A Living Legacy: Honored Elder Finds Strength in Her Chickasaw Heritage
Irene Pettigrew Digby is a living legacy.
As she celebrates 94 years on earth this month, it is apparent she has sown her Chickasaw heritage, tradition and culture to her family and community—to cultivate her Native culture so it will live on through the younger generations.
From teaching time-honored traditional recipes, to daily practice of the Chickasaw language; the petite, soft-spoken family matriarch strives to keep Chickasaw culture and heritage flourishing by sharing her knowledge with all generations.
Sharing her native language wasn’t foremost on her mind as the life-long Murray County, Oklahoma resident was busy raising her four children. But as her golden years emerged and along came grandchildren, sharing her Native culture has been a top priority.
Teaching Oklahoma school children about Thanksgiving traditions, Chickasaw stories and sharing traditional hymns is now a seasonal rite for Digby and her youngest daughter, Rhonda (Digby) McCann.
For the past 22 years, Digby and Rhonda don traditional Chickasaw dresses, specially made by older daughter Beverly, and visit select Oklahoma schools to share Chickasaw culture.
During the November presentations Rhonda tells “The Rattlesnake Story,” Digby recites “The Lord’s Prayer” in the Chickasaw language, shares the traditional Thanksgiving story and sings Chickasaw hymns. “We used to take pashofa and fry bread,” Rhonda said.
Today, they bring a few of the bags of unblemished uncooked hominy which Digby spends hours carefully sorting as a visual aide for presentations on cooking pashofa.
Digby and Rhonda have visited Davis Schools, Head Starts and other Oklahoma schools since the 1990s.
Traditions Passed On
Traditions she is sharing—from cooking the traditional Chickasaw staple pashofa, to designating Chickasaw names for her family and friends—are things she learned while growing up.
Born a full-blood Chickasaw in 1921 in the rural Murray County community of Fairview to Joe and Serena Pettigrew, Digby and her three sisters grew up in what she calls the “White House.”
Chickasaw was the primary language spoken in her home.
“(My parents) spoke the Chickasaw language growing up—mother could only speak broken English,” she recalled.
Even now, Digby is building on her first language by attending weekly Chickasaw language classes, sometimes serving as a substitute teacher.
Although she didn’t teach the language to her four children as they were growing up, generations are immersed in it now. She has helped in the naming of her grandchildren by giving them Chickasaw names.
“I gave all my kids (and grandkids) Indian names,” she said.
All the grandkids’ names are part of their legal name, such as Enchel (Angel) and Soboshi (Colt) ensuring the language will thrive.
“When we get together, I have all the kids sit around and I make them all say their Chickasaw name—and they know it.”
Bestowing monikers on others is now a community tradition.
“Other people want me to give them a Chickasaw name and I do,” she chuckled.
If she had one wish, she said, it would be for younger Chickasaw students to have more opportunities to learn the language.
Digby’s children have learned many of the cultural traditions, such as making possum grape jelly as well as cooking pashofa and the art of beading, and are now carrying on the legacy.
Learning A Legacy
Digby learned to make pashofa as a young girl by watching her mother make it at home and at gatherings at church.
“We would always have pashofa at certain times. We made it for meetings at the Sandy Baptist Church. And every three months or on holidays we always made pashofa. It was one of our main dishes. We cooked it outside in a black pot. We had to stir and stir and stir so it wouldn’t scorch when we were making it,” she chuckled.
A black pashofa pot now sits in a place of honor on the landscape of her white frame Davis, Oklahoma residence. On the interior, Digby’s cozy home of more than five decades is also decorated in an homage to her Chickasaw heritage. The curio cabinet displays beaded wares and other cultural items, some her own creation and others that were gifted to her. A Chickasaw blanket is draped across the sofa. A photo from her induction into the Chickasaw Hall of Fame sits prominently in the living room, and hominy for Pashofa can be found in a plastic bag in the refrigerator crisper.
All of these features reflect the life of the honored elder who turned 94 November 12.
Digby and her late husband Dick “B.F.” Digby, have four children: Dean, Ronnie, Beverly and Rhonda; 10 grandchildren, 24 great grandchildren and one great-great grandchild.
Digby was honored as a 2014 Chickasaw Hall of Fame inductee.
“Irene Digby finds strength in her heritage and in sharing it with those around her,” said Chickasaw Nation Gov. Bill Anoatubby during the ceremony. “She is a strong defender of our language, and continues to be both a student and a teacher. For decades, Mrs. Digby has nurtured the very root of what makes Chickasaw people so strong—and that is our families. She fully represents the honor and wisdom we celebrate in our revered elders.”
She was recently among 50 Native American elders honored by the American Association of Retired People (AARP) for contributions to their tribe, state and nation at the 7th Annual AARP Oklahoma Indian Elder Honors.
Digby has been featured in three books published by the Chickasaw Press, Mike Larsen’s acclaimed painting series “Elders of the Chickasaw Nation,” “Chickasaw Renaissance,” and the documentary “Chickasaw Removal.”
Also in 2015, Gov. Anoatubby dedicated the auditorium at the Davis High School Auditorium in Digby’s honor. It is known as the “Nashoba Aaittafama” (Gathering Place for Wolves). A plaque recognizing Digby, who is a 1942 graduate, is placed in the auditorium's entrance.
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