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A Chickasaw Tale

Mary Ruth Barnes ’73 shares the story of her Native American great-great grandmother.

Mary Ruth Barnes ’73 grew up in Oklahoma City, Okla., hearing family stories about her Cherokee, Choctaw and Chickasaw heritage. Even today in conversation, she uses some of the words she learned in the Chickasaw language. There’s “hatalhposhik,” the word for “butterfly,” and “kap’pasi’,” which means, “It is cold outside.”

But Barnes’ favorite word, “Foshi’,” shares its meaning with the title of her 2021 historical novel Little Bird. That was the nickname of her Choctaw-Cherokee great-great grandmother, Esther McLish, whom the novel follows through her travails of having a child and four husbands die. The novel also traces her journey as she proves her son’s heritage to the U.S. government before the Dawes Commission. It operated in the 1890s to determine who could be designated as a Native American and, thus, be eligible to receive an allotment of land from the federal government.

“I wanted people all over the United States to understand about the Dawes Commission,” says Barnes, who lives in Ada, Okla.

Little Bird, a novel by Mary Ruth Barnes ’73

“ . . . we’re trying as a people here, as a Chickasaw nation to uplift that culture.”
– Mary Ruth Barnes ’73

Barnes, 75, drew upon the stories she’d heard her whole life to find numerous primary historical sources that serve as the basis for McLish’s story chronicled in Barnes’ first novel. “I found 78 pages on [McLish] and her interviews with the Dawes commissioners,” Barnes says. “And bless her heart, she had to retell the story over and over again. She might get in a wagon and take five kids and travel two weeks to have a 30-minute interview. She was determined to get that allotment.”

For Barnes, the novel (and its sequel about Esther’s daughter Ella, set to be released in 2024) serves as her commitment to story-telling and honoring her Chickasaw heritage. “This is how they maintained their culture, telling the stories that their grandparents told them and passing it on down,” says Barnes, who was inducted into the Chickasaw Hall of Fame in Sulphur, Okla., this year. “And we’re trying as a people here, as a Chickasaw nation to uplift that culture.” 

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