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  • Ian Thompson

Nan Awaya Farm gets Designated as a Natural Area!

Updated: 2 days ago

Nan Awaya means Place of Growth in the Choctaw language. In 2015 we started Nan Awaya Farm as a hands-on experiment to see what could happen if we applied the knowledge and perspectives of Choctaw traditional culture to the realities and challenges of a 21st century in the form of a small (160 acre) family farm. Our farm has four primary goals: to restore the native diversity of the land that we steward, to help revitalize healthy Choctaw traditional cuisine, to help reconnect our community with the land, and to support Indigenous Choctaw culture.

The first goal, restoring the land, is the foundation of the others. Indigenous culture and food come out of the cumulative experiences of hundreds of generations of ancestors with the land. When native landscapes go away, so do all of the parts of Indigenous food, culture and language that are tied to them. This of course, is just about the ultimate loss for Indigenous communities. It's also a loss for the rest of the humanity because it eventually leads to the situation of there being no visible, tried-and-true alternatives to the dominant society's way of doing things. What if the dominant way of doing things turns out to be ineffective in some ways (hmmm...) and no communities are left who have practical experience in doing things any differently? This has been a growing reality around the globe for more than a century. Finally in the 2020s, governments are beginning to recognize the empirical power of Indigenous knowledge, acknowledge the danger that the loss of Traditional Ecological Knowledge brings to humanity, and to try to do some things to help reverse the loss (see here for just one example).

When we purchased this farm, it was in pretty bad shape - overgrazed, logged, eroded, but it was still a special piece of land with a lot of native roots and seeds surviving in the soil. We've spent years researching how our Choctaw ancestors managed and interacted with their lands, but there's no substitute for direct, hands-on experience. The land itself can teach you. Over the past 9 years, we've worked hard to physically learn how to manage this piece of land in a way that creates the conditions for the native plants, animals, and soil to recover - putting this landscape on the long path towards becoming more like what it was in the centuries before Oklahoma statehood. Native ecosystems are complex and interconnected by their very nature. There is always something new to learn from them, always a possibility that the land is just about to teach you how little you actually do know. Yet, the experiences that come with Nan Awaya farm have put us in some incredible places to humbly learn and grow.

We've had the privilege of experiencing what it's like to live closely with a buffalo herd day in and day out on a native landscape, observing the animals' activities as the seasons and years turn. We've gotten to experience the effects of range fires on these landscapes and to see how the land recovers and responds day-by-day for years afterwards. We've been thrilled to observe the lowland seeps recover from past over-grazing and to see the uplands slowly transition back to tallgrass savanna incrementally becoming a more native, vibrant place year-by-year. We've gotten to learn the common names for the hundreds of species of plants on this land and to track down the Choctaw names for many of them. We've begun to scratch the surface in learning these plants' stories and seeing a little bit more of the intelligence and complexity of the God who created them. We know what it's like to see the quail returning to these hills. We've experienced how it feels to cook traditional Choctaw meals on the fire in traditional clay pottery out on the land, listening to the daily evening symphony of frogs in the lowlands. Sitting on the same hill where Caddo ancestors chipped their stone tools 6,000 years ago, I've gotten to chip a stone arrow point that would be used to harvest a big, local buck. At the end of the day, we've had the rare privilege of wrapping up in a cozy buffalo robe from an animal that lived on the same landscape we do, its hide processed in the way it has been done for hundreds of generations.

None of these are the kinds of daily experiences that come from living in town, or even living on a rural landscape surrounded by tame pastures and row crops. Over time, individual experiences add up to become life experience. Life experience shapes worldview. I sometimes wonder what people will think of Amy and me when we become elders: "This couple has lived with buffalo and gathered food directly from the land and all that. They're ancient! They must have been alive back before the Trail of Tears". I hope that's not what happens. I hope that, especially for Choctaw Nation, Indigenous experiences with the land are something that become more common rather than more distant over the coming decades. Towards that end, we try to make the benefit of Nan Awaya Farm experiences available to the community through the work that we do for Choctaw Nation, through opening the farm to visitors and Choctaw Nation youth camps, through our website, through this blog, and through partnering with others.

An important part of our path of learning has come through our friends Amy and Priscilla, both with the Oklahoma Biological Survey. They're taught us so much about the plants and animals on this land. When they come walk the landscapes with us, we try to absorb everything they're telling us about the plants and other lifeforms we're encountering, but it's only possible to retain a portion of the knowledge they share.

A few years ago, Amy and Priscilla made us aware of the Oklahoma Natural Areas Registry. Through the Registry, the Oklahoma Biological survey works with land owners who have special pieces of land to provide knowledge and technical assistance to help them manage it in a way that maintains its special characteristics for the future.

To qualify for the Register of Natural Areas, a property must contain at least one of the following natural values:

  • Habitat for native plants or animals that are rare, threatened, or endangered

  • Outstanding natural communities, geological features, or aquatic elements representative of the diversity of Oklahoma

  • Unusual natural features or unique ecological areas

Sites that have been recommended for inclusion on the Register are evaluated by biologists and ecologists with the Oklahoma Biological Survey. With a number of native plants and some insects that are rare in the State of Oklahoma, along with a few species that are threatened on a global scale, Nan Awaya Farm was determined to be eligible for inclusion on the Register under the first criteria. Home to a high quality acid seep (think lowland wet prairie), it's also eligible under the second criteria. Nan Awaya Farm has joined a little over 100 properties that have been placed on the Register since 1984. We're honored beyond words for Nan Awaya Farm to have become a part of this notable group. For more information about the Registry, please visit:

For nearly a decade now, we've worked to restore the native vitality of this land. Like most things worthwhile, restoring the landscapes of the farm is sometimes a challenging road, but the effort has always been worth it. Ultimately, the experience has taught us that it is possible to restore a damaged piece of land, especially if, like Nan Awaya Farm, it has a lot of surviving native plant remnants growing on it. We've also learned first-hand that restoring a badly degraded piece of land takes ten times more effort than maintaining a native landscape that is in balance. At the current level of understanding, no matter what you put into it, a replanted plant community will never quite equal a remnant that still survives from time out of mind. Beyond all of the facts we've learned, beyond even culture, this experience has shown us how important it is to keep the few remaining native landscapes that still exist in the American heartland safe and prospering for the future.

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5 commentaires

5 days ago

This is so inspiring and important. Yakoke for sharing


6 days ago

Congratulations! That is quite an accomplishment and contribution to the natural world.


6 days ago

Congratulations Ian and Amy! You are doing such good and important work. Tikbva Ihiya! Sam & Carolyn Young


6 days ago

I am so proud of you both! Congratulations on the land, the work, the love and traditions! I am so honored to know you!


6 days ago

We are all so blessed to have you two devoting yourselves so lovingly to this this major restoration project, to live with it and on it daily and to teach so much to others who long to see land brought back to life and plants and animals thought to be gone forever brought back to us. Thank you.

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