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Kē-Hvse, “Mulberry Month”

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The calendar year in Mvskoke country winds down with a couple of months named for edible fruits: , “mulberry,” and kvco, “blackberry.” And like only one other month in cokv-walv Mvskoke (Hotvlē-Hvse, “Wind Month”), their traditional names include the word for “month” itself, presumably to avoid confusion between each month and its namesake. The remaining nine months bear distinctive names and thus don’t need to be specified as hvse.

is the Mvskoke word for “mulberry,” and it’s also the way you pronounce the letter “k” in the Mvskoke language, a semantic association that could serve as a handy teaching tool. An alphabet book designed for Mvskoke-speaking youngsters, for example, would undoubtedly use mulberries to illustrate the letter “k.” Am I the only one who wishes we had a children’s book titled “M is for Mvskoke”?

Like many flowering plants, mulberry trees are native to warmer climates around the world. The species unique to eastern North America is commonly called red mulberry, from the scientific designation Morus rubra. An older Mvskoke term for the tree is kē-vpē, literally “mulberry stalk.”

Travelling through Mvskoke country in the 1770s, botanist William Bartram found an abundance of kē-vpē, especially near the agricultural fields once cultivated by our ancestors. Encamped on the banks of the Oconee River, at the site of an old Mvskoke tribal town, he listed mulberries among the many species growing there:

“This flourishing grove was an appendage of the high forests we had passed through, and projected into an extensive, green, open, level plain, consisting of old Indian fields and plantations, being the rich low lands of the river, and stretching along its banks upwards to a very great distance, charmingly diversified and decorated with detached groves and clumps of various trees and shrubs, and indented on its verge by advancing and retreating promontories of the high land.”

Mulberries are an understory species typically found in mixed stands of deciduous forest. These small, shade-tolerant trees prefer moist soils and edge habitats, and today you can still find them sprouting around low-lying pastures and along the margins of fields. Both male and female mulberries flower in the spring, but only females produce berries; the fruit of red mulberry trees is known for its large size and strong, sweet flavor.

Not all of the mulberries Bartram saw were wild. He noted considerable evidence of old orchards populated with red mulberries and other food-bearing trees, concluding that “these trees were cultivated by the ancients, on account of their fruit, as being wholesome and nourishing food. Though these are natives of the forest, yet they thrive better, and are more fruitful, in cultivated plantations, and the fruit is in great estimation with the present generation of Indians.” ranked among the “principle articles” of their “vegitable productions,” constituting “a considerable part” of the Mvskoke diet. “They dry the fruite on boards in large cakes, which they keep in store, & stew it with bread, parch’t corn flower & oil.”

European colonists were quick to assimilate this indigenous commodity. At Ebenezer, in the Georgia colony, Bartram found a village of German settlers where “the Town is laid out in large Squairs so that every family has ground sufficient to plant a Mulberry Orchard, a Garden, & a Cornfield.” Visiting a plantation near the South Carolina coast, he observed a large orchard of imported white mulberry (Morus alba), “some of which were grafted on stocks of the native Mulberry (Morus rubra); these trees were cultivated for the purpose of feeding silk-worms,” a commercialized insect wholly dependent on mulberry leaves. As was so often the case, immigrants saw profit where Indians had seen only provision.

was a staple food for Mvskokes in the old country, so they marked time with the help of kē-vpē blossoms. According to one account of Mvskoke origins, documented at Pine Arbor Tribal Town in North Florida, the beginning was an age of great confusion. All beings existed without a place: “It isn’t very pleasant to be nowhere. It’s like being lost, only worse.” Thanks to the efforts of Turtle, Duck, and many others, the world was made and ordered and “everything now had an appointed place.” Then “a great Ceremonial Square Ground” was established, where important traditions could be nurtured.

It is said that seasonal variation began as a reminder of the trauma of creation: “For a season, cold and frost will be with you as a bitter memory and lesson, but berry and blossom will come forth to remind you of when all sat down together to learn and to seek balance and harmony. At the time of the Mulberry Blossom, all shall come together again and seek to renew these teachings.”

Muscogee Nation News, May 2011

Sources:

A Dictionary of Creek/Muskogee, by Jack B. Martin and Margaret McKane Mauldin

“Red Mulberry,” USDA Forest Service

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

Travels and Other Writings, by William Bartram

Creation Myths and Legends of the Creek Indians, by Bill Grantham

Muskogee Words and Ways, by C. Randall Daniels-Sakim

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Written by James Treat

May 1, 2011 at 12:00 am

Hotvlē-Hvse, “Wind Month”

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The last month of the winter season brings blustery weather to Mvskoke lands, an annual turn as predictable in Indian Territory as it was in the old country. Today this is still the windiest part of the year in northern Alabama and Georgia, and anyone now living in eastern Oklahoma knows it’s the time of year when the wind starts to pick up.

So it makes sense that the eighth month of the Mvskoke year is Hotvlē-Hvse, “Wind Month.” The name was formed by combining the words hotvlē, “wind,” and hvse, “month.”

Hotvlē is cognate to the verb hotvletv, “to blow (of the wind)” or “to be breezy, windy.” It is also the more general word for “air” and appears in compound terms involving the movement of air, which suggests that Mvskoke people have always appreciated the dynamic nature of atmospheric conditions. For example, hotvlē-rakko—literally, “big wind”—can refer to a hurricane, tornado, or other storm characterized by violent gales.

Curiously, Hotvlē-Hvse is one of only three months in cokv-walv Mvskoke whose name includes the word for “month.” Most Mvskoke speakers today take hvse to mean “sun,” but it probably had a broader meaning in the past. The Miccosukee language—one of our closest linguistic relatives—still uses haashe to refer to either the sun or the moon, adding a modifier to specify “day” or “night” luminary. The lunar cycle is the natural basis for months in the Mvskoke calendar, so the name for “Wind Month” preserves this older usage of hvse.

Even more distinctively, Hotvlē-Hvse is the only Mvskoke month whose name corresponds to that of a Mvskoke clan. Hotvlkvlke designates the “Wind clan,” which figures prominently in a portion of the Mvskoke origin account. This story is nicely presented in English by “Este Mvskoke (The Muscogee People),” a documentary produced in 1983 by the Communications Department of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation.

It is said that, “in the beginning, the Mvskoke people were born out of the earth itself. They crawled up out of the ground, through a hole, like ants.” They found themselves near high mountains, “the backbone of the earth,” but then a thick fog obscured their vision. “They wandered around blindly, calling out to one another in fear.” Soon they were “separated into small groups, and the people in these groups stayed close to one another in fear of being entirely alone.”

Finally, Hesaketvmesē took mercy on them. “From the eastern edge of the world, where the sun rises, he began to blow away the fog. He blew and blew until the fog was completely gone. The people were joyful and sang a hymn of thanksgiving to the Master of Breath.”

Then the people in each group “turned to one another” and vowed the loyalty of kinship. “They said that from then on these groups would be like large families. The members of each group would be as close to each other as brother and sister,” parent and child.

“The group that was farthest east and first to see the sun praised the wind that had blown the fog away. They called themselves the Wind family, or Wind clan.” As the fog cleared, other groups named themselves after the first animal they saw: bear, deer, alligator, raccoon, bird, and more.

Thus the various clans have come into being. Together they form the bedrock of Mvskoke civilization, organizing social relations in much the same way that cokv-walv Mvskoke illuminates the passage of time. And like the names of the Mvskoke months, the clan names symbolize the environmental consciousness of our indigenous forebears.

It would be a tragic mistake to regard these totems as little more than team mascots. Fans of the Texas Longhorns, for example, don’t refrain from eating beef; in fact, they consume more cattle than most humans on the planet. And they don’t disavow marrying other Longhorns fanatics (though it might improve the gene pool if they did). Hotvlkvlke and the rest of the Mvskoke clans remind us of our fundamental kinship with the natural world, regulating how we interact with other-than-human persons—and with one another.

Wind Month blows fresh air through Mvskoke country, bringing to mind the origin of clans and heralding a seasonal turn from dormancy to new growth.

Muscogee Nation News, February 2011

Sources:

“Average Wind Speed,” NOAA Comparative Climatic Data

“Tulsa, Oklahoma Climatology,” National Weather Service

A Dictionary of Creek/Muskogee, by Jack B. Martin and Margaret McKane Mauldin

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

Este Mvskoke (The Muscogee People),” MCN Communications Department

Written by James Treat

February 1, 2011 at 12:00 am

Rvfo ‘Cuse, “Winter’s Younger Brother”

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Last month I took the arrival of “Big Winter” as an occasion for exploring seasonal divisions in cokv-walv Mvskoke. This time-honored calendar synthesizes the astronomical and ecological knowledge our agrarian forebears found to be useful.

Based on evidence from the Mvskoke language, from Muskogean oral tradition, and from other indigenous and scientific calendars around the world, I suggested that the traditional Mvskoke calendar recognized only three seasons: meskē, “summer”; rvfo, “winter”; and tasahcē, “spring.”

Yet the most compelling evidence for a three-season year may be present in the calendar itself, in the naming and arrangement of the twelve hvse. This unmistakable pattern can be made apparent by considering the current month.

The name was formed by modifying the word rvfo, “winter,” with a contraction of the noun ecuse, “his/her younger sibling of the same sex” (to put this another way, ecuse can mean either “his younger brother” or “her younger sister,” depending on the gender of the older sibling).

So the seventh month of the Mvskoke year is Rvfo ‘Cuse, which has been rendered in English as “Winter’s Younger Brother” since the earliest written account of Mvskoke months, in 1791. (This designation also implies that winter is male in Mvskoke country, though that information gets lost in translation.)

Like other months in cokv-walv Mvskoke, it has a counterpart in the annual cycle—in this case, the previous month: Rvfo-Rakko, “Big Winter.”

If you’ve been following this monthly series on the Mvskoke calendar, then you’ve probably noticed the recurring pattern of complementary months. Along with big winter and his younger brother, the yearlong sequence also includes little and big harvest, little and big chestnut-thrashing, little and big spring, and a pair of hvse named for edible fruits, mulberry and blackberry.

You might even say that the calendar incorporates an intermediate unit of time, longer than a month but shorter than a season, a kind of double-month or half-season.

This strikes me as an unusual way to track the passage of time, with no clear basis in natural phenomena. And I have come across only one other American Indian calendar organized around this distinctive practice.

The traditional Mohawk calendar comprises six pairs of complementary months: cold and big cold, lateness and much lateness, budding and big leaf, ripening and much ripening, freshness and much freshness, and poverty and much poverty. The pattern of repetition is even more obvious in the original language.

It seems unlikely that our Mvskoke ancestors would have borrowed this scheme from the Mohawks, who speak an unrelated tongue and live in a much cooler climate. So what is the significance of this dyadic structure, these coupled hvse?

We should bear in mind that every system of timekeeping has a cultural dimension. Any calendar is a human invention; there is always a subjective aspect to the human gaze. Simply put, no description of nature can be completely natural. Objectivity remains beyond our grasp; what matters is usefulness—not just in a practical sense, but also in symbolic terms, as a real expression of meaning and value.

While it may be based on astronomical and ecological observations, cokv-walv Mvskoke is also deeply rooted in a particular worldview. And a prominent feature of that worldview, some would say, is the provisional dualism evident throughout traditional Mvskoke culture.

This conceptual orientation is highlighted in a recent book on Mvskoke traditions by Jean and Joyotpaul Chaudhuri.  A Sacred Path: The Way of the Muscogee Creeks explores “the Creek mind,” explaining how dualist thought functions in every area of Mvskoke life: cosmology, oral tradition, politics, subsistence, gender relations, and elsewhere.

The many twin stories, for example, present two boys with divergent personalities, whose actions dramatize “the need for balancing the diversity of human qualities so that out of the sharing of reciprocal but empirically different energies the unity of the spirit and the community would occur.” One version of the corn woman story teaches, among other things, “the shared cycle of human and natural energy” and the “partnership” between corn and beans that helps maintain nutritional balance.

Whereas dualism in the Western intellectual tradition typically involves two principles that are opposed and irreducible, Mvskoke dualities are ultimately resolved in the unity of nature and of Epofvnkv, the universal source of energy.

And so it is that the complementary months of cokv-walv Mvskoke express a cultural commitment to harmony and cooperation, especially in the context of a three-season year.

Summer solstice may signal the end of one year and the beginning of another, but marking seasonal change according to the other astronomical turning points would break apart three pairs of coupled hvse: fall equinox occurs at the transition from little to big chestnut-thrashing; winter solstice separates big winter from his younger brother; and spring equinox divides little and big spring.

Observing three seasons of four months each, however, only enhances the order and balance of this elegant calendrical system: meskē, “summer” – little and big harvest, little and big chestnut-thrashing; rvfo, “winter” – frost, big winter and winter’s younger brother, wind; and tasahcē, “spring” – little and big spring, mulberry and blackberry.

A memorable formulation of Mvskoke environmental wisdom.

Muscogee Nation News, January 2011

Sources:

A Dictionary of Creek/Muskogee, by Jack B. Martin and Margaret McKane Mauldin

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

“Indian Moons, Days & Other Calendar Stuff,” AmericanIndian.net

“Mohawk Names of Months,” Kahon:wes’s Mohawk and Iroquois Index

A Sacred Path: The Way of the Muscogee Creeks, by Jean Chaudhuri and Joyotpaul Chaudhuri

Written by James Treat

January 1, 2011 at 12:00 am

Rvfo-Rakko, “Big Winter”

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The ancient Mvskoke calendar is grounded in astronomical observations. Each new year, for example, begins with posketv, the ceremony known in English as Green Corn, traditionally held around summer solstice. And the sequence of twelve hvse approximates the number of lunar months occurring in an annual period.

So cokv-walv Mvskoke is structured by the sun’s yearly migration between north and south and the moon’s monthly passage through fractional phases. But its months are named for vital aspects of the earth’s seasonal ecology, those subsistence foods and weather patterns that sustained our Mvskoke ancestors. They understood natural cycles both celestial and terrestrial, and their time-honored calendar synthesizes the astronomical and ecological knowledge they found to be useful.

The first five months of the Mvskoke year name pursuits and perceptions that signify traditional Mvskoke life: harvest, chestnut-thrashing, glistening (frost). The sixth month, on the other hand, refers to a season familiar in most temperate climates: Rvfo-Rakko, “Big Winter.” The name was formed by modifying the word rvfo, “winter,” with the augmentative suffix –rakko, “big.”

Several later months also are based on common seasonal terminology. These references to seasons in the names of months made me curious about Mvskoke knowledge of seasonal divisions.

The most recent Mvskoke-English dictionary includes entries for rvfo, “winter”; tasahcē, “spring”; and meskē, “summer.” (The Koasati language—another member of the Muskogean family—has a very similar word for “winter,” so rvfo is probably very old.) But “there is no fixed expression for ‘autumn’ in Creek,” the authors note, “though rvfo hakof, ‘when it becomes winter,’ may be used.” The same entries can be found in an earlier Mvskoke-English dictionary published in the late nineteenth century.

No Mvskoke term for “autumn”? If your language lacks a word for a basic element of worldview, it’s a good bet that particular idea is not a native concept. Of course, every living language is always changing; rvfo hakof may be analogous to the descriptive terms for days of the week coined by Mvskokes after European colonists imported their seven-day cycle.

Could it be that our agrarian forebears recognized only three seasons per year?

The dominant culture in North America would have you think that astronomical phenomena—solstices and equinoxes—are the only basis for seasonal distinctions. But many factors influence seasonal variation, and there are other ways to conceptualize the seasons.

Meteorological seasons are determined by weather conditions. In Sweden and Finland, for example, seasonal change is noted when the daily averaged temperature remains above or below a certain threshold for a week.

Ecological seasons are defined by the physiology of plants and animals as they respond to environmental variation over the course of a year. Some ecologists use six seasons to describe temperate climes, with the two additional seasons falling between winter and spring (pre-vernal) and between summer and fall (seritonal).

Many indigenous peoples around the world still observe their own traditional seasons. In Australia, various Aboriginal calendars have as few as two and as many as six named seasonal periods, depending on local climate and subsistence practices.

So there is nothing unusual, unnatural, or unscientific about a three-season calendar for Mvskoke country. And Muskogean oral tradition bears at least one compelling piece of evidence in support of this hypothesis.

A hundred years ago, anthropologist John R. Swanton visited the Koasati communities in Louisiana and Texas, transcribing dozens of oral narratives. This English-language collection of nature myths and trickster tales opens with a short story titled “The Ordering of the Months and Seasons,” a creation account in very condensed form.

“All things were made at the same time,” it begins. “The earth, sun, moon—all things—got ripe and were left to man.” The animals, however, took charge of organizing the calendar. “The creatures having assembled, any who liked a certain month took it and ran off,” then “threw it down on the ground as he ran and it started a new moon.” And so things went for the seasons as well. “When it was summer,” for example, “the Humming Bird said, ‘I will stay about and kiss the flowers.'” When all was said and done, “winter, spring, and summer were made together.”

Winter, spring, and summer—no sign of autumn, here or anywhere else in Swanton’s book of Creek, Hitchiti, Alabama, Koasati, and Natchez stories, just those three seasons preserved in the Mvskoke language since time immemorial: rvfo, tasahcē, and meskē. They demarcate seasonal boundaries ideally suited for an agricultural society, incorporating both astronomical and ecological intelligence.

Recovering this wisdom, thinking critically about the ways we mark time in space, can help us understand our environmental crisis and the industrial civilization that produced it.

Muscogee Nation News, December 2010

Sources:

A Dictionary of Creek/Muskogee, by Jack B. Martin and Margaret McKane Mauldin

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

Koasati Dictionary, by Geoffrey D. Kimball

“Season,” Wikipedia

“Indigenous Weather Knowledge,” Australian Government Bureau of Meteorology

“The Lost Seasons,” Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s Gateway to Science

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

Written by James Treat

December 1, 2010 at 10:00 am

Cokv-Walv Mvskoke

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If you subscribe to the Muscogee Nation News, then you’ve probably received one of the wall calendars produced by the Communications Department.  The current edition is titled Mvskoke Etvlwv 2010 Nettv Vhvnkatv, or “Muscogee Nation 2010 Day Counter.”

That’s an interesting turn of phrase, “day-counter,” and there are at least two other ways to express the English word “calendar” in the Mvskoke language.

The term hvse-onayv combines hvse, which can mean “sun” or “month,” and onayv, “one who tells (a story).”  Of course, the sun and the (lunar) month are both related to how we keep track of the passage of time.  So a colloquial translation might be “date-teller,” another pretty good expression for calendar.

My personal favorite is cokv-walv, a contraction of cokv and owalvCokv refers to a book or some other form of written text, while owalv is a prophet or fortune-teller, one who can predict the future.  So the literal meaning is “book-prophesier,” though the phrase makes more sense in English if we translate it as “text that predicts the future.”

This strikes me as a reminder that any calendar offers only a prediction, not a promise, of days to come.  It’s easy to see something in print and assume it must be true.  But there’s no guarantee we’ll be around tomorrow, which is why it’s important to live each day as our last.

Incidentally, the English word calendar comes from the Latin kalendarium, “moneylender’s account book.”  So take your pick, nettv-vhvnkatv or hvse-onayv or cokv-walv, they’re all more suitable than calendar.  Better to live by a day-counter, a date-teller, or a text that predicts the future than according to a moneylender’s account book.

Previous editions of cokv-walv Mvskoke reproduced photos of Mvskoke historical sites and ceremonial grounds.  Mvskoke Etvlwv 2010 Nettv Vhvnkatv features a dozen images of Mvskoke churches, including Butler Creek Indian Baptist Church, where I have family ties.

It also shows Mvskoke names for the days of the week and the months of the year.  This is helpful for those of us who did not grow up speaking the Mvskoke language, and these names can teach us about Mvskoke country as well.

For example, the seven-day week is a cultural tradition from ancient Europe and the Middle East—it has no basis in natural phenomena, unlike the lunar month and the solar year.  Mvskokes adopted this periodic cycle in recent times to accommodate the dominant culture.

A century ago, the names for the days were mostly loanwords:  Monday became Mvntē; Tuesday was either Tustē or Mvntē Enhvyvtke, “the day after Monday.”  Today we also have descriptive terms based on each day’s position in the weekly rotation:  Wednesday is Ennvrkvpv, literally “half of” (the week) or “its middle”; Thursday is Ennvrkvpv Enhvyvtke, “the day after the middle of the week.”

The names for the months, on the other hand, are much older and reflect Mvskoke familiarity with the natural world.  They are listed here beginning with the month of posketv (Green Corn), the new year ceremony traditionally held around summer solstice:

Hvyuce, “Little Harvest”

Hvyo-Rakko, “Big Harvest”

Otvwoskuce, “Little Chestnut”

Otvwoskv-Rakko, “Big Chestnut”

Eholē, “Frost”

Rvfo-Rakko, “Big Winter”

Rvfo ‘Cuse, “Winter’s Younger Brother”

Hotvlē-Hvse, “Wind Month”

Tasahcuce, “Little Spring”

Tasahce-Rakko, “Big Spring”

Kē-Hvse, “Mulberry Month”

Kvco-Hvse, “Blackberry Month”

Six of the Mvskoke months are named for seasonal weather:  frost and winter, wind and spring.  The other six months bear names related to food production:  berries, harvest, chestnuts.

Seasons and staples—our ancestors knew their environment and understood their dependence on the provision of nature.  They survived by marking time with a system that rooted them in the annual round of subsistence.

Why bother with such things in a modern world of comfort and convenience?

Mvskoke terminology is much more than linguistic trivia or ethnic nostalgia.  Our indigenous forebears were keen observers of earth and sky, and cokv-walv Mvskoke conveys some of their most vital agricultural insights.

This is just one example of what scholars call “traditional ecological knowledge,” the distilled wisdom of generations and the land-based way of life that generates it.  As among other indigenous peoples, Mvskoke ecological knowledge addresses practical, social, and religious concerns.  These are valuable traditions that can help us meet the challenges ahead.

Muscogee Nation News, June 2010

Sources:

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

A Dictionary of Creek/Muskogee, by Jack B. Martin and Margaret McKane Mauldin

Beginning Creek / Mvskoke Emponvkv, by Pamela Innes and others

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