It's been a little while since we shared a post from the farm, but that is certainly not for a lack of writing. For the past several months, a good bit of my discretionary time and brain power have gone into putting together the text for a new edition of Choctaw Food.
For those who may not be aware, personal experiences have shown us that of all the parts of traditional culture that can be revitalized, food has the most immediate potential to improve quality of life. Choctaw Food: Remembering the Land, Rekindling Ancient Knowledge, is a book that hit the shelves in 2019. It pulled together information from hundreds of different sources to present the Indigenous Choctaw foodway, in its full cultural and historical context, with the goal of providing people with the information needed to make Indigenous Choctaw foods a regular option at the family dinner table. Creating the book took 11 years of focused research and 5 years of writing in my free time. Amy and I did the photography together. Upon completion, we donated this book to the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma.
Choctaw Food has been used by Choctaw Nation's Growing Hope Program and the Historic Preservation Department in creating programing and educational materials for the community. The book was a source used in creating the permanent exhibits in the Choctaw Cultural Center. The Tribe sold it through the Choctaw Store, Cultural Center, Capitol Museum, and Wheelock until this fall when the last copy was purchased. A reprint represented an opportunity to update the original book with the new things that we've learned about Indigenous Choctaw history, culture, and food over the past 5 years.
The second edition highlights some additional gems of Choctaw traditional culture like alligator hunting, the turkey trap, and an ingenious and very ancient deadfall trap for catching smaller birds live. The new edition shares details on Choctaw heritage crop plants that have come back to the Tribe over the past few years. It also includes some new images, a few of which appear in this post. Two major initiatives with the first edition were to assemble the recipes for as many Indigenous Choctaw food dishes as possible (90 were located and included), and to find the Choctaw names for as many species of plants as possible (more than 300 were located). 5 more years of searching in these two areas produced no additional recipes and only one more Choctaw plant name: Vpi Lusa, Black Stem, Panicled Aster, a native wildflower whose name was graciously shared with me by an elder friend. This helps me feel like the first edition was pretty thorough in locating the sources of information that are available. On the other hand, 5 more years have given me and others an opportunity to find some typos and a couple of factual errors that can now be corrected.
For the second edition, the most time was spent in putting together a more detailed history of ancestral Choctaw communities, particularly the Choctaw-speaking communities that had moved to present-day Alabama when the foodway and society were revolutionized around corn agriculture beginning around AD1100. Perhaps most significant in this is a deeper depiction of the relationship between Indigenous Choctaw culture and the land.
From the new edition: ...One of the things that makes the traditional culture of the Choctaw and other Indigenous communities remarkable is the level of knowledge, skill, and awareness contained within the activities of everyday life. Becoming conversant in these usually requires training from family members/community members/elders and a significant time investment. Learning how to do simple things, for example, starting a fire as the Choctaw ancestors did, requires days of practice. If someone wants to really understand how Choctaw communities of the past identified plants and used them to meet so many of their daily needs - that requires significant study. Learning just one aspect of Choctaw plant knowledge, for example basketry, requires years of training by itself. If someone wants to understand how Choctaw people made traditional archery equipment and consistently got close enough to use it on a deer - that’s years of learning too. How to manage range fire and ecological succession to promote good deer habitat - still more learning. Choctaw traditional culture contains libraries of these kinds of knowledge that come out of a deeply rooted relationship with the homeland as well as wisdom for putting it to productive use. Originating from a different set of experiences than those of today’s dominant societies, this is empirical knowledge that western science doesn’t necessarily possess. The higher levels of Choctaw culture are built upon this foundation of land-based knowledge. A short-term, outside observer would not be aware of very much of it.
The passage below presents a closeup view of the landscape management practices, which conducted by Choctaw ancestors over thousands of years, helped to produce what are today thought of as the natural landscapes of the Choctaw homeland. In reality, these landscapes formed in connection with Choctaw society and traditional culture. We've learned about the overlapping effects of range fire, bison grazing, through hands-on experiments at Nan Awaya Farm over the past 5 years. The perspectives gained from those experiences have contributed to our understanding of this important part of Indigenous Choctaw culture and to some sections in the new edition:
...Fire expanded the tall grass prairies, which had come to cover 1.6 million acres of the Choctaw homeland at the time of Removal. In the forested areas, range fires kept brush and vines to a minimum and opened up the forest canopy, allowing sunlight to hit the ground. This helped to create the longleaf pine forest, savannas, and open canopy mixed forests, which covered the majority of Choctaw lands. In each of these landscapes, the ground was covered in a blanket of grasses and wildflowers growing under the trees (see Cushman 1899:37, 195). Early Euro-Americans who visited the Choctaw homeland while it was being managed this way described it as an open, park-like environment (e.g. Hilgard 1873).
Because the fires were regularly set, they limited the available fuel load, preventing catastrophic wildfires that would have been hot enough to kill mature trees and significantly damage the microbes in the soil. The effects of these cool fires were much less pronounced in the low areas along streams and more pronounced in the uplands, creating a patchy environment that supported plant and animal diversity. Fires temporarily decreased the abundance of some parasitic insects such as ticks (cf. Scifres et al. 1988). The dense canebrakes of the Southeast were expanded by the practice of leaving low-lying agriculture fields fallow and periodically setting fire to the cane that moved in to stimulate new growth (Delecourt and Delecourt 2008b:87; Platt and Brantley 1997:13). Fire also stimulated the growth of important food plants as well, like blueberries.
The timing of a range fire significantly influences its effects on the landscape. A fire that passes over the landscape during the winter encourages the growth of cool season grasses. A fire during the spring encourages the dominance of warm season grasses. A summer fire sets back the young tree saplings and encourages the growth of forbs (non-woody vascular plants) Choctaw land managers preferred March for conducting their burns (Cushman 1899:197), so apparently one of their goals was favoring warm season grasses on the landscape. These March fires supported a growth of wiregrass in the southern part of Choctaw country and of bluestem grass species in the northern part (Romans 1999:97).
The vegetation that comes back after a fire is high in nutrients and palatability. This attracts many of the types of animals that Choctaw people hunted. In the prairie, savanna, and open canopy forests, a March burn removes the dormant thatch from previous year’s grass growth and blackens the soil with carbon and nutrients. These recently burned areas are where the new year’s green foliage comes up first. Bison, deer, and other herbivores are attracted to the new growth and feast on it. When grass leaves and young tree shoots are eaten, the plants replace them with more young tissues that are also highly palatable and nutritious. Browsing and grazing animals may stay in the area and feast for an extended period. This makes for ideal longer term hunting conditions.
If bison were in the area after a fire, they could keep the new grass grazed almost to the ground, creating what modern ecologists call a buffalo carpet. This provided important habitat for species of birds and other organisms that require open ground. Eventually, with enough episodes of grazing and regrowth, the grass roots start to become depleted of their resources and regrowth becomes less vigorous. When grass growth slows, it gives forbs (think wildflowers) an opportunity to thrive. These plants are not desirable to grazing animals, and as they take over the landscape, the grazers move on to a different area. The forb-dominated landscape provides habitat for pollinators and other ecologically important species for a time. With limited grazing, the grass roots regain strength and over a couple of years will take back over the landscape. The thatch produced by the previous year’s vigorous grass growth sets the conditions for the next burn, and the cycle repeats (Helzer 2009). Modern land manager trying to recreate what the prairie, savanna, longleaf pine, and open mixed forest landscapes of the Choctaw homeland looked like 300 years ago try to make sure that a given area burns about every three years.
The second edition of the Choctaw food book is not the final word on Choctaw traditional food. Hopefully that will never come, because Choctaw food and culture will always be alive and growing. The new edition of the book simply builds upon the first, and I believe that it will be significantly better than the original. Choctaw Nation staff are currently helping to assemble the new text and photos into a publishable form. The goal is to get it out to the community, hopefully in a way that doesn't require people who already purchased the first book to buy a second one. E books and other options are currently being explored as possibilities. Whatever form it takes, be on the lookout for the second edition of the Choctaw Food book later in 2024.