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  • Ian Thompson

Preserving Choctaw Culture by Growing Hope

The image above is of a greenhouse that is being built by the Choctaw Nation this month. It is part of an exciting project called "Preserving Choctaw Culture by Growing Hope". This project is a partnership between several Choctaw Nation departments, Oklahoma State University, the USDA, and the broader Choctaw community.

The greenhouse will be used to grow Choctaw heritage crops - ancient varieties of plants that our Choctaw ancestors grew for centuries. Compared to modern commercial varieties, these heirtage crops usually have better flavor, better nutrition, and better resistance to disease, because at every harvest, our ancestors carefully selected seeds for the next year with these things in mind. Modern crops-on the other hand, are usually selected for uniformity and for growing efficiently with pesticides and chemical fertilizers.

The Choctaw people were once the most productive agriculturalists in the Southeast. However, thanks to colonization, many of our unique heritage seed crops have been lost; others survive literally by only a few seeds. For the last 5 years, we've been working to locate those that do survive. Their stories are diverse and interesting. Seeds for two Choctaw varieties of corn survived for a number of years in a family's freezer and then passed through the gardens of several conscientious seed savers. A variety of Choctaw beans was carefully preserved by a family in Oklahoma and recently rediscovered. A variety of field pea was carried by Ian's family when they left Mississippi in the 1880s and then grown in family gardens in Arkansas and Missouri for the last 130 years. Varieties of Choctaw tobacco, Choctaw squash, and chenopod were identified among commercial heirloom seeds. We've been growing some of the Choctaw heritage varieties in our household's garden for several years, and sharing the seeds we produce with community members. However, some seed varieties are so rare that one hungry rabbit could literally make the crop extinct forever. It would have been far too risky to plant these in our open garden.

The "Growing Hope" project takes this work to an entirely different level. The Choctaw heritage seeds, and hopefully others yet to be rediscovered, will be grown in the safety of this greenhouse beginning next year. The intent is to produce enough new seed to not only protect these crops from extinction, but also to share them with Choctaw Nation members who are interested in growing them. Later phases of the project will provide Tribal members an opportunity to get GAP certified in order to sell their traditional produce. We have an opportunity to use these special plants, gifted to the world by our ancestors, to help shrink the food desert in southeastern Oklahoma by making healthy traditional foods more available, while also providing an economic opportunity to Tribal growers.

Please contact us if you are interested in participating!

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