One of the common misconceptions about American Indians that is often repeated in the media and in high school and college textbooks is the idea that they were “hunting and gathering” people. In fact, the Indian nations of the Southeast were agricultural people who lived in permanent villages.
The Southeastern Woodlands is an area which is bounded by the Ozark-Ouachita Highlands of Arkansas and Missouri and the dry plains of eastern Texas on the west and the low plateaus of Kentucky and Tennessee and the interior plains of Illinois on the north. The eastern boundary is the Atlantic Ocean and southern boundary is the Gulf of Mexico. The Southeastern Culture Area includes the present states of Georgia, Florida, South Carolina, western North Carolina, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, southern and eastern Arkansas, Tennessee, and the portions of Missouri, Illinois, and Kentucky that border the Mississippi River. Prior to European contact nearly two million Indian people lived in this area.
Crops (primarily corn, beans, squash, and tobacco) were planted along the creeks and bottomlands near the villages. The area would be first cleared by cutting and burning. The ashes of the burnt wood and cane would then nourish the crops. In addition to the primary crops, the Indians of the Southeast also raised sunflower, sumpweed, chenopodium, pigweed, knotweed, giant ragweed, canary grass, amaranth, and melons.
In order to obtain a maximum yield from their fields, the Southeastern Indians practiced both intercropping and multiple cropping. Intercropping involved planting several different kinds of plants together in the same field. By planting corn and beans together, for example, the bean vines could twine themselves around the corn stocks.
The farming practices of the Southeastern Indians did not rapidly exhaust the soil. They planted beans with corn, thus offsetting the latter’s great consumption of nitrogen. They also carefully hoed the fields to avoid eroding the land.
One interesting aspect to intercropping was the practice of leaving and/or planting trees in cultivated fields that yielded nuts and fruits. This practice helped maintain long-term soil fertility. Fruit and nut tree cultivation in fields with maize and other annuals planted in hills contributed to maintaining fertility. These trees included cherries, white and red mulberries, persimmons, walnuts, chestnuts, plums, and dwarf chinquapins.
Many of the tribes also cultivated plums, particularly the Chickasaw plum (Prunus chicàsa). Later Europeans, who tended to be blind to Native American agriculture, described this as a wild plant and failed to notice that it was found only near abandoned Indian fields.
In addition to helping provide nutrients, the trees also attracted birds. The birds, in turned, helped to restrain the insect population in the fields.
Multiple cropping involves the planting of two successive crops in the same field. Thus, early corn was planted first. It ripened early and was picked green. Then the field would be cleared and a second crop was planted.
Not all cultivated plants were food plants. The Southeastern Indians also grew bottle gourd (Lagenaria siceraria). When cured, the bottle gourd has a hard shell that is very light and difficult to break. Bottle gourds were used for making water vessels, dippers, ladles, bowls, cups, rattles, masks, and bird houses. Tobacco was also grown.
The fields were worked communally. The entire field was not tilled, but rather worked into small hills about a foot in diameter which were spaced about three feet apart and which were laid out in straight lines. Working the fields in this fashion prevented soil erosion and preserved the fertility of the soil longer than did the plow-agriculture which was later introduced by the European colonists.
Fields were cultivated with handled implements that the first Europeans described as hoes. These implements had blades of stone, oyster, mussel shell, fishbone, or wood. In addition, they used a digging stick for making holes into which the seeds were planted.
Unlike the Europeans, the Indians of the Southeastern Woodlands did not view land as private property. Farm land was owned communally and therefore the food it produced belonged to all. Each village had a common granary to protect against times of famine.
In general, each of the Southeastern towns would have a certain amount of land under cultivation. Whenever a child was born the land under cultivation would be proportionally increased. To determine the amount of land needed by the town, a census would be taken each year.
An important part of agriculture is the ability to store the harvested crops in such a way that they are kept safe from mice and other animals. To do this, the Southeastern Indians built corn cribs which were raised 7-8 feet on posts. The posts were polished so that the mice could not climb them. The crib itself was plastered and the door was sealed. When corn was taken from the crib, the seal would be broken, the door opened, some of the corn removed, and then the closed door was resealed to protect the corn which remained in the crib.
The diet of the Southeastern Indians was heavily dependent on corn, beans, squash, and other agricultural crops supplemented with wild game and fish.
There is an important reason for consuming both corn and beans together. While corn supplies some essential protein, it lacks the amino acid lysine. On the other hand, lysine is abundant in beans. Thus, when beans and corn are eaten together they are a good source of vegetable protein.
The early European settlers were amazed at the number of different ways that the Indians prepared corn. It is estimated that there were at least 42 different ways of preparing corn, each with its own name. Corn was processed into hominy which has been described as the staff of life for the Southeastern Indians. This process involved the use of wood-ash lye which selectively enhanced the nutritional value of the corn by increasing amino acid lysine and niacin. This protects people who eat a corn-based diet against pellagra.
To produce the wood-ash, the Choctaw women would pour cold water over clean wood ashes placed in a hopper. This would produce a yellow lye which would drip down into a small container. This lye would then be added to the cornmeal.
Among the Choctaw, corn was made into paluska holbi, which was a kind of bread. Boiling water would be poured into cornmeal, which was then pounded into a stiff dough, and shaped into small rolls. These rolls were then wrapped in corn husks and cooked under hot ashes. For a richer taste, they would add chestnut or hickory oil to the cornmeal.
Another Choctaw cornbread was bunaha. This was prepared by mixing dried beans, wild potatoes, and/or hickory with the cornmeal. The rolls of this mixture, wrapped in cornhusks, were then boiled in water.
Another important part of the cuisine of the Southeastern Indians was squash. At least five different kinds of squash were grown. As a fresh vegetable, squash was often used in stews. It was also sun dried, which concentrates the sugar so that dried squash could be cooked as a sweet dish.