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Traditional Choctaw Agriculture (Part I)

Iti Fabvssa

   May was a busy month for Choctaw people 300 years ago. The height of spring would find communities working together to get their crops planted in the warm soil, anticipating bountiful harvests later in the summer and fall. As the crops ripened, there would be feasts of fresh vegetables. Later, the majority of the harvest would be dried in the sun and placed in storage bins or hung on strings from the rafters of houses, where it would remain until it was taken down and cooked sometime during the next year. Food grown in agricultural fields has long been the backbone of the Choctaw diet.

   Choctaw people have been recognized as the best agriculturalists of all of the Southeastern Tribes (Romans 1770). However, our earliest ancestors were not agricultural people, but rather hunter-gatherers who lived by collecting edible wild plants and by hunting. The transition to an agricultural society was a slow and gradual one.

   Choctaw agriculture's earliest roots lie in very ancient land-management practices. Our earliest ancestors were not passive in obtaining edible wild plants. Ten-thousand years ago and more, the people in what is now the Southeast regularly set fire to the woods and prairies to create a more open, biologically diverse environment, increasing the amount of edible plants that could thrive there and creating better habitat for the animals they hunted. The regularity of these fires and their effects on the local environment increased through the millennia (Fowler and Konopik 2007).

   Through the regular use of fire, our earliest ancestors were able to shape and maintain wild plant communities in the state that they wanted them to be in. Although this type of interaction can be a forerunner of agriculture, it is not agriculture. An agricultural society is one that relies on domesticated plants or animals. Domestication is said to occur when people selectively manipulate the reproduction of a group of plants or animals over generations, changing their genetic makeup from that of their wild ancestors. This does not happen easily.

   On this planet, there are only 10 spots where ancient people are known to have independently developed agriculture. One of these spots comprises parts of the present states of Tennessee, Kentucky, Missouri, and Illinois. The Native American communities living here, who had been gathering wild plant foods for thousands of years, began to select plants with the most desirable qualities, save their seeds, and then plant them. Eventually, this human selection genetically changed the plants, creating new domesticated varieties with characteristics that made them better foods. Wild gourd was domesticated in this area by 3000 BC, eventually becoming today's summer squash. Sunflower was domesticated by 2800 BC, marsh elder by 1900 BC, and chenopod by 1700 BC (Smith 2006).

   Our Choctaw ancestors were on the periphery of the agricultural revolution occurring to their north. They had long collected and eaten the wild varieties of these same plants and were certainly aware of their domestication. Still, they would not start growing these plants themselves until centuries later, and they would never rely on them as much as did the more northern groups (Fritz 2008:334). The reason our ancestors didn't adopt agriculture early on may be that they already produced plenty of food for their communities by using fire and other tools to manage wild acorn and nut-producing trees such as oak, hickory, and pecan. Such a form of permaculture would have required a lot less work than having to replant domesticated crops every year.

   Bottle gourd appears to be the first domesticated plant grown in any abundance within the Choctaw homeland. This gourd, used to make containers, rather than being eaten as food, has a fascinating and mysterious past. The bottle gourd originated in Africa. However, recent studies of bottle gourd DNA have shown that the variety of bottle gourd that was brought to the Americas came from Africa by way of Asia (Erikson et al 2005). Once in the Americas, the bottle gourd was spread by human communities from south to north. It was being grown in Mexico by 10,000 years ago, in Florida by 8,000 years ago, and it was fairly common in the Choctaw homeland by 2,500 years ago (Fritz 2008: 330). The spread of this ancient domesticated plant is clearly tied in with early human population movements and contacts across the globe, which are today poorly understood.

  Fifteen-hundred years ago, many of our ancestors were collecting large amounts of wild plant foods and nuts, as well as growing bottle gourd, and small amounts of the plants domesticated thousands of years earlier by their northern neighbors, including sunflower, squash, goosefoot, sumpweed, little barley, knotweed, and maygrass (e.g. Scarry 2003).

   According to both Choctaw oral tradition, and archaeological research, corn was domesticated in Mexico, and then brought northward. It was grown as a minor crop in what is now eastern North America as early as AD 1. However, around AD 1000 a major shift occurred, whereby corn agriculture became by far the most important source of food for Native American communities in the Southeast, including the ancestors of today's Choctaw. At this time, many communities abandoned old settlements and moved to fertile floodplains that would make the best corn fields. They also changed their village layout to make best use of these fertile soils.

   Over the next 800 years, ancestral Choctaw corn farmers developed four Choctaw varieties of corn. "Tanchushi", was variety of corn that matured in just six weeks. "Tanchi hlimishko" was a yellow flint corn used to make hominy. "Tanchi tohbi" was a white corn used in making bread. "Tanchi bokanli," was a popcorn, used in entertaining visitors (Halbert n.d.)

   Beans, another domesticated food from Mexico, arrived in the Choctaw homeland about a century after corn became popular. Choctaws seem to have developed several types of beans. "Bvla", was a large-sized variety (Byington 1915:87). The Choctaw terms "tohbi abelha", meaning "pole bean" and " tobi hikiny vni", meaning "bush bean", hint that varieties of both of these general forms of beans may have been grown in Choctaw communities (see Byington 1915:366). According to Henry Halbert, Choctaw beans were a type of butter bean.

   Pumpkins came to the Choctaw homeland from Mexico, via Native American groups living in the Southwestern United States about that time as beans (Scarry 2008:395).

    Beginning in the 1500s, contact with European colonizers brought a number of new domesticated crops and animals into the Choctaw homeland. One of the earliest was watermelons, brought be the Spanish in the 1500s, it was quickly incorporated into Native agriculture. Through the years, the Spanish also brought onions, garlic, tomatoes, peppers horses, cattle, and hogs. African people, brought to Choctaw country by the French and Spanish, carried okra and field peas with them. By the late 1700s, in addition to the older Native crops, Choctaw farmers were successfully raising leeks, garlic, cabbage, hogs, chicken, and ducks (Romans 1770:84), all of which are of European origin. They exported the produce back to their Anglo-American neighbors. Choctaws began raising cattle perhaps as early as the 1730s, and by the 1770s many Choctaws left their old towns and spread out onto previously unsettled land in order to better graze their livestock. By the start of the Trail of Tears in 1830, the Choctaw cattle herd numbered about 43,000 head, with Choctaws raising more cattle per person than their Anglo- American neighbors (Carso 2005).

   Today, traditional food dishes like tanchilabonna and holhponi are an important part of Choctaw life and culture. These foods that are made up of different ingredients adopted by Choctaw people at different times and from different sources are both a tasty reflection of Choctaw history, and a testament to the skill and adaptability of the Choctaw farmer.

   Stay tuned for next month's edition of Iti Fabvssa, which will focus on the way Choctaw farmers of 300 years ago planted, tended, and harvested their crops. A list of the works cited in this article can be obtained from the Choctaw Nation Historic Preservation Department 800-522-6170, ext. 2216

This article and others came from the Choctaw Nation Biskinik. To see more history please refer to the following sites.


Choctaw Vowels
Choctaw Greetings
Lesson of the Day