Tanchi and Shukhusi

Bishinik May-June 1980 Page 6 & 7

Origins of the Choctaw People Retold from Old Legends

By Len Green

(This is the eighth in a series of feature articles coordinating and delineating the ancient legends concerning the prehistoric and earlier days of Okla, the People, who were later to be called Choctaw by the white man. Through the first seven episodes, we learned how Okla came from the western waters, made the long trek over mountains, deserts, plains, swamps and a great river to reach the land promised them by Hashtahli, the Sun Father, in the lands now known as Mississippi and Georgia. We discovered how they found the promised lands good and erected two mounds near their beloved Nanih Waiya, one to house the bones of their dead and the other as a final resting place for the Sacred Stick and for the bones of their spiritual leader, Hatakni, the first born man, who had led them on their long journey.)

Part Eight

Tanchi and Shukhusi

If the Choctaw people have a national dish, it is tanchi labona (also called pashofa and hoshponi), a mixture of cracked corn and pork cooked together slowly over a low fire to make it both tasty and nutritious. In a previous episode, the writer described how Okla women and girls went about preparing acorns to remove the bitter taste with water from hickory ashes and cooking the acorns with bear meat as the nation’s favorite “festival” food. Actually, the acorn and bear meat dish is the direct grandparent of tanchi labona (or corn and pork).

There were in the woods around Nanih Waiya many wild hogs, called by the People “Shukhusi.” The wild hogs of Nanih Waiya however were a far cry from hogs of today. The animals were lean and mean, probably the most vicious animal, pound for pound, in the woods hunted by Okla. These wild hogs were equipped with large, sharp tusks and would attack any other animal or a human quickly and viciously at the slightest provocation. A hunter could be attacked for simply unknowingly passing too close to a den where a mother sow was rearing her brood of piglets. Generally, the Okla hunters tried to avoid contact with the wild hogs, except when there was no other game available or in defending his own skin from a sudden attack by one of the mean-natured Shukhusi.

There was, among the children of the nation, one boy who was not as large as other children of his age, could not participate in many of the children’s games because of his size nor accomplish many of the feats of boys his age. In fact, he was called Achafa Chipota, which means “small one,” after the fashion of naming a person for a physical attribute or for some feat he had accomplished. However, because of his size, Achafa Chipota trained himself so that by the age of 12 he could run faster than any other boy in his village, climb a tree more quickly and agilely and with his small bow hit an owl’s eye at 100 paces.

It was a custom that when a boy reached the age of 12 seasons that he should begin accompanying his father to the father’s assigned position so that he, too, might learn the skills and techniques of his family’s profession. Since Achafa Chipota’s father was a hunter, the youngster was called by his father and began to learn the art of hunting so that he would be ready when the day came that he would be expected to help provide meat for the nation’s table. Though he had reached his 12th season when he went forth for the first time with his father and the hunting party, Achafa Chipota was still very small for his age. But, his father understood the law of Okla and brought him along.

“Look, a baby!” cried one of the other hunters, “Did you bring him along a sweet teat?” Others of the hunting party glowered and declared that Achafa Chipota was too small to ever be a hunter.

But follow along Achafa Chipota did, carrying arrows and knives for the hunters use in killing game, and joining quickly and efficiently in skinning out and smoking the game killed. Game was smoked for 24 hours, beginning on the same day it was killed, so that it would keep until it could be transported back to the home village and consumed by the residents. And, what Achafa Chipota lacked in size, he made up for in alertness, curiosity and efficiency, darting about the woodlands quickly to perform any task asked of him. The grumbles and “hard” kidding Achafa Chipota had received at first soon turned to good natured kidding and smiles from the other members of his father’s hunting party.

Though his bow was the smallest in the hunting camp, he was probably the most accurate shot among the hunters in the party. Therefore, it soon became Achafa Chipota who was sent forth to supply the camp with squirrel, rabbit and other small game. The hunters generally ate the smaller game in camps, saving the larger game such as bear, deer and buffalo for skinning out, smoking and returning to the villages for winter food.

One morning, while hunting small game, Achifa Chipota was walking through a grove of trees when he was suddenly confronted by an angry, snorting hog, obviously ready to attack him. Being among the fastest runners in the nation, Achafa Chipota took to his heels, with the raging hog in close pursuit. As he ran, Achafa Chipota fitted an arrow into his small bow. Speeding up to a large oak tree, Achafa Chipota suddenly changed his running direction, swerving around the tree and coming up behind the charging hog. As the hog whirled to again press its attack upon Achafa Chipota, the small Choctaw fired his arrow, piercing the hog through the eye and killing it instantly. As he stood, gasping for breath, over his kill, the small youth became aware of the squealing of small piglets in the area. He realized that the hog which had attacked him had been a mother protecting her young. Within moments, he had found a nest containing six tiny piglets. Achafa Chipota knew that since he had just killed their mother, the piglets would probably die.

So after hanging and gutting the sow he had killed, Achafa Chipota wove himself a crude basket from some nearby trees, gathered up the six piglets into the basket and took them back to camp with him along with their dead mother and some rabbits, squirrels and opossum he had killed. Achafa Chipota was unsure whether or not he could keep the piglets alive, but quickly learned that the piglets would quickly devour food scraps he gathered after meals in the camp, and drink greedily from the nearby stream where he took them.

When he returned from the hunt, the young Okla brought his piglets with him and near his home he built a pen from split logs, where they could have plenty of water, range a bit and continue to grow. And, after each meal, Achafa Chipota would gather table scraps from his own home and from the homes of neighbors to feed his piglets. In an amazingly short time the piglets became exceedingly friendly running to the youngster so that he could scratch behind their ears anytime he approached their pen. And before long, his piglets had grown into pigs, then into hogs, mated and bore him piglets of their own.

But then there came a season when game in the woods was suddenly scarce and the hunters would come home from the hunt with very little to show for their labors.

“Oh, woe!,” said Achafa Chipota’s father, “The district Minko is coming to our home for a conference tomorrow, and we have no meat to prepare a meal for him. I shall be a laughing stock!”

“Fear not, father, you shall feed the Minko in style,” said Achafa Chipota, “Have mother prepare her acorns as if she is going to make a festive dish of acorns and bear meat.”

Then Achafa Chipota went out and selecting one of his fatter young pigs, led the animal away from the pen, slaughtered it, cut it up and brought it to his mother to be cooked with the acorns for the Minko’s dinner. After consuming two bowlfulls of the dish, the Minko said, “This meat is much sweeter than bear meat and yet it is even more tasty than bear. What kind of meat is it?” Shyly, Achafa Chipota’s father told the Minko that it was the meat of a Shukhusi which his son had captured, penned and fattened from feeding it table scraps.

After helping himself to another bowl of the mixture, the Minko turned to Achafa Chipota and said, “After this delicious meal from your Shukhusi, you shall never again be called Achafa Chipota, the small one. Hereafter, your name shall be Pelichi Shukhusi (literally tamer of pigs) and I direct you to show all of the families in our district how they, too, may capture their own piglets and grow their own pork because it is sweeter, fatter and more tasty than bear meat in berry season.”

And so, it was not long until every Choctaw family had a pen and a few piglets, eating their table scraps and growing fat against the day these pigs would grace the family table or feed a visiting dignitary. And now, the scene shifts to another time and another place not far from the scene of the triumph of Pelichi Shukhusi, the little hunter who became a leader through the taming of the wild hog,

The principal characters of this story are two Okla hunters, who had somehow became separated from the hunting party they were working with and had to make their way back home alone. It was winter and pickings had been slim for the hunters who had to range far and wide to kill even enough small game for their own camp cooking pot.

When night came upon the two hunters, they found a sheltered spot and built a fire against the cold preparing to spend the night. Hunting had been extremely poor, and between them they had killed only one small rabbit. This they spitted upon a green stick and placed over the fire to cook and share as a meager supper. But, while the hunters were preparing their small rabbit, they suddenly heard a woman’s voice sobbing and crying not too far from where they were encamped. They rushed to the scene to find a beautiful young woman, dressed all in white with long braids of black hair falling almost to the ground behind her. She was sobbing, crying and shivering. Taking her and leading her back near their fire, the hunters asked, “Why are you crying, woman. And how may we help you?”

“I am the daughter of Hashtahli, the Sun Father, and the Moon Mother, and I have been sent out on a special mission for my father, ” the young woman sobbed. “But, I ran out of food several days past, and have grown so weak that I cannot go another step toward completing the Sun Father’s business. I must have food or I shall perish,” she said.

The two hunters looked at the beautiful young girl, looked at each other and without a word, one of them reached over to the fire, took the single small rabbit and handed it to the woman. “This is all the food we have,” he said, “but you are welcome to it.”

Thanking them profusely, she ate only a small portion of the rabbit, not more than three or four bites, and then with a smile as bright as the opening eye of Hastahli., the Sun Father, she said: “You have sustained me so that I may be about and complete the Sun Father’s business. You shall be rewarded for your kindness. On the morrow, go back to the hillock where you first found me tonight. ”

Whereupon, the lovely maiden suddenly vanished from the sight of the two hunters as if she had suddenly been swallowed up by the night air. After looking about and deciding that indeed the beautiful young girl was gone, the two hunters shared what was left of the rabbit, built up their fire and settled in for a cold, hungry night.

The next morning, recalling the last words of the strange, white-clad young lady, the two hunters made their way to the small hill where they had first found the girl who claimed to be a daughter of the Sun Father and Moon Mother. And, although it was in the dead of winter, there, where the young woman had stood and cried, grew a tall green plant. It towered a foot or two above the heads of the warriors and was crowned by a tassel at the top. The plant had spiky, knifelike leaves and bore large, elongated fruits wrapped about in green shucks. The hunters each pulled one of the fruits, removed the outer covering (shucks) and one of them nibbled at the kernels revealed by the shucking process, “It’s delicious, he cried. So, each of the hunters ate one ear of the strange fruit for his breakfast. There were five ears left on the stalk, which they pulled, placed into a hunting bag and carried to their homes to be planted the next spring. They called their gift “Tanchi” (corn). Each had his woman plant a patch of Tanchi in the spring, and the following fall they gathered many ears of the new food. They discovered that when the corn had dried, it could be easily shelled from the cobs, as well as being broiled on the cob or cut from the cob with a bamboo knife for boiling with meat.

It was not long until every family in their village had a corn patch. And, soon thereafter, every Okla family had corn to plant in the spring and corn to eat during the winter months. Slowly, the favorite dish of the People changed from the traditional bear meat and acorns to corn cooked with pork. Although treatment with hickory ash lye water, which had been developed to remove the bitter taste from acorns, was not needed to sweeten the corn many of the women of Okla treated their corn with the lye water. This resulted in the popular dish called “hominy,” which is still a favorite food throughout the south and southwest.

Another popular use of the corn was to make what the People called simply “cracked corn. ” The dry corn was cracked and then lightly roasted with hickory smoke to preserve it and keep out insect pests. The cracked corn could be kept in bags for several months to be cooked with meat in the winter. Or, the cracked corn could be easily carried in a belt pouch by a warrior or hunter when he was on a mission. A handful of cracked corn and a drink of water could serve as a meal when it was dangerous for an Okla to light a fire to cook meat.

Thus, Tanchi became the top sustainer of life for the children of Chahta.

And, when the white man came, he showed Okla another use for cracked corn. A French visitor wrote, “The cracked corn of the Tchatha (Choctaw), when sweetened with a dollop of honey and softened with a bit of milk makes a quick and tasty breakfast.”

Thus, it might well be said that the Choctaws invented cold breakfast cereal hundred of years before C.W. Post or W.W. Kellogg appeared upon the world scene.

(The Choctaws made the first potato chips, too, but that is another story).

Because the Tanchi came as a gift from the daughter of Hashtahli, and because of the drastic changes in the life styles of Okla created by the corn, each year when the corn had ripened to “roasting ear” stage, the People gathered at Nanih Waiya to stage an “Green Corn Dance” or festival. Thus, over the years, the Green Corn Dance and the Festival of Mourning for the Dead, when the bones of those who had died in the past year were brought to the great mound for burial, became the two major national holiday festivals of Okla. As late as the mid-1800s, long after the Choctaws had embraced Christianity, the Green Corn Dance was still a summer holiday observed by many Choctaws, especially those who remained in Mississippi. In the past few years, the Mississippi Choctaws have revived the Green Corn Festival as a means of retaining dimming tribal customs and attracting tourists.

And, among the Oklahoma Choctaws, the annual Labor Day festivities held on the labor Day weekend at the Council House near Tuskahoma roughly approximate a Green Corn Festival for those Choctaws forced to seek a home in the west.

NEXT: Oklatibishi.