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How I Became a Ghost: A Powerful Story of Choctaw Removal

Our Summer Book Club is in full swing! Last week, we shared Fry Bread: A Native American Family Story by Kevin Nobel Maillard and Powwow Day by Traci Sorell for elementary age readers. This week, we are sharing two selections for middle school age readers. Incredibly different, they both are intended to teach and share important concepts with young readers. The first, How I Became a Ghost by Tim Tingle (Choctaw), follows the story of 10-year-old Isaac, a Choctaw boy experiencing Indian Removal. Along with his family and community, Isaac begins his journey on the trail. Heart wrenching and poignant, How I Became a Ghost weaves Choctaw spiritual belief with history, telling the story of the ghosts of those who have passed that walk beside those on the Trail of Tears. On Monday, come back to learn about A Snake Falls To Earth by Darcie Little Badger (Lipan Apache)

Although How I Became a Ghost is for middle school age readers, it should be noted that this is a Trail of Tears story and may not be appropriate for every reader. Isaac dying is a central part of the storyline, as are numerous moments of violence, death and dying, and struggle. We encourage you to exercise caution when reading it with sensitive readers and discuss the painful themes and implications with your children. Although this is a fictional story, these things did happen, and are part of a painful weaving of history that is important to learn about.


How I Became A Ghost by Tim Tingle

Tim Tingle’s How I Became a Ghost begins with a promise; at some point, Isaac becomes a ghost. It reads “Maybe you have never read a book written by a ghost before. I am a ghost. I am not a ghost when this book begins, so you have to pay very close attention.” (1) From the opening lines, the story hints not only at the impending tragedy, but also at the blurred lines of life and death we see throughout the novel.

Throughout the book, we continually see examples of those that walk beside the travelers. Ghosts of family members, friends, leaders, and elders. Before he dies, Isaac says “Choctaws never say ‘goodbye.’ There is no word for it. We say ‘chi pisa lachike’ which means ‘I will see you again, in the future.’ Even though I was nearing the day where I would never see my family as a living person, I would never leave them. Choctaws never go away.” (84)

These themes of life, death, and the intricacies of community are wrapped up in Choctaw spiritual belief and juxtaposed against historic experiences. In minimalist, brutally stark narrative style Tingle describes elders burning with their homes, shivering Choctaws dying from smallpox contracted from tainted blankets, and a young girl passing from exposure. These paint a painful picture of the Choctaw experience. But resilience and strength are also in the picture. When soldiers threaten to take the body of young Nita, who died of exposure, Isaac plainly states “If they scatter Nita’s bones, we will gather them. If they burn her bones, we will gather the ashes. We are Choctaws. We are stronger than the soldiers.” (125)

Author Tim Tingle, via his website

A Painful History

Tingle’s book blends the historic experience of the Choctaw along with Choctaw belief systems. Although deeply impacted by the Indian Removal Act of 1830, the Choctaw history of forced removal actually dates back as far as the turn of the 19th century, and as recently as the 1900s. “The Trail of Tears for Choctaw people starts much earlier than the removals in 1830,” Ryan Spring, Research Coordinator for the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma Historic Preservation Office notes in a recent article.  “At each treaty, the United States said that they would cede no more lands from Choctaw Nation but in each treaty, they did take more.”

The Choctaw would lose millions of acres of their homelands and be forcibly relocated to Oklahoma. The Choctaw signed the Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek in 1830, and with it the first removals under the Indian Removal Act began. The treaty, which threatened their sovereignty, was one of the largest land transfers between a native tribe and the United States.

The decades that followed were painful and tragic. Tens of thousands of Choctaw made the 500 mile trek to Oklahoma. Nearly one-third of that number died before reaching their destination – from starvation, disease, exposure, or violence. Those who survived the trek struggled to establish farms and survive harsh winters. In 1833 massive floods washed away the fledgling farms the Choctaw had started on their new homes in Oklahoma, and they faced famine. In How I Became a Ghost, Isaac’s father shares words of resilience through great suffering, saying “You cannot keep your eyes on the bloody footprints you have left behind you. You must keep your eyes on where you are going.” (48)

The Choctaw removed to Oklahoma would survive and become the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma.


Discussion Questions

  1. Describe the ways Isaac’s community say goodbye to their home. Why was it important for Isaac’s mother to show him this?
  2. What is the Treaty Talk Isaac’s father hears about? What does it mean?
  3. Name three ghosts, besides Isaac, who walk beside the Choctaw on their journey. How do they try and help their families?
  4. Who are the bonepickers, and why are they important? What role do they play in the story, and in the Choctaw community?
  5. When Naomi has the chance to leave the soldier to die, why does she save him instead?
  6. What does chi pisa lachike mean? Why is it important? How do you see the concept play out in the story?
  7. Who is General Pushmataha? Spend some time researching his life, and death. Why does he appear in this story?


About Author Tim Tingle

Tim Tingle is an award-winning author, speaker, and storyteller and part of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma. Tingle has written over twenty books, primarily young adult fiction. Born in Houston, Texas, Tingle earned his bachelor’s degree in English from the University of Texas and master’s degree in English Literature from the University of Oklahoma in 2003. His first published work, the anthology Walking the Choctaw Road, was released in 2003 to massive critical acclaim. It was awarded the Book of the Year in both Alaska and Oklahoma.

Tingle’s great- great grandfather, John Carnes, walked the Trail of Tears in 1835. In a 2022 interview with the New York Historical Society, Tingle talks of his family’s history and journey. He shares:

“From the time I was old enough to comprehend words, I was told by my uncles about my great-great-great-great grandfather John Carnes. He was 10 years old when his home was burned to the ground in the middle of the night, along with his neighborhood church and most of the homes in his town, in what is now central Mississippi. His family fled to the nearby woods with only the clothing they had worn to bed. For my family, this was the beginning of the Trail of Tears. John survived the Trail, but his mother did not. Rather than bury her in the woods, they carried her body all the way to Indian Territory so she could be buried near their new home.”

In 1993, Tingle retraced the journey from Choctaw homelands of Mississippi along the Trail of Tears. He also began recording the stories of tribal elders, which are the inspiration for many of his stories. In the same interview, he shares that in addition to books and documents, his research includes a vast array of oral histories. He stated that “I have conducted and recorded over 300 hours of oral history interviews with Choctaws, eager to discuss their family’s Trail of Tears stories. Researching and describing the Choctaw Trail is my life-work.”

How I Became a Ghost is the first book in a series, following Isaac on his journey. The second book, When a Ghost Talks, Listen was released in 2018.

Choctaw Sash in the ATTK Museum Collection, 2000.56.1


Looking for more?

Below, we have compiled a list of more Native written and illustrated books for middle school age readers!


Super Indian and Super Indian: Volume Two by Arigon Star (Kickapoo)

Chickadee by Louise Erdrich (Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians)

If I Ever Get Out of Here by Eric Gansworth (Onondaga)

Elatsoe by Darcie Little Badger (Lipan Apache)

Healer of the Water Monster by Brian Young (Navajo)

Apple in the Middle by Dawn Quigley (Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians)


Author Bio

Originally from Washington state, Deanna Butler received her BA in Archaeological Sciences from the University of Washington in 2014. Deanna moved to Florida in 2016. Soon, she began working for the Seminole Tribe of Florida’s Tribal Historic Preservation Office. Deanna was the THPO’s Archaeological Collections Assistant from 2017-2021. While at the THPO, Deanna worked to preserve, support, and process the Tribe’s archaeological collection. She often wrote the popular Artifact of the Month series and worked on many community and educational outreach programs. She lives in Lakeland, FL with her husband, two sons, and dog.

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