Mvskoke Country

Hvyo-Rakko, “Big Harvest”

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Mvskoke tradition has long recognized corn as a sacred staple.  It’s among the first fruits of the land, and the Mvskoke year begins when the new corn crops are ready.

Yet this “little harvest” is followed by one that is even larger in size, if not in ceremonial significance.

Mvskoke agriculture was a mature, robust science in the eighteenth century.  William Bartram, the British-American naturalist, documented these practices while visiting the heart of Mvskoke country:

“On the east banks of the Oakmulge, this trading road runs nearly two miles through ancient Indian fields, which are called the Oakmulge fields:  they are the rich low lands of the river.  On the heights of these low grounds are yet visible monuments, or traces, of an ancient town, such as artificial mounts or terraces, squares and banks, encircling considerable areas.  Their old fields and planting land extend up and down the river, fifteen or twenty miles from this site.”

He was describing the Ocmulgee Old Fields, now part of Ocmulgee National Monument near Macon, Georgia.  A recent photo of the grounds is featured at the top of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation website.

Bartram cataloged an extensive list of edible resources that sustained our Mvskoke forebears.

“Their animal food consists chiefly of venison, bears’ flesh, turkeys, hares, wild fowl, and domestic poultry,” along with domesticated cows, goats, and pigs.  They were cultivating corn, rice, sweet potatoes, beans, cowpeas, squashes, pumpkins, watermelons, and other crops.  They tended orchards yielding peaches, oranges, plums, figs, and apples; harvested persimmons, berries, grapes, and brier roots from the forest; and gathered nuts under hickory, walnut, pecan, palm, and oak trees.

“Rice,” for example, “they plant in hills on high dry ground, in their gardens; by this management a few grains in a hill (the hills about four feet apart) spread every way incredibly, and seem more prolific than cultivated in water, as in the white settlements of Carolina; the heads are larger and heavier, and the grain is larger, firmer, much sweeter, and more nourishing.  Each family raises enough of this excellent grain for its own use.”

“They have in use,” Bartram concluded, “a vast variety of wild or native vegetables, both fruits and roots.”

So it’s not surprising that the second month of the Mvskoke year is Hvyo-Rakko, “Big Harvest.”  The name was formed by modifying the word hvyo, “harvest,” with the augmentative suffix –rakko, “big.”

Actually, there is some debate over the translation of this name.  The oldest written source, recorded in 1790, renders it “Big Ripening,” and the first Mvskoke dictionary, published in 1890, defines it as “Big Harvest.”  But as early as 1911, anthropologist John Swanton noted that the name might also mean “Much [or Big] Heat,” and today some Mvskokes prefer this translation of Hiyo-Rakko.

The apparent discrepancy may be due to historical or regional variations in pronunciation, or to the varied spelling systems used for written Mvskoke.  The root word hiyē, “heat,” is similar to hvyo, “harvest,” and of course it takes heat to make a harvest.  Perhaps “Big Heat” came into use as a playful interpretation of Hvyo-Rakko, a Mvskoke pun about the climate in Indian Territory around harvest time.

In any event, this month in cokv-walv Mvskoke reminds us of our collective agricultural heritage and of the personal health benefits that result from a balanced diet and an active lifestyle.  Most modern Mvskokes do not eat “a vast variety” of nutritious foods they produce by their own labor, though some are trying to change that.

The Mvskoke Food Sovereignty Initiative, the Creek Council House Museum, the Food and Fitness Policy Council of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, and other concerned citizens are doing important work in this area.  The Hanna Farm Project has several hundred acres of corn, wheat, soybeans, and watermelons under cultivation, with more to come.  A warm letter from Nancy Watson in the last issue of the Muscogee Nation News describes the neighborly service being performed by members of the Okfuskee Indian Community, who are delivering “fresh, clean, ready-to-eat vegetables from the community garden.”

One hundred years ago, while contacting native peoples who were once part of the Mvskoke confederacy, John Swanton visited the Alabama-Coushatta Tribe of Texas, where he recorded this synopsis of an Alabama oral tradition:

“There is a story to the effect that in ancient times the bear was the Indians’ hog, the turkeys their chickens, and the [brier root] their flour, but they did not watch them so they ran away and became wild.”

Watch what you eat, and you’ll feel better—and you may also help preserve one of the finest civilizations this world has ever known.

Muscogee Nation News, August 2010

Sources:

Travels and Other Writings, by William Bartram

Ocmulgee National Monument

“Position and State of Manners and Arts in the Creek, or Muscogee Nation in 1791,” by Caleb Swan

English and Muskokee Dictionary, by R. M. Loughridge and David M. Hodge

Social Organization and Social Usages of the Indians of the Creek Confederacy, by John R. Swanton

Myths and Tales of the Southeastern Indians, by John R. Swanton

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Written by James Treat

August 1, 2010 at 12:00 am

2 Responses

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  1. This is a wonderful message about the watchful world from the Mvskoke perspective – thanks so much for sharing it out. The thoughts about the Big Harvest remind me of the different ways of knowing that we are all struggling to understand and live-into today i.e. ways of eating that take account of our human health as well as the health of the animals and plants we eat. Its no longer satisfactory, if it ever was, to just sit at the trough of factory foods and hog-down. Words like those in this article remind of what grace before and in meals means.

    John Grim

    August 2, 2010 at 10:33 am

  2. I hope you don’t mind if I make a few observations from the Bartram account. First, it should be kept in mind that the use of “garden” to describe Mvkoke agriculture is a misnomer. True, the Mvskoke didn’t use plows, the women rather than men were the principal cultivators, and the overall acreage may have been smaller than the Euroamerican norm (although not by much in most cases), but these were farms, not gardens. It was just the implements used- hoes rather than plows- and the gender of farmers that didn’t meet Bartram’s, or rather his culture’s, definition of a farmer, so what the Mvskoke had were gardens rather than farms, according to Bartram’s mental framework. We need to keep that in mind when reading accounts like this, and make sure that we don’t underestimate the accomplishments of the Mvskoke farmers. It takes a lot of “gardens” to extend the 15 to 20 miles Bartram traveled through. It also shows how much needs to be recovered. These were the fields of just one town. I don’t mean any offence to the Hanna Project when I point out that it would be only a part of the Ocmulgee Old Fields. How many miles of Mvskoke “gardens” surround Okmulgee, Muskogee, Tulsa, or even Oklahoma City, where large numbers of Mvskoke people currently reside?

    Bartram’s mention of rice is quite interesting. This is not wild rice, which is a different species than domesticated rice. The rice the Mvskoke women were growing was an introduced crop, most likely Carolina Golden Rice, which is a rare heirloom variety today, but until the late 1800s the dominant rice grown in North America, both in upland cultivation as the Mvskoke were growing it in Bartram’s account, or in the more familiar flooded fields in lowland areas.

    Rice needs high rainfall, but it does not have to be grown in standing water. Grown in small upland fields without flooding, it actually is more productive than the flooded fields we are more commonly associate with rice. However, rice is very vulnerable to weeds, and in fields larger than the subsistence plots the Mvskoke women planted weed control is a major problem. Rice can grow in flooded fields, whereas most weeds cannot, so flooded rice fields are usually used for weed suppression for rice growing on a large scale rather than to provide adequate water. When the Mvskoke people were removed to Oklahoma, they took their rice with them, but because of inadequate rainfall had to switch to growing it in flooded fields along the rivers. An account of rice growing in the Coweta, I.T. area can be found here: http://digital.libraries.ou.edu/whc/pioneer/papers/6176%20Wilson.pdf. It should be noted that the method of wet rice production used in Oklahoma was ultimately of African origin (rice was domesticated in two different areas, Asia and West Africa) as was most rice production in North America until the late 1800s.

    Peaches, ultimately of Persian origin, are another introduced crop. While they may have been introduced, they were rapidly adopted by Indians in both the Southeast and Southwest. In both areas Indians developed distinct varieties, in the Southeast known as Indian Peaches. Peaches became so interwoven in to Mvskoke life that they gave their name to a ceremonial ground. Peaches, like rice, also were taken by the Mvskoke during Removal. Unfortunately, I’m unaware of anyone currently growing traditional peaches; I’ve heard of “wild” peaches growing in Chickasaw and Cherokee country. Undoubtedly, these are really abandoned Indian peach orchards. One of these days I’d like to track one of these abandoned orchards down.

    Although Bartram does not note it, it is important to note that the Mvskoke people were not engaged in wholesale adoption of foreign crops- note that wheat, which was the preeminent Euroamerican grain, isn’t listed-, but that adopted and changed crops which best adapted to their existing complex agricultural cycle. Their method of rice cultivation in mounds clearly derives from traditional corn growing techniques, and rice in both Southeast Asia and Africa is processed with mortars and pestles, which Mvskoke women already had for processing rice.

    aiontay

    August 3, 2010 at 5:46 pm


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