Ethnobotany

A Chickasaw Storytellers' Series

The ancient Chickasaw people had a relationship with the natural world that was defined by extensive knowledge and environmental responsibility. Their use of the plant life native to their Homeland was based on the idea of maintaining balance. Both the archaeological record and the knowledge passed down orally through generations shows that the Chickasaws were creative in how they employed plants to provide food, medicine, shelter, tools and weapons. The study of how people of a particular culture or region make use of indigenous flora is known as ethnobotany, and today numerous Chickasaw ethnobotanists are at work reconstructing the role of plants in ritual and everyday life. One of the most prevalent plants in the Homeland was river cane, which flourishes in swamps and can be found in thickets stretching for miles. The Chickasaws used river cane for spear shafts, blowguns, cutting tools, construction materials, floor coverings, baskets and more. When the Colbert brothers scouted out the future Indian Territory in preparation for forced removal from the Homeland, they noted that the lack of river cane would make it extremely difficult for the Chickasaws to adjust to their new environment. Nevertheless, the Chickasaws discovered a different set of resources in their new home and came to rely on plants like the Bois d'Arc, or Osage orange, a tree with hard yellow wood that was widely traded because of its excellent suitability for bow manufacture. The Chickasaws had also developed the practice in the Homeland of building lightweight dugout canoes from trees such as the tulip poplar and cypress. Ancient Chickasaws did not practice sedentary agriculture and relied on harvesting wild plants like hickory nuts, which they crushed to make a distinctive oil. They continued to resist farming after being introduced to corn and beans (originally from Mexico), but for reasons of food security and trade they gradually took on an agricultural lifestyle. Sunflowers were originally domesticated in the Southeast, and the Chickasaws joined many other Native American peoples in cultivating the "Three Sisters"—corn, beans and squash. These work together as ideal companion crops because the corn stalks support the bean vines, the beans release nitrogen in the soil and the squash provides ground cover that lowers the soil temperature and keeps out weeds. In the 18th century, the Chickasaw people began moving their settlements to major roads and growing a surplus of their crops in order to sell food to European travelers and military detachments traversing their lands. The Chickasaws knew how to use almost every plant in the Homeland, and removal was a violent blow to their culture and way of life; even so, they proved to have the strength and versatility to survive in Indian Territory and develop a new relationship with the land and its fruits.

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