About 350 years ago a refugee group of Muscogee-speaking Indians arrived in what later became Georgia, and began a protracted struggle for dominance with the native Hitchiti-speaking Indians. The Hitchitis “made them Black Drink as a token of friendship” and took away the Muscogees’ tomahawk and buried it under a house as part of a peace ceremony. Then they adopted them as one people with their own, and gave them white feathers. This is told in the Kasita Migration Legend, as recounted in Savannah in 1735, and describes an event that probably took place sometime just prior to A.D. 1662.
The Carolina traders, who mostly translated such speeches, called it the Black Drink because of its dark black hue, but since white was the color of peace and friendship to the Southeastern Indians, for them it was always the White Drink regardless of its color. In Hitchiti the word for this drink is asi (leaves). The Apalachee Indians of northern Florida, who spoke a related language, also had this custom, but called it cassina, in which you can see “assi.” And the Catawba Indians of North Carolina called it yaupon, the common name of the plant today. Botanists call the plant Ilex vomitoria, since the Indians drank this tea before any important decisions were made, and then to symbolize ritual purification, they regurgitated it on the ground at will. At other times tea made from “the leaves” were merely drunk for social reasons, but only ever by the male leaders and warriors of a village or their honored male guests, whether from other towns or tribes or from the European colonies on the American seaboard.
Although Ilex vomitoria (the horrible scientific name botanists gave the plant) is native to the coastal South from Virginia to Texas, it can still be found throughout the places where Southeastern Indians lived within the last 500 years or so, including numerous river and creek valleys hundreds of miles into the interior coastal plain and piedmont. So having decided to try my hand at making asi and advice from my friend Jim Preston on where to find some, I gathered my yaupon leaves, and let them dry out for about a week. Then I parched them in the oven in a stainless steel pan until they were brown and crunchy. Thirdly, I let them cool a bit, and crushed them as much as possible with the bottom of a coffee mug. Next I put “the leaves” in a stainless steel pot and filled it with water and boiled them on medium for about 20 minutes. Finally, I strained the leaves out and poured a mug of this dark black tea for my very first taste.
Delicious! Americans have no need to import tea from China or India (or Great Britain for that matter)! We have a source of caffeine in the native yaupon plant, and it makes a lovely spot of tea! Although some may like to add sugar (and/or milk – yuck) to their Black Drink, I prefer it au naturel, without any additives. It is definitely a jolt of caffeine, and the literature all says it’s a natural diuretic, although I can’t claim to know this from my experience. It does give a whole new meaning to drinking tea down South however, and puts us back in touch both with nature and our Native American forbears.