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 http://www.mvskokefood.org/ and http://wilson-ndn-community.99k.org/garden/garden.html

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

Sources:

Orion Magazine, November-December 2009

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

Sources:

North American Indian Ecology, by J. Donald Hughes

National Congress of American Indians: Climate Change

Wikipedia: Gregorian Calendar

Rvfo-Rakko, “Big Winter”

The ancient Mvskoke calendar is grounded in astronomical observations. Each new year, for example, begins with posketv, the ceremony known in English as Green Corn, traditionally held around summer solstice. And the sequence of twelve hvse approximates the number of lunar months occurring in an annual period.

So cokv-walv Mvskoke is structured by the sun’s yearly migration between north and south and the moon’s monthly passage through fractional phases. But its months are named for vital aspects of the earth’s seasonal ecology, those subsistence foods and weather patterns that sustained our Mvskoke ancestors. They understood natural cycles both celestial and terrestrial, and their time-honored calendar synthesizes the astronomical and ecological knowledge they found to be useful.

The first five months of the Mvskoke year name pursuits and perceptions that signify traditional Mvskoke life: harvest, chestnut-thrashing, glistening (frost). The sixth month, on the other hand, refers to a season familiar in most temperate climates: Rvfo-Rakko, “Big Winter.” The name was formed by modifying the word rvfo, “winter,” with the augmentative suffix –rakko, “big.”

Several later months also are based on common seasonal terminology. These references to seasons in the names of months made me curious about Mvskoke knowledge of seasonal divisions.

The most recent Mvskoke-English dictionary includes entries for rvfo, “winter”; tasahcē, “spring”; and meskē, “summer.” (The Koasati language—another member of the Muskogean family—has a very similar word for “winter,” so rvfo is probably very old.) But “there is no fixed expression for ‘autumn’ in Creek,” the authors note, “though rvfo hakof, ‘when it becomes winter,’ may be used.” The same entries can be found in an earlier Mvskoke-English dictionary published in the late nineteenth century.

No Mvskoke term for “autumn”? If your language lacks a word for a basic element of worldview, it’s a good bet that particular idea is not a native concept. Of course, every living language is always changing; rvfo hakof may be analogous to the descriptive terms for days of the week coined by Mvskokes after European colonists imported their seven-day cycle.

Could it be that our agrarian forebears recognized only three seasons per year?

The dominant culture in North America would have you think that astronomical phenomena—solstices and equinoxes—are the only basis for seasonal distinctions. But many factors influence seasonal variation, and there are other ways to conceptualize the seasons.

Meteorological seasons are determined by weather conditions. In Sweden and Finland, for example, seasonal change is noted when the daily averaged temperature remains above or below a certain threshold for a week.

Ecological seasons are defined by the physiology of plants and animals as they respond to environmental variation over the course of a year. Some ecologists use six seasons to describe temperate climes, with the two additional seasons falling between winter and spring (pre-vernal) and between summer and fall (seritonal).

Many indigenous peoples around the world still observe their own traditional seasons. In Australia, various Aboriginal calendars have as few as two and as many as six named seasonal periods, depending on local climate and subsistence practices.

So there is nothing unusual, unnatural, or unscientific about a three-season calendar for Mvskoke country. And Muskogean oral tradition bears at least one compelling piece of evidence in support of this hypothesis.

A hundred years ago, anthropologist John R. Swanton visited the Koasati communities in Louisiana and Texas, transcribing dozens of oral narratives. This English-language collection of nature myths and trickster tales opens with a short story titled “The Ordering of the Months and Seasons,” a creation account in very condensed form.

“All things were made at the same time,” it begins. “The earth, sun, moon—all things—got ripe and were left to man.” The animals, however, took charge of organizing the calendar. “The creatures having assembled, any who liked a certain month took it and ran off,” then “threw it down on the ground as he ran and it started a new moon.” And so things went for the seasons as well. “When it was summer,” for example, “the Humming Bird said, ‘I will stay about and kiss the flowers.'” When all was said and done, “winter, spring, and summer were made together.”

Winter, spring, and summer—no sign of autumn, here or anywhere else in Swanton’s book of Creek, Hitchiti, Alabama, Koasati, and Natchez stories, just those three seasons preserved in the Mvskoke language since time immemorial: rvfo, tasahcē, and meskē. They demarcate seasonal boundaries ideally suited for an agricultural society, incorporating both astronomical and ecological intelligence.

Recovering this wisdom, thinking critically about the ways we mark time in space, can help us understand our environmental crisis and the industrial civilization that produced it.

Muscogee Nation News, December 2010

Sources:

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

English and Muskokee Dictionary, by R. M. Loughridge and David M. Hodge

Koasati Dictionary, by Geoffrey D. Kimball

“Season,” Wikipedia

“Indigenous Weather Knowledge,” Australian Government Bureau of Meteorology

“The Lost Seasons,” Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s Gateway to Science

Myths and Tales of the Southeastern Indians, by John R. Swanton

Hvyuce, “Little Harvest”

In one story from Mvskoke oral tradition, it is said that an old woman was living in a certain place.  She lived alone until an orphan boy came to be with her.  He learned to hunt and provide meat, while she fed him tasty dishes made from a mysterious ingredient.

One day he spied on her and discovered that the food came from her body:  it was corn, and she was the corn mother.  She taught the orphan boy how to care for this new grain, and how to use the different varieties.  Then she sent him on a long journey.

Later, when he returned with a wife, the old woman’s house was gone.  The place was occupied instead by tall, green stalks of corn.  And it has been the essential Mvskoke food ever since.

Mvskoke people have acknowledged their dependence on this sacred staple from time immemorial.  Even today, the most important annual event at our ceremonial grounds is posketv, known in English as “Green Corn” because it marks the ripening of a new corn crop.

One of the earliest written accounts of the Green Corn ceremony was recorded in 1775 by British-American naturalist William Bartram.  He described it as the “principal festival” and “most solemn celebration” in Mvskoke country.  Posketv is a “feast of first fruits” that occurs when the “new crops of corn are arrived to perfect maturity.”

Each Mvskoke town celebrates separately, Bartram noted, “when their own harvest is ready.”  After a period of cleaning and preparation, of fasting and purification, a new fire is struck in the town square.

“Then the women go forth to the harvest field, and bring from thence new corn and fruits, which being prepared in the best manner, in various dishes, and drink withal, is brought with solemnity to the square, where the people are assembled, apparelled in their new clothes and decorations.”

The men of the town partake together, then the women and children eat at their homes.  That evening all “repair to the public square, where they dance, sing, and rejoice during the whole night, observing a proper and exemplary decorum.”

Green Corn thus signals the end of one annual cycle and the beginning of another.  It typically happens in the days after summer solstice, initiating the Mvskoke month of Hvyuce, a designation offering further evidence of our agricultural heritage.

The name was formed by modifying the word hvyo, “harvest,” with the diminutive suffix –uce, “little.”  So the first month of the Mvskoke year is Hvyuce, “Little Harvest.”  Like other months in cokv-walv Mvskoke, it has a counterpart in the yearly sequence—in this case, the month that follows:  Hvyo-Rakko, “Big Harvest.”

In modern times, citizens of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation extend these traditions when they participate in the Muscogee Nation Festival, which takes place in Okmulgee following the summer solstice.  The first such event was held in 1975, two hundred years after William Bartram learned the significance of Green Corn while travelling through Mvskoke country.

This year’s thirty-sixth annual Festival was bigger than ever, with a long list of scheduled activities.  Not many Mvskokes grow their own corn these days, but the sacred staple could still be found at certain places:

Roasted ears and other corn-based dishes were available from vendors serving food on the Omniplex midway.

Fresh, locally grown corn was for sale at the farmers market on the west lawn of the Creek Council House.

Traditional games organized by Cvkotakse Seccvlke, the Mvskoke Bow Shooters Society, included a cornstalk shoot west of the Mound Building.

Senior activities at the Okmulgee Elderly Nutrition Center featured a safke contest.

The Senior Citizens Gift Shop, located in the main building of the capitol complex, has a great selection of homemade ingredients for traditional foods including safke corn, hominy, and dried sweet corn.

It is also worth noting that the meal served before the stomp dance on Thursday evening, the official opening of the Festival, did not include dishes made from fresh corn, since some of those participating were from ceremonial grounds where they are still fasting in preparation for posketv.

Industrial civilization has not been kind to corn and other living things.  Mvskoke people bear an age-old responsibility to care for the vital plants that sustained our ancestors, and that will feed us and our descendants if we respect the sources of life.

Muscogee Nation News, July 2010

Sources:

Travels and Other Writings, by William Bartram

Myths and Tales of the Southeastern Indians, by John R. Swanton

Religious Beliefs and Medicinal Practices of the Creek Indians, by John R. Swanton

Mvskoke (Creek) Customs and Traditions

2010 Muscogee (Creek) Nation Festival