What Is Mvskoke Food?

Several months ago, a reader asked if I had run across any traditional Mvskoke recipes.

That’s a slippery word, “traditional,” pointing back in time toward the dim corners of memory, like a flickering flashlight aimed into a very deep cave.

How far do you have to go?  How old is traditional?  These are tough questions in a modern world, where things are always changing, people more interested in the future than the past.

Many of us have tasted safke, eaten tafvmpuce at a wild onion dinner, or enjoyed pvrko-afke even if they’re made with Welch’s grape juice.  And a few Mvskokes remember how to prepare these dishes.

Still, it’s worth asking:  What is Mvskoke food?

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I found a couple of Mvskoke cookbooks on my shelves, and several more in a search of online bookstores.

The earliest is Hokti’s Recipe Book of Creek Indian Foods, written by Beulah Simms and illustrated by Ben Chaney, both Mvskokes.  Chaney printed the book in his garage and published it in 1970; today, after an eclectic career in art, education, and business, he is manager of transportation planning for the Muscogee (Creek) Nation.

Hokti, you may know, is the Mvskoke word for woman.  In this case, it refers to the author’s mother, who gave Simms these recipes.  She was typical of the loving Mvskoke matriarchs who are “remembered with much appreciation by all those who have feasted at church gatherings, stomp dances, family get-togethers, or just plain daily living.”

Simms dedicated this book to the next generation of Mvskokes, hoping to “inspire a revival of interest in the old methods of preparing food.”  Preserved here are the ingredients, utensils, and preparations used by Mvskoke cooks for generations, before the advent of “modern kitchen conveniences.”

Practicing “the old Creek Indian ways of cookery” involves handmade implements fashioned from wood and other natural materials.  Hokti’s recipes are prefaced by an explanation of several such utensils.

Many of the twenty recipes collected here include corn, the native American staple that has become one of the most vital foods in the world.  As Simms points out, the survival of Green Corn and other observances rooted in agriculture demonstrates the importance of both crop and ceremony in Mvskoke life.

Other ingredients listed in these recipes may be harder to find at your local grocer:  sassafras root bark, wood ash lye, possum grapes, and squirrel, for example.  You’ll probably have better luck if you know your way around “nature’s super market,” as Simms terms it.

Some of these recipes call for flour, eggs, pork, or beef—foods that have become common, if not necessarily healthy, elements of the modern diet.  Wheat, chickens, pigs, and cattle are not native to Mvskoke country; they were domesticated in the Eastern Hemisphere and transplanted to the Americas during the past half-millennium.

So Hokti’s Recipe Book documents Mvskoke traditions during a particular period of our history, after the onset of colonial trade but before we became hooked on grocery stores and drive-thrus.

What is Mvskoke food?  There are no simple answers in a complex, modern world.  But it’s worth reflecting on this question because, as the saying goes, you are what you eat.

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People around the globe are increasingly concerned about the modern food system and its effect on their health.  This is the personal side of “food sovereignty,” a phrase we’ll be hearing a lot more in the future.

Fortunately, there are many in Mvskoke country who are already working to help us eat—and feel—better.

The Food Distribution Program of the Community Services Division posts monthly recipes on the MCN website.  And they have partnered with the OSU Extension Center to offer an eight-week course in nutrition education, the Fresh Start Program.

The Division of Health manages the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) Supplemental Nutrition Program, which just announced a major revision of their food package to include fresh produce and whole-grain products.  The Diabetes Prevention and Management Program recently sponsored the third annual MCN Diabetes Awareness Summit.

The Mvskoke Food Sovereignty Initiative in downtown Okmulgee maintains a website featuring recipes along with lots of other useful information about Mvskoke foods.

It’s never too late to start eating right, for your own sake and for the sake of those who share your table.  It takes healthy citizens to make a healthy nation.

Muscogee Nation News, October 2009

Sources:

Hokti’s Recipe Book of Creek Indian Foods, by Beulah Simms and Ben Chaney

MCN Food Distribution Program

MCN Women, Infants and Children Supplemental Nutrition Program

MCN Diabetes Prevention and Management Program

Mvskoke Food Sovereignty Initiative

Fertile Plains of the Creek Nation

A recent article in the Sapulpa Daily Herald reprinted a description of the area originally published in 1906, just before Oklahoma statehood.

With 3,500 residents, Sapulpa was billed as “the northern gateway to the fertile plains of the Creek Nation,” where the water was pure and the climate ideal.  Enterprising farmers could produce ample crops of cotton, corn, wheat, and peaches while watching their cattle, sheep, hogs, and poultry grow fat in this “land of plenty.”

An idyllic depiction, to be sure, but it does give you a sense of how the Mvskoke people had adapted to life in a new place after a century of strife and upheaval.

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Every Mvskoke knows about the Trail of Tears, the forced removal of southeastern Indians from their homelands to Indian Territory.  Most historical accounts of this period focus on the injustice of the removal policy and the hardships of the journey, which killed around 3,500 Mvskokes.

I’ve often wondered about those who survived—some with little more than the clothes on their backs—and the challenge of starting from scratch in a new land.

The removal treaty of 1832 required the U.S. government to provide them with food and other basic necessities “for one year after their arrival at their new homes,” barely enough time to settle in.  They had to be completely self-sufficient after just one growing season, and if the crops failed or the livestock ran off, their options were very limited.  Love’s, Braum’s, and SONIC had yet to set up shop in Mvskoke country.

Some of the plants and animals they found in this new territory were familiar from the old country.  But others were undoubtedly novel, strange, and possibly dangerous.

It must have been an eye-opening experience for those Mvskokes who lived off the land.  And in the nineteenth century, that included just about everyone.

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The first treaty negotiated by Mvskoke leaders in Indian Territory was signed at Fort Gibson in 1833.  It laid out boundaries for the new Creek Nation, situated between lands already claimed by the Choctaws and the Cherokees.

The Choctaw border followed the Canadian River, an effective barrier.  But the Cherokee border was mostly a series of invisible straight lines running overland, and much of it remained unmarked for years.

Finally, in 1848, the U.S. government commissioned a crew of topographical engineers to survey the Creek-Cherokee boundary.  They spent the summers of 1849 and 1850 measuring and marking the border, and both expeditions included S. W. Woodhouse, a young medical doctor with an interest in natural history.  His journals and reports are among the earliest written accounts of agricultural practices in Indian Territory.

Setting out from Fort Gibson, Woodhouse was quickly impressed by the farms he visited.  “The Indians here have as fine corn as I have ever seen before,” he wrote just a month into the first summer.  Many Mvskokes also tended orchards, and he happened upon a family cutting and drying some “very fine” peaches for their winter stores.

Near present-day Tulsa, the expedition was passed by a group of Indians whose horses were loaded down with buckeye root, which they were going to use for catching fish in the Verdigris River.

Woodhouse saw plenty of domesticated animals and wild game as well:  grouse, mallards, turkeys, deer, and even buffalo.  The Mvskoke people he met along the way were generous to a fault, repeatedly offering food, supplies, and hospitality to their visitors from the States.

At a farm near Chiaha tribal town, the lunch menu included cornbread, sweet potatoes, stewed peaches, salt pork, and “a drink made of hominy,” probably safke.  An afternoon stop at a Mvskoke homestead near present-day McClure Park in Tulsa yielded a refreshing snack of watermelon.  The hosts of a funeral dinner served various meats, vegetables, breads, and desserts to more than three hundred guests, and Woodhouse returned to camp “having been much gratified with my visits.”

Maybe it’s not so surprising after all that, half a century later, a Sapulpa booster would praise the Creek Nation as a land of plenty.  But if Mvskoke country was fertile, this was at least in part the harvest of Mvskoke hard work.

Muscogee Nation News, August 2009

Sources:

“Sapulpa as it was in 1906,” Sapulpa Daily Herald, July 22, 2009

Treaty with the Creeks, 1832

Boundary of the Creek Country, 1858

A Naturalist in Indian Territory: The Journals of S. W. Woodhouse, 1849-50