September 12, 2011

Creek growers cultivated Chickasaw plum

Rediscovering the fruit of the Muscogee Nation

By James TreatJust as there are many ways to track time through the calendar year, there can be various methods for charting the lands of this remarkable continent.

A notable effort to reconceive "America" on the basis of culinary geography is documented in the recent book Renewing America's Food Traditions. Edited by ethnobotanist Gary Paul Nabhan, this lavishly illustrated volume grew from the timely collaboration of seven major organizations committed to "saving and savoring the continent's most endangered foods."

Nabhan and his colleagues have mapped North America—including Northwest Mexico and most of Canada—by identifying thirteen regional "food nations" distinguished by place-based foodways. Each food nation is named for an iconic dish, and anyone familiar with Mvskoke tastes will be gratified to learn that Mvskoke country, both before and after Removal, is encompassed by "Cornbread Nation." Back east, this region borders "Chestnut Nation" and "Gumbo Nation" in the Mvskoke homeland; out west, this agricultural complex shares a boundary with "Bison Nation" running across the Muscogee (Creek) Nation.
Treat focuses on one story from the book about the Chickasaw plum:Most immigrant writers have assumed this indigenous fruit to be wild. Yet Bartram saw plenty of Chickasaw plums during his travels in Mvskoke country, and he "never saw it wild in the forests, but always in old deserted Indian plantations." Hedrick also noted that "it is usually found near human habitations and on the margins of fields," and that "a careful study of recent botanical works indicates that the species is indigenous to the southeastern United States."

Finally, in 2004, botanists working at Horseshoe Bend National Military Park found six cross-compatible species of native Prunus—including P. angustifolia—near the site of Tohopeka village. It now seems clear that the original specimens taken from Hillabee, a few miles to the west, had been carefully cultivated by Mvskoke growers.

Nabhan and his RAFT colleagues extol this plum for its "primacy among the continent's great fruits," concluding that "perhaps the Creek were more accomplished horticulturalists than anyone has given them credit for."
Comment:  People don't know that "American Indians of North, Meso-, and South America were the first to cultivate seventy-five percent of the many varities of food grown in the world today," according to American Indian Contributions. And they didn't just find these foods in the wild; they cultivated and bred them.

So much for the savage stereotype: the notion that Indians had no understanding of scientific concepts. Of course they did, as we can tell from their food, medicine, architecture, and astronomy.

For more on Native food, see Indians Made Turkey Dinners Possible, Preview of Growing Native, and Native Foods Changed the World.

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