This Thanksgiving, Memphis’ Black Chickasaws will revel in sowing and surviving.
This Thanksgiving season, at Wolf River near the North Memphis community of Douglass, Andre Matthews, chief of the Oka Nashoba Chickasaw Nation, and other tribe members will be celebrating the Native American penchant for farming.
Survival – because COVID-19 killed eight of the 18 farmers who supply produce to the Family Farmers Cooperative – a co-op that the Oka Nashoba jointly operates.
“There’s Charlie Davis with his garden,” Matthews said, pointing to a picture of a smiling man flanked by a field of sprouting greens, which was spread out among other photos and memorabilia beneath a greenhouse tent off Warford Street.
“He was growing eggplants…he passed away. We lost several farmers to COVID, but what we have to continue to do is to bring in more growers.”
Survival – because the pandemic slowed or stopped most of their operation.
The co-op was founded in 1991 by Matthews’ mother, Mattie M. Daniels, who was a LeMoyne-Owen College professor and a veteran of the 1960 Memphis public library sit-ins. It is part of the Federation of Southern Cooperatives, a non-profit made up of Black farmers, landowners and cooperatives.
Among other things, the co-op provides resources to small farms and collects food from those farms to distribute throughout the area. Some of the food is sold at a discount to elderly people, and to SNAP and WIC recipients at summer farmers’ markets, Matthews said.
It also introduces youths to farming, Matthews said.
“We bring it back to students and future growers,” he said. “Everything mother did she did it for the children.
“All I’m trying to do is hold up that blood-stained banner.”
But last year the co-op struggled because COVID-19 slowed much of the farming and transport activity because people could not be in close quarters with each other. And farmers, many of whom are older than 60, were also particularly susceptible to contracting the virus.
“We weren’t able to move food trucks and go from farm to farm,” Matthews said. “We lost mostly a whole year…people were afraid to come out here to get seeds, or greens because they were worried about getting COVID.”
But while the pandemic killed the harvest season for the co-op Matthews, whose Chickasaw name is Nowanakni Yanash, which means Rising Buffalo, is resurrecting it as a sowing season.
Matthews is working to build a seed bank to buy fresh seed from farms to begin to regrow organic and traditional seeds that dried up during COVID-19.
He hopes the co-op can qualify for some of the $3 million of pandemic relief money that the Memphis City Council earmarked to eliminate food deserts in North Memphis, to help do that.
“We’re going to grow food, and teach beginning farmers how to grow food, and then we’re going to have some for the market, some for ourselves, and some for canning, and some just for seeds,” Matthews said.
“This time of year, we’re turning the ground over, adding some lime and whatnot. Right now, we’re planning for the spring…we’ve had a long history of growing food and agriculture.”
It’s a history that isn’t just limited to stories about the first Thanksgiving, a feast that the pilgrims had after the Wampanoag in New England taught them how to grow beans and squash to survive their first winter in 1621.
More than a century earlier, in 1540, the Chickasaw welcomed the Spaniards, led by the conquistador Hernando DeSoto, to Northeast Mississippi and allowed them to set up a settlement there.
That didn’t work out, though, because, according to some Mississippi archaeologists, the violence and constant demands for resources – including DeSoto’s demand for 200 Chickasaw to serve as porters – led them to drive the Spaniards from the area.
“They kept asking for things, and asking for things, until finally they’d [the Chickasaw] finally had enough,” Matthews said.
But the things the Spaniards left behind – horseshoes, nails and ax heads – the Chickasaw repurposed into everyday tools for cutting and scraping.
Tools that they could use for farming – and surviving.
So, this year, when the Oka Nashoba Chickasaw Nation does Thanksgiving, they’ll have a good meal and good fellowship like everyone else, Matthews said.
But they’ll do it with the knowledge that, as Native Americans, their agricultural practices and sharing those practices is what made the day, although highly mythologized, possible.
Even as the co-op struggles to recover from what COVID-19 has wrought.
Said Betty P. Tyler, a civil rights and victim rights advocate who is also part of the Chickasaw Nation: “We’re grateful and thankful to still be here. It’s been this way for us. It’s just how we are.”
“It’s all about family to us, coming together over dinner and culture,” Matthews said. “We’ve been struggling and just trying to maintain.
“We just want to share and to make this a better world.”
Tonyaa Weathersbee can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and you can follow her on Twitter: @tonyaajw