Curator Interview: Leslie Stall Widener on the Choctaw Culture Keepers Series

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By AJ Eversole

Leslie Stall Widener is an enrolled citizen of the Choctaw Nation and registered Choctaw artist who has illustrated six Choctaw related picture books. Her non-fiction debut, Kindred Spirits: Shilombish Ittibachʋffa, illustrated by Johnson Yazzie (Navajo) (Charlesbridge, 2024) will be released in the summer.

In addition to her personal writing endeavors, she also serves as the Native Chair Fund for We Need Diverse Books. Her current project is helping to curate the Choctaw Culture Keepers, a series of biographies focusing on Choctaw and other Native American histories, the first of which features Dr. Clara Sue Kidwell.

Tell us about the Choctaw Culture Keepers series. What is the vision and heart of the project? 

The Choctaw Culture Keepers series is a gift for Choctaws. It was originally geared toward Choctaw children, but I’m finding out that many people are interested in learning more about the Choctaw people. Children and adults need to read about influential Native Americans and Indigenous histories of all tribes in what is now the United States.

What does the future look like for the Choctaw Cultural Center and publishing? How did this idea come about? 

Late in 2020, while reminiscing about the history books in our elementary school library, my sister, Celia Stall-Meadows, and I decided this project could be a top priority. The biographies we remembered were loosely historic, and very few books existed about Native Americans. Since we lived in Oklahoma, there should have been an abundance of Indigenous American biographies. We knew the Choctaw Nation had great stories to tell.

Dr. Clara Sue Kidwell.

The first book revolves around Dr. Clara Sue Kidwell. How did you choose her to be the first Culture Keeper featured?

Dr. Kidwell is local to the Tulsa area, and she is an expert in Native American studies and tribal sovereignty. We met her several years ago at a Five Tribes Storytelling Conference in Muskogee, Okla. We agreed that she is an excellent resource, so we reconnected with her.

Who will be the next in the series?

Once Celia wrote the Clara Sue Kidwell biography, we used it as an example to give to other Choctaw writers. This became our guide for how the series will continue to look.

Rev. Cyrus Byington was chosen for the second book because he significantly contributed to a written record and English translation of the Choctaw language. This was powerful, as a written language helped to keep our culture and heritage alive. Cyrus was not Choctaw, but he was a Presbyterian missionary who spent time with the Choctaw people in Mississippi prior to the Removal in the 1830s, and later in Indian Territory (now Oklahoma).

Rev. Cyrus Byington (2040, Constance E. Caswell Collection, OHS).

Give us a picture of the research going into these stories.

For the Clara Sue Kidwell biography, Celia spent hours interviewing Dr. Kidwell, who has a great wealth of stories and information. During those years, a relationship of trust and friendship was built.

For the Byington biography, Celia made trips to the Gilcrease Museum in Tulsa, where she was given access to his handwritten letters from nearly 200 years ago. He was devoted to the Choctaw people and had an undying focus on saving souls. But he also had a singular determination to get Choctaw language books published. Nothing was going to stand in his way.

Where can educators go to purchase the book? Are there additional educational resources available?

The series is published by the Choctaw Cultural Center. They can be purchased online by going to

These and other reference books are also available at the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma headquarters in Durant, Oklahoma, 1892 Chukka Hina, Durant, OK 74701; and the nearby Choctaw Cultural Center Hvshi Gift Store at 1919 Hina Hanta Way, Calera, OK 74730. Books in the Choctaw Culture Keepers series will be placed in schools and libraries throughout the Choctaw reservation.

What do you want both Native and non-Native students to take away from this series?

Children will learn how Choctaw Nation citizens made important contributions to our Nation’s sovereignty. These contributions directly impacted our lives and will continue to benefit the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma in the future.

Leslie Stall Widener (left), Dr. Clara Sue Kidwell (Center)

How does it feel to be part of something with that degree of authenticity?

I’m honored to be a part of this important project. I hope that these books, written and illustrated by Choctaws, are the first in a long line of biographies published by the Choctaw Cultural Center. I also hope that other tribes will take on similar projects. Children need to learn about influential Native Americans from their own tribal background, and read Indigenous biographies from all tribes in the U.S.

Cynsational Notes

Leslie Stall Widener’s nonfiction debut as a picture book author, Kindred Spirits: Shilombish Ittibachʋffa, will release in summer 2024 from Charlesbridge Publishing. She’s written for several educational houses, including Benchmark Educational Publishing, Gibbs-Smith, and Core Knowledge Foundation (as author/illustrator.)

She has illustrated six Choctaw related picture books: Chukfi Rabbit’s Big, Bad Bellyache, told by Greg Rodgers; The Turkey Who Liked to Show Off; Why the Turtle Has Cracks on His Back; The Story of Tanchi; Why the ‘Possum Has No Hair on His Tail; Why Rabbit Has a Short Tail, all published by the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma in English and Choctaw; and Imagine the Moon – A Primer of Full Moon Names by Gerald Fierst. Plum Street Publishers, 2017.

Leslie serves as Native Fund Chair for We Need Diverse Books and is a member of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators.

Leslie is a Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma tribal member and a registered Choctaw artist.

Originally from Tulsa, Okla., Texas has been her home since 1980. She lives north of Dallas with her husband, artist Terry Widener.

AJ Eversole covers children’s-YA writing, illustration, publishing, and other book news from Indigenous authors and illustrators for Cynsations. She grew up in rural Oklahoma, a place removed from city life and full of opportunities to nurture the imagination. She is a citizen of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma and writes primarily young adult fiction. AJ currently resides in Fort Worth, Texas; with her family. Follow her on Instagram @ajeversole