The Milkweed Diaries

Monday, June 9, 2008


Photo by Debi Cates

Over the weekend, we planted the last of our hot-weather starts, including 3 varieties of okra.

One heirloom variety that we planted, Fife Creek Cowhorn is said to have been in the Fife family since around 1900 and believed to have came to them from a Muskogee (Creek) Indian woman who stayed with them in Mississippi.

There is
plenty of discussion online about the history of okra, and how it might have come to the US, but it seems clear that it is an African native that was brought here by slaves. (Reccomended reading: 100 Vegetables and Where They Came From by William Woys Weaver.) In fact, since there is ample historical evidence (including oral family histories of people of color in the US) to suggest that escaped slaves were integrated into Native American/First Nation communities, it's easy to imagine that the Fife Creek okra we're growing came into the hands of the Muskogee/Creek woman (who may have also had African heritage) directly from people of African descent.

Okra was a staple of many African cultures before the slave trade.

Imagine African people, ambushed, kidnapped, forcibly taken from their homes into the slave trade, somehow managing to carry seeds with them. Were the seeds secreted away in a pocket or pouch? Were they passed from one pair of hands to another as people grew sick and died on the grueling "Middle Passage" journey across the Atlantic on slave ships? Did different people carry different varieties of okra seeds with them?

Of course imagining how okra came to us makes me think: what would people of our culture take with them if, in an instant, we could grab a few most-important things from our homes to carry on a long, forced journey with an unknown end? What do we value in the way that kidnapped slaves valued seeds?

What the Cherokee people took, what the Africans soon to be slaves took, what the indigenous peoples pressed into slavery and moved from one part of the Americas to another took with them were seeds. The food we eat is a gift from those who placed such a high value on seeds, on food, on the continuity of life that they carried seeds through circumstances most of us cannot even imagine.

In many villages where slaves were captured,
the women and girls planted the seeds, brought water from the river for the young plants, worked the soil, and harvested the food. The adas, eldest sisters, were the keepers of the seeds and the settlers of disputes. Last night, watering the small okra plants in our garden, I said thank you to the adas.


West African women

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I like your wonderings. I often daydream about a time capsule or artifacts of our era and our people being analyzed hundreds of years from now- when stories that have been passed down are lost or diluted or transformed into mythology... What will the future really know of us and our culture? That leads me to my real question... what the hell is our culture? I am desperately trying to find it- and when I connect with something for a skinny minute that is remotely culture-like, it makes all those other moments of profound confusion worthwhile. Personally, I don't know what I would grab at the last minute if I was captured for slavery. It might very well be seeds. Speaking of seeds, what about that weird seedbank in that's buried in a snowdrift somewhere in Norway.... I love you'uns! Dana