- Ian Thompson
Our goal in managing the Nana Awaya Heritage Farmstead is to learn how to adapt Choctaw traditional culture to modern realities in a way that can produce healthy food, support our community, and help to heal the land. The farther we travel down this road, the more we realize that these things are interconnected in a cycle. Recently, one cycle came full circle as we harvested our first animal.
One of the many joys of having a new calf born on a small farm is that you get to name it. Our bison cows and heifers have some fairly colorful names including Bisonette, Buffolena, and Hummatek (“Red Girl” in the Choctaw language). These contrast with the names of our bulls. Our seven-year-old heard bull is simply named “Bull”, and we name all of his male offspring “Spike”. The dichotomy in these names reflects the fact that female animals are the core of a bison herd. If properly cared for, bison cows can maintain their health and continue to produce calves well into their twenties. We name our female animals with the expectation that they may be a part of our herd for decades. It’s a different story for the bulls. One healthy bull can service 15-20 cows. With an equal sex ratio, this equates to a high level of competition between mature bulls in the natural world, which ensures that each new generation gets the genes of the most fit animals. Bulls that get driven off from their herd through such competition roam the countryside looking for a herd of their own. In a farm situation, this is less than ideal, because the countryside includes highways and people’s houses. Non-dominant bulls are the first choice for meat animals.
Spike was the first calf born to our herd, on our first piece of land, back in 2015. It was an exciting event, but we knew that down the road he would probably be providing meat for someone in our community. Month by month, Spike grew. When we moved the herd to our new place and rotated it between many different paddocks, he helped us to manage the land and begin restoring the health of the soil. He was there to eat gifts of apples when people came to visit the herd. For two seasons, his shed wool was collected and spun into yarn by the Choctaw Textiles Group. By this summer, he was approaching 1,000 pounds, and spending time by himself at the edge of the pasture, drawn by instinct to escape into the countryside and look for his own herd.
American food sensibilities are strange in some ways. Ironically, for a country that eats more meat per capita than nearly any other country on earth, the slaughter and butchering of food animals turns our stomachs. Slaughtering and butchering an animal is no more deviant than eating a hamburger, but being involved in the slaughter causes you to directly confront the sacrifice that is made in order to have a hamburger.
Some months back, Jim, a good friend of ours, purchased Spike. We made plans to slaughter in the late fall /early winter, the traditional bison-hunting season. Our ancestors, as well as the Plains Indians, chose to focus their bison hunt in the cold season for good reason. At this point in the year, natural forage has a higher level of carbohydrates than protein, leading to the production of fat, rather than muscle. This fat provides flavor, tenderness, and a host of important nutrients. Also, bison wool is at its thickest between Dec 15 and Jan 15, making for the best buffalo robes.
Predictably, when it came time to deliver Spike to the butcher (Jan 13), our truck broke down, this time for good. We hired our friend, Ryan, to use his truck to haul our trailer to a butchering facility in Bokchitto, operated by our friend, Roger. Ian took care of the slaughter as quickly and humanely as possible and then we all got to work. Skinning buffalo is an art. If you do it wrong, the finished robe will have holes in it or be the wrong shape. This wasn’t our first rodeo. We skinned the old way, making incisions around the horns, over the front of the forearms, and up the back of the legs, then using tools made from hickory branches to peel rather than slice the hide away from the underlying tissue. This is no easy task on a 1,000 pound animal. Ryan was an awesome assistant, and Roger patiently waited for what must have been a couple of hours as we carefully completed it.
Roger processed about 400 pounds of roasts and hamburger. Much to our satisfaction, the meat looks and smells amazing. The image at the top is a photo that Roger took of a few of the roasts. Jim’s household and the households of his family members will hopefully be enjoying this healthy, locally produced, traditional food for a long time to come. Thanks to Jim’s generosity, every part of the carcass will go to a good use and it’s products will be shared widely, just as was done in the old days. Some of the roasts will go to a man in the community who has a commercial jerky maker. No doubt, the jerky will be shared widely. The tongue and all of the edible organs are going to another of Jim’s friends. The skull will be used in ceremony by a Tribe out west. The horn caps will go to the jerky maker to be fashioned into spoons. We kept the hide to be braintanned into a robe. We also kept the hump fat to make into soap and the leg and loin tendons to make into traditional bowstrings. A week later, after the aging and butchering process was complete, we returned to Roger’s and collected every single bone, except two that will be treats for Jim’s dogs. We’ll use the ulna bones for the tools to put notches in stone arrowheads. The radius bones will be made into traditional hair pins. The rest of the bones are now back on the farm, leaching their nutrients into an infertile patch of soil, and feeding the coyotes and birds from the scraps that adhere. This summer, when the bones that aren’t being used for tools are picked clean and dried out, we’ll burn them and grind them up into temper for traditional pottery.
In a few months, just as it has for 15,000 years, the cycle will start over with spring calving season. There will be no Spike to butcher next winter, as we basically traded him for a heifer at the fall auction, but if you think you may be interested in getting a buffalo bull to butcher for the winter of 2020/2021, please let us know.