Indigenous people and resilience: the Choctaw of Mississippi

Floods hit most of us sooner or later. How did American Indians survive such disasters without our technology?  Before man decided to build permanent structures in flood-prone areas, people were far more resilient.  They just picked up all they owned and moved to higher ground until the waters receded.

choctaw stickball

More and more divorced from Nature, the response of many to a natural disaster is to rebuild what they had before.  The Mennonite disaster response teams are excellent at swooping in to rebuild houses and get people’s lives back to normal quickly.  They have come several times to rebuild houses after floods in the Yukon River valley in Alaska.  But rebuilding in a flood plain only recreates the process which leads to disaster.

American Indians and other indigenous peoples were more in tune with nature and its rhythms. Natural systems are almost always more resilient than man-made systems.  Are today’s systems created by indigenous peoples more resilient than others created by man?

Our sustainability/resilience index revealed that one Mississippi county stood out as more resilient than surrounding counties: Neshoba County.  Neshoba is unique in many ways, one of which is that it is the ancestral home of the Choctaw nation.  So we set out to answer the question: how do the Choctaw contribute to the resilience of food and agriculture systems in Neshoba County?

American Indians were divided into two types, hunters and farming tribes.  Along with all the tribes in the Southeast were, the Choctaw were farming people.  Along with the Cherokee, the Chickasaw and the Creek, all tribes in the Southeastern US were farming tribes. The farming tribes predominated across America when Europeans first arrived, but not for long. Horses escaped from the first Spanish explorers and the hunting tribes quickly realized their value.  The tribes who adopted horses, such as the Sioux or Dakota, were better able to hunt buffalo and defeat other tribes. As American Indians had since they arrived from Asia, the stronger tribes defeated the weaker and took over their territory.

The Lakota and other hunting tribes expanded from their ancestral lands in western Dakotas into Minnesota, displacing Ojibwe or Chippewa.  But the Ojibwe had become friends with the French traders and one-upped the Lakota. They got guns from the traders and learned how to use them. They drove the Sioux from the most of Minnesota and forced the Fox out of northern Wisconsin.

The Dakotas later got guns just in time to confront the US Army. During the late 1800s, the army was charged with pushing Indians away from any area the European settlers wanted.  Some of the Dakota fled to Canada to avoid the slaughter.  It didn’t work.  The army followed and kidnapped their leaders (including their chief Shakpe or Shakopee) and brought them back to Minnesota to be hung.

Small groups of Dakota survived on a few acres here and there in Minnesota.  Eventually, the U.S. government purchased small reservations for them—one at a town they’d named after their former leader Shakopee, just west of the Twin Cities.  The small tribe limped along in poverty until they discovered how to capitalize on the love of gambling by some white people and the prohibition of it by others. Since Indian reservations set their own laws, the Shakopee Dakota established a casino.  Through gambling revenues and subsequent investments the Shakopee have become the richest American Indians in the nation, thanks to $1 million annual payouts ($84,000 a month) to each adult member of the tribe.  The band named after a chief who was a victim of American greed is now rich because of a related flaw in the American psyche: casino gambling.

The Mississippi Choctaw have also benefited from the whites’ love/hate of gambling, though following a bit less violent history. In 1830, the United States passed the Indian Removal Act which was intended to remove all Indians from the eastern portion of the United States and to relocate them on reservations west of the Mississippi River. Of particular concern to the Americans were the Indians from the Southern states. Peaceful tribes such as the Creek, Cherokee, Chickasaw, and Choctaw were required to leave the lands which they had been farming and improving for thousands of years, travel to what is now Oklahoma, and start over with unimproved lands.

Oil was discovered on Choctaw lands in Oklahoma and today Oklahoma’s Choctaw Nation maintains a workforce of more than 6,000 and a payroll approaching $300 million. The Oklahoma Choctaw have seven casinos, a manufacturing business, a management services company, 13 travel plazas, 12 smoke shops, a printing company and a document-archiving company.

Some of the Choctaw in Mississippi retreated into the woods and didn’t move to Oklahoma.  This group has lands scattered in three counties of Mississippi, but mostly in Neshoba County. The tribe is the largest employer in Neshoba County.

You can’t miss the Choctaw lands if you are travelling from the west into Philadelphia, Mississippi. You’ll see signs for the Choctaw’s water park and then their Dancing Rabbit Inn and golf courses.  You’ll really know you’re there when you see twenty stories in the air a huge golden globe atop the Pearl River Casino which straddles the highway.

We stayed at the Dancing Rabbit, but we weren’t interested in the casino.  We want to know about Choctaw agriculture.  Our first stop was the Choctaw cultural center where we learned that the Choctaw had virtually abandoned agriculture and many of their traditional skills, but were trying to bring them back.

The person in charge of this revival is Gilbert Thompson.  From the moment we entered his office,  Mr. Thompson immediately made us feel at home and was very open and free with information.  We took us on a tour of main site of their facilities. He introduced us to several of his fellow Choctaw working on six different Choctaw programs involving agriculture.

The oldest is the Farmers Market.  This program began in 1995 and is supported partially by tribal dollars to insure fresh vegetables are available to tribe members.  The tribe put in $50,000 last year which is a slight increase over the $45,000 which has been the usual yearly subsidy.  The program is also supported by vouchers for young families (WIC–women, infant and children, the handicapped and the elderly).  The market also receives some cash from people without vouchers and those who choose to buy more than the value of their vouchers.

The market buys produce directly from farmers who are certified by WIC.  Twenty-eight famers are certified to supply the market. Among the growers are D D Rushing, Jerry Wilson, Bruce Terrell and Harvin Hudson.  Vendors can be Choctaw or outside the tribe.

When customers come into the market, they register and are approved by representatives of the various voucher programs and then choose what produce they want. Black eyes peas are 51% of sales and watermelons are big sellers.  Tomatoes are 12%. Other products were squash, peppers, eggplants and irish potatoes. Frozen tomatoes and 9 lb bags of shelled peas are also available to maintain the freshness.

A mobile market takes fresh produce to 8 out-lying Choctaw communities.

The market facility was also designed to contain a cafe, but the nearby Choctaw shopping center had eating options.  The kitchen is now sometimes used for cooking demonstrations by the extension agents.

Vocational Rehabilitation.  This is a facility for people who previously could not maintain employment.  The goal is to help them re-enter the workforce. Four greenhouses up the hill from the farmers market are used by the participants to grow flowers for the casino and tribal offices.  All flowers for the resort and golf course also come from these greenhouses.  Three years ago blueberries bushes were planted just north of the greenhouses, but they are not yet being harvested.

Youth offenders.  The tribal Justice Center has gardens for incarcerated youth which provides an opportunity for youth to get outside and also interact with elders. This project was funded for three years and though it was successful it is no longer being funded. The garden is still being maintained by the incarcerated people.

Choctaw High School has a greenhouse and raised beds as part of an occupational training center. They produce vegetables for a restaurant run by the school.  The high school produces mums for mothers day, ferns and roses.  The program is especially geared to students who have difficulty with academic school work.

The tribe prepares land for 200 family gardens.  This includes bush hogging, plowing, disking and cultivating.  The largest is two acres.  These families are encouraged to become vendors for the farmers market after being WIC certified.

Diabetes program. Working with the health center, the program supplies education and fresh produce to individuals who are at risk of being diabetic. These individuals will get vouchers and take courses in vegetable preparation.

All of these projects are supported by the tribe and the Federal Government to improve the health of Choctaw families.  None of these five projects is intended to be self-supporting. Recently the Choctaw have established a sixth project which is intended to become an independent, for profit entity, Choctaw Fresh Produce. This is the project which we focused on in more detail since resilient systems must be self-supporting, by definition.  If their resilience requires outside subsidy, then a system’s resilience cannot be independently measured.

Choctaw Fresh Produce.  This for-profit business started almost five years ago through a grant and is still partially grant supported. The program was begun and directed by Dick Hoy until his untimely death last Christmas.  After his death his field coordinators Daphne Snow and David Weatherford took over with Daphne becoming General Manager. We talked to David on the hillside overlooking the two largest Choctaw Fresh Produce hoop houses.  OFP has 18 high tunnels in 5 communities. The biggest are 30 by 144; the rest are 30 by 96.  We later saw project hoop houses in Tucker and Bogue Chitto communities.

The goal of the project is to create a profitable business which provide jobs by getting fresh produce back into the Choctaw community and Mississippi more broadly. David says, “There is no fresh produce available around here.  You don’t buy it at Wal-Mart you do without.”

Much of their sales is to the casino and the casino’s hotels. A good portion of their sales is for the Associates Dining Room, where meals are provided for casino and hotel employees 24 hours a day, seven days a week.  In the first years, CFP operated a CSA.  That was good for up front money with twenty-five members in Choctaw and 175 in Jackson—each paying $300 per year.  The CSA has been put on hold because the wholesale sales were more profitable and less work.  The CSA needs 15-20 items to insure the each member has a full and varied basket every week.  The intention is to bring the CSA back—probably next spring.

They have sold to Whole Foods in Jackson but encountered a few problems.  “They are so big and require so many forms. Rainbow Coop in Jackson buy a lot, every week.”  They also sell indirectly to restaurants in Jackson who have organized their own farm to grow produce for them and others.  They have a warehouse in Union on southern border of Neshoba County. Called Up End Farm, they are also known as a food hub. CFP sold 200 lbs of eggplant to them a few weeks ago and has also sold them cucumbers.

CFP is presently working to get GAP certification, so they can participate in the Mississippi farm to school program and other large buyers. CFP already has an order with the MS Department of Agriculture for farm to school.  They want cherry tomatoes in September. “Nobody else wanted it so passed on to us.” CFP produces “tomato berries which are shaped like strawberries, but have a good tomato taste. They are much like cherry tomatoes.  We hope to get the Ag Department to replace cherry tomatoes with our berries for farm to school.

David is also meeting with Choctaw food director to get produce into local schools.  They can buy without GAP certification.  “We meet all safety regulations.”

Recently, CFP has set up a kiosk where food is sold on the honor system to employees at the casino.  This spring they sold eggplants, onion, cucumbers and tomato berries at the kiosk. The equipment is minimal: a mailbox for the money, signs and a rack of produce.  They sold $1000 every two days.  CFP had to devote one guy to manage it.  He started at 8 am Monday morning. He’d collect money, inventory produce, go back to CFP to get what he needed to replenish it and had to do that three times a day 5 days a week.  The market is the 3000 employees of the hotel and casino.  CFP plants to continue that kiosk this year and expand to the hospital, the tribal office, the school and add two kiosks at casinos.

Other changes in the works focus on the outlying communities. Producing in 5 communities has become a logistics nightmare. In the original plan, local residents would be trained and manage each one of the local sites with assistants from staff living close to the sites. Manager Dick Hoy lived 10 to 15 min from the County Line site where there are 7 hoop houses.  He was going to take care of that greenhouse including a lot of transplant production. The void after his death and the 1.5 hours a day travel of staff to that site has led to the decision to move the seven houses down to the main location so Daphne and David can manage them more easily. The hoop houses in the remaining three communities, Bogue Chitto, Tucker, and Connehata (each has three) will no longer be used for CFP sales but be turned over to the local schools and community and for U pick. The plan is for local residents to pick butter beans, peas, squash, etc.. Initially CFP will still organize the production with the goal of eventually turning everything over to the communities.

CFP at present has eight employees.  In addition to Daphne and David who are not Choctaw, there are six full time employees who are Choctaw from the communities of Pearl River, Tucker, Red Water, and Bogue Chitto.  Three of these are on a 90 day trial.  At the end of that time, they will either be hired, or others will take their places. David and Daphne run CFP. David does marketing. Daphne organizes everything in planting and greenhouses. David makes sure the workers go where they should go.  He takes care of boxing, packaging, pre-sales and delivery.

In addition to cucumbers, tomatoes and green onions, CFP grows “the prettiest romaine lettuce. We had trouble selling it initially. Now the resort is our biggest buyer of romaine. They bought 4000 heads in 2 month period. We’ll be growing basil as a companion crop for tomatoes this year.  We have strawberries in Conehatta as a trial.  Got hot this spring when they were trying to produce.  The few we had sold great though.  We put pint of half strawberries, half blueberries and they’d be bought as soon as we set them down in the kiosk.

CFP has found “certified organic is hard. Often the only want to get rid of pests is to pick them off by hand.  We do apply some organic pesticides, but at $500 for a little bottle, its expensive.  It’s been a struggle.  I hope Mississippi will grasp the organic side of it like in other states.  We’re just behind here.  It’s just getting word out.  What’s good for you.  Where does your produce come from. Even I didn’t realize until I came to work here that the average produce comes from 1500 miles away.  It’s lost so much nutrition.  With our produce, we pick Monday, ship it Monday or Tuesday and it’s on your table same day.

“We have looked into value-added products.  We looked into salsa, but labor is a problem. Find someone with knowledge and desire to work.  We are looking into packing cause some buyers want produce in bags.  But that means hiring new person and buying new equipment.  How long will it take to make profit?  Where we pack has a kitchen where chefs get trained, so we do have the basic facilities.”

Other changes this year include putting in “raised beds at Bogue Chitto because the soil is so bad.  We’re taking good black soil from County Line and putting it between concrete blocks in Bogue Chitto.   Here we use compost that we get from Decker Dirt in Brooksville.  It’s certified organic compost.  It’s 40 yards for $600 but it’s the best black good soil.

“We don’t do compost ourselves due to disease.  When we pull plants we take them to dump off our property, never till into soil or put in compost pile.  It takes so long for diseased plants to decompose. At some point we might do compost, but not right now.

Resilience and today’s indigenous peoples?  Today’s Choctaw have learned how to survive and thrive in modern America. They now provide jobs for non-Choctaw to produce fresh produce for them and run their casinos, hotels and golf courses.  They are surviving and growing—certainly characteristics of resilient systems. They have found their niche in the American system. As long as American policies toward gambling and Indian affairs continue, the Choctaw will continue to survive and grow. However, the traditional skills of the Choctaw in pottery, drum-making, agriculture and even stick ball had almost died out before the casinos.  Choctaw leaders know their present success rests on changeable state and federal policy and that they must do more to develop the qualities of resilience in their people.


Related resilience blogs:

No disaster is natural.

Who is indigenous?



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