Agriculture has long been one of Oklahoma’s top industries, and the state’s Native American tribes have played a huge role in making the industry successful.
“There are 38 federally recognized tribes [in Oklahoma],” says Lisa Johnson Billy, a Chickasaw Nation legislator, former Oklahoma State Representative and current state secretary of Native American Affairs.
The agricultural products produced are as varied as the tribes themselves.
“The Cheyenne and Arapaho own a buffalo herd near Concho. The Choctaw Nation owns and operates a cattle operation in Daisy,” Billy says. “The Chickasaw Nation operates a hay pasture and pecan orchard in Davis. They also grow most varieties of plants, trees, annuals and perennials available for Chickasaw families.”
Oklahoma’s Native American women also have a long history of gardening.
“The Chickasaw and Choctaw women realized an advantage of having a food plot next to their villages,” Billy says. “These tribes were not nomadic, so local deer, buffalo and gardens were extremely important to their way of life.”
Agriculture in the Muscogee (Creek) Nation
The Muscogee (Creek) Nation (MCN) has been in Oklahoma since the late 1820s and is currently the fourth-largest tribe in the United States, with a membership of more than 80,000 citizens. Approximately 60,403 tribe members live in Oklahoma.
“Specifically for the Creek Nation, in the Southeastern United States where the tribes originated, agriculture was a main focus for survival and economic development,” says Trenton Kissee, agriculture and natural resources program coordinator for the MCN. “In fact, the present-day MCN seal features a plow, wheat and farm ground.”
Throughout the decades of federal Indian policy, the federal government encouraged tribes to engage in agriculture, especially raising cattle.
“Some of these efforts were met with skepticism, but many tribes embraced the change,” Kissee says. “It is reported that the Creeks had a large number of cattle by the late 1830s and that Creek cattle were highly sought after in the Indian territory. Many Western drovers would buy cattle by the hundreds from the MCN to drive to markets north of the territory. Several folks point to the Creeks as helping demonstrate the potential of Oklahoma’s rangelands for the cattle business.”
Today, the MCN’s primary agricultural operations are cow-calf herds and hay production; most of their operations are located in Hughes County and McIntosh County in eastern Oklahoma.
“We bale both native and planted forages in the summer for our cattle and for sale, and we also produce pecans, pumpkins and watermelons,” Kissee says. “We calve about two-thirds of the herd in the spring and market most of our calves in El Reno at OKC West after a preconditioning period. We are also in the middle of expanding our commercial cow herd, so we’re excited about the opportunity to grow and improve the genetic makeup of the MCN herd.”
The MCN Division of Agriculture also has the robust Ag Youth Program, offering students learning opportunities such as speech contests, the All-Indian Livestock Show and a summer Washington, D.C., experience.
“Students get hands-on experience through their 4-H and FFA chapters, the Ag Youth Program, Intertribal Ag Council Youth Program and more, which we hope leads to long, fruitful careers in agriculture,” Kissee says.
Agriculture in the Quapaw Tribe
The Quapaw Tribe based in northeastern Oklahoma has approximately 3,240 enrolled members, with about 892 living in Oklahoma. The tribal members embrace a farm-to-fork lifestyle and produce much of their own food.
“The Quapaw are pretty self-sustainable,” says Shawn Henderson, herd manager of Quapaw Cattle Company. “We grow our own corn and hay for our cattle, and we use almost everything. The Quapaw people try to use every part of the animal, including the hide. We don’t waste anything. We are conservationists who value a natural, holistic way of life.”
The Quapaw Cattle Company in Ottawa County manages a herd of about 1,600 cattle and bison, which are processed at the tribe’s own 25,000-square- foot processing plant near Miami, Oklahoma. The $1 million processing plant opened in 2017. The grass-fed, hormone-free meat is sold locally at the Quapaw’s two convenience stores and at the Quapaw Mercantile.
“We also contribute meat to local schools and the Elder Center,” Henderson says.
In addition to producing meat, the Quapaw Tribe grows herbs and vegetables in four greenhouses and farms between 1,500 and 2,000 acres of corn, hay, canola, beans and wheat. The tribe even produces its own honey from 100 beehives and roasts its own coffee through the Quapaw Coffee Company.
Guests at the Quapaw Tribe’s Downstream Casino Resort can enjoy Quapaw-produced meats, produce, herbs, honey and coffee at the resort’s six restaurants. Downstream Casino Resort is believed to be the only casino in the world that employs its own full-time cattle rancher, beekeeper and coffee roaster.