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Tasahcuce, “Little Spring”

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In the spring Mvskoke people lightly turn to thoughts of love and wild onions, if not necessarily in that order.

Writing at the gloomy close of the nineteenth century, Mvskoke poet Alexander Posey was glad to hear “a lone bird sing” amid the “frosty winds” of winter’s end, announcing “the warm smile of Spring.” Posey was a lover of birds, and of the natural world more generally, his passion clearly evident in the nearly two hundred poems collected in Song of the Oktahutche. He was especially fond of birdsong along the river, “As one by one the cold days pass, / And Life and Love come on a-wing / In early sens’ous days of Spring.”

Posey’s poetry and prose amount to a literary geography of the Mvskoke landscape in Indian Territory. For example, Oktahutche (Oktah-hvcce, “Sand River”) is the Mvskoke name for the North Canadian River, which meanders past Wetumka (Ue-Tumhkv, “Pounding Water”) and Weleetka (Ue-Lētkv, “Running Water”) on the way to its confluence with the Canadian River, a spot now submerged under Lake Eufaula (Yofalv, the name of a tribal town).

The poem “Spring in Tulwa Thlocco” celebrates this seasonal turn at Tvlwv Rakko, “Big Town,” another Mvskoke place. Inspired by a winding river that flows “With murmurs falling into rhyme,” the Mvskoke bard notices “Crocus, earliest flower of the year,” and several kinds of flowering trees: plum, dogwood, redbud. The neighborhood pulses with color, “The fresher hue of grass and tree” in spring.

Delectable growth can be found underground as well: this has long been the time of year for harvesting wild onions in Mvskoke country, and for serving them at wild onion dinners.

Posey was an accomplished poet, but he was better known for the dialect humor of his “Fus Fixico” letters. One such dispatch published in the Eufaula Indian Journal on February 27, 1903—at the brink of spring—opened with this sad news: “Well, so that last cold spell was ruin Choela’s wild onion crop on Shell Creek bad and make the chickens go out a business laying eggs. So looks like Choela was want a mix onion with eggs too soon . . .”

Four decades later, another Mvskoke correspondent reported weather more favorable for untamed vegetables. Thomas Moore’s “Buddy Harjo” pieces sometimes combined este-cate (literally, “red man”) English with poetic meter, as in this installment: “Pretty soon wild onion time is come again; / He grow whole lot all over every way, / An’ I pick him any time I want it; / Eat wild onion three four times a day.” The aging Mr. Harjo was somewhat less excited about the prospect of hitching mule to plow and working his field, a labor very few know these days.

Yes, Mvskoke people do love their wild onions, maybe so even more than they care for love itself. And food romantics of any stripe can do a lot worse than tafvmpuce, “wild onions.”

The scientific name is Allium canadense L., commonly called “meadow garlic,” a flowering perennial native to most of North America east of the Rockies—including parts of Canada, thus the specific designation canadense. There are hundreds of species in the Allium genus, which includes onions, shallots, leeks, scallions, chives, and garlic—allium is the Latin word for “garlic.”

Mvskoke nomenclature is not inconsistent with Linnaean taxonomy, and it’s more colorful to boot. The word tafvmpuce is based on the general term tafvmpe, “onion,” modified by the diminutive suffix –uce, “little.” Another important foodstuff is tafvmpe-vhake, “garlic” (“resembling onion”). The latest dictionary of the Mvskoke language also includes entries for ‘pelof-tafvmpe, “wild onions from the woods” (literally, “swamp onion”) and hvyakpo-tafvmpe, “wild onions from the prairie” (literally, “prairie onion”), which may correspond to other species of Allium. All of these names are apparently rooted in the word fvmpē, “stinky, bad-smelling,” which also appears in ‘to-fvmpe, “cherry tree” (literally, “stinky tree”) and heles-fvmpe, “turpentine” (literally, “stinky medicine”).

Tafvmpuce might be known for its smell, but those tiny bulbs hold a buried treasure of nutritional benefits. The pungent staple thrives in moist, sandy soil with some shade, the kind of conditions often found along rivers and streams. Digging, cleaning, and cooking this seasonal delicacy can be labor-intensive, but the groceries are free if you know where to shop.

I’m glad we have writers like Alexander Posey and Thomas Moore to remind us of the glories of tasahcē, the Mvskoke spring. And I’m glad we can still eat wild onions. Hompaks cē!

Muscogee Nation News, March 2011

Sources:

Song of the Oktahutche: Collected Poems, by Alexander Posey

Oklahoma Place Names, by George H. Shirk

The Fus Fixico Letters, by Alexander Posey

Sour Sofkee, by William Harjo [Thomas E. Moore]

A Dictionary of Creek/Muskogee, by Jack B. Martin and Margaret McKane Mauldin

“Allium L.,” USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service

“Allium canadense L.,” USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service

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What Is Mvskoke Food?

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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.

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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

Sources:

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

Written by James Treat

October 1, 2009 at 12:00 am

Posted in Mvskoke Country

Tagged with , , ,

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