Mvskoke Country

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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

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Written by James Treat

October 1, 2011 at 12:00 am

Tasahce-Rakko, “Big Spring”

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The dominant culture in North America tends to make a big deal out of the vernal equinox, around March 20, when night and day are about equal in length. Among those who define seasonal change according to strictly astronomical criteria, this marks the beginning of spring—a welcome relief from the cold and dreary conditions of a temperate-zone winter.

Of course, there are other ways to conceptualize the seasons. In Mvskoke country, you may know, we’re already a month into tasahcē, “spring,” the third of three seasons in the ancient Mvskoke calendar. The vernal equinox comes at the transition from Tasahcuce, “Little Spring,” to Tasahce-Rakko, “Big Spring,” which are the first two months of this four-month season.

Thanks to cokv-walv Mvskoke, we get an extra month of spring! Please try not to brag in the presence of your non-Mvskoke neighbors.

Last month’s column featured writings by Alexander Posey, the renowned journalist, poet, and humorist. Complementing his affection for birds, flowers are another favored topic of Posey’s nature poetry.

In his poem “For Me,” for example, the Mvskoke bard celebrates a personal relationship with the environing world: “The blue of the sky and the green branches waving— / The sweet invitation of nature to rest / Seem to satisfy all of the soul’s eager craving / To live in a land by eternal spring blest.” It is the heyday of flowering plants, a time for new growth in every domain. “The mountain, the river, each flower, each tree,” this stanza concludes, “Had a love-song to sing and all, all was for me!”

Although some critics would dismiss these lyrical sentiments as garden-variety romanticism, Mvskoke people have always personalized their connection to the natural environment.

Think of our various clans, which express a fundamental sense of kinship: Kaccvlke, “Tiger Clan” (literally, “Tiger People”); Fuswvlke, “Bird Clan”; Vhvlvkvlke, “Sweet Potato Clan”; and Hotvlkvlke, “Wind Clan,” to name just a few. Or consider the many animal dances still enjoyed at our ceremonial grounds, including Yvnvsv-Pvnkv, “Buffalo Dance”; Setahvyv-Pvnkv, “Feather Dance”; Cetto-Pvnkv, “Snake Dance”; and Ēsapv-Pvnkv, “Gar Dance.”

This indigenous personalism is also evident in modern surnames and in the playful monikers given to individuals by family and friends. Natural names are a venerable tradition in Mvskoke country, one sometimes extended even to transient guests.

In April of 1774, the Alachua Seminoles were visited by William Bartram, an Anglo-American naturalist from Philadelphia. Bartram’s specialty was botany, the study of “the tribes of plants and trees,” and he particularly liked tracking down native flora in bloom.

Arriving on the outskirts of Cuscowilla, Bartram and his party were met by “the women and children,” who “saluted us with cheerfulness and complaisance,” he noted in his journal. “We were welcomed to the town, and conducted by the young men and maidens to the chief’s house,” where Ahaya—called “Cowkeeper” by the colonists—”attended by several ancient men, came to us, and in a very free and sociable manner, shook our hands, or rather arms.”

After the requisite formalities of Mvskoke hospitality, the mēkko “was then informed what the nature of my errand was, and he received me with complaisance, giving me unlimited permission to travel over the country for the purpose of collecting flowers, medicinal plants, etc.” Ahaya also dubbed him “Puc-Puggy” (pvkpvkē, “flower,” though the word has undergone subtle changes in both pronunciation and meaning since the eighteenth century; in modern Mvskoke, “flower” is pakpvkuce). This gesture was probably at least partly in jest, and Bartram only compounded the irony by construing his new nickname as “the flower hunter,” perhaps one of the earliest examples of playing Indian in American history.

The following year, while travelling through the Mvskoke heartland, Bartram learned more about their agricultural practices. This communal tradition was surely as beautiful as any fragrant flower:

“In the spring, when the season arrives, all the citizens, as one family, prepare the ground and begin to plant, commencing at one end or the other, as convenience may direct for the general good, and so continue on until finished; and when the young plants arise and require culture, they dress and husband them until the crops are ripe. . . . The design of the common granary is for the wisest and best purposes, with respect to their people, i.e., a store or resource to repair to in cases of necessity. Thus when a family’s private stores fall short, in cases of accident or otherwise, they are entitled to assistance and supply from the public granary.”

Muscogee Nation News, April 2011

Sources:

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

Song of the Oktahutche: Collected Poems, by Alexander Posey

Travels and Other Writings, by William Bartram

English and Muskokee Dictionary, by R. M. Loughridge and David M. Hodge