In the spring Mvskoke people lightly turn to thoughts of love and wild onions, if not necessarily in that order.
Writing at the gloomy close of the nineteenth century, Mvskoke poet Alexander Posey was glad to hear “a lone bird sing” amid the “frosty winds” of winter’s end, announcing “the warm smile of Spring.” Posey was a lover of birds, and of the natural world more generally, his passion clearly evident in the nearly two hundred poems collected in Song of the Oktahutche. He was especially fond of birdsong along the river, “As one by one the cold days pass, / And Life and Love come on a-wing / In early sens’ous days of Spring.”
Posey’s poetry and prose amount to a literary geography of the Mvskoke landscape in Indian Territory. For example, Oktahutche (Oktah-hvcce, “Sand River”) is the Mvskoke name for the North Canadian River, which meanders past Wetumka (Ue-Tumhkv, “Pounding Water”) and Weleetka (Ue-Lētkv, “Running Water”) on the way to its confluence with the Canadian River, a spot now submerged under Lake Eufaula (Yofalv, the name of a tribal town).
The poem “Spring in Tulwa Thlocco” celebrates this seasonal turn at Tvlwv Rakko, “Big Town,” another Mvskoke place. Inspired by a winding river that flows “With murmurs falling into rhyme,” the Mvskoke bard notices “Crocus, earliest flower of the year,” and several kinds of flowering trees: plum, dogwood, redbud. The neighborhood pulses with color, “The fresher hue of grass and tree” in spring.
Delectable growth can be found underground as well: this has long been the time of year for harvesting wild onions in Mvskoke country, and for serving them at wild onion dinners.
Posey was an accomplished poet, but he was better known for the dialect humor of his “Fus Fixico” letters. One such dispatch published in the Eufaula Indian Journal on February 27, 1903—at the brink of spring—opened with this sad news: “Well, so that last cold spell was ruin Choela’s wild onion crop on Shell Creek bad and make the chickens go out a business laying eggs. So looks like Choela was want a mix onion with eggs too soon . . .”
Four decades later, another Mvskoke correspondent reported weather more favorable for untamed vegetables. Thomas Moore’s “Buddy Harjo” pieces sometimes combined este-cate (literally, “red man”) English with poetic meter, as in this installment: “Pretty soon wild onion time is come again; / He grow whole lot all over every way, / An’ I pick him any time I want it; / Eat wild onion three four times a day.” The aging Mr. Harjo was somewhat less excited about the prospect of hitching mule to plow and working his field, a labor very few know these days.
Yes, Mvskoke people do love their wild onions, maybe so even more than they care for love itself. And food romantics of any stripe can do a lot worse than tafvmpuce, “wild onions.”
The scientific name is Allium canadense L., commonly called “meadow garlic,” a flowering perennial native to most of North America east of the Rockies—including parts of Canada, thus the specific designation canadense. There are hundreds of species in the Allium genus, which includes onions, shallots, leeks, scallions, chives, and garlic—allium is the Latin word for “garlic.”
Mvskoke nomenclature is not inconsistent with Linnaean taxonomy, and it’s more colorful to boot. The word tafvmpuce is based on the general term tafvmpe, “onion,” modified by the diminutive suffix –uce, “little.” Another important foodstuff is tafvmpe-vhake, “garlic” (“resembling onion”). The latest dictionary of the Mvskoke language also includes entries for ‘pelof-tafvmpe, “wild onions from the woods” (literally, “swamp onion”) and hvyakpo-tafvmpe, “wild onions from the prairie” (literally, “prairie onion”), which may correspond to other species of Allium. All of these names are apparently rooted in the word fvmpē, “stinky, bad-smelling,” which also appears in ‘to-fvmpe, “cherry tree” (literally, “stinky tree”) and heles-fvmpe, “turpentine” (literally, “stinky medicine”).
Tafvmpuce might be known for its smell, but those tiny bulbs hold a buried treasure of nutritional benefits. The pungent staple thrives in moist, sandy soil with some shade, the kind of conditions often found along rivers and streams. Digging, cleaning, and cooking this seasonal delicacy can be labor-intensive, but the groceries are free if you know where to shop.
I’m glad we have writers like Alexander Posey and Thomas Moore to remind us of the glories of tasahcē, the Mvskoke spring. And I’m glad we can still eat wild onions. Hompaks cē!
Muscogee Nation News, March 2011