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Released February 18, 2003

SOUTHERN MISS PROF'S BOOK ON CHOCTAW CHIEFS
WINS HISTORY SOCIETY'S COVETED MCLEMORE PRIZE

By Phil Hearn

HATTIESBURG - A University of Southern Mississippi professor's book tracing the lives of two remarkable 18th century Choctaw Indian chiefs has won the Mississippi Historical Society's coveted McLemore Prize for 2002.

The award recognizes Choctaws in a Revolutionary Age, 1750-1830, by Dr. Greg O'Brien, a Southern Miss associate professor of history, as the best book on a Mississippi history topic for the year. O'Brien will be formally recognized at a March 1 society meeting in Jackson.

"I am very grateful for the honor and recognition awarded me by the Mississippi Historical Society," said O'Brien, a member of the Southern Miss faculty since 1998. "The award makes the years of research and writing that went into this book worthwhile.

"The study of southeastern Indians like the Choctaws is quickly becoming one of the most cutting-edge fields within southern history and ethnohistory, and I am glad to be a part of that effort," added the professor, who grew up in Charlottesville, Va..

He described the time period covered in the book, which was released by University of Nebraska Press last Sept. 12, as a "watershed moment in Choctaw history – the receding of a traditional, mystically oriented world and the dawning of a new market-oriented one."

Dr. Charles Bolton, professor and chair of the Southern Miss History Department, said O'Brien "is rapidly being recognized as one of the best young scholars in the field of Native American history.

"The McLemore Prize is the second major award he has earned for scholarship in the last six months," Bolton noted. "I am sure many more honors will come his way in the years ahead."

O'Brien, whose specialty courses at Southern Miss include American Indian history and Colonial America, also won the prestigious Fletcher M. Green and Charles W. Ramsdell Award last fall as author of the best article published in the Journal of Southern History during the two preceding years. The article was titled "The Conqueror Meets the Unconquered: Negotiating Cultural Boundaries on the Post-Revolutionary Southern Frontier."

Choctaws in a Revolutionary Age traces the lives of two remarkable Choctaw chiefs, Taboca and Franchimastabe', who followed very different paths of leadership during a period of revolutionary change in the late 18th century. Taboca was a traditional "prophet-chief" whose authority was rooted in the spiritual realm. The foundation of Franchimastabe's power, however, was more capitalistic – resting on trade with Europeans and American colonists, and the acquisition of manufactured goods.

O'Brien said mid-18th century Choctaws looked to the mastery of spiritual power as the basis of individual esteem and authority, and women were viewed as possessing inherent spiritual power as creators of life. On the other hand, men had to prove their spiritual worthiness through accomplishment in warfare or by other means.

"By the late 18th century, this traditional world view was challenged by the actions and beliefs of certain Choctaw chiefs who increasingly looked to the material Euro-American world as a basis for power and authority," the professor said. "Thus, the fur trade, cattle ranching, cotton farming, slave ownership and other capitalistic enterprises came to dominate elite Choctaw world views...

"In the book, I trace the careers of two chiefs who rose to power in the 18th century in a traditional manner, but then split over where power derived and how it should be used," said O'Brien, maintaining there is ample evidence that Choctaws of the 1700s also enjoyed gambling and engaged in it frequently.

The Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians, led by longtime Chief Phillip Martin, has enjoyed business success in Neshoba County – including ventures in automotive wiring harness and speaker manufacturing, and a printing company. The band's largest venture, however, is in the operation of the Popular Silver Star Resort and Casino near Philadelphia.

O'Brien earned a bachelor of arts degree at Randolph-Macon College in 1988, a master's degree at James Madison University in 1994 and a doctorate at the University of Kentucky in 1998. He became a tenure-track assistant professor at Southern Miss in 2000 and was promoted to the rank of associate professor last year.

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April 20, 2004 4:09 PM

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