Kristy Beam/Journalism Intern
Pre-removal Mvskoke peaches journey full circle through citizen conservation efforts.
ONAPA, Oklahoma — Someone in Vernon Courtwright’s family has been taking care of Mvskoke peach trees since before Mvskoke people were removed from the homeland. With his grandparents’ peaches growing in his backyard, that responsibility has now fallen on him.
Courtwright remembers the small, sweet, blood red peaches from his grandparents’ orchard fondly and always looked forward to the treat of their peach preserves as a child.
The story passed down from his grandmother was that Courtwright’s great-great-great-grandfather gathered peach seeds from his village orchard in Alabama. He then carried them in his pocket on the Trail of Tears and planted a new orchard as he began again in the new land.
It was not until later in life that Courtwright really began to appreciate the significance of the peach trees. He has now taken the responsibility on himself to care for the trees to see that they are not lost but continues on with the Mvskoke people.
“Now you can’t find these peaches anywhere,” Courtwright said. “I’m afraid I might be the only one now who has them, which to me is a big responsibility.”
A few years ago, Courtwright met a Muscogee (Creek) gentleman from Alexander City, Alabama named Walter Gowan who heard stories of the pre-removal Mvskoke peach orchards but had been unable to locate any still growing in the region.
“Every Mvskoke village had peach orchards, right before removal the peach orchards were destroyed by the soldiers along with their other food supplies, but there were a few left for some Creek people to take peach seeds with them to Oklahoma,” Gowan said. “I was interested in bringing them back here to Alabama because there are none here now.”
Courtwright was able to dig up two small saplings and mail them to Gowan, which he successfully transplanted and tended for two years now. The trees are not yet bearing, but Gowan hopes they will put out some fruit this summer.
“It’s been a full circle now from Alabama out to Oklahoma and back again,” Gowan said
Now every winter, Courtwright gives away the limited viable saplings from his orchard in Checotah to a lucky few willing to go out, dig them up and hear him tell the story of his family and the peaches journey from the homeland.
Several Mvskoke citizens in recent years have come to get the peach saplings from Courtwright including Dana Tiger and John Brown. Tiger’s trees are now well established and even produced fruit last year.
Brown, a special projects coordinator for the Muscogee (Creek) Nation Cultural Center, has personally transplanted many saplings over the last few years.
“We were worried that they could go away so we decided to try to start spreading the trees around and see if we could keep them going,” Brown said. “They’re a part of our history and our culture, this is what our ancestors ate back then and this is just a little part I can play in keeping that tradition going.”
“So far all the trees we have transplanted seem to be doing well, including the ones I have at my own property. ”
The first transplants Brown dug up were planted at all of the MCN Childcare Centers so the children could access the peach trees and teachers could tell them their story.
Two years ago, Brown helped College of the Muscogee Nation research specialist Lacey Azbell plant four saplings at the CMN cultural community garden where students learn and connect with the significant role food sovereignty has played historically in the lives of the Mvskoke people.
“As we have talked to people about the peach trees we have here, especially elders, they will recall ‘indian peaches’ from when they were younger,” Azbell said.
“The individuals who brought these peach seeds with them during removal understood food sovereignty and the need to provide for themselves.”
Mvskoke people have a relationship with these peach trees dating back to the 1500s, and with the help of citizen conservation efforts, it continues on.
“It is important to me to tell this story about my family and to share these peach trees. It’s a legacy and a responsibility I take seriously,” Courtwright said.
“The seeds themselves came down the Trail of Tears just like us, they endured the changes in life and weather once they got here just like us, they have survived just like us.”
For those who would like to express interest in acquiring saplings as they come available, contact: Vernon Courtwright at email@example.com.