Tim Tingle: A Choctaw Approach to Authenticity

I first got to know Tim Tingle when I moved to Oklahoma in 2004. After my wife Pam and I had spent time with Tim in several contexts, he invited us to attend the Choctaw Nation’s annual Labor Day Festival in the tribal capitol, Tvshka Homma (Tuscahoma), Oklahoma.

Pam and I had the great privilege there of meeting some of the elders who had taught Tim his stories. But most of all, we got a glimpse of some unspoken parts of Choctaw culture.

For example, we heard many stories from Tim and from his friends about the jokes they had played on Tim.

A Fast Chopper


Years before, at one of Tim's first times at that very gathering, when he had been so eager to fit in with Choctaws who had been raised more traditionally, Tim was asked to help out in the frybread* booth, where they needed people to chop onions. Tim’s friend (and now Pam’s and my friend) Stella Long took Tim in the back room of the booth and said, "Can you chop some onions? Are you any good at that?"

Eager as a puppy, Tim said, "Yes!" He sat down by himself at a table and began to chop.

Ten minutes later, Stella came back and noticed Tim’s big pile of chopped onions and said, "You're really good at that, Tim!”

Tim said, "Yeah, I worked in fast food for a while.”

“Is that so?” said Stella. “That's great. I'm going to go find somebody else to show how good you are.”

Twenty minutes later, Stella came back with another Choctaw elder. "Look how good he's doing!"

Admiringly, the elder said, "Yes, he's doing really good!"

Tim chopped and chopped for hours as, every once in a while, Stella brought someone else back to admire his skill with onions.

At last, Tim realized two things: first, his eyes hurt and his hands were sore. Second, Stella would keep bringing people to admire his chopping—until he stopped.

A Connecting Power

When Tim was done telling us this story, I began to understand that it described a good-natured way of showing Tim his own over-eagerness to fit in. It was a playful way to reflect his behavior back to him —without any shame or blame or analysis.

Tim said that Choctaws love to play jokes on each other. He said, “If you're with a group of Choctaws and they're not playing a joke on somebody—watch out; it's you.”

That’s one way that Tim showed Pam and me the warmth, playfulness, and connectedness of the Choctaw world.

At that time, Tim had just written his first book of Choctaw tales, Walking the Choctaw Road, the result of over a decade of exploring traditional Choctaw culture, of joining in the re-walking of the Choctaw Trail of Tears with prominent tribal elders and storytellers, and of seeking out and listening to many traditional Choctaw storytellers.

Deep vs. Shallow

Just recently, knowing that Tim had been chosen to be the keynote speaker at the 2018 Northeast Storytelling Conference in Plymouth, Massachusetts (Sharing the Fire), I started to catch up on the books Tim has published since Walking the Choctaw Road. I have fallen in love with them, two in particular: The House of Purple Cedar, and How I Became a Ghost.

As a result, my education in Choctaw culture has continued. At the Choctaw Gathering in Oklahoma, I had felt the playful, relaxed connection among this whole nation of people. But in Tim’s novels I began to understand just how deep that connection is.

I can’t help contrast that depth of connection with my own experience as a child. My first four years of life, I lived with my mother and father in a two-room apartment on the third floor of a walk-up apartment building on the South Side of Chicago. We knew only two other families who lived in the building. My father was working all day, and my mother was alone with me. My whole world of connection, day after day, hour after hour, was just with my mother. We saw others from time to time, but I lived in a very small sphere.

Relying on Those Who Have Gone Before

Reading Tim's books, I understood more about the Choctaw way of connection—with not just your family but also with your extended family, including grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins. With your local community, too. And with the whole nation of Choctaws. And then—surprisingly to me—with your ancestors. In Purple Cedar and Ghost, in particular, I learned how the ancestors are a presence.

In Walking the Choctaw Road, Tim says, “We Choctaws are a rich and diverse people, culturally American and spiritually Choctaw.” And one thing Choctaw spirituality seems to offer, from my understanding of Tim’s books, is that we have an additional layer of connection: Those who have gone before are dead, but are not gone. They are present, advising us and protecting us, if we can learn to tune into them.

Authenticity vs. Isolation?

How does this relate to authenticity? I don't think that we humans can be our authentic selves in isolation. I believe we are social beings, who can be more ourselves when we are connected to many others—including those who are not alive in the world, but still inhabit our psyches.

Tim will be a keynote speaker at the  Sharing the Fire Conference on "Discovering Authenticity ," Plymouth, MA, March  23-25, 2018

Tim will be a keynote speaker at the Sharing the Fire Conference on "Discovering Authenticity," Plymouth, MA, March  23-25, 2018

I think that a huge part of authenticity transcends the individual—but is a quality of the individual in connection. Tim Tingle has experienced this, has sought it, and has helped us experience it through his writings.

Tim Tingle, I believe, is an ideal choice to help guide us as we explore the relationships between storytelling and authenticity.

*Frybread: a flat, medium-thick bread, deep-fried and served alone or with sweet or savory toppings. It’s the base for the “Indian taco.” Link: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/frybre...