The Choctaw were a group of Native Americans who lived in what is now the South-Central United States, basically Mississippi, Alabama and Southeastern Louisiana. They are a part of the Muskogean language family, and their language is very similar to Chickasaw, and to a lesser degree Creek. The term Choctaw, while today may be more specific, was used generally as the name of the local Indians who were sympathetic to the French in the 18th and 19th Centuries, when they founded Biloxi, Mobile, and New Orleans.
The Choctaw were very different from the exaggerated idea of Native Americans propogated by European colonists. The great New Orleanian cartoonist John Chase, in his book Frenchmen, Desire, Goodchildren, has a cartoon of a 'typical Indian brave' next to a Choctaw warrior. While the 'typical brave' is strong, healthy, and robust, the Choctaw is slouched, pot-bellied, dirty, and has a clueless expression (An interesting sidenote is that Choctaw wore feathers hanging at the back of their waist rather than on their heads).
While it is true that the Choctaw were not the most fearsome nation in the South, they should be given credit where credit is due. They were excellent farmers, arguably the best and most competent of all Native American nations in the South. Their economy was based on a rather advanced system of agriculture, whereas many groups in this area were hunter-gatherers. Women held a pretty high place in Choctaw culture, and perhaps this, along with their tendency to not move around hunting but stay in one place farming, is why the Europeans assumed the Choctaw were a lazy bunch.
During the early days of the white man in the Southeast, the Choctaw were the allies of the French. The French are considered to be the friendliest of conquering European cultures, and the Choctaw got a long well with them, helping them build settlements and trading with them. Also, the sworn enemies of the Choctaw, the Creek, were allies of the British, who were conveniently hated by the French, and later the Americans.
The Choctaw were very helpful in the founding of the cities of Biloxi, Mobile, and New Orleans, showing the French multitudes of waterways and trde routes, as well as teaching them the local language, which furthered exploration and education about local cultures.
When the British invaded Louisiana in 1814, the Choctaw were very useful in terms of manpower and intelligence, and many warriors did indeed fight in the Battle of New Orleans on the American side against the British and Creek warriors.
In 1832, a period of embarrassment and ingratitude for the United States, the US Government forced the Choctaw to cede their lands in Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana, and sent along the 'Trail of Tears' to the Indian Territory, what is now Oklahoma. Here they became one of the original 'Five Civilized Tribes,' and missionaries from many Christian sects, most notably Southern Baptist, Methodist, and Presbyterianparticipated in converting the Choctaw to Christianity.
Today, there are 85,000 Choctaw in the US, half living in Oklahoma. There are about 9000 speakers of the Choctaw language. There is still quite a bit of organization and pride in the Choctaw Nation, which is still centered in Oklahoma. The Southeast is full of Choctaw words and place names. Almost any word of Native American origin in Southern Louisiana, Misissippi, or Alabama is Choctaw. Some famous examples are words like Tchefuncte, the famous spelling nightmare Tchoupitoulas, Alabama, Catahoula, Atchafalaya, and of course, the word 'bayou,' from bayuk, which means 'small river stream, or lake.' In Louisiana many Choctaw names appear at first impronouncible. This is because of French orthography, and not the Choctaws' fault. The names are quite easy to pronounce once you learn how to read French.
My sources include John Chase, Louisiana cartoonist and historian, and the homepage of the Choctaw Nation at www.choctawnation.com.