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Indigenous archaeology: what it is and why it is important to the Choctaw Nation - October 2019

Choctaw identity is founded upon a unique and special heritage, which is embodied in our language, our historic sites and our traditional knowledge. By practicing indigenous archaeology, we are keeping our culture safe and making sure future generations of Choctaws know about their culture and history. But, what is indigenous archaeology? You might have heard the terms used on their own but maybe not together. "Indigenous" is used to describe the original inhabitants and their descendants (i.e., Native Americans) of the United States. Archaeology is the study of the material objects and lifeways of past people. After reading these two definitions, one might think that indigenous archaeology is the study of the material objects and lifeways of Native Americans and their ancestors. While this assumption is not totally wrong, the meaning and roots of indigenous archaeology go much deeper.

Dr. Joe Watkins-an anthropologist and member of the Choctaw Nation- has written an entire book on this topic entitled "Indigenous Archaeology: American Indian Values and Scientific Practice." Dr. Watkins states that indigenous archaeology needs to collaborate with, be influenced by and be practiced by indigenous peoples-after all, according to Sonya Atalay, it is supposed to be archaeology that is done "for, by, and with" Native American communities. Scholars of indigenous archaeology have defined it in many ways. Sharon Milholland defines indigenous archaeology as "a form of archaeology where indigenous knowledge, values, and goals are the underpinnings of research." Indigenous archaeology isn't so much about who is doing the archaeology (Native or non-Native archaeologists), but rather it is about using Native American worldviews and ideas to conduct archaeological research.

Another important aspect of an indigenous archaeology approach is the fact that indigenous archaeologists have worked to expand the Native American voice within archaeology and in American history textbooks. They have also helped tribes reclaim the bones and funerary objects of ancestors and worked to support tribal sovereignty through helping tribes comply with cultural resources laws internally.

Through all this work, indigenous archaeologists can practice archaeology in a far more ethical manner than it has been practiced in previous years. Also, placing an emphasis on the Native worldview and voice has allowed for important topics to be addressed within many Native communities in North America and elsewhere in the world.

So, how and why is the practice of indigenous archaeology important to you and the Choctaw Nation? Indigenous archaeology is practiced every day by the staff of the Choctaw Nation Historic Preservation Department. We practice community engagement through presentations on Choctaw culture and history, archaeology camps, and even our upcoming archaeology day that will be held Oct. 19, 2019.

We have a deep respect for the past and items that were left behind by Choctaw ancestors. We also protect the sites in Choctaw Nation today as stewards of the lands of other tribes such as the Osage Nation and Caddo Nation, among others. Unlike most archaeologists, Choctaw Nation archaeologists do not totally excavate sites-unless absolutely necessary. Essentially, we protect Choctaw history by protecting archaeological sites left behind by our ancestors. We also incorporate Choctaw knowledge into our research. This can take many forms, but one example is working with tribal members to write down stories they have regarding Choctaw history and culture, or visiting old Choctaw sites they know about so we can keep those sites safe from any destruction.

If you know of any archaeological sites and especially sites that pertain to Choctaw history, please feel free to contact the Historic Preservation department at 800-522-6170 and let us know

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Hoponi Hvshi: Cooking month is the final month of the Choctaw calendar - September 2019

This article is the final installment in the series entitled "A Year in the Life". Focusing on the time period around AD 1700, this series follows the traditional Choctaw calendar through a year, with each article providing a glimpse of the activities that our ancestors were up to during each month. This information is excerpted from a book, soon to be published by the Choctaw Nation, which is entitled "Choctaw Food: Remembering the Land, Rekindling Ancient Knowledge."

The final month in the Choctaw calendar is Hoponi Hvshi, Cooking Month, roughly corresponding to September. By this time of year, temperatures slowly begin to cool, bringing the first breaths of relief from the heat and humidity of the previous months. Cooking month, like some of the other Choctaw months, has a name that is a bit of a paradox. This is the season when the main crops were harvested. The name reportedly refers not to those crops, but to the stored foods left over from the previous harvest that had to be cooked and eaten up in order to make room for the new.

By this season, the corn in the fields would have fully matured, along with the beans and squash. Prior to the main harvest, Tanchi Nuna, the Ripe Corn dances were held. These were conducted only by the men. The celebration lasted 4 days, and was accompanied by feasting. The harvest of the communal fields was referred to as tanchi hoyo, meaning literally looking for corn. Like planting the communal fields, it was done cooperatively by the community as a whole. This harvest was often prolific. Workers picked the corn ears, put them into pack baskets, and then dumped them out into piles called vlhpikvchi. People cooperated to quickly prepare these ears of corn by pulling the husks back and removing the silk, a process known as luffi. The loose husks were used to braid the ears together into long strips, known as shikowa. These strips of corn ears were hung up in the sun to finish drying. When the corn was dried, much of it would be shelled, a process called chilukka. The loose, dried corn kernels would be stored in large bags, bahta chito.

Sometimes, corn was also preserved for storage through the following process. First, it was thoroughly dried in the sun. Then, the dried corn was laid in a series of piles, each made up of one or two pack basket loads. A layer of dry grass was placed on top of the piles. A mortar made of clay mixed with dry grass was used to coat the piles. Corn stored in this way would remain fresh until the next harvest. Most of the stored corn would be eaten during the upcoming year. Seed corn, in the form of ears representing the ideal characteristics for a given corn variety, was stored on the cob, with the husks of the ears tied together. This seed was called pehna.

As the corn was picked and put away, so was the rest of the harvest. Immature green beans were eaten or threaded onto a string and hung up for storage. The dried beans were removed from their pods and put aside for storage. When the bean poles were taken down, the vines were left in the field, in recognition that they provided something (nitrogen) to the soil that the corn plants took out. Winter squashes were cut into thin rings, and suspended on racks where they were smoked and dried for storage.

Families kept a portion of the harvest from the communal fields for their own use, and they deposited as much as they saw fit into community store houses. This food was used to serve visitors who came to the community, to provision war parties, and to assist families who had run out of food.

Dried produce was stored in corncribs called kanchvk or picha. These structures measured about eight feet by ten feet, and were raised off the ground to make it harder for rodents to get into the harvest. People entered them by means of a ladder. The process of filling the corncrib with the harvest was known as kanchvk fohki. The floors were covered in big, heavy bags of dried corn kernels and beans, bags of raisins, and parched nuts stored from previous seasons. From the rafters, strings of pumpkins slices and green beans were hung. The main enemies to this scene were the rodents that the rattlesnakes had missed, along with corn mold hakbona and weevils hapvlak.

No greater food security exists than being able to look at the ceiling of your home and see a year's supply of food stores, put up by you and your family, and to look out and see storage buildings full of the same. Most years, that is what Choctaw people had to look forward to during Cooking Month.

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Takkon Hvshi: Peach month is bountiful time of the year - August 2019

This article is part of a series entitled "A Year in the Life." Focusing on the time period around AD 1700, this series follows the traditional Choctaw calendar through a year, with each article providing a glimpse of the activities that our ancestors were up to during each month. This information is excerpted from a book, soon to be published by the Choctaw Nation, which is entitled "Choctaw Food: Remembering the Land, Rekindling Ancient Knowledge."

Takkon Hvshi, Peach Month in the Choctaw calendar, is roughly equivalent to August. This time of year brought continued heat and humidity, but also more opportunity for harvesting foods.

The month's name may refer to the peaches introduced into the Choctaw homeland by the Spanish in the 1500s. Conversely, it may refer to the old Choctaw name for native plums. Some varieties, such as the Mexican Plum, ripen in late summer. In the early 1700s, both plums and peaches were gathered from natural areas and from orchards planted between houses.

A number of other fruits ripened during this season as well. Choctaw communities gathered crabapples from August through September. Pawpaws were harvested in late summer. August is also when the grape harvesting season began. Grapes were harvested from vines growing between Choctaw houses, and also in areas outside the villages. Grapes harvested in the warm season which didn't get eaten quickly were stored by drying them into raisins on the stem.

Different Choctaw traditional foods are designed to take advantage of the corn at its varying stages of ripeness. By July, and especially August, much of the corn crop would be entering the roasting stage - where the kernels are starting to become firm, but are not yet fully dry. Roasting ears were bulk processed by harvesting and shucking them, digging a long trench in the ground, filling it with hot coals, suspending a pole of green wood lengthwise over the trench a short distance off the ground, and propping one end of the ears of corn against the pole to roast over the hot coal.

When one side of the ears roasted, they were carefully turned to roast the other side. Once cooled, the ears of roasted corn could be eaten as they were. More often, the kernels were shucked from the ears and allowed to dry for storage.

Being roasted, these kernels would be easier to process into food than the later-harvested corn that would only be dried. Some of the kernels of roasted corn were prepared directly into special dishes, such as bota kapvssa (an instant cornmeal soup enjoyed by travelers).

Rather than roasting, however, most of the corn ears were left on the stalks through the month. These stalks were sometimes bent over, allowing the ears to dry in preparation for the main harvest, while giving them some protection from the weather and the birds.

The beans growing on vines too high to reach were left in their pods to dry in the late summer sun. Meanwhile, the maturing squash crop rested on the ground under the canopy of leaves.

Such a scene was not only bountiful to people, but also to hungry animals. For centuries, the diamond pattern has appeared on Choctaw basketry and pottery and, in later times, it would become a common decorative element on clothing and in beadwork.

These diamonds represent sinthullo, the supernatural snake, an animal known to English-speakers as the eastern diamondback rattlesnake. The Choctaw people respected this animal, not only for its lethality and because it gives a warning before it strikes, but also because it helped remove hungry rodents from agricultural fields.

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Kvfi Hvshi: Sassafras month a time for summer heat - July 2019

This article is part of a series entitled "A Year in the Life". Focusing on the time period around AD 1700, this series follows the traditional Choctaw calendar through a year, with each article providing a glimpse of the activities that our ancestors were up to during each month. This information is excerpted from a book, soon to be published by the Choctaw Nation, which is entitled "Choctaw Food: Remembering the Land, Rekindling Ancient Knowledge."

Kvfi Hvshi, Sassafras Month, roughly corresponds to July. By this point in the year, summer heat, humidity, and insects reach their peak. The month's name corresponds with the hot season because tea made from the roots of the sassafras tree was consumed by Choctaw people during the hottest weather in order to "thin" the blood to help stay cool.

The height of summer brought the possibility of damaging droughts. According to one Choctaw oral tradition, during an extreme drought in the early 1700s, Choctaw country saw no rain for three years. Bad droughts are known to have completely destroyed the Choctaw corn harvest several times in the 1700s. The Choctaw people believed that the spiritual balance of their community had an influence on whether or not God provided them with beneficial rain. Rainmakers, known as umba ikbit were specialists within Choctaw society who were called upon to end crop damaging droughts through their supplications to God and practice of boiling certain herbs in a pot of water to infuse the rising steam.

When the corn in the community fields reached six to seven feet in height, it was hoed for the third and final time. This third hoeing was known as hopochi. The same name was used to refer to the corn crop itself at this stage. Soon the silk would change colors, and the ears would begin to fill out. The hominy and flour varieties of corn planted in the communal fields took four to five months to mature and the latter variety could grow to 20 feet tall. Corn ears in the roasting stage were referred to as nipvsha, meat is on it. After the third hoeing and the harvest of some roasting ears, the main part of the fieldwork was done for a while, allowing families the flexibility to go fishing.

Fishing, nvn okwehli, was an enjoyable diversion in the hot season which also provided important food. It was principally done by the men, although the women participated as well, with the exception of expectant mothers and their parents. For people living in the main Choctaw towns, fishing was usually done in nearby streams which dried up during the summer, leaving small pools that concentrated the fish. The backwaters of major rivers including Patasvchi, the Mississippi River swampland, were avoided during this season for fear of disease.

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Choctaw communities passively caught fish by digging holes in the active floodplains of streams. When the stream overflowed its banks and eventually receded, these holes would become small ponds with fish trapped inside them which could be harvested by hand. In another method, the community cut green branches and piled them across a stream near shallow water. Men climbed on the pile and jumped up and down on it to compress it tightly, so that it could be tied together with vines to create a brush barricade. Boys would get into the water at the other end of the stream and scare the fish towards the barricade, which the men would lift. When the fish had entered the shallow water, the men would drop the barricade, trapping them.

In the shallow water, large fish could easily be shot with arrows. Some species of large fish float near the surface of the water at first light, absorbing some of the sun's warmth. Native Southeasterners hunted them with harpoons of river cane which had a fire-hardened point at one end and a bark fiber cord at the other. These buoyant harpoons could pull a large, wounded fish to the surface. Men sometimes swam in groups underwater, catching fish by making a line of handheld fishing nets, nvni isht hokli. Noodling was another technique. Women sometimes also caught fish using coarse baskets as hand-held nets. Choctaws made traps, nvnvpa, from river cane to catch large fish.

The most intensive fishing technique involved poisoning fish in pools or creeks that had been dammed up with brush. Men would arrive in the morning, bringing black walnut hulls, roots of the devil's shoestring plant, buckeyes, or beauty berries. They would pound these near the water's edge, then mix them into the water. In larger bodies of water, this was sometimes done with the aid of small rafts. These plants contain chemicals which make it difficult for the fish to breathe, so they would float up near the surface of the water. In small, soft-bottomed ponds, the same effect was sometimes obtained by simply moving the feet around in the muck, stirring up enough silt that it became difficult for the fish to breathe. When fish floated to the surface, they were tossed up onto the bank.

After a successful day of fishing, women might coat the fish in clay they had dug from the banks of the stream, and bake them in the coals of the fire. The leftover cooked fish would keep for several days without spoiling. For a longer shelf life, fish were smoked and dried. Fishing was particularly important in drought years when the crops were producing low yields.

In addition to fishing, July was also the season for the chestnut harvest. Chestnuts were an important food for Choctaw communities. After the chestnuts fell to the ground, they had to be gathered and processed quickly to prevent spoilage.  

 

Bihi Hvshi: Mulberry Month corresponds with spring - May 2019

This article is part of a series entitled "A Year in the Life." Focusing on the time period around AD 1700, this series follows the traditional Choctaw calendar through a year, with each article providing a glimpse of the activities that our ancestors were up to during each month. This information is excerpted from a book, soon to be published by the Choctaw Nation, which is entitled "Choctaw Food: Remembering the Land, Rekindling Ancient Knowledge."

In the Choctaw calendar, Bihi Hvshi, Mulberry Month, roughly corresponds with May. As the name implies, this is the time of year when the Choctaw homeland begins to abound in sweet, edible spring treats. Mulberries are one of the earliest fruits to ripen. As the days lengthen and warm, other fruits come into season, including bissa, blackberries, sheki ifvnnvsh, blueberries, biuko, strawberries, and isi itakkon, wild plums. In the past, Choctaw women, girls, and elders went out to gather these fresh fruits and bring them back to their families. The best spots to find many of these fruits were the community's old agricultural fields that had been allowed to enter a long fallow period. Without tree cover and aided by range fires, the fruit-bearing bushes and shrubs thrived. The productivity of these old fields was so high that, in the right season, a person could collect a meal's worth of strawberries growing within arm's reach. Planned fruit orchards were also planted next to some villages, or between groupings of houses. Fresh fruits were eaten raw as a welcome addition to the foods stored dry over winter. Fruits were also dried for later use and cooked in dishes like walakshi.

Not only did Choctaw women pick mulberries during the month, they also stripped off the inner bark of mulberry saplings and began to process it into thread for making textiles. May is also the season when bison really begin shedding their thick winter coats in preparation for the heat of summer. Choctaw women collected the shed wool stuck in bushes or on roughbarked trees, where the bison had rubbed it off. The wool would be cleaned, spun, and made into clothing or bags.

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As mentioned last month, Choctaw communities traditionally planted three different types of agricultural fields each year. During Mulberry Month, the largest of these fields were planted. They were known as tanchi aholokchi, places where corn is sown. In English, they are often referred to as communal fields, because of the way they were planted and harvested. The favorite location for communal fields was terraces and ridges with loamy soil. Based on surviving descriptions of the layouts of particular Choctaw towns, many of them had multiple community fields. In fact, accounts from the late 1700s describe the landscape between concentrated Choctaw settlements in all three districts as being mostly cornfield. Fields were sometimes irregularly shaped so that growers could make the most efficient use of patches of fertile soils regardless of the shapes and sizes they happened to be. Ideally, a family worked in a section of field close to their house, but sometimes they had to walk as far as a couple of miles to get to it. At these locations, it was more of a challenge to keep an eye out for deer and other crop predators than at the house gardens. This is the reason Choctaw farmers chose to wait to plant the communal fields until around the first day of May, when the woods had plenty of fruits and other wild edibles to take the pressure off of their fields.

Based on what has been recorded for other Southeastern Tribes, it is likely that the women from each Choctaw family had their own section that they worked in the communal field, separated by a strip of unworked land, or some other recognized marker. Unlike the house garden, there were no fences in these fields. Had a family attempted to construct one, their actions would have been viewed as childish, since these crops were for the community. Communal fields were planted and worked in a spirit of cooperation. Social distinctions were set aside, and people labored as equals. On the day of planting, work began about an hour after sunrise, with the community moving from section to section of the field, getting the seeds in the ground. Men helped the women to plant. The work was accomplished cheerfully, sometimes with storytelling and singing.

First, small hills were made in which to plant the corn seeds, a process known as hopolichi. These corn hills were called ibish. They were approximately three feet wide at their bases and set in rows, with the centers of the hills about 6 feet away from each other. The evenly spaced rows created between the hills were known as bachali. Within the communal fields, three different varieties of corn were planted. Tanchi Hlimishko, smooth corn, was a yellow flint corn used to make hominy. Tanchi Tohbi, white corn, was used in making bread. Tanchi Bokanli, breaking open corn, was a popcorn, used to entertain visitors.

Because corn is wind pollinated, different varieties growing within 1/2 mile of each other will cross-pollinate, and lose their distinctiveness. To prevent this, Choctaw farmers of later years (and probably during this time period as well) grew the different varieties in fields located in different places.

Alternatively or, probably, in addition to that, the planting of the three corn varieties was carefully timed so that the pollination of each variety was staggered.

On the day of planting, Choctaw field workers pushed four or five seeds into each corn hill and then added a layer of clay on top. This clay layer helped to prevent the corn hills from eroding during a heavy spring rain and washing out the seeds. Through the coming weeks, the community fields would be sown with the seeds of other types of plants. Today, this is known as "sequential intercropping," a practice recognized for its productivity and efficiency.

The third type of Choctaw agricultural field, consisting of patches of winter squash, pumpkin, and African melon, was probably planted about the same time as the communal fields. These were sometimes located quite some distance from the houses. Elevated, shaded platforms, known as fvla atoni, crow-watcher, were set up.

Older women sat on these platforms during the day, working on artwork and scaring away birds, animals, or hungry boys that tried to enter the patch. The Choctaw varieties of squash grew so vigorously that, even on poor ground, they would outcompete the grass. This made weeding these patches unnecessary. Soon after planting, the corn in the communal fields would sprout, a process known as abasali. When these shoots grew to about 6 inches tall, the number of stalks was thinned down to three per hill, so that competing plants didn't limit the harvest. The young corn was particularly vulnerable to damage.

By late May, the corn in the communal fields would be about one foot tall and ready for the first hoeing. This activity was called leli. Weeds between the corn hills were chopped up and their roots exposed to the sun.

Some of the loose soil with weed mulch would be added to the corn hills to add additional support to keep the growing plants from blowing over in the winds of a summer storm. This work of mounding up the corn hills was referred to as apullichi. Fieldwork would continue through the growing season.

 

Iti Fabussa Women's Month    - April 2019

This article is part of a series titled "A Year in the Life." Focusing on the time period around AD 1700, this series follows the traditional Choctaw calendar through a year, with each article providing a glimpse of the activities that our ancestors were up to during each month. This information is excerpted from a book, soon to be published by the Choctaw Nation, which is titled "Choctaw Food: Remembering the Land, Rekindling Ancient Knowledge."

As mentioned in an earlier article, the Choctaw calendar was divided into two parts, separated by the equinoxes. The warm season began with the spring equinox, the point in the year after which the days become longer than the nights. In the Choctaw calendar, the first new moon after the equinox began Tek Ihvshi, Women's Month, which roughly corresponds with April. This month was named in honor of women, the givers of life, who had the primary responsibility for the agricultural crops. Choctaw women were widely acknowledged as being the best farmers in the Southeast.

At the first new moon after the spring equinox, a ceremony called Hashi Atahli Holitobli, Respecting God, was held at the dance grounds within villages. This was a time of praying for the success of crops that were soon to be planted. In the 1700s, Choctaw communities planted three different agricultural fields. The first to be planted, around the time of the equinox, were called chuka osapa, house fields. These were located around and between families' homes.

Year-round, Choctaw families kept the area immediately around their homes clear of brush in the belief that evil spirits could hide in it. This was also an area where food refuse accumulated and composted, adding additional nutrients to the soil. Cleared of brush, enriched by compost, and located where they could easily be watched, these cleared areas were ideal places to plant. After horses started becoming common in Choctaw country, fences were built around the house fields to help protect them. These were made of wooden posts, driven into the ground at intervals, with split hickory or white oak rails. The fences were double insurance. During the growing season, boys kept the village's horse herd out on pasture and tied up during the night to help prevent theft and damage to crops.

The task of breaking up the ground for planting was referred to as okchalhi. Groups of female relatives worked gardens and fields together cooperatively. Traditionally, the main tool they used was simple, ancient, and effective - a digging stick. This consisted of a shaft of hardwood that had its tip sharpened by burning and scraping away the charcoal. The tip of the digging stick was inserted into the ground and pried to loosen the soil. When the tip dulled, it was re-sharpened.

In field preparation, Choctaw women may have employed a technique that involved loosening the soil in a central area and expanding outward in concentric circles. To remove weeds and scrape the surface of the ground, Choctaw people also made garden hoes. Known as chahe, these had wooden handles and blades of mussel shell or deer shoulder blades. Shovels were made entirely from wood. Unlike the metal plow, these Choctaw tools did not turn over the soil, and thus kept the microbial strata that are important for soil health intact, similar to no-till farming. The soft, worked soil was called okchaha. It awaited the day of planting, na pehna holokchi nitak. Into this prepared ground, women planted the seeds of Tanchusi, a small-sized variety of corn that is said to have ripened within just eight weeks of sowing. In addition to the corn, women also planted different varieties of beans in these house fields, as well as African field peas. This began the agricultural season.

A list of works cited in this article is available by contacting the Choctaw Nation Historic Preservation Department at (800) 522-6170. 

Editor's Note: For Iti Fabvssa stories you might have missed please visit ChoctawNation.com and click on History & Culture.

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On the right, last season's plant cover has been burned off. On the left, the charred soil has been broken up using a digging stick and a mussel shell hoe.

 

Iti Fabussa Windy Month -    March 2019

This article is part of a series entitled "A Year in the Life". Focusing on the time period around AD 1700, this series follows the traditional Choctaw calendar through a year, with each article providing a glimpse of the activities that our ancestors were up to during each month. This information is excerpted from a book, soon to be published by the Choctaw Nation, which is entitled "Choctaw Food: Remembering the Land, Rekindling Ancient Knowledge".

Mahli Hvshi, Windy Month, roughly corresponds with March. During March, the lengthening days of late winter begin to bring warmer temperatures and wind. By the end of the month, the woods begin budding out, and new green growth peeks out from under the protective mat of dormant native grass. March is a time of transition in the landscapes of the Choctaw homeland, and it was also the time when our ancestors played their biggest role in shaping these landscapes - They set them on fire.

Today, wildfire has a bad reputation. We think of it burning down houses and destroying beautiful landscapes. Fire is nothing to play with, but it is also a natural part of the landscape and has a very important role to fulfill. Long before people were around, lightning strikes set fire to North America's landscapes. Fires helped to recycle nutrients and reset ecological succession. Many native plant species adapted to fire in ways that helped the plants to seed, regenerate, and even helped to spread future range fires. By at least 10,000 years ago, our Native American ancestors had begun to use intentionally set range fires as a tool to manage the landscapes around them. Over time, these regularly set range fires opened up the woods, making travel easier. They made plant and animal habitat more diverse, increased the land's carry capacity for deer, and improved the habitat for a number of culturally important plants.

Range fires have really only became a problem in more recent years, as people have built permanent homes in areas that are prone to fire. As land managers have worked to prevent wildfires, the landscape has become more dense in woody plant growth and less diverse. By working to prevent fire, land managers have often made the situation more dangerous, by allowing dead plant material to build up on the ground. When a fire eventually does get started, this extra plant material acts as a fuel that makes the fire hot enough to kill plant life as well as the microscopic organisms in the soil that help plants to regenerate. Today, many land managers, including Choctaw Nation Forestry, are working to bring fire back to the landscape. In honor of Windy Month, it is interesting to look at what managing the land with fire meant for our ancestors.

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The effect of a March range fire. Left: natural meadow. Right: fresh grass springing to life on recently blackened ground.

The season of a burn influences its effects on the landscape. A fire in late winter encourages a growth of forbs (non-woody vascular plants). A fire later in the spring encourages a luxurious, green growth of fresh grass. A fire that occurs during the hottest part of the year can bring more significant changes to the landscape because it is more likely to get hot enough to cause long-term damage. As mentioned above, Choctaw land managers preferred March for conducting their burns (Cushman 1899:197). In the Choctaw homeland, a March range fire colors the ground black with carbon right at the time the new grass is ready to sprout. In the past, March fires supported a fresh growth of wiregrass in the southern part of Choctaw country and of bluestem grass species in the northern part (Romans 1999[1775]:97). The new grass, in turn, provided food for grazing and browsing animals, like bison and deer.

Studying the ancient sediments trapped in the bottom of bogs, it appears that our ancestors set fire to any given upland area about once every three years on average. Because the fires were regularly set across the landscape, they limited the available fuel load, preventing the occasional wildfire from getting hot enough to kill mature trees or significantly damage the microbes in the soil. These cooler fires had a patchy impact on the landscape; greater in the uplands and lesser in the stream valleys. As a whole, the fires cleared out brush and vines and increased plant spacing. This led early Euro-American visitors in the Choctaw homeland to describe it as an open, park-like environment (e.g. Hilgard 1873), something very different from what most of that region looks like today. On a more local level, the dense canebrakes of the Southeast were expanded by the practice of leaving low-lying agriculture fields fallow and periodically setting fire to the cane that moved in to stimulate new growth (Delecourt and Delecourt 2008:87; Platt and Brantley 1997:13). Range fires also temporarily decreased the abundance of some parasitic insects, such as ticks (cf. Scifres et al. 1988).

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A mixed forest in the Choctaw homeland, managed by burning (Noxubee National Wildlife Refuge).

Today, we sometimes hear about the "pristine" "natural" landscapes that blanketed this continent before European arrival. In reality, they were neither fully natural nor pristine. These landscapes were shaped by our ancestors' intentional management for thousands of years. Looking back, nowhere is this management better demonstrated than in seeing what our ancestors were up to during the month of March.

A list of works cited in this article is available by contacting the Choctaw Nation Historic Preservation Department at 1-800-522-6170.

Editor's Note: For Iti Fabvssa stories you might have missed please visit ChoctawNation.com and click on History & Culture.

 

Iti Fabvssa Crane Month - February 2019

This article is part of a series titled "A Year in the Life." Focusing on the time period around AD 1700, the series follows the traditional Choctaw calendar through a year, with each article providing a glimpse of the activities our ancestors were up to during each month. This information is excerpted from a book soon to be published by the Choctaw Nation entitled "Choctaw Food: Remembering the Land, Rekindling Ancient Knowledge."

Watonlak Hvshi, Crane Month, roughly corresponds with February. This month may have gotten its name from the vast flocks of birds that came into Choctaw country during the winter.

Written descriptions from the period particularly note the appearance of ducks, geese, bustard and passenger pigeons. From today's perspective, it is easy to miss how significant these flocks of migratory birds were to our ancestors. For example, one Choctaw town was named Hanka Aiola, Where the Canadian Goose Cries, because of a beautiful, tree-rimmed pond located next to the village that seasonally attracted flocks of birds.

On a larger scale, the passenger pigeon was perhaps the most numerous bird species on the planet 200 years ago. After nesting in the Great Lakes region during the summer, immense flocks headed south for winter. Described as the greatest natural wonder on the continent, these migratory flocks were so large they darkened the sun for two days at a time as they passed overhead at a speed of 60 miles per hour.

During the winter, passenger pigeon roosts were a meat source of almost unlimited potential in the South. At these roosts, millions of passenger pigeons came together at night to rest after a day spent flying over the landscape in search of nuts and other food. Their numbers were so great they often broke the branches of the trees with their weight. Pachanusi, Where the Pigeons Sleep, was a notable passenger pigeon roost in Choctaw country.

Choctaw men and boys hunted the sleeping birds that perched on lower branches of such roosts. The technique was blunt but efficient. Arriving at night, aided by someone carrying a torch, the hunter simply clubbed as many sleeping birds as desired and let them fall into an open bag. Choctaw people also caught birds with snares, hushi isht hokli, or shot them with blowgun darts.

Besides migratory birds, the turkey also made a significant contribution to the diet. The season for hunting turkeys was the cool part of the year when they were relatively fat. Like their Alabama neighbors to the east, Choctaw hunters probably acquired turkeys as they roosted in trees or by stalking them with a decoy.

Choctaw women contributed to the winter diet by digging edible wild roots, including laurel greenbrier and American groundnut. In abundant years, these root plants made up a relatively smaller portion of the diet, but in years of poor crops and poor hunting, they served as a staple until the land began to turn green in the springtime.

During the cold parts of really bad years, communities sometimes turned to starvation foods like longleaf pine roots and yellow jacket larvae.

On days of suitable weather, during mid-to-late winter, the men and women who were already back in the villages began working to prepare agricultural fields to be planted later in the spring. These activities began with the appropriate dances. Choctaw workers cleared brush for the fields using fire - a process known as bvlli. Large trees were removed through a slow, patient technique known as iti chant abi. First, men girdled and killed the trees by chopping through the bark all the way around the tree's base using stone-bladed axes. These girdled trees would be left to rot and fall to earth or to stand and dry out. Workers would return to the spot a year or more later, gather fallen limbs 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 for firewood. Most of the rest would be burned on the spot. If new saplings popped up while the field was in use, workers would cut them down, pile them on living roots, and burn them. They would repeat the process until the roots quit sending up saplings. Ultimately, the traditional Choctaw method of clearing a field put a great deal of rotten wood, ash, and charcoal directly into the soil where it acted as a fertilizer and moisture-retainer. In the coming months, this would be crucial to the new crops. 

      Iti Feb

 

Editor's Note: For Iti Fabvssa stories you might have missed please visit www.ChoctawNation.com and click on History & Culture.

 

Iti Fabvssa Wildcat Month - January 2019

This article is part of a series titled "A Year in the Life."

Focusing on the time period of around 1700, the series follows the traditional Choctaw calendar through a year, with each article providing a glimpse of the activities our ancestors were up to during each month.

The information in these articles come from a book titled, "Choctaw Food: Remembering the Land, Rekindling Ancient Knowledge," which will be published by Choctaw Nation later this year.

Koichush Hvshi, Wildcat Month, roughly corresponds with January, which is often the coldest part of the year.

As noted in last month's edition, Wildcat Month, like Panther Month before it, draws its name from the fact that the coldest part of winter was the prime season for hunting fur-bearing mammals.

Choctaw men and boys used the softly tanned pelts from ferocious animals, like bobcats, for bedding.

They believed the prowess of these animals could be transferred to the sleeping person through the hides.

To the best of our knowledge, the activities our ancestors did during Wildcat Month were basically the same as described for Panther Month in the previous edition of Iti Fabvssa.

Many of these activities took place in river cane breaks, where fur-bearing animals found food and shelter during the winter.

While the men were out hunting, the women in camp would have taken the opportunity to harvest river cane for making basketry and mats.

An excellent description of how Choctaw people traditionally harvested river cane has been provided by Tom Colvin (2006) and it was summarized in an Iti Fabvssa article in 2011.

In honor of Wildcat month, we will add some more details to that description.

The best river cane grew on slightly elevated areas near streams, reached occasionally by floodwaters that replenished the soil.

According to modern taxonomists, at least two species of river cane grow in the Choctaw homeland. The smaller species (Arundinaria tecta) is called "switch cane" in English and was known as kushak in Choctaw 300 years ago. It was, and still is, used for making arrows.

The larger species of river cane (Arundinaria gigantea), is called "giant cane" in English and oski in Choctaw. It was, and still is, used for making traditional basketry.

Canes of exactly the right size and age were selected for making basketry. Plants with the greatest distance between the nodes were favored.

After a bundle of green cane was cut and gathered, it was split lengthwise into pieces, a process known in Choctaw as oskashiba.

Then a knife made of hard, dry river cane was used to peel away the outer skin of the green cane, moving lengthwise down the split pieces to create long, thin strips.

Cane debris was thrown onto the roofs of the camp structures, making them more rainproof. The stripped outer skin was trimmed to have a consistent width. These thin, flexible pieces were rolled up into spools called uski tvpa afohli.

After a few days of drying, the spools of cane would be ready to use for making baskets, or ready to be dyed different colors.

Most basketry dyes came from different types of plants. In many plants these natural dye substances are most potent during the wintertime.

Choctaw women may have gathered and used many of them while they were staying in hunting camps.

In addition to the natural cane, the colors on early Choctaw baskets commonly include brown /black, yellow and red.

The brown and black probably came from black walnut hulls, hahe. A large number of different plant materials can produce a yellow dye. One of these comes from the roots of the mulberry tree, bihvpi. The red dye was sometimes made by dying cane with the root of the curly dock plant, pishaiyik (a non-native), then burning equal parts of the bark of the red oak, nusi and the black gum tree, chokcho, into ash, mixing them with water to form a paste and then putting the paste on the yellow-dyed cane.

Over time, the alkalinity of the ash would turn the yellow dye to red. Dyes absorb darker into the interior side of the cane and so this part was usually made to face outwards on baskets.

 

      Trail Of Tears Walk _Image _64

 

 

 

 

 

 
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