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  • Ian Thompson

Choctaw Food: Remembering the Land, Rekindling Ancient Knowledge

Updated: Nov 22, 2023

We are thrilled to announce that the Choctaw Food book is finally available available on shelves!

Part cookbook, part history book, and all Choctaw culture book, this in-depth publication has been written to bring back to light a piece of the Indigenous knowledge that the Choctaw ancestors had for living with the land. The Choctaw ancestors were intelligent, observant people. Every day, their lifeway brought them into direct contact with the plants, animals, soil and water of our unique homeland in present-day western Alabama and eastern Mississippi. Through that experience, they developed the knowledge to sustainably draw a living from the local landscapes around them. For 15,000 years, the Choctaw ancestors created a series of civilizations that drew upon and fine-tuned this land-based knowledge to help them thrive.

With European arrival, the Native American population was decimated. As the new arrivals colonized the American landscape, they never fully observed or even tried to comprehend traditional Native American knowledge for living on this land. Nothing is closer to the heart of any community's relationship with the land than its foodway. At the time of sustained European contact, Choctaw communities were widely recognized as being among the top food producers in what is now the United States. As colonization's unbalanced relationship with the land spread, the traditional foodways of Tribal communities were largely replaced with the Standard American Diet. The poor quality of this diet has led to an epidemic of obesity, diabetes, stroke, and high blood pressure that cuts lives short in every Native American family.

Choctaw culture embodies a very different type of relationship with the land Revitalizing it represents an opportunity to use knowledge that our own ancestors created to improve quality of life in the 21st century.

The book brings together thousands of previously fragmented, scattered pieces of information that are found in Tribal oral histories, archaeological reports, historic documents, ethnographies, conversations with elders, and within the Choctaw language. It interprets these through hands-on experience at the Nan Awaya Heritage Farmstead. What emerges is a deep and timeless story about the Choctaw people and the land - told through food.

Chapter 1 traces the development of Choctaw food, culture, and the landscapes of the Choctaw homeland across 15,000 years. Chapter 2 follows the Choctaw community through the course of the traditional calendar, focusing on the food-related activities that were conducted in each month. Chapter 3 introduces dozens of native plants and animals that provided important ingredients for Choctaw food, pulling in species-specific traditional knowledge, nutritional information, and tips on how to procure these ingredients today. Chapter 4 presents the hand-made cooking implements that our grandmothers used to prepare Choctaw cuisine. Chapter 5 is an Indigenous Choctaw cookbook. It gives the recipes for 90 historically documented Choctaw food dishes that have no European ingredients, as well as hints for adapting each recipe to the modern kitchen. Chapter 6 delves into traditional Choctaw philosophies and practical techniques for living with the land. It compares and contrasts these with today's cutting edge efforts towards sustainability.

The book contains roughly 300 pages of text and over 150 color images. It draws upon information from over 400 written sources and thousands of hours of hand-on personal experimentation. Woven into the narrative are more than 350 Choctaw vocabulary words that relate to the Indigenous lifeway and more than 80 Choctaw place names that connect food with the landscape. An appendix presents 450 Choctaw plant names and connects them with more than 300 Latin species, providing literal translations for the Choctaw names as well as notes on the plants.

For those who have been patiently waiting on this book to come out, thank you. Something like this does not come together quickly. This book draws upon 30 years of hands-on work to learn Choctaw traditional arts (like the art of making functional traditional cooking pots). It is based on 11 years of focused research, and has come together through 5 years of writing, photography, and editing. Both of us worked together to set up and take most of the photographs. Putting the book together has been a part of our household for a long time, but we always knew that we were just stewards of the process. The knowledge that this book contains belongs to the Choctaw people. Upon its completion, we gifted the book to the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma.

We are excited that this book is finally headed out into the community. We hope that people will be able to use the information that it contains and build upon it in new and exciting ways that will benefit the Choctaw people at the dinner table and beyond.

Thank you to everyone who has helped us on this journey, from the elders that generously shared their knowledge for the book, to the people who spent days helping with the proofreading and manuscript formatting. Yakoke!

Note from the future: Choctaw Nation has sold out of Choctaw Food as of 11/20/23. I am currently working on a new and improved second edition. It will come to Choctaw Nation stores in 2024.

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