Mvskoke Country

Sustainable Sovereignty

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The following article was originally published in Orion Magazine, a national bimonthly focusing on nature/culture/place. It has also been available on the Mvskoke Country website, but this is the first time it has appeared in the Muscogee Nation News. Two annual growing seasons have come and gone since I profiled MFSI and the Wilson community garden in 2009; you can find more current information at http://www.mvskokefood.org/ and http://wilson-ndn-community.99k.org/garden/garden.html

Mvskoke farmer Barton Williams is in the fields every day now, picking produce from two large plots sponsored by the Wilson Indian Community of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation.  Williams is the community’s elected leader; he and several other dedicated volunteers are tending the typical garden fare—cabbage and okra, peppers and tomatoes—while fending off hungry deer, raccoons, squirrels, and insects.  They’ve also planted a couple of distinctively Mvskoke crops:  Indian pumpkins, which are good for frying; and safke corn, an heirloom variety used to make a traditional dish similar to hominy.  Later in the season, they’ll offer low-cost food baskets to local residents.  People are already asking when the corn will be in.

Wilson Indian Community is also hosting training sessions with specialists from the state extension service and inviting other growers in the area to attend.  The community center is next to the local high school, so this fall they’ll erect a greenhouse and get students involved in the effort.  And some of the older folks have begun sharing heirloom seeds and laying plans to start a seed bank.  “We didn’t realize how big this thing was really going to get,” says Rita Williams, Barton’s wife.  All this in just their first few months as a Community Food Project funded by a small USDA grant, which they secured with the help of the Mvskoke Food Sovereignty Initiative.

MFSI formed in 2005 when community activists and tribal government staffers began meeting to discuss the modern food system and the problems it creates for nutrition, health care, elder services, cultural preservation, local economies, and the natural environment.  The great seal of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, adopted in the nineteenth century, features a plow and a sheaf of wheat in an open field, testimony to the ancient agricultural heritage of the Mvskoke people.  But the forced allotment of tribal lands a hundred years ago broke up these communal traditions, and today few Mvskokes are involved in producing their own food.  Now incorporated as an independent nonprofit, MFSI supports sustainable agriculture, economic development, community organizing, and cultural education among “the Mvskoke people and their neighbors” in eastern Oklahoma.

Food is connected to just about everything else in Mvskoke life, including politics and religion.  Many of the matrilineal clans take their name from a game animal, domesticated plant, or other indigenous staple:  Ecovlke (Deer clan), Vhvlvkvlke (Sweet Potato clan), and Ocevlke (Hickory Nut clan), for example.  The Mvskoke calendar culminates in posketv, known in English as Green Corn, a four-day ceremony celebrating the harvest and the beginning of a new year.  And sovereignty is the dominant trope of Indian affairs, at least under the current federalist regime, so it’s not surprising that grassroots leaders would associate sustenance with self-determination in launching the Mvskoke Food Sovereignty Initiative.

One of the first MFSI projects was a 2006 event on “Food as Medicine,” where tribal elders and health experts discussed the nutritional benefits of traditional foods.  More recently, their “Return to Your Roots” symposium in the spring of 2009 brought together more than a dozen presenters exploring the historical, cultural, spiritual, and practical aspects of food sovereignty.  This landmark event was cosponsored by the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, and all three branches of tribal government were represented among those who addressed the audience.  Indigenous leaders have always worked to sustain tribal sovereignty, and many are now pioneering uniquely indigenous approaches to sustainability in an era of climate crisis.

Heritage farming isn’t the only answer, but it’s a start—especially in an impoverished, rural corner of Indian country.  Earlier this year, MFSI bought a tiller and helped more than thirty area households break ground on family gardens.  And they’re already working with a second Mvskoke community to establish another communal plot, this one in a county that the Kerr Center for Sustainable Agriculture has classified as a “food desert,” where residents have poor access to supermarkets, much less homegrown produce.  With a little rain and some hard work, Mvskoke corn and pumpkins may be sprouting all over the Muscogee (Creek) Nation someday soon.

Muscogee Nation News, October 2011

Sources:

Orion Magazine, November-December 2009

Written by James Treat

October 1, 2011 at 12:00 am

field notes ➤ Alexander Posey, 1905

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Journal of the Creek Enrollment Field Party

Oct. 27

Investigate a land contest case near Morse — Visit Cindy, the thriftiest Indian woman known hereabouts — She is about 50 and was never married and is as chaste as a Vestal virgin — Many a doughty warrior has sought her hand in vain — She has been beautiful and is still good looking — A sound, sensible and business-like woman — has plenty and her credit in Okemah is as good as gold — Her house, which is on Buckeye Creek, is a quaint place — Instead of building a house of many rooms she has built some half a dozen hewed log cabins of varying architectural designs — The kitchen and dining room are under one roof, but separated by a wide hall or “entry” — The roof sweeps down over the long porch, which is fenced in from the pigs, chickens and sofky dogs by pickets — Her own house is a trim log structure with a stone chimney — A duplicate of this house standing near is her servants’ quarter — then there is the smoke house, chicken house, plunder house, barn, hay shed, wagon shed, carriage shed (for Cindy rides in a carriage), well house, and what not. There is a fine orchard and garden, and up and down Buckeye lies a twenty-acre farm white with cotton and yellow with corn — “I made this place myself,” she says, “with a man’s help.” There is a graveyard near by where a number of her relatives are buried. Over their graves she has had erected veritable houses, besides which the common Indian grave house would pale into insignificance. The house over her mother’s (Kinta) grave is big enough to live comfortably in — Cindy began making her own way in the world at 15 and is certainly a notable example of what a persevering woman can do — Everywhere about her home there are signs of thrift and evidence of prosperity. ❞

Lost Creeks: Collected Journals
by Alexander Posey
edited by Matthew Wynn Sivils
(University of Nebraska Press, 2009)

Written by James Treat

November 1, 2011 at 12:00 am

field notes ➤ Phillip Deere, 1982

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❝ I am constantly thinking of my travels, such as Switzerland. It is a beautiful country, the mother country of many people here like Germany and those countries over there. But best of all, I like Switzerland, because I never saw Pampers laying on the roadside, I never saw a beer can laying there, and the country is so clean, and those people have been there for hundreds of years. They have them a farmland that they farmed for years and years, year after year. They’re still farming those lands and they’re still producing good vegetables, big cabbages, big broad leaves of mustard or whatever. They still produce good food because they keep their land up.

Coming back to our country, I look around and think about people here. Is it because the mother country is over there, and their life didn’t originate here for them, that they lay this land in waste, they keep it trashy? I always wonder about that and I’ve heard this about going to “greener pastures,” and I’ve wondered what that really means.

Then I begin to think after traveling and going to these other countries and seeing how clean these countries are and coming back here—we don’t rebuild our land here. We wear the land out and leave it in waste, and then we go over here.

The first people that came here, they drifted from another country, and they remained here, and their descendants that live here in this country, maybe they’re drifters too. So they’re willing to leave Chicago, they’re willing to leave Los Angeles, or they’re willing to leave Ohio and come to Oklahoma, Connecticut, anywhere they want to go, they do that. But they leave the land in waste, and they go to the greener pastures, and sometimes I just almost figure out what this guy is thinking if he wants this land. ❞

The World and Way of the Creek People
edited by David Michael Lambeth
(privately published, 1982)

Written by James Treat

October 26, 2011 at 12:00 am

field notes ➤ James Hill, circa 1940

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Ways of Preparing Corn

Black Corn

There are five names for breads made of black corn. You shell black corn, put water in a pot to boil, set it over the fire, put in a small amount of strong ashes without any charcoal, and when it boils, put in the shelled corn, and after it boils, take out the corn, and wash it off, until all the corn skin is removed, and when it’s dry, put it in a mortar, and when you pound it with the pestle, add fine ashes from bean hulls or burnt corn cobs, pound it fine, sift it with a fanner, remove the fine portion, stir in some boiled beans that have been cooked, mix with water, and when it’s stiff, break off about one handful, squeeze it, make it into a ball or make it flat and round, they’re placed in boiling water, and when they’re cooked, they call it cvtvhakv (blue dumpling). It’s good to drink the soupy juice.

Then using the same ground corn worked as if to make cvtvhakv, when just about to put them in the boiling water, you wrap them in corn shucks and boil them in that, and cook them, and they’re called vssvtulkē (blue dumplings wrapped in shucks), or they’re called puyfekcv-hake (like a ghost) and eaten.

Then in the summertime, they gathered wide leaves of trees and they used those as wrap and boil them in those, and those are called vssvtulkē, too.

Then if beans are not added and just water is used to mix, you set it at the edge of the fire, and cover it with hot ashes and cook it, and it’s called taklike takhopelke (buried bread) and they ate it.

They had little flat clay plates, and they pressed grits in those and cooked it, and called it vpvtvkv (pressed against).

These five names were breads.

Now they removed the grits from corn that had been ground fine, boiled them in the juice of the beans boiled to be added to cvtvhakv, added grease, and called it afke-lvste (black mush), and ate it.

When the same corn was boiled and cooked without grinding, grease was added, and it was called sokv (hominy) and eaten.

If there is no black corn, all seven of the foods named are also made with white corn.

When bread is to be made of white corn, you shell the white corn, put it in water, boil it, pour the water from it, put it in a mortar, pound it with a pestle, and when it’s fine, sift it with a fanner, take out the fine part, and after you have enough, you mix it with water, put it in a bread pan and cook it, and its called okfvlke taklike (baked cornbread), or when you flatten it out very thin, put it in grease and cook it, it’s called vpvtvkv ‘sakmorke (fried batter-cakes). ❞

Creek Texts by Mary R. Haas and James H. Hill
edited and translated by Jack B. Martin,
Margaret McKane Mauldin, and Juanita McGirt
(College of William and Mary, 2011)

Written by James Treat

October 19, 2011 at 12:00 am

field notes ➤ Benjamin Hawkins, circa 1800

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❝ A description of the towns on Coosau and Tal-la-poo-sa, generally called Upper Creeks.

5. Foosce-hat-che; from foo-so-wau, a bird, and hat-che, tail. It is two miles below Ho-ith-le-wau-le, on the right bank of Tal-la-poo-sa, on a narrow strip of flat land; the broken lands are just back of the town; the cornfields are on the opposite side of the river, and are divided from those of Ho-ith-le-wau-le by a small creek, Noo-coose-chepo. On the right bank of this little creek, half a mile from the river, is the remains of a ditch, which surrounded a fortification, and back of this for a mile, is the appearance of old settlements, and back of these, pine slashes.

The cornfields are narrow, and extend down, bordering on the river.

6. Coo-loo-me, is below and near to Foosce-hat-che, on the right side of the river; the town is small and compact, on a flat much too low, and subject to be overflowed in the seasons of floods, which is once in fifteen or sixteen years, always in the winter season, and mostly in March; they have, within two years, begun to settle back, next to the broken lands; the cornfields are on the opposite side, joining those of Foosce-hat-che, and extend together near four miles down the river, from one hundred to two hundred yards wide. Back of these hills there is a rich swamp of from four to six hundred yards wide, which, when reclaimed, must be valuable for corn or rice, and could be easily drained into the river, which seldom overflows its banks, in spring or summer.

They have no fences; they have huts in the fields to shelter the laborers in the summer season from rain, and for the guards set to watch the crops while they are growing. At this season some families move over and reside in their fields, and return with their crops into the town. There are two paths, one through the fields on the river bank, and the other back of the swamp. In the season for melons, the Indians of this town and Foosce-hat-che show in a particular manner their hospitality to all travellers, by calling to them, introducing them to their huts or the shade of their trees, and giving them excellent melons, and the best fare they possess. Opposite the town house, in the fields, is a conical mound of earth thirty feet in diameter, ten feet high, with large peach trees on several places. At the lower end of the fields, on the left bank of a fine little creek, Le-cau-suh, is a pretty little village of Coo-loo-me people, finely situated on a rising ground; the land up this creek is waving pine forest. ❞

“A Sketch of the Creek Country, in the Years 1798 and 1799″
The Collected Works of Benjamin Hawkins, 1796-1810
edited by H. Thomas Foster II
(University of Alabama Press, 2003)

Written by James Treat

October 12, 2011 at 12:00 am

field notes ➤ Louis Oliver, 1982

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❝ Creek Indian Thought No. 9
(October 8, 1982)

Flying in arrowhead shape, wild geese
flew low silently in October.
Coyote sat and watched on
the lone prairie,
hoping they would land to rest
on a moonlit pond.

I stood in the presence of tall trees
whose leaves were falling gently,
—and a squirrel was dropping cuttings
from a hickory nut.
Another flight of “honkers” flew wildly
Cackling to each other
—then Coyote howled.

Like boiling, bubbling gnats in sunlight
are thoughts in my mind.
On the lacy spokewheeled webs
of yellow and black striped spiders
that sometimes weave
prophetic words
I keep searching.

II

So I stand in wonderment
of these mysticisms.
We—the only flesh and blood
inhabitants of a planet
of all the Universe—There’s no other
and we threaten with laser beams
and space gadgets
—Others
when there is no other:

So—the oak leaves keep falling
brown and curled
the geese keep coming, honking louder.
Coyote sits straight up
howling.
In a time like this, I have
a song I sing:
Yowale Yowalehe
ho ho ho—Yowal
le hee . . . 

Caught in a Willow Net
by Louis Oliver
(Greenfield Review Press, 1983)

Written by James Treat

October 5, 2011 at 12:00 am

field notes ➤ Philip Georg Friedrich von Reck, 1736

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❝ On the 28th [of July] I went back to Yuchi Town to attend the busk, or annual Indian festivity. . . .

They celebrate a feast every year when the corn is ripe, at the end of July or the beginning of August, which is called Busk.

Even if the nation has not assembled throughout the year, yet they assemble at this time. In this festival, which lasts four days, war, peace and other matters which concern the general welfare are discussed, and, if war is decided on, then it commences just after the Busk. On the first festival day they undertake a cleansing. They purge the body using the four different kinds of plants: Pasaw, or rattlesnake root; Micoweanochaw or, red root; Sowatchko, which grows like wild fennel; and Eschalapootchke, or small tobacco. After that they fast, some for twenty-four hours, some longer. On the second day a few warriors sit together and celebrate in song the deeds of their heroes. During this singing, there comes here a captain, there a captain, there a third, &c., with his people running up in a fury, all singing and shrieking together. The fire in all the huts of the Indian town is put out, and a new fire is made. They take two pieces of wood and twirl them long enough on each other until one of them smokes and fire starts. Each of them lights his tobacco pipe from this fire and takes some of it home with him. Also in this festival a ripe corn ear is brought from the field and hung up, which is kept throughout the year until the next such time. Before and during the Busk no one may bake anything from or eat the new corn; this may be done for the first time only after the Busk.

The remainder of the time during this festival is spent in eating, drinking and dancing. At the same time the women appear in their best finery and join in rows. The music consists of rattles and a kettledrum, which are accompanied by the shrieks of the dancers. . . .

Their towns and dwellings are usually situated on a river. The Creek Nation consists of several towns, which however are more like our villages than towns. The houses are scattered here and there without order, and the plantations are nearby. The houses are beaten together out of mud, without chimneys, without doors, without compartments, without storeys. The fire is in the center of the house around which they lie on the ground in the ashes with their wives, children and dogs round about. When they camp during travelling or on the hunt, they peel a pine tree and make a hut of bark or else of skins and a few poles. ❞

Von Reck’s Voyage:
Drawings and Journal of
Philip Georg Freidrich von Reck

edited by Kristian Hvidt
(Beehive Press, 1980)

Written by James Treat

September 28, 2011 at 12:00 am

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