The calendar year in Mvskoke country winds down with a couple of months named for edible fruits: kē, “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.
Kē 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.” Kē 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.
Kē 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.”