The Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma has endured much in the course of its history in regard to food security. In the past few years it has used its resourcefulness to develop new agricultural products and markets that benefit its Tribal members, and have helped make its new businesses unique destinations.
The Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma (Chahta Yakni) is the third-largest federally recognized Tribe in the United States, and comprises 10.5 counties in southeastern Oklahoma. Its Tribal land is almost 11,000 square miles, and has 223,279 enrolled members (2011 census) throughout the country.
The Choctaw People (Chahta) lived a largely agrarian culture in current-day Mississippi, farming communal and family fields as early as 1000 A.D. They were forced by the Jackson administration to leave their ancestral lands of more than 17,000 square miles in Mississippi, Louisiana, Alabama and Arkansas in three forced marches between 1830 and 1833. These marches to Oklahoma are collectively called the Choctaw Trail of Tears. Torn from their fertile fields along the Mississippi, Tennessee and Arkansas-river valleys, the Choctaw suffered starvation along the three-month journey from Mississippi to Oklahoma. An estimated 17,000 people were forced to make the march, and thousands died along the journey. Rationing during the harsh winter consisted of boiled corn, one turnip, and two cups of hot water a day per person. Experiencing starvation led the Choctaw Nation to donate the equivalent of $5,000 only 16 years later to help those suffering during the Great Irish Potato Famine. The Choctaw knew hunger and felt empathy for any who suffered from starvation. Agriculture and food security are woven into Choctaw heritage.
By the 1860s, less than 30 years after the Trail of Tears, Choctaw Nation members were working their new land and enjoying success through farming, especially in growing profitable cotton. Choctaw men served in the U.S. Army during World War I, and Choctaw Code Talkers used their language to confound German troops who had been breaking U.S. codes. The Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma continued to grow and become integral and influential in Oklahoma. Inspired by the Civil Rights movement, in the 1970s the Tribe reasserted its sovereignty through such measures as language programs and further developing its business enterprises. In the 2000s the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma began opening gaming centers, and today owns three resorts and six casinos throughout their Nation in southeastern Oklahoma. In 2016, the Choctaw Nation Division of Commerce was created to support Tribal and Tribal member businesses. The division’s stated purposes are to help diversify the Tribe’s economy beyond gaming, to create jobs and generate revenue to support Tribal services such as health care, education and senior programs.
The Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma has several agricultural businesses under its Division of Commerce Agriculture. It’s largest and most well known project is its pecan farm.
Traditionally, hickory nuts were an important part of the Choctaw diet. Upon arriving in Oklahoma, the Choctaw discovered wild pecan trees. Called Oksak Fvla (“shelled hickory nut”), pecan nuts soon became a year-round staple. They could be eaten raw or ground into a flour, and kept over winter.
While Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma Tribal members have long collected pecans, it wasn’t until 2016 that the commercial pecan business was created.
“We’ve always had native trees, they were just on our cattle ranches,” says Doyle McDaniel, Tree Production Manager for the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma. “We would have a harvester come in until we realized that we had enough trees to support buying our own equipment and to make this a business and create jobs.”
The Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma owns six ranches totaling 65,000 acres on which they graze 3,000 Certified Angus Beef cattle. In 2015 native pecan trees were identified throughout the ranches, pruned and managed. As more grazing land was developed, more wild pecan trees were discovered in the thick brush. The following year the pecan department was officially created under the Division of Commerce Agriculture, and McDaniel was brought over from the Tribe’s wildlife department to oversee pecan production. He contacted pecan tree experts from the Noble Research Institute and Oklahoma State University to help develop the pecan orchards and learn how to keep existing trees healthy and how to best add new orchards.
Choctaw Farms now has three separate orchards, and has planted new pecan trees alongside existing pecan trees as land has been cleared for cattle grazing. Choctaw Farms grows and processes 150,000 pounds of pecan nuts annually harvested from about 5,000 trees throughout 1,500 acres. Pecans are shelled, processed and packaged in 16-ounce bags as several products, including plain, cinnamon sugar and salted roasted. They are sold at the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma’s 17 Choctaw Nation Travel Plazas throughout its 10.5 counties, as well as the Choctaw Welcome Center at the Oklahoma/Texas border on US 75. And the Tribe continues to create its own businesses for distributions of its pecan products.
Choctaw Country Markets
In 2016, the Tribe opened its first in Clayton, followed by a second and third store in Boswell and Coalgate in 2019.
“It’s a part of this Tribal Council to keep our communities alive,” said Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma Chief Gary Batton at the Boswell location opening. “We have people driving upwards to 30 miles to get groceries, and I’m thankful for everyone investing in Boswell to rise our tide for the greater good of all our tribal people.”
Choctaw Farms pecans are prominently displayed at the markets, and now other Choctaw Farms-labeled products are offered as well. Spicy garlic okra, pickled jalapeños, pickled quail eggs, Choctaw Farms BBQ Sauce, Ghost Chili Salsa, maple bourbon pear butter, and a variety of jams and jellies are a few of the products Choctaw Farms has ventured into and sells at the markets, where customers can also purchase fresh produce and meats.
Choctaw Farms products are also sold through the Choctaw Store. This online store sells and ships a wide range of products made by Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma Tribal members and departments. In addition to Choctaw Farms products, jewelry, original art, books and Choctaw-seal branded items such as mugs, patches and clothing are sold. Choctaw Farms products are also available at the Choctaw Museum gift shop, located in the Historic Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma Capitol Museum in Tvshka Homma. Here, visitors learn about the history of the Chahta People in the 1884 redbrick building that served as the Tribe’s capitol building until 1907. Visitors learn about the Tribe’s pre-European contact history, the Trail of Tears, its contributions to Oklahoma history and its traditional arts and agrarian cultures.
Growing a Community
Beyond commercial agriculture and agritourism, the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma is working to ensure its members have access to healthy food and agriculture support for growing their own food. Begun in 2017, the Nihi Hokchi-Edible Schoolyard Project helps Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma schoolchildren plant gardens, build garden irrigation systems and raised beds and learn about the importance and fundamentals of agriculture. The project was created by the Chahta Foundation, whose stated goal is to “connect communities with Choctaw health and wellness initiatives that enrich the quality of life, establish sustainability and reconnect generations of Choctaw people with their agrarian heritage.”
The Chahta Foundation also brought raised garden beds to Choctaw elders residing in elder living communities. More than 70 raised beds were donated to Choctaw elders as well as soil, mulch, hoses, gardening implements, vegetable plants and herbs, gloves, straw hats and sunscreen. The project has enabled Choctaw elders to grow some of their own fresh foods, to exercise and stay active and to connect with their neighbors and community. Through its heritage of agriculture, the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma continues to help its members and others strive for health and independence through food security for generations to come.