PASCAGOULA -- Patty Bang Williams grew up in Vancleave, 12th in a family of 16 children.
Her parents were first cousins and didn't talk much about their legacy as Choctaws. Williams was smart and when she reached the 8th grade, the last grade provided at the Indian Creole School, her teacher said she wished she could go on but knew neither the white school nor the black school in Vancleave would accept her.
She worked at the cat food plant and somewhere along her life learned that the discrimination against Creoles she saw as a child didn't exist in other parts of the Coast. Biloxi accepted mixed children in its schools, she said. But strong family ties kept her in Vancleave and now she is proud of her lineage.
Choctaws were formally recognized by the state this week with a Chancery Court ruling by Judge D. Neil Harris. She is one of a newly formed, 11-person council that will lead the Vancleave Live Oak Choctaw tribe that numbers almost 2,000, most still in central Jackson County.
Now that it is formally established, the next step is to seek recognition by the Department of Interior's Bureau of Indian Affairs. If recognized at that level, it becomes a sovereign nation and will be eligible for health care, possible grants for education, housing assistance and even land. But that's still a ways away, even though Council Leader Terry Ladnier and Attorney Earl Denham say there's a good chance it will happen.
President Obama "is very encouraging to Native American groups," Denham said.
That's the future Ladnier sees for the children of the tribe.
For him, this is about "the pride of being part of the Indian people."
This group has survived for 200 years without recognition, said Denham, whose firm took this case without charge. It existed in pockets of population in Vancleave, and despite poverty and discrimination, he said, it was rewarding to help.
Steve Register of Gautier traces his roots in the Choctaw community to Vancleave and is an unofficial historian.
He said Jean Baptiste Boudreau, a landed Frenchman
who owned 40,000 acres between Biloxi and Pascagoula, married a Choctaw woman in 1726, according to marriage records and the Mississippi Provencial Archives, five volumes of French history.
Register said the Frenchman had two children by her and married her when their son was 10, to make him legitimate.
It was that son, also Jean Baptiste Bourdeau, half Choctaw, who had brushes with the law and was executed in New Orleans by being "broken at the wheel" or beaten to death in 1757, Register said. That was not a common form of execution in New Orleans at the time, but Jean Baptiste the younger had salvaged French ships without paying the King of France, was imprisoned on Cat Island and later escaped.
Register said he was actually taken from the prison by Swiss soldiers who needed an Indian guide for their escape. They had killed the commander of the prison, so the manhunt was relentless and all met brutal ends.
But he had three children and his sister had children and the Choctaws in Vancleave can trace their lineage to them.
A group divided
The legal wrangling came because there were two groups claiming to be Live Oak Choctaws in southeast Mississippi -- about 400 from one that consisted of people who live out of the state, 500 children and 1,093 located in an around South Mississippi, mostly Vancleave.
The diplomacy that culminated in a court decision this week established one group.
For those concerned about the possibility of gambling on Indian land in Jackson County, Supervisor Troy Ross said Wednesday this new tribe likely would have no effect on the issue of casinos in the county.
Acquiring a casino would require going through the DOI, Ross said. The governor would have "tremendous input and the governor knows we've voted not to have casinos here."
The group has associations with the well-know Band of Mississippi Choctaws in North Mississippi, Ladnier said. But that tribe's rolls are closed.
There are Indian mounds up Bluff Creek and around Vancleave from years gone by.
Ladnier remembers when the elders spoke French and Choctaw and later English.
It was a close-knit community, somewhat isolated.
"We marry close," Ladnier said. "The Indian blood is still strong within our community."
Tracing ancestry for the establishment of the tribe was tricky through parts of history, though, because it wasn't popular to be Native American.
"We were different," Patty Williams said, "but we survived."
And the excitement of becoming an official tribe showed on the faces of the two dozen people who were waiting at the Jackson County Courthouse on Thursday for the judge to hand down the papers.
"It's a little late in life," Williams said, "but we're ready to stand up and be counted for."