A story: A long time ago there was a small Chahta boy named Achafa Chipota who, despite his stature, ran faster and had better aim with his bow than any other child. One day, Achafa Chipota accompanied his father and group of hunters on a trip to find game. He quickly proved himself to be tough and ready top work hard. He killed several rabbits and squirrels for the hunters to eat. One morning as he was hunting small game, he came across a large hog—a shukhusi—and he managed to kill her by shooting her through the eye with his small arrow. He then discovered that shukhusi had a family of small piglets, whom he took with him on the rest of the hunt and then back to his home.
He cared for the piglets as they grew into hogs. Then they reproduced. One time a Minko (district leader) came to his house for a meeting and Achafa Chipota’s parents did not have enough food. Achafa Chipota surprised them by killing one his hogs to cook along with the acorns. Normally, his mother would have served bear meat. The Miko was delighted with what he called the sweet meat. The Miko then remained Achafa Chipota “Pelichi Shukhusi”—the tamer of pigs—and he was given the task of instructing Choctaw families how to raise hogs.
Another Story: One time shortly after Achafa Chipota became Pelichi Shukhusi, two hunters became lost in the woods. They were cold and hungry with only one little rabbit to cook for dinner. As they watched the rabbit cook, they heard a woman crying. They rushed through the woods to find a young woman dressed in white, sobbing. They led her back to their fire and asked who she was and why she was out in the cold woods alone. She explained that she was the daughter of Hashtali (Sun Father) and Moon Mother, and while she was on an errand for them, she ran out of food and became too weak to continue. They took her to their camp and gave her their small rabbit, but she took only one bite then told them they would be rewarded for their kindness. She told them to return the next morning to where they found her and then she vanished. The surprised hunters then ate the remainder of the rabbit and waited through the night to return to where they found her.
Upon returning to the site, the two hunters found in the snow a green plant over six feet tall with a golden tassel at the top. The leaves were long and within were long fruits. The hunters took one of the fruits, peeled back the green covering to see what looked like small seeds set in neat rows. They took a bite and realized that the strange food would taste better cooked. They took the remaining five ears home and planted the kernels in the spring. In the fall, they had a crop of the new food they called tachi. Shortly afterwards, Chahtas families planted tachi every spring, harvested in the fall and learned to dry the kernels and to cook tachi in a variety of ways. Chahtas liked tachi so much that tachi and pork replaced their previous favorite dish of bear meat and acorns.
The story about shukhusi was created after contact with Europeans because pigs were brought to the southeast by Hernando de Soto when he landed at the Atlantic Coast of Florida in 1539. But like with Apache groups who have stories that say horses were always a part of those cultures and Navajos have similar stories about sheep, Chahtas have stories that imply pigs and hogs were always with them. These story tell of how quickly important the animals and food sources became to the tribes. Combining Choctaw stories with those of non-Native observers, we find that while in Mississippi, the tribe raised or had access to a cornucopia of food. Chahtas cultivated or foraged for tanchi (corn/maize),6 isito (squash), tobi (beans, although it is unclear as to what type besides pole beans), shukshi (watermelon), nusi (acorns; acorns are a food used by many tribes in bread and stews, although they must go through a difficult processing so they won’t taste bitter or give the eater abdominal distress), tobe (peas), shachuna or hatofalaha (onions), ahe (potatoes and sweet potatoes) and isht atriaka (fruits) such as takkonlushi (plums), hashi (sunflowers), crabapple, ukof (persimmons, often mixed with wak nipi-beef or isi nipi-deer meat in a stew), pahki (large black grapes), italikchi ani (cherries), bihi (mulberries), and ani (nuts) such as uksak (hickory), oksak fula (pecans) and uksak hahe (walnuts; Swanton states that walnuts were not used much for food, but considering their flavor, this is a surprising comment). Bernard Romans, a surveyor and map-maker who traveled through Chahta country in the late 1770s, states they grew tohe (cabbage), hatofalaha (leeks) and garlic, but claims that they only grew these crops for trade, along with okfochush (ducks) and shukha (hogs). Considering that Choctaw stories tell us they did indeed use hogs, it stands to reason that the people also ate the crops they cultivated.7
Chahtas also ate isi (deer), akak chaha (turkeys) and nita (bears). Gideon Lincecum (1793-1874), a nineteenth century physician and “naturalist” wrote his observations and information gleaned from Chahta informers from 1823 to 1825. He writes in his Lincecum Manuscript that Chahtas who lived in Louisiana smoked out hibernating nita lusa (black bears) from hollow trees and caves and shot or speared them. They boiled the nita nia (bear fat) and nita nipi (bear flesh) and then stored it in deer bladders or plugged deer heads. The bear oil could be used for cooking, curing, or rubbing on rheumatic parts of the body. They also fished (he mentions the nakishtalali—catfish that were broiled) using bone and later metal hooks and gathered oka fulush (mussels). He reports that Chahtas ate hachunchuba (alligators), yannash (buffalo; far west of the Mississippi River), chukfi haksobish falaia (long-eared rabbit, perhaps the jackrabbit), shunlolo (larks), kofi (quail), hachtakni (this word properly spelled “hachotakni” refers to a loggerhead turtle but Lnicecum calls them hard shelled turtles) and halwa (soft-shelled turtles).8 Other tribes in the southeast, including Cherokees, Chickasaws, Muscogees and Seminoles also had access to many of these plants and animals and they prepared them in similar ways.
Traditionally, Chahtas followed a thirteen month calendar that reflected how they produced, gathered and cultivated food: Hvsh Hoponi: “Month of cooking,” when the gardens had to be harvested and the food stored in some way, either dried or cooked. Many foods were made into “breads” that included acorns, beans, berries, nuts, onions, peas, persimmons, squash and sweet potatoes. Banaha, for example, was and still is made by mixing boiling water and cornmeal and sometimes beans into a firm dough. This dough would be shaped into small rolls, then placed in corn shucks, tied with strips of shuck, then cooked under hot ashes. For a different flavor, hickory or chestnut oil might be added to the cornmeal. This could be stored for months and re-cooked.
Squash, corn and beans are also known as “The Three Sisters” because these three vegetables often are grown together. Climbing or pole beans wrap upwards around the corn stalks, while the large squash leaves help to keep competitive plants out and shade the ground, and therefore provide moisture and protection for the corn roots. For many tribes there is much spiritual significance associated with corn. Hopis, Navajos, Cherokees, Iroquois and Apaches tribes for example, have creation stories that focus on corn and numerous tribes knew the convenience and practicality of cultivating the three plants together. A properly maintained garden of Three Sisters can help ward off night time visitors such as raccoons, deer and rabbits because of the densely-grown vegetation (although I have found that prairie dogs and moles are apparently undeterred even by fencing that extends two feet under the ground) and a shelter for birds. I have discovered that sparrows, yellow finches, woodpeckers, Stellar and Pinon Jays, and nuthatches especially enjoy the damp shade from the Flagstaff sun when the soaker hose is turned on.
Corn can be made into a variety of dishes. Tamfula, for example, is made several ways, generally with finely ground and shifted corn (that had been previously soaked to loosen the hulls), water, and wood ash lye that is garnered by pouring cold water over clean wood ashes; the water drips into a trough and is collected. The high alkaline lye from ashes contributes to the nutritional quality of the dish. The mixture is boiled from a few hours to all day. Variations include adding beans or cracked hickory nuts. Tash pishofa (also seen as pashofa, tash lubona or tash hoshponi) is unground, boiled corn. Tan hlabo can be made from green corn. The kernels are cut from the ear and boiled with lye and any kind of meat until the meat falls off the bone. Walakshi (also seen as walusha) are dumplings made from cornmeal, grape juice and/or peaches and mixed with boiling water. Hickory nuts were harvested in the summer and sometimes the oil was used to flavor dishes containing corn.
Chahtas used corn in a variety of other ways: roasted on the cob, ground into flour, crushed into mush to mix with fruits and meats. One way of preparing tachi was to dry out the kernels with hickory smoke to keep out insects. In winter the cracked corn could be cooked with meat. Some Chahtas carried a bag of either cracked corn with them when they traveled and would eat it, presumably with strong teeth (think of Corn Nuts) or finely ground corn to mix with water in a hurry. It was observed by a Frenchman in the late eighteenth century that Chahtas would serve cracked corn softened with milk and honey as a cold meal. Husks and stalks were burned for fuel, while dolls, masks and mats and were made from the husks. Surplus corn was stored by hanging the husks in placed in storage pits. Swanton cites a Chahta source, Simpson Tubbee, as saying that “Indian flint” or “flour corn” contained both white and blue kernels and was used for roasting. Some corn was used for popping.
Potatoes were preserved by cutting them into thin slices and drying them over a hickory fire. The result would have been similar to today’s potato chip (without the frying, however). Those who preserved potatoes in this manner were called the Ahi apet okla: “potato eating people.”
Hvsh kvf (Month of sassafras) corresponds to our current December and early January in which the tree sap is now mainly in the roots; Chahtas dug buckeye, sassafras, snake root and witch hazel that were used for medicines, while dyes were made from indigo native to the western hemisphere, in addition to maple, poke roots, puccoon and walnut.
Hvsh chvffiskono (Month of little famine) is our January and Hvsh chvffo chito (Month of big famine) February. As one might expect, by this time the food supplies have dwindled and game animals were difficult to find. Hvsh Mali or Mahili (Month of the winds) saw warmer winds from the southeast and patches of green began to show. Poke salet, sheep shank, sour dock, lambs quarters and wild onions were available for harvesting. Hvsh bissi (Month of the blackberry), Hvsh bihi (Month of the mulberry), and Hvsh takkon (Month of the peach) tell us what fruits were picked during these times.
Hvsh watallak or Hvsh watonlak (Month of the crane) is named after a white crane that lived in Mississippi; the squab (baby bird) was a favorite food, especially when mixed into a stew with corn and greens. Late July and early August was Hvsh luak mosholi (Month of the fires all out) when corn reached its roasting stage and the tribe danced the Green Corn Dance. The Green Corn Festival last several weeks and was a time for thanks. The tribe had become so dependent on tachi that Chahtas performed the Green Corn Dance every year when tachi reached the roasting stage. Chahtas continued to perform the Green Corn Dance well after they had been introduced to Christianity, and like many other Natives today, some Chahtas continue to dance every summer.
Hvsh tek ihvshi (Month of the woman) was when young women were courted (although they were presumably courted during other times, as well). This time was after the Green Corn Dance, the weather was good and heavy work for preparing for the year was not yet required. Hvsh koinchush (Month of the wildcat) and Hvsh koichus (Month of the panther) are named after two large felines that were more populous than they are now. At this time, the mother cats were easier to kill because their kittens had started to wander more and the mother was with them. Their meat was dried into jerky and reportedly lasted through the winter.
Information about Choctaw foods, their uses and preparations can be found in John R. Swanton, Source Material for the Social and Ceremonial Life of the Choctaw Indians, Bulletin 103, (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution, Bureau of American Ethnography, 1931); Bernard Romans, A Concise Natural History of East and West Florida (New York, 1775); various issues of BISHINIK and on Choctaw and Chickasaw websites (although many recipes feature lard, salt, wheat and milk products which renders them nontraditional). Michael A. Weiner, Earth Medicine, Earth Food: Plant Remedies, Drugs, and Natural Foods of the North American Indians (New York: Collier Books, 1972); T.N. Campbell, “Choctaw Subsistence: Ethnographic Notes From the Lincecum Manuscript,” Florida Anthropologist 12:1 (1959), 9-24. The Lincecum Manuscript is at the Center For American History, University of Texas, Austin.