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The Old Beloved Path (Part 3): The Wilderness School - Vegetable Kingdom

SOURCE: The Old Beloved Path: Daily Life Among the Indians of the Chattahoochee River Valley, William W. Winn, 1992. Cover art by Joe Belt. Illustrations by Cheryl Mann Hardin with plant drawings by Faith Birkhead. Sponsored by the Historic Chattahoochee Commission and The Columbus Museum in cooperation with the Chattahoochee Indian Heritage Association.


Although the emergence of the burial mound tradition usually receives most of the attention in archaeological and anthropological texts dealing with the Woodland Period, the most dominant factor in the daily lives of the people was still the struggle for existence. Their victory in this struggle may well represent their most significant achievement. During the Woodland Period, the people of the Chattahoochee River Valley became masters of the forest – skilled hunters and highly efficient gatherers of wild plants, nuts, and fruits. They were the last occupants of the Valley not dependent upon corn culture and subsistence agriculture, both of which began during the Woodland Period, but did not reach full maturity until the subsequent Mississippian Period (AD 700 – 1,600). The Woodland people roamed the Valley in search of game and wild plants, from which they got almost all their daily needs. Aided by the development of the bow and arrow, which became the weapon of choice during the Woodland Period, the Valley Indians became supremely accomplished hunters. Mastery of the forest and of the plants and creatures within it made them at home in the wilderness. As such, they probably came as close as any Native Americans to the idealized concept most people have of what it means to be “Indian” – to exist in a state of nature entirely dependent upon wild game and plants for sustenance and upon one’s wits and physical skills for survival and domestic comforts.

The Woodland people, and those who followed them, learned the Valley’s topography by walking on it and immersing themselves in it. It was a knowledge imprinted on the heart as well as the mind. They waded its dark swamps in quest of bear and cougar, traversed its vast forest in search of stands of oaks, hickories, walnuts, and other nut-bearing trees, climbed its rugged hills – often for the same reason we do – to get a better view, and sank up to their waists in its shallow beaver ponds to collect cattails and bullhead lilies and dig up yellow pond lily roots with their toes. They knew the river itself, and it many tributaries, better than we know the streets on which we live. They swam and fished in its waters, used it as a broad highway to travel throughout the Valley, stretch out on its banks to take in the warmth of the winter sun, listened to the hiss of the rain striking its surface, and heard the strange, sad, rustling sound of wind in the cane that grew on its banks. In the daily struggle for survival, and in the simple fact of existence, the Woodland Indians became the greatest naturalists the Valley has ever known. They made use of almost everything and wasted nothing. There was scarcely an animal or a plant in the Valley that was not utilized by the Woodland people. Animals not only provided food, but their skins, bones and sinews were used to fashion articles, including clothing, bow strings, drills, hoes, tool handles, needles, and the like. Fish provided flesh for food. Their teeth, scales, and bones were made into arrowheads, cutting and puncturing tools, and articles of adornment. Wild plants which we consider to be weeds were a vital source of food, medicine, and raw material for domestic use and manufacture. Never before or since have the people of the Valley known so much about their surroundings – or turned them into such useful purpose – as during the Woodland Period.

The Chattahoochee River Valley was a horn-of-plenty during the Woodland Period. Even today, the area is as rich in wildlife as many nature preserves. It is home to nearly 50 species of mammals, 250 kinds of birds, and more than 100 species of reptiles and amphibians. More than 100 kinds of fish can be found in its waters. Many kinds of trees abound here. Learning the characteristics and habits of animals and mastering the habitat identification and uses of wild plants, constituted a significant portion of any Indian’s education. Along with this essential biological and ecological knowledge went woodcraft – how to build a fire, stay warm, erect a wilderness shelter, not get lost. It is this process we have chosen to call the “Wilderness School.”

Historical Indians of the Valley – that is, those who were here after Europeans and Africans arrived – had distinct notions of the roles of sexes in daily life, emphasizing a sharp division of labor and assigning the men and women quite different responsibilities. There is no reason to think it was any different among the Woodland people. In addition to the responsibility of defending the clan, village, or tribe against its enemies, men were expected to provide meat for the pot. As a consequence, they must have spent a good deal of their time making and maintaining their weapons and perfecting their hunting techniques and knowledge of animal habits. Boys began to handle spears, blowguns, and bows and arrows almost as soon as they could walk, and they were expected to bring home small game for the family pot whenever they could. By their early teens, Indian boys were hunting turkey and deer, and many Woodland youth would have been in on a bear kill long before his twentieth birthday. Men were also involved in amassing knowledge about the vegetable kingdom, especially in regard to the medicinal and ritual uses of the plants. Women bore and reared the children, maintained the home, and were responsible for cleaning and cooking game and, especially, for gathering wild plants and nuts. As a result of the latter, women spent most of their time in the woods as men, although their reasons for being there were quite different. Girls were also put to work. They learned at an early age how to make pottery and clean and dress animal skins. They would also accompany the older women on forages to learn to identify they habitats of useful plants and to build their own plant lists and locations.

The food plants were, of course, the most important. These, in turn, can be divided into several categories according to the parts favored and consumed by the Indians, as leaves and stems, flowers, fruits, seeds, nuts, or roots. Perhaps the most readily utilized plants were those whose leaves and stems could be consumed raw or cooked – much as we might eat greens in a salad or prepare spinach, celery, or asparagus. Among the most important leafy plants available during Woodland and later times were some forms of the chenopods (possibly Lamb’s – quarters, greenbriars, pokeweed, cattails, pickerel weed, shepherd’s purse, the peppergrasses, water lilies, amaranths, horseradish, wild lettuce, Indian cucumber root, wild onions, and wild garlic… to name a few). Many were extremely nutritious. They would also be harvested in the spring when the leaves were new and tender. Although flowers were not a major food source, many plants and trees of the Valley produced flowers which are edible. Among these are the black locust tree, wisteria, elderberry, violets, redbud, water-hyacinth, and wild mustard. Wild fruits were much more important than flowers in the diet of the Valley Indians. Fruit was gathered in the late summer and early fall. Some of it was eaten straight from the bush or tree, but the Indians seem to have preferred to dry their fruit over a slow fire or in the sun. By preserving fruits in this manner, they would be available during the winter. Persimmons were the favorite, followed by the red mulberry. Other popular fruits included blackberries, the May-apple, wild strawberries, rose hips, juniper berries, yucca, hackberries, wild grapes, wild plums, and blueberries, among others.

Many plants in the Valley produce tuberous roots, a vital source of starch and sugar. Some of these plants were among the most important of all wild foods. Chief among these were the greenbrier, called Kuntee by the historic Creeks. Greenbrier can be found throughout Chattahoochee Valley. Also widespread are the Jerusalem artichoke, which has a large, very palatable root, and the wild-potato vine. Others included arrowhead, yellow pond-lily, wild carrot, cattail, Indian cucumber – root, and probably American lotus. All of the wild potatoes were harvested whenever available, but they were particularly fond of tubers in the fall when they were full of starch and in the spring when they were very sweet with sugar. Seeds were also important in the diet of Woodland Indians in the Valley. In fact, seeds remained important in the Indian diet right into historic times. The sunflower was probably the most important of these plants locally. The Creeks called it hasee-ahakee, “picture of the sun.” In the fall, its nutritious seeds were collected in large quantities and eaten raw or parched. A sort of Indian pablum was made by mothers, who chewed sunflower seeds and fed the pulpy mass to infants. A fine oil was obtained by boiling the crushed kernels. Seeds were also important for another reason. By husbanding and then planting the hardiest and largest of seeds from their favorite plants, Indian women may have given birth to domestic agriculture during Woodland times. Squash seeds were eaten as early as the second millennium BC when this hardy plant was introduced from what is now Mexico.

Nuts and acorns were an essential part of the Valley Indians’ diet from at least the Archaic Period on. Both nuts and acorns were eaten raw and parched, added to soups and stews, and sometimes dried into flour. Acorn bread was a common food. Hickory nuts yielded the sweetest of all Indian vegetable oils, but walnuts and beech nuts were also boiled to extract their oil. Nut oil was frequently used in soups and stews, but rarely used for frying because it was unstable under high heat. For daily use, nut oil was kept handy in a squash gourd, and it stored well in large pots or skins in the ground. Of course, nut and acorn meat could be dried and stored – commonly in pits dug in the earth. In many ways, cattails almost constitute a Wilderness School in themselves. They were once found throughout the Valley, but destruction of habitat, particularly through the draining of beaver ponds and oxbows, has greatly reduced their numbers. As recently as the 1800s, however, cattails were an essential ingredient in the daily lives of Valley Indians. The native people ate the tender shoots and stalks in the spring, either raw or cooked like asparagus. The immature flower spikes could also be boiled and eaten in the late spring. Indian women gathered a nutritious pollen from the flower heads in the early summer, which could be used like flour. In the fall and winter, the roots are filled with starch. An excellent flour can be made by pounding and washing the roots until the starch settles out. Lastly, the cattails had another important use in domestic manufacture. Their stalks could be made into mats, the down from the germinating flower heads was used for padding or as diapers for infants (as was Spanish moss), and the flowerheads made excellent torches.

Salt and sugar are the last parts of the vegetable kingdom covered in the Wilderness School. There were many sources for both. Salt could be obtained through trade with coastal tribes or those that lived inland near salt licks or salt springs in what is now Arkansas, Tennessee, Kentucky, and Louisiana. They also produced salt substitutes through burning a certain moss that grew in creeks, burning the stalks of a particular herb, and using ash of hickory bark. Sugar could be obtained from the sugar maple simply by tapping the tree and boiling the sap, then letting the syrup evaporate. This method could also be used with to produce syrup and sugar from other trees found in the Valley. The best of these are the sycamore, red maple, walnuts, and hickories. While the sugar content of these trees is not quite as high as the sugar maple, they were far better than no sweetener at all.

A Creek Tale – Origin of Tobacco A man was courting a woman and they were seated on the ground at a certain place. Sometime afterwards the man came back to the spot and saw a small weed growing up just where the woman had been sitting. He went several times, until the weed got to be of some height. Now he began to care for it. When it was about a foot high, he took off some leaves and smelt of them and they smelt good to him, and others he would throw into the fire, finding the odor they gave forth in burning very agreeable. He cultivated this plant until it gave forth seed. Tobacco was gotten in this manner, and since this man and woman were very happy when they were there and were very peacefully inclined toward each other, tobacco has ever since been used in concluding peace and friendship among the Indian tribes.

Next Week: We will continue the story of the Wilderness School in two weeks! We hope you all have a wonderful holiday next week. Please know Historic Columbus is very thankful for you! See you in December!

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