the 1700s, and gained broader attention in 1929 when the Oklahoma-based group Big Chief Henry’s Indian String Band made recordings for RCA-Victor [including “The Indian Tom Tom”] after Jackson-based recording agent H.C. Speir saw them performing at a festival here. Sometimes the country and Choctaw traditions meet; in 2009 Marty Stuart sang his “I Met My Baby at the Choctaw Fair” while Choctaw dancers performed on the stage in front of his band.

This is marker No. 36 on the Mississippi Country Music Trail, dedicated July 17, 2021. Photos courtesy Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians, Bradley Isaac, and Marty Stuart. Research assistance: Chief Cyrus Ben, Kendall Grisham, Martha Spencer, Amanda Bell, and Marty Gamblin.

content © Mississippi Country Music Trail