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Traditional Choctaw Agriculture (Part II)

Iti Fabvssa

   May's edition of Iti Fabvssa gave a broad history of Choctaw agriculture by describing how and when, through the centuries, ancestral Choctaw farmers began growing different types of domesticated plants. This month's edition will add some depth to that broad overview by providing a snapshot of Choctaw agriculture at one specific point in time: 300 years ago.

   From information presented last month, it is clear that one of the factors that has always helped Choctaw agriculture to develop is exchange with groups of people living outside of the Choctaw homeland. Outside influences on Choctaw farmers were strong in the 1700s. At this time, Choctaw society supported itself with a form of native, corn-centered agriculture that had been practiced since AD 1000. However, by this time, Choctaw farmers were also experimenting with and selectively adopting a variety of new domesticated plants brought into the Choctaw homeland from Europe, Africa, and Central and South America, by European colonists. Choctaw farmers successfully adapted ancient farming techniques to some of the new crops with great success, while other issues, like keeping newly acquired livestock out of the fields, brought new challenges.

   In the early 1700s, Choctaw villages were concentrated in east/central Mississippi. The availability of fertile land for farming was an important consideration in deciding where to build a village. Most villages were located on elevated land, adjacent to a stream with stretches fertile bottomland that could easily be farmed. Other than the fortified villages positioned on the eastern border with the Muscogee tribe, most Choctaw settlements were spread out, with houses located 200 yards from each other or more. Three hundred years ago, Choctaw communitie maintained three types of agricultural fields: small family garden plots planted between the houses in a village, large community fields located down in the bottom land adjacent to the village, and patches of pumpkins and melons, located at some distance from the village.

    Preparation of agricultural fields began far in advance of planting. Large trees were removed through a slow, patient technique that minimized back-breaking work. Men first girdled and killed the large trees by chopping through the bark all the way around the tree's base using stone bladed axes. These girdled trees would be left either to rot and fall to earth, or stand and dry out. Workers would return to the spot, a year or more later, gather up fallen wood and brush, and cut down new saplings. They would pile this material at the bases of the standing dead trees and set it on fire. The fire would burn through the dry wood and fell the trees. Sometimes, parts of the fallen dry trees would be hauled off and used to keep the sacred fire burning in the village. Most of the rest would be burned up on the spot. If new saplings popped up while the field was in use, workers would cut them down, pile them up on living roots, and burn them. They would repeat the process as long as the roots kept sending up saplings. Ultimately, the traditional Choctaw method of field clearing put a great deal of rotten wood, ash, and charcoal directly into the soil, where it acted as fertilizer.

   Choctaw-made gardening tools included the afore-mentioned stone-bladed axes, hoes with blades made of a mussel shell or deer shoulder bone, and digging sticks. Digging sticks resembled wooden staffs with a sharpened firehardened point at one end, which was used to poke holes in the ground for planting seeds, and to pry under weeds in order to uproot them. Metal axe and hoe blades were some of the first trade items brought into the Choctaw homeland by Europeans. By the mid-1700s the use of these metal tools in Choctaw agricultural fields was commonplace.

   The family garden plot, was planted in March, when the ground became sufficiently warm. Opening the earth and planting seeds were considered to be very spiritual acts, which combined with adequate rain and sunlight, would do nothing less than provide the food that would sustain the community through the next year.

    Special dances (Hashi Atahhli Holitobli) were performed in preparation for planting (Kennith York personal communication). Family members worked together to get the gardens prepared and the seeds in the ground. In these gardens, they planted large and small beans, field peas (obtained from Africans), the small, quick-ripening variety of corn, and probably also leeks, garlic, and cabbage (all obtained from Europeans). Garden plots were given some protection from horses and hogs (both obtained from Europeans) by fences made of stakes driven into the ground, attached to cross pieces of split hickory or oak saplings. Horses that persisted in entering the family garden plots were scolded by the women, sometimes violently.

   The pumpkin patch was used for growing pumpkins, melons (obtained from Africans), and perhaps some other vegetables. Located out some distance from the village, these patches were a prime target for hungry birds and mammals. To help combat them, platforms 6 feet in height were built. During the growing season, women sat on these platforms during the day, working on handicrafts and scaring away birds or animals that tried to enter the patch.

   The large communal field was not planted until May, when the woods had plenty of wild edibles to attract the birds and other animals away from the crops. A respected elder man would announce ahead of time the day that work in the communal field would commence. Everyone in the community was expected to work together to get the field planted for the mutual benefit of all. An able-bodied person who refused to help was asked to leave the village. Work, which began after sunrise, was made more enjoyable by the presence of an entertainer who came out into the field, singing songs, telling stories, and making jokes as the community worked.

   The backbone of the community fields was corn, planted in hills that formed rows, spaced one yard apart. Squash, watermelons, and sunflowers were planted in the spaces between the cornrows. Beans and peas (obtained from Africans), were also planted in these fields, sometimes on climbing scaffolds made of river cane. Unlike the family garden patches, the large community fields were unfenced. Had someone attempted to do this, their actions would have been viewed as childish, since this field was for the benefit of the whole community.

   Tending the planted fields was the responsibility of the women. While this task might seem burdensome, according to a firsthand observer; "In sober fact, on account of its social features, there being unlimited opportunities for gossip, the Indian women, banded together in the cornfield, really looked upon their labor there as a kind of frolic" (Halbert n.d.). In certain instances, the services of specialists were also employed as the crops grew. Rain-makers were called upon to break crop damaging droughts. Twins were believed to have special abilities to rid fields from cutworm infestations (Cushman 1899: 272-276).

   When the fast-maturing variety of corn ripened, the community held the Green Corn Ceremony (Luak Mosholi). In September, when the corn matured "Tachi Nona" dances were held (York personal communication). Harvesting would continue up until frost, combined with feasts intended to use up old food stored over from the preceding year. Families harvested their own gardens and pumpkin patches. The community worked together to harvest the communal field. After drying and preserving their share of the harvest from the communal field, families took a portion of it to the community storehouse. This food would be used by families whose crops had failed or who had run out of their own food, used to feed visitors, to assist other towns in need, and to provision war parties.

   After years of use, the fertility in Choctaw fields would begin to diminish. At that point, locations for new fields would be selected. The old fields would be allowed to revert back to a natural state. It would be years before the forest canopy would return to the state it was in before field clearing began. In the interim the old fields supported crops of blackberries, strawberries, and other wild edibles that grow in areas of disturbed soil.

   The communal field embodied an ideal of working together for the benefit of all. It was a Native American at its core. Sometime in the early 1700s, Choctaw farmers quit maintaining community fields, and began growing and harvesting crops as separate families, like their Euro-American neighbors. The old fields could still be recognized as cleared places on the landscape for years after. Some Euro- Americans favored these cleared areas for building their own houses, settlements, and fields. After the Trail of Tears, many of the Choctaw who remained behind in Mississippi became low wage workers on Euro-American farms and plantations, cultivating land that had been worked and improved by Choctaw farmers for centuries, but which now was controlled by someone else.

 Fig 1

Sketch by Ruby Bolding
Choctaw women working a communal field with traditional tools.

Unless otherwise noted, information contained in this article comes from Adair (1771)
This article and others came from the Choctaw Nation Biskinik. To see more history please refer to the following sites.
Sounds of Choctaw - Social Greeting
Sounds of Choctaw - Weather
Lesson of the Day