Traditional Mvskoke Foods Recovery Project

Final Report for CS11-084

Project Type: Sustainable Community Innovation
Funds awarded in 2011: $9,964.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2012
Region: Southern
State: Oklahoma
Principal Investigator:
Stephanie Berryhill
Mvskoke Food Sovereignty Initiative
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Project Information

Abstract:

Increased production, availability of seeds, and consumption of two traditional Mvskoke tribal crops — sofke (osafke) corn and Indian pumpkin — was implemented at Wilson Community in Okmulgee County, Okla. This project was conducted with the support of two local farmers through one plot located in Wilson Community and one plot near Bristow, Okla., in Creek County. Training was a considerable part of this project and was accomplished through seed saving and cooking demonstration classes that were held at Wilson Indian Community Center.

Introduction

Ancient stories offer reverence for sustenance given by Mvskoke Corn Grandmother and ceremonies still acknowledge this gift through Green Corn ceremonies today. At the start of this project it was believed that Mvskoke people had stopped growing sofke corn around 40 years ago. One of the biggest obstacles to growing this corn was access to seed. Mvskoke Food Sovereignty Initiative (MFSI), as an organization, had been in err regarding the extremely limited availability of this seed for planting. There is no descriptive phenotype for sofke corn, although it would have useful been in identifying and locating a related variety that could be grown and tested as a substitute for the traditional sofke corn drink. The ideal situation in terms of sofke seed for planting would have been a seed donation by a Mvskoke elder who had kept seed that had been grown by family members. The very limited amount of sofke corn that was in the possession of MFSI was utilized for planting. By the end of this project, staff were able to identify a source for what is believed to be original sofke corn that was grown by Mvskoke people after arrival in Indian Territory (Oklahoma). Furthermore, one elder couple that continues to grow this corn has been identified and they are willing to donate some of this seed to MFSI. This was possible through the work of interviewing elders on their knowledge of food ways as well as local family growing practices and histories.
Indian pumpkin belongs to the gourd family and is indigenous to the Americas; it has been cultivated by ancestors of the Mvskokvlke for over 4,000 years. Indian pumpkin is highly endangered in terms of accessibility, which directly stems to availability of seed, a pass-along variety, for planting. There are very few farmers that continue to grow Indian pumpkin in the Muscogee Nation today. There are genetically-related varieties from the Cucurbita moschata species, such as Buckskin, Kentucky Field, and Seminole Pumpkin, which is also endangered. Even though there are genetically related varieties that can be more easily accessed, elders know that there is a distinct difference between these varieties and that of the texture and taste of “Indian” pumpkin meat. There is much value in revitalizing this particular variety of pumpkin in terms of its nutrients and the health benefits that it has the potential to contribute to a tribal group that has a disproportionate incidence of diet-related diseases when compared to the rest of the population. Both sofke corn and Indian pumpkin originate from seed lines that began in southeastern tribal homelands and have continued as a part of Mvskoke food ways today. Sofke corn and Indian pumpkin are of significant nutritional and cultural value and represent sustenance that is revered through language, stories, beliefs, and patterns of behavior that contribute to the larger value systems of the Mvskokvlke.

Project Objectives:

Objective 1 included growing plots of two traditional crops — hominy or sofke corn and Indian pumpkin using modern equipment and conventional plant/row spacing. Objective 2 included training community growers about seed saving techniques and to save 10 pounds of seeds from each crop for free distribution to other communities and families for the 2013 growing season. Objective 3 included working with the Muscogee (Creek) Nation Food and Fitness Policy Council to engage tribal government leaders, local farmers, and tribal nutrition program providers (elderly nutrition program, child care, etc.) to incorporate support for local farmers to grow traditional crops through a procurement policy for local, sustainably produced farm products. Objective 4 included utilizing traditional knowledge of tribal elders to teach preparation of Indian pumpkin and sofke corn dishes, especially to young mothers and other youth, by holding four cooking classes at Wilson Indian Community Center. Objective 5 included the collection and publication of stories about traditional foods in the MFSI newsletter. This was done in order to increase awareness of the cultural and nutritional significance of Indian pumpkin and sofke corn as well as to motivate people to add such foods to their diets.

Cooperators

Click linked name(s) to expand
  • Stephanie Berryhill
  • Luke Fisher
  • Barton Williams
  • Rita Williams

Research

Materials and methods:

Objective 1 included growing two plots of sofke corn and Indian pumpkin using modern equipment and conventional plant/row spacing. The seed for sofke corn planting was given to Luke Fisher, a certified organic farmer, whose family farm is located near Bristow in Creek County. Fisher seeded the corn indoors and transplanted one acre of corn on an isolated area of his property in order to prevent cross pollination by other varieties. The corn that Fisher grew was affected by limited rainfall and did not produce the amount of seed that was planned for in the original project design. There will not be sofke corn seed available for distribution in 2013.
Indian pumpkin seed was a pass-along variety obtained from a Hanna farmer. Four acres of Indian pumpkin was planted by Barton Williams at Wilson Community Garden in Okmulgee County. The pumpkin was direct seeded to the field and was significantly affected by a squash bug infestation, although there is Indian pumpkin seed that will be available for distribution in 2013. Objective 2 included training community growers about seed saving techniques. This was done through seed saving and cooking classes that were held three times at Wilson Indian Community Center and were led by elder community members. The focus of these classes were youth, although there was a broad range of class attendees that included other tribal community members (Okfuskee, Okfuskee County) who were interested in holding similar classes. Two additional seed saving and cooking classes were held in other tribal communities, Sapulpa Elderly Nutrition Program, which operates out of Sapulpa Indian Community Center and is located in Creek County and Okmulgee Elderly Nutrition Center, located in Okmulgee County. The focus of these trainings for elders was to encourage them to include pumpkin as a regular part of their diets. Additionally, safer, healthier, and more efficient methods of preparation, and cooking Indian pumpkin were offered. The recipe for “fried” pumpkin was modified with healthier substitutes, olive oil and organic agave sweetener, for original ingredients, which included pork fat and sugar. Both programs have elder participants that currently have raised bed community gardens. Okmulgee Elderly Nutrition Program participants are actively involved with gardening and will be growing sofke corn in 2013 with supplies, resources, and support from MFSI. Objective 3 included working with the Muscogee (Creek) Nation Food and Fitness Policy Council to develop procurement policies for growers that produce sofke corn, Indian pumpkin, and other local, sustainably produced farm products. In September 2013 the tribal law-making body passed legislation to officially support tribal program purchases from local food producers, which was a direct result of procurement policy that was developed by the tribal food and fitness policy council. Objective 4 utilized tribal elders to teach classes on preparing, processing, and cooking the traditional corn drink sofke, Indian pumpkin, and cvtvhakv, “blue bread,” — a dumpling made from corn meal. These classes, which targeted youth participants, were held at Wilson Indian Community Center and were taught by local community elders. Objective 5 included the collection and publication of stories about traditional foods in the MFSI newsletter (see mailed Publications/Outreach appendix). Elders who offered information about traditional food ways often ended up being interviewed as a result of casual conversations where they revealed invaluable details related to knowledge systems that are rapidly being lost. One of the most valuable aspects of this project is the knowledge of food ways that are being documented.

Research results and discussion:

The outcomes of seed saving and cooking demonstration classes are shown through numbers of attendance which included a total of 60 participants over three class sessions in which youth were targeted. Half of the participation was by Mvskoke tribal youth, between the ages of seven and 15, who received hands-on training. Two additional seed saving and cooking demonstration classes were held for tribal elders and included an attendance of 30. Demonstrable impact is through response to the seed saving part of the classes in particular. The act of doing such demonstrations as well as related newsletter publicity is a powerful kind of advocacy in terms of educating tribal members on what stands to be lost — pass-along varieties of seed that are tied to the traditional foodways, and larger value systems of Mvskoke peoples. There is interest in growing Indian pumpkin and osafke corn; requests for pumpkin and safke seed total around 30. Indian pumpkin seed requests by growers will require that they attend a training class on Indian pumpkin growing and seed saving, which will include a test to determine that the training was effective. Surveys were not originally given to gauge learning or attitudes, but are now included in on-going trainings that continue as a part of this initial project. The work of this project is on-going and has been strengthened by the support of this grant. The demonstrable impacts of this project will be that the number of tribal Indian pumpkin growers will immediately increase by three-fold — from the current number of four to at least 12 — in 2013. There is currently only one elder couple that grow sofke corn, but that this will increase exponentially with at least eight growers in 2013.

Participation Summary

Educational & Outreach Activities

Participation Summary

Education/outreach description:

There are no publications, but there have been news articles that include
Reader, Melodie. “Key Ingredients: Osafke Presentation.” Mvskoke Food. Feb. 2012: 1-4. Print.
Reader, Melodie. “Traditional Cooking Class: Sharing Heritage.” Mvskoke Food. March 2012: 4. Print.
Berryhill, Stephanie. “First safke taste trial held at MCN Okmulgee Elderly Nutrition Program.” Mvskoke Food. Jan. 2013: 4. Print.
Berryhill, Stephanie. “‘Indian pumpkin’ cooking and seed saving class held in tribal communities.” Mvskoke Food. Jan. 2013: 3. Print.
Outreach includes
Safke taste trial, Okmulgee Elderly Nutrition Program, Okmulgee, Okla., Dec. 27, 2012.
“Reviving Osafke” presentation at traditional ceremonial chiefs’ meeting, Thlophthlocco Tribal Town, Okemah, Okla., April 20, 2012.
“Mvskoke Traditional Foods Recovery Project” presentation, 7th Generation Conference, Reed Center, Midwest City, Okla., April 18, 2012
“Feeding the Troops” presentation as part of the Key Ingredients: America by Food exhibit at Fort Gibson Historic Site, Fort Gibson, Okla., Jan. 2012.

Project Outcomes

Success stories:

This work is tied into building a tribal food system that includes approaches that begin at the grassroots level with tribal communities — elders teaching youth — to procurement policies that support tribal purchases from local growers for programs that feed young children and elders on a daily basis. The long term benefits of this work are directly related to the target audience. It is critical for youth to learn how to grow and prepare and process traditional foods if such food ways are to continue. As individuals that will be of child-bearing and caregiving age in the next ten years it is critical that they continue such learning that will prepare them to grow food and cook healthy whole foods that will model positive patterns of behavior for the next generation. Because of the work of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation Tribal Food and Fitness Policy Council, there is now tribal law that supports tribal program procurement from local food producers, including growers. Traditional tribal whole foods are healthy, are tied to Mvskoke beliefs and identity, and are culturally appropriate foods that should be offered on the plates of tribal programs that feed young children and elders on a daily basis. Tribal laws that support the procurement of such whole foods from local growers bolster the development of a tribal food system for generations to come. 

Recommendations:

The work of this project is ongoing and has been the impetus for gaining valuable information about food processes that were thought to have been indefinitely lost with the passing of elders. There are still those who hold such knowledge and oftentimes it is not their own lived experience, but the memories of the old ways as told to them by elder mothers and grandmothers. It reminds us that progress, technology, and convenience is not without a price. Ancient knowledge systems, processes related to food production, and the way that Native languages encode such knowledge should be approached with an urgency for documentation. The continued documentation of traditional food ways is needed and will continue through a 2013 video documentation project that will include interviews with Mvskoke elders.

Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.