Sustainable Sovereignty

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 and

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


Orion Magazine, November-December 2009


Hvyuce, “Little Harvest”

In one story from Mvskoke oral tradition, it is said that an old woman was living in a certain place.  She lived alone until an orphan boy came to be with her.  He learned to hunt and provide meat, while she fed him tasty dishes made from a mysterious ingredient.

One day he spied on her and discovered that the food came from her body:  it was corn, and she was the corn mother.  She taught the orphan boy how to care for this new grain, and how to use the different varieties.  Then she sent him on a long journey.

Later, when he returned with a wife, the old woman’s house was gone.  The place was occupied instead by tall, green stalks of corn.  And it has been the essential Mvskoke food ever since.

Mvskoke people have acknowledged their dependence on this sacred staple from time immemorial.  Even today, the most important annual event at our ceremonial grounds is posketv, known in English as “Green Corn” because it marks the ripening of a new corn crop.

One of the earliest written accounts of the Green Corn ceremony was recorded in 1775 by British-American naturalist William Bartram.  He described it as the “principal festival” and “most solemn celebration” in Mvskoke country.  Posketv is a “feast of first fruits” that occurs when the “new crops of corn are arrived to perfect maturity.”

Each Mvskoke town celebrates separately, Bartram noted, “when their own harvest is ready.”  After a period of cleaning and preparation, of fasting and purification, a new fire is struck in the town square.

“Then the women go forth to the harvest field, and bring from thence new corn and fruits, which being prepared in the best manner, in various dishes, and drink withal, is brought with solemnity to the square, where the people are assembled, apparelled in their new clothes and decorations.”

The men of the town partake together, then the women and children eat at their homes.  That evening all “repair to the public square, where they dance, sing, and rejoice during the whole night, observing a proper and exemplary decorum.”

Green Corn thus signals the end of one annual cycle and the beginning of another.  It typically happens in the days after summer solstice, initiating the Mvskoke month of Hvyuce, a designation offering further evidence of our agricultural heritage.

The name was formed by modifying the word hvyo, “harvest,” with the diminutive suffix –uce, “little.”  So the first month of the Mvskoke year is Hvyuce, “Little Harvest.”  Like other months in cokv-walv Mvskoke, it has a counterpart in the yearly sequence—in this case, the month that follows:  Hvyo-Rakko, “Big Harvest.”

In modern times, citizens of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation extend these traditions when they participate in the Muscogee Nation Festival, which takes place in Okmulgee following the summer solstice.  The first such event was held in 1975, two hundred years after William Bartram learned the significance of Green Corn while travelling through Mvskoke country.

This year’s thirty-sixth annual Festival was bigger than ever, with a long list of scheduled activities.  Not many Mvskokes grow their own corn these days, but the sacred staple could still be found at certain places:

Roasted ears and other corn-based dishes were available from vendors serving food on the Omniplex midway.

Fresh, locally grown corn was for sale at the farmers market on the west lawn of the Creek Council House.

Traditional games organized by Cvkotakse Seccvlke, the Mvskoke Bow Shooters Society, included a cornstalk shoot west of the Mound Building.

Senior activities at the Okmulgee Elderly Nutrition Center featured a safke contest.

The Senior Citizens Gift Shop, located in the main building of the capitol complex, has a great selection of homemade ingredients for traditional foods including safke corn, hominy, and dried sweet corn.

It is also worth noting that the meal served before the stomp dance on Thursday evening, the official opening of the Festival, did not include dishes made from fresh corn, since some of those participating were from ceremonial grounds where they are still fasting in preparation for posketv.

Industrial civilization has not been kind to corn and other living things.  Mvskoke people bear an age-old responsibility to care for the vital plants that sustained our ancestors, and that will feed us and our descendants if we respect the sources of life.

Muscogee Nation News, July 2010


Travels and Other Writings, by William Bartram

Myths and Tales of the Southeastern Indians, by John R. Swanton

Religious Beliefs and Medicinal Practices of the Creek Indians, by John R. Swanton

Mvskoke (Creek) Customs and Traditions

2010 Muscogee (Creek) Nation Festival

Sovereignty Begins at Home

The Okmulgee sky was overcast during the second weekend of February, but the mood inside the Mound Building was considerably more upbeat.  People from near and far had gathered for the Food Sovereignty Symposium, which is quickly becoming one of the more important annual events in Mvskoke country.

The program began on Friday morning with welcoming remarks by Ben Yahola and Vicky Karhu of the Mvskoke Food Sovereignty Initiative, organizers of the symposium.  They also introduced this year’s theme:  Porwvn, Hompetvn, Pom Vhesaketv Tos (Our Seeds, Our Food, Our Survival).

All symposium activities were free and open to the public thanks to funding provided by the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, and both A. D. Ellis and Alfred Berryhill were on hand to welcome participants to the Capitol Complex.

Second Chief Berryhill offered a song and a prayer in the Mvskoke language.

Principal Chief Ellis recounted some childhood memories on the family farm, including a humorous story about unintentional mischief involving jars of produce his mother had canned for the winter.

The first formal presentation, by one of the leading climate experts in the world, reviewed the scientific evidence for global warming and explained how our climate will change in Oklahoma.  This was a sobering reminder that food sovereignty is something everyone will be thinking about in the near future.

The speakers who followed presented various strategies for self-determination in an era of corporate domination.

A renowned food systems analyst detailed the relationship between agricultural production and economic recovery, demonstrating the importance of community-based food networks.

The coordinator of the Oklahoma Farm-to-School Program described how this synergistic venture in local food benefits both growers, who need to make a living, and students, who need to eat better.

The director of Urban Harvest, a program of the Regional Food Bank of Oklahoma, explained how organic gardening and other neighborly practices can help feed those who might otherwise go hungry.

Two leaders from Dream of Wild Health, a native-owned organic farm in Minnesota, explained their effort to cultivate wellness by growing and preserving more than three hundred varieties of indigenous heirloom seeds.

An ethnobotanist from the Chickasaw Nation discussed their Ecological Resources and Sustainability program and offered an overview of traditional foods in the southeast.

All of these presentations were informative and encouraging, but the most enjoyable experience of the day was hearing about two Mvskoke community food projects.  Barton Williams from the Wilson Indian Community and Bud McCombs from the Eufaula Indian Community related their efforts to establish community gardens, under the guidance of elders and for the sake of future generations.  Williams and McCombs are engaging speakers, and we are fortunate to have such leaders in our midst.

If the highlight of the first day of the symposium involved Mvskoke produce, the highlight of the second day was Mvskoke food.

On Saturday, we enjoyed a noon meal of traditional dishes prepared by Mary Harjo:  meat and hominy, sakkonepke (safke corn and chicken), red beans, homegrown squash and zucchini, boiled cabbage, cvtvhakv (blue corn dumpling), sour cornbread, and safke, with grape dumplings and sweet potato casserole for dessert.

(To borrow the words of a certain redneck comedian:  “You might be a Mvskoke if . . . your mouth is beginning to water.”)

Chumona Deere described each dish during the meal, and in the first afternoon presentation Melissa Harjo-Moffer explained the preparation of Mvskoke foods.  Harjo, Deere, and Harjo-Moffer are gracious hosts, and we are fortunate to have such leaders in our midst.

I’ll write more about the symposium in my next column.  In the meantime, I have posted the agenda for the Food Sovereignty Symposium 2010—including links to the organizations that participated—at the website below.

Muscogee Nation News, March 2010


Food Sovereignty Symposium 2010

Mvskoke Food Sovereignty Initiative

What Is Mvskoke Food?

Several months ago, a reader asked if I had run across any traditional Mvskoke recipes.

That’s a slippery word, “traditional,” pointing back in time toward the dim corners of memory, like a flickering flashlight aimed into a very deep cave.

How far do you have to go?  How old is traditional?  These are tough questions in a modern world, where things are always changing, people more interested in the future than the past.

Many of us have tasted safke, eaten tafvmpuce at a wild onion dinner, or enjoyed pvrko-afke even if they’re made with Welch’s grape juice.  And a few Mvskokes remember how to prepare these dishes.

Still, it’s worth asking:  What is Mvskoke food?

*                *                *

I found a couple of Mvskoke cookbooks on my shelves, and several more in a search of online bookstores.

The earliest is Hokti’s Recipe Book of Creek Indian Foods, written by Beulah Simms and illustrated by Ben Chaney, both Mvskokes.  Chaney printed the book in his garage and published it in 1970; today, after an eclectic career in art, education, and business, he is manager of transportation planning for the Muscogee (Creek) Nation.

Hokti, you may know, is the Mvskoke word for woman.  In this case, it refers to the author’s mother, who gave Simms these recipes.  She was typical of the loving Mvskoke matriarchs who are “remembered with much appreciation by all those who have feasted at church gatherings, stomp dances, family get-togethers, or just plain daily living.”

Simms dedicated this book to the next generation of Mvskokes, hoping to “inspire a revival of interest in the old methods of preparing food.”  Preserved here are the ingredients, utensils, and preparations used by Mvskoke cooks for generations, before the advent of “modern kitchen conveniences.”

Practicing “the old Creek Indian ways of cookery” involves handmade implements fashioned from wood and other natural materials.  Hokti’s recipes are prefaced by an explanation of several such utensils.

Many of the twenty recipes collected here include corn, the native American staple that has become one of the most vital foods in the world.  As Simms points out, the survival of Green Corn and other observances rooted in agriculture demonstrates the importance of both crop and ceremony in Mvskoke life.

Other ingredients listed in these recipes may be harder to find at your local grocer:  sassafras root bark, wood ash lye, possum grapes, and squirrel, for example.  You’ll probably have better luck if you know your way around “nature’s super market,” as Simms terms it.

Some of these recipes call for flour, eggs, pork, or beef—foods that have become common, if not necessarily healthy, elements of the modern diet.  Wheat, chickens, pigs, and cattle are not native to Mvskoke country; they were domesticated in the Eastern Hemisphere and transplanted to the Americas during the past half-millennium.

So Hokti’s Recipe Book documents Mvskoke traditions during a particular period of our history, after the onset of colonial trade but before we became hooked on grocery stores and drive-thrus.

What is Mvskoke food?  There are no simple answers in a complex, modern world.  But it’s worth reflecting on this question because, as the saying goes, you are what you eat.

*                *                *

People around the globe are increasingly concerned about the modern food system and its effect on their health.  This is the personal side of “food sovereignty,” a phrase we’ll be hearing a lot more in the future.

Fortunately, there are many in Mvskoke country who are already working to help us eat—and feel—better.

The Food Distribution Program of the Community Services Division posts monthly recipes on the MCN website.  And they have partnered with the OSU Extension Center to offer an eight-week course in nutrition education, the Fresh Start Program.

The Division of Health manages the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) Supplemental Nutrition Program, which just announced a major revision of their food package to include fresh produce and whole-grain products.  The Diabetes Prevention and Management Program recently sponsored the third annual MCN Diabetes Awareness Summit.

The Mvskoke Food Sovereignty Initiative in downtown Okmulgee maintains a website featuring recipes along with lots of other useful information about Mvskoke foods.

It’s never too late to start eating right, for your own sake and for the sake of those who share your table.  It takes healthy citizens to make a healthy nation.

Muscogee Nation News, October 2009


Hokti’s Recipe Book of Creek Indian Foods, by Beulah Simms and Ben Chaney

MCN Food Distribution Program

MCN Women, Infants and Children Supplemental Nutrition Program

MCN Diabetes Prevention and Management Program

Mvskoke Food Sovereignty Initiative

Fertile Plains of the Creek Nation

A recent article in the Sapulpa Daily Herald reprinted a description of the area originally published in 1906, just before Oklahoma statehood.

With 3,500 residents, Sapulpa was billed as “the northern gateway to the fertile plains of the Creek Nation,” where the water was pure and the climate ideal.  Enterprising farmers could produce ample crops of cotton, corn, wheat, and peaches while watching their cattle, sheep, hogs, and poultry grow fat in this “land of plenty.”

An idyllic depiction, to be sure, but it does give you a sense of how the Mvskoke people had adapted to life in a new place after a century of strife and upheaval.

*                *                *

Every Mvskoke knows about the Trail of Tears, the forced removal of southeastern Indians from their homelands to Indian Territory.  Most historical accounts of this period focus on the injustice of the removal policy and the hardships of the journey, which killed around 3,500 Mvskokes.

I’ve often wondered about those who survived—some with little more than the clothes on their backs—and the challenge of starting from scratch in a new land.

The removal treaty of 1832 required the U.S. government to provide them with food and other basic necessities “for one year after their arrival at their new homes,” barely enough time to settle in.  They had to be completely self-sufficient after just one growing season, and if the crops failed or the livestock ran off, their options were very limited.  Love’s, Braum’s, and SONIC had yet to set up shop in Mvskoke country.

Some of the plants and animals they found in this new territory were familiar from the old country.  But others were undoubtedly novel, strange, and possibly dangerous.

It must have been an eye-opening experience for those Mvskokes who lived off the land.  And in the nineteenth century, that included just about everyone.

*                *                *

The first treaty negotiated by Mvskoke leaders in Indian Territory was signed at Fort Gibson in 1833.  It laid out boundaries for the new Creek Nation, situated between lands already claimed by the Choctaws and the Cherokees.

The Choctaw border followed the Canadian River, an effective barrier.  But the Cherokee border was mostly a series of invisible straight lines running overland, and much of it remained unmarked for years.

Finally, in 1848, the U.S. government commissioned a crew of topographical engineers to survey the Creek-Cherokee boundary.  They spent the summers of 1849 and 1850 measuring and marking the border, and both expeditions included S. W. Woodhouse, a young medical doctor with an interest in natural history.  His journals and reports are among the earliest written accounts of agricultural practices in Indian Territory.

Setting out from Fort Gibson, Woodhouse was quickly impressed by the farms he visited.  “The Indians here have as fine corn as I have ever seen before,” he wrote just a month into the first summer.  Many Mvskokes also tended orchards, and he happened upon a family cutting and drying some “very fine” peaches for their winter stores.

Near present-day Tulsa, the expedition was passed by a group of Indians whose horses were loaded down with buckeye root, which they were going to use for catching fish in the Verdigris River.

Woodhouse saw plenty of domesticated animals and wild game as well:  grouse, mallards, turkeys, deer, and even buffalo.  The Mvskoke people he met along the way were generous to a fault, repeatedly offering food, supplies, and hospitality to their visitors from the States.

At a farm near Chiaha tribal town, the lunch menu included cornbread, sweet potatoes, stewed peaches, salt pork, and “a drink made of hominy,” probably safke.  An afternoon stop at a Mvskoke homestead near present-day McClure Park in Tulsa yielded a refreshing snack of watermelon.  The hosts of a funeral dinner served various meats, vegetables, breads, and desserts to more than three hundred guests, and Woodhouse returned to camp “having been much gratified with my visits.”

Maybe it’s not so surprising after all that, half a century later, a Sapulpa booster would praise the Creek Nation as a land of plenty.  But if Mvskoke country was fertile, this was at least in part the harvest of Mvskoke hard work.

Muscogee Nation News, August 2009


“Sapulpa as it was in 1906,” Sapulpa Daily Herald, July 22, 2009

Treaty with the Creeks, 1832

Boundary of the Creek Country, 1858

A Naturalist in Indian Territory: The Journals of S. W. Woodhouse, 1849-50