Sustainable Sovereignty

The following article was originally published in Orion Magazine, a national bimonthly focusing on nature/culture/place. It has also been available on the Mvskoke Country website, but this is the first time it has appeared in the Muscogee Nation News. Two annual growing seasons have come and gone since I profiled MFSI and the Wilson community garden in 2009; you can find more current information at and

Mvskoke farmer Barton Williams is in the fields every day now, picking produce from two large plots sponsored by the Wilson Indian Community of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation.  Williams is the community’s elected leader; he and several other dedicated volunteers are tending the typical garden fare—cabbage and okra, peppers and tomatoes—while fending off hungry deer, raccoons, squirrels, and insects.  They’ve also planted a couple of distinctively Mvskoke crops:  Indian pumpkins, which are good for frying; and safke corn, an heirloom variety used to make a traditional dish similar to hominy.  Later in the season, they’ll offer low-cost food baskets to local residents.  People are already asking when the corn will be in.

Wilson Indian Community is also hosting training sessions with specialists from the state extension service and inviting other growers in the area to attend.  The community center is next to the local high school, so this fall they’ll erect a greenhouse and get students involved in the effort.  And some of the older folks have begun sharing heirloom seeds and laying plans to start a seed bank.  “We didn’t realize how big this thing was really going to get,” says Rita Williams, Barton’s wife.  All this in just their first few months as a Community Food Project funded by a small USDA grant, which they secured with the help of the Mvskoke Food Sovereignty Initiative.

MFSI formed in 2005 when community activists and tribal government staffers began meeting to discuss the modern food system and the problems it creates for nutrition, health care, elder services, cultural preservation, local economies, and the natural environment.  The great seal of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, adopted in the nineteenth century, features a plow and a sheaf of wheat in an open field, testimony to the ancient agricultural heritage of the Mvskoke people.  But the forced allotment of tribal lands a hundred years ago broke up these communal traditions, and today few Mvskokes are involved in producing their own food.  Now incorporated as an independent nonprofit, MFSI supports sustainable agriculture, economic development, community organizing, and cultural education among “the Mvskoke people and their neighbors” in eastern Oklahoma.

Food is connected to just about everything else in Mvskoke life, including politics and religion.  Many of the matrilineal clans take their name from a game animal, domesticated plant, or other indigenous staple:  Ecovlke (Deer clan), Vhvlvkvlke (Sweet Potato clan), and Ocevlke (Hickory Nut clan), for example.  The Mvskoke calendar culminates in posketv, known in English as Green Corn, a four-day ceremony celebrating the harvest and the beginning of a new year.  And sovereignty is the dominant trope of Indian affairs, at least under the current federalist regime, so it’s not surprising that grassroots leaders would associate sustenance with self-determination in launching the Mvskoke Food Sovereignty Initiative.

One of the first MFSI projects was a 2006 event on “Food as Medicine,” where tribal elders and health experts discussed the nutritional benefits of traditional foods.  More recently, their “Return to Your Roots” symposium in the spring of 2009 brought together more than a dozen presenters exploring the historical, cultural, spiritual, and practical aspects of food sovereignty.  This landmark event was cosponsored by the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, and all three branches of tribal government were represented among those who addressed the audience.  Indigenous leaders have always worked to sustain tribal sovereignty, and many are now pioneering uniquely indigenous approaches to sustainability in an era of climate crisis.

Heritage farming isn’t the only answer, but it’s a start—especially in an impoverished, rural corner of Indian country.  Earlier this year, MFSI bought a tiller and helped more than thirty area households break ground on family gardens.  And they’re already working with a second Mvskoke community to establish another communal plot, this one in a county that the Kerr Center for Sustainable Agriculture has classified as a “food desert,” where residents have poor access to supermarkets, much less homegrown produce.  With a little rain and some hard work, Mvskoke corn and pumpkins may be sprouting all over the Muscogee (Creek) Nation someday soon.

Muscogee Nation News, October 2011


Orion Magazine, November-December 2009

Reclaiming the Chickasaw Plum

Just as there are many ways to track time through the calendar year, there can be various methods for charting the lands of this remarkable continent.

A notable effort to reconceive “America” on the basis of culinary geography is documented in the recent book Renewing America’s Food Traditions. Edited by ethnobotanist Gary Paul Nabhan, this lavishly illustrated volume grew from the timely collaboration of seven major organizations committed to “saving and savoring the continent’s most endangered foods.”

Nabhan and his colleagues have mapped North America—including Northwest Mexico and most of Canada—by identifying thirteen regional “food nations” distinguished by place-based foodways. Each food nation is named for an iconic dish, and anyone familiar with Mvskoke tastes will be gratified to learn that Mvskoke country, both before and after Removal, is encompassed by “Cornbread Nation.” Back east, this region borders “Chestnut Nation” and “Gumbo Nation” in the Mvskoke homeland; out west, this agricultural complex shares a boundary with “Bison Nation” running across the Muscogee (Creek) Nation.

The RAFT collaborative has inventoried more than a thousand heirloom varieties and heritage breeds that are currently threatened, endangered, or functionally extinct. Nearly a hundred are profiled in the book, at least half of which were—or still are—indigenous staples. The ten plants and animals detailed in a chapter on Cornbread Nation are as colorfully named as they are appetizing: Yellow Hickory King Dent corn, Mulefoot hog, Southern Queen yam, Early Golden persimmon.

But the most intriguing story here, from a Mvskoke perspective, is surely the so-called Chickasaw plum.

Early colonists coveted the different “wild Plums of America,” the trees as well as their fruits, which was “considered to be of extraordinary excellence in flavor.” The name was coined in 1773 by botanist William Bartram, who mistakenly believed this particular species had been brought to Mvskoke country “from the S. W. beyond the Missisippi, by the Chicasaws.” This identification was codified in 1785 when the plum was assigned a scientific name: “Prunus angustifolia, Chickasaw Plumb.”

George Washington planted three long rows of P. angustifolia behind the garden at Mount Vernon. Thomas Jefferson established the species at eight different locations on his estate, and “of all the tree fruits grown at Monticello today, the Chickasaw plum is the healthiest and most vigorous with its clean, shiny, pest-free foliage and abundant fruit production.”

The plot thickened during the Creek War, nearly two centuries ago, when frontier militia and their Cherokee allies massacred residents of the Hillabee villages near the Tallapoosa River on November 18, 1813. Having also chanced upon a patch of fruit trees, one settler returned home with a supply of native plum pits, which he cultivated in Knox County, Tennessee.

Locals loved the new plum and took to calling it “General Jackson” and “Old Hickory,” commemorating the spoils of war. The looted fruit later made its way to Illinois, where it was propagated under the name “Chickasaw Chief,” and to Wisconsin, where it came to be known as the “Miner” plum, now the Chickasaw’s best-known cultivar.

Writing in 1911, horticulturalist U. P. Hedrick described this species as “one of the most distinct of plums” and “the first of the native plums to be named,” of which there were already more than forty named cultivars. “The fruits are good in quality, attractive in appearance, comparatively curculio-proof [pest-resistant],” and “especially suited for culinary uses.” But industrial agriculture had little use for this native commodity, and over the past century P. angustifolia was nearly lost and forgotten.

Recent discoveries near Horseshoe Bend on the Tallapoosa River, however, have shed new light on both the plum and its history.

Most immigrant writers have assumed this indigenous fruit to be wild. Yet Bartram saw plenty of Chickasaw plums during his travels in Mvskoke country, and he “never saw it wild in the forests, but always in old deserted Indian plantations.” Hedrick also noted that “it is usually found near human habitations and on the margins of fields,” and that “a careful study of recent botanical works indicates that the species is indigenous to the southeastern United States.”

Finally, in 2004, botanists working at Horseshoe Bend National Military Park found six cross-compatible species of native Prunus—including P. angustifolia—near the site of Tohopeka village. It now seems clear that the original specimens taken from Hillabee, a few miles to the west, had been carefully cultivated by Mvskoke growers.

Nabhan and his RAFT colleagues extol this plum for its “primacy among the continent’s great fruits,” concluding that “perhaps the Creek were more accomplished horticulturalists than anyone has given them credit for.”

Muscogee Nation News, September 2011


Renewing America’s Food Traditions: Saving and Savoring the Continent’s Most Endangered Foods, edited by Gary Paul Nabhan

The Historie of Travaile into Virginia Britannia, by William Strachey

The History of Carolina, by John Lawson

Travels and Other Writings, by William Bartram

Arbustrum Americanum: The American Grove, by Humphry Marshall

The Diaries of George Washington, Volume IV: 1784–June 1786, edited by Donald Jackson and Dorothy Twohig

The Fruits and Fruit Trees of Monticello, by Peter J. Hatch

The Creek War in Alabama, by Tracy L. Dean and Daniel T. Elliott

The Plums of New York, by U. P. Hedrick

Participating with Nature

Anyone who studies traditional ecological knowledge learns to appreciate the vitality of indigenous languages.

“The way we talk about a place or other entity reflects how we feel, how we see, how we understand, and most important, how we think in reference to it,” writes Tewa educator Gregory Cajete. “Language itself is a reflection of how we organize and perceive the world,” but it also “conditions the mind toward particular ends. . . . Until recently, the power of language to condition thought either toward participation with nature or away from it has been largely ignored.”

“Native languages echo the natural reality of a universe that is alive and creative,” and they are “intimately tied to the landscape that has inspired their development.”

There is ample evidence of participation with nature preserved in este-cate em opunvkv, the Mvskoke language. The months of the year are named for important moments in the annual round of subsistence: seasonal observations and activities related to agricultural production, but also times for gathering the fruit of undomesticated plants. An older way of life is signified by em vliketv that define Mvskoke kinship and by opvnkv performed at Mvskoke ceremonial grounds: various clans and dances mostly named for animals, many of which provided sustenance to our hunter-gatherer ancestors. Even the phrase este-cate em opunvkv, literally “red people, their talk,” uses sensory metaphors—visual and aural—to describe itself.

The Mvskoke language is an organic element of a living landscape. As Cajete says, it is “more than a code; it is a way of participating with each other and the natural world.”

Mvskoke words were planted on paper in the 1730s by Salzburger settlers living near the Savannah River. This written tongue grew sporadically in the old country, but Mvskoke literacy really blossomed after removal to Indian Territory, largely because general education was conducted in the Mvskoke language. “As a result of the missionary schools,” writes linguist Jack Martin, “many Creeks and Seminoles were literate by the end of the nineteenth century.” They wrote letters, laws, constitutions, newspaper articles, pamphlets, and other materials in the Mvskoke language, many of which have been archived at the University of Tulsa, the Oklahoma Historical Society, the University of Oklahoma, and the Gilcrease Museum.

Written Mvskoke withered in the wake of Oklahoma statehood. The spoken word fell into disuse more gradually, but “by the 1970s the Creek language was in serious decline.” This prompted the recording and publication of various language materials—first by Mvskoke citizens, then by professional linguists. The latest, and perhaps most important, of these post-English resources was authored by Martin with the assistance of Margaret Mauldin and Juanita McGirt: A Grammar of Creek (Muskogee) offers the most comprehensive analysis of the language to date.

Like many American Indian languages, Mvskoke is an action-oriented medium whose grammar revolves around verbs. “A great deal of information can be conveyed with a single word in Creek,” because the language has “a complex system of grades” in verb stems, which are further modified by a large number of prefixes and suffixes. Conjugating a Mvskoke verb is not for the faint of heart; the sample paradigms in Martin’s book run to 13 pages listing more than 350 forms of the stem wvnvy-, “tie.” European languages, on the other hand, are generally more noun-oriented and tend to frame reality as an assortment of objects. To put this more succinctly: English emphasizes the things being tied, whereas Mvskoke focuses attention on the act of tying.

The practical significance of this distinction comes into view if we recall the history of Western environmental science.

Like other modern disciplines, the scientific field of ecology has evolved considerably over the past century or so. It originated in an ancient tradition of Greek philosophy that regarded the natural world as static and stable, a worldview that was finally challenged by Charles Darwin. The naturalist forerunners of ecology concentrated on exploration and description, constructing elaborate taxonomies of plant and animal life. Early ecologists generally studied discrete entities: species, populations, habitats, communities. Only with the rise of a systems approach, which examines the movement of energy and nutrients through the various components of an ecosystem, has professional ecology developed an appreciation for complexity and interrelatedness comparable to that already intuited by indigenous peoples.

This ancestral awareness has often manifested in languages that stress actions rather than objects, connections rather than separations. While modern Mvskokes have mostly adapted to consumer culture, a more viable means of participating with nature can still be found in the language of Mvskoke country.

Muscogee Nation News, August 2011


Native Science: Natural Laws of Interdependence, by Gregory Cajete

A Grammar of Creek (Muskogee), by Jack B. Martin

A Dictionary of Creek/Muskogee, by Jack B. Martin and Margaret McKane Mauldin

“Portal:Ecology,” Wikipedia

Cokv-Walv Mvskoke Redux

The reliable return of summer solstice means the end of one year and the beginning of another in Mvskoke country.

Like other indigenous Americans, Mvskoke people “survived by knowing their natural environment well and making direct use of its surpluses. It was a land of abundance, but that abundance was only available to those who had the necessary skills,” writes J. Donald Hughes in North American Indian Ecology. “They kept track of annual cycles, naming the months after the natural changes they observed. Their lives were closely involved in nature’s rhythms, and they were conscious of this.”

Cokv-walv Mvskoke, the Mvskoke calendar, is one way our Mvskoke ancestors preserved their understanding of natural rhythms and resources. “The Indian names for the ‘moons,’ or months, show at least a part of their detailed knowledge of the seasonal cycles and rhythms of nature: when flowers or fruits would appear, when the young of animals would be born, when the lakes would freeze, when the birds would return. . . . The Indians’ science was a blend of observation, reason, insight and nature mysticism,” which is also a good description of modern technoscience if you replace nature mysticism with the profit motive.

And humanity’s great transformation from grounded spirituality to transcendent greed has laid the foundation for our current environmental crisis.

I began writing “Mvskoke Country” a couple of years ago in response to this crisis. In the first installment, titled “Return to Your Roots,” I commented on the landmark symposium organized by the Mvskoke Food Sovereignty Initiative and supported by all three branches of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation government, which is now an annual event. I also mentioned the National Congress of American Indians’ 2006 resolution “Supporting a National Mandatory Program to Reduce Climate Change Pollution and Promote Renewable Energy,” which remains one of the organization’s current initiatives.

After a year covering various environmental topics with a Mvskoke angle, especially in the context of anthropogenic (human-caused) climate change, I decided last summer to focus on the traditional Mvskoke calendar.

At first glance, this might not seem like fertile ground for cultivating ecological knowledge, since the Gregorian calendar used by the dominant culture bears little connection to nature. The English names for the months, for example, are based on a jumble of Latin numbers, Roman deities, and other useless anachronisms. And you may recall that the English word calendar comes from the Latin kalendarium, “moneylender’s account book,” an etymology that speaks volumes about the prevailing attitude toward natural rhythms: “time is money,” so they say.

Not so for cokv-walv Mvskoke.

The annual round begins with posketv, called “Green Corn” in English, along with little and big months named for the harvest, Hvyuce and Hyvo-Rakko; it is a time for reaping corn and other produce that will sustain the community through the year to come. This season of meskē, “summer,” continues with a couple of months announcing another kind of ingathering, Otvwoskuce and Otvwoskv-Rakko, when ripe chestnuts were thrashed down from the branches of a majestic tree now decimated by immigrant blight.

The next season—rvfo, “winter”—opens and closes with single months marking the arrival of falling temperatures and of rising winds: Eholē and Hotvlē-Hvse. In between these transitional periods are sibling months named for the season itself, Rvfo-Rakko and Rvfo ‘Cuse, when the natural world lies dormant and rests.

The third and final season is tasahcē, “spring”; it begins with paired months named for the season, Tasahcuce and Tasahce-Rakko, as the land awakens and invites the sowing of seeds. These are followed by two months honoring plants that provide edible fruit, Kē-Hvse and Kvco-Hvse, at a time when winter stores are running low and the new crops are not yet ready for harvest. The Mvskoke year then winds down with summer solstice and posketv as the annual cycle begins again.

No money changes hands under this calendar; the only transactions specified herein are ecological, not financial. Mvskoke citizens owe no allegiance to Roman imperialists—Julius Caesar (July), Augustus (August)—or to any culture that would conquer nature.

Instead, cokv-walv Mvskoke does exactly what a calendar ought to do: it reminds us where we are in time, just as a map helps us understand where we are in space. Both schemas work best when they situate a people in a place, orienting us to the means of survival through our natural environment.

It is good to have a Mvskoke calendar for Mvskoke country.

Muscogee Nation News, July 2011


North American Indian Ecology, by J. Donald Hughes

National Congress of American Indians: Climate Change

Wikipedia: Gregorian Calendar