Cokv-Walv Mvskoke Redux

The reliable return of summer solstice means the end of one year and the beginning of another in Mvskoke country.

Like other indigenous Americans, Mvskoke people “survived by knowing their natural environment well and making direct use of its surpluses. It was a land of abundance, but that abundance was only available to those who had the necessary skills,” writes J. Donald Hughes in North American Indian Ecology. “They kept track of annual cycles, naming the months after the natural changes they observed. Their lives were closely involved in nature’s rhythms, and they were conscious of this.”

Cokv-walv Mvskoke, the Mvskoke calendar, is one way our Mvskoke ancestors preserved their understanding of natural rhythms and resources. “The Indian names for the ‘moons,’ or months, show at least a part of their detailed knowledge of the seasonal cycles and rhythms of nature: when flowers or fruits would appear, when the young of animals would be born, when the lakes would freeze, when the birds would return. . . . The Indians’ science was a blend of observation, reason, insight and nature mysticism,” which is also a good description of modern technoscience if you replace nature mysticism with the profit motive.

And humanity’s great transformation from grounded spirituality to transcendent greed has laid the foundation for our current environmental crisis.

I began writing “Mvskoke Country” a couple of years ago in response to this crisis. In the first installment, titled “Return to Your Roots,” I commented on the landmark symposium organized by the Mvskoke Food Sovereignty Initiative and supported by all three branches of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation government, which is now an annual event. I also mentioned the National Congress of American Indians’ 2006 resolution “Supporting a National Mandatory Program to Reduce Climate Change Pollution and Promote Renewable Energy,” which remains one of the organization’s current initiatives.

After a year covering various environmental topics with a Mvskoke angle, especially in the context of anthropogenic (human-caused) climate change, I decided last summer to focus on the traditional Mvskoke calendar.

At first glance, this might not seem like fertile ground for cultivating ecological knowledge, since the Gregorian calendar used by the dominant culture bears little connection to nature. The English names for the months, for example, are based on a jumble of Latin numbers, Roman deities, and other useless anachronisms. And you may recall that the English word calendar comes from the Latin kalendarium, “moneylender’s account book,” an etymology that speaks volumes about the prevailing attitude toward natural rhythms: “time is money,” so they say.

Not so for cokv-walv Mvskoke.

The annual round begins with posketv, called “Green Corn” in English, along with little and big months named for the harvest, Hvyuce and Hyvo-Rakko; it is a time for reaping corn and other produce that will sustain the community through the year to come. This season of meskē, “summer,” continues with a couple of months announcing another kind of ingathering, Otvwoskuce and Otvwoskv-Rakko, when ripe chestnuts were thrashed down from the branches of a majestic tree now decimated by immigrant blight.

The next season—rvfo, “winter”—opens and closes with single months marking the arrival of falling temperatures and of rising winds: Eholē and Hotvlē-Hvse. In between these transitional periods are sibling months named for the season itself, Rvfo-Rakko and Rvfo ‘Cuse, when the natural world lies dormant and rests.

The third and final season is tasahcē, “spring”; it begins with paired months named for the season, Tasahcuce and Tasahce-Rakko, as the land awakens and invites the sowing of seeds. These are followed by two months honoring plants that provide edible fruit, Kē-Hvse and Kvco-Hvse, at a time when winter stores are running low and the new crops are not yet ready for harvest. The Mvskoke year then winds down with summer solstice and posketv as the annual cycle begins again.

No money changes hands under this calendar; the only transactions specified herein are ecological, not financial. Mvskoke citizens owe no allegiance to Roman imperialists—Julius Caesar (July), Augustus (August)—or to any culture that would conquer nature.

Instead, cokv-walv Mvskoke does exactly what a calendar ought to do: it reminds us where we are in time, just as a map helps us understand where we are in space. Both schemas work best when they situate a people in a place, orienting us to the means of survival through our natural environment.

It is good to have a Mvskoke calendar for Mvskoke country.

Muscogee Nation News, July 2011

Sources:

North American Indian Ecology, by J. Donald Hughes

National Congress of American Indians: Climate Change

Wikipedia: Gregorian Calendar

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Otvwoskv-Rakko, “Big Chestnut-Thrashing”

The American chestnut was one of the most important natural resources available to Mvskokes in the old country.  The ripened nuts are nourishing and delicious; they can be roasted, boiled, dried, ground into flour, salted for storage, or eaten raw from the bur.

Until recent times, chestnuts were also the most vital wildlife food in the eastern woodlands.  Animals of every kind—squirrel, crow, rabbit, raccoon, turkey, deer—relied on the annual harvest to survive winter.  “The bears are great Lovers of Chestnut,” observed colonist William Byrd in 1727, and they were adept at collecting its fruit.  In the early 1900s, a backwoods hunter watched one at work:  “The b’ar corkscrews up a chestnut and rakes down a bunch of burs, then gather ’em up and set beside ’em.  He takes a rock in each paw and mashes the burs open and eats the nuts.”

Humans have long used other parts of the tree to make medicine, supplies, and building materials.  The astringent leaves, for example, can be boiled and applied directly to open sores.  Drinking chestnut-leaf tea can ease the symptoms of head colds, whooping cough, upset stomach, and rheumatism.

Chestnut bark is full of tannin, the essential ingredient for processing animal hides into leather.  Local tanneries in the southeast blended oak, hemlock, and chestnut bark to produce various grades of leather, until this labor-intensive method was replaced by an industrial process in the last century.

The wood also is high in tannin, making it rot-resistant and more durable than other hardwoods.  Chestnut trees grow tall and straight, producing lumber that is very even-grained and relatively lightweight, easy to work by hand and less likely to warp as it cures.  In the days before power tools, it would have been ideal for post-and-beam construction on open ground:  brush arbors, palisades, stock fences.

So it’s not surprising that two of the twelve months in cokv-walv Mvskoke are named for this staple tree.  The fourth month of the Mvskoke year is Otvwoskv-Rakko, “Big Chestnut-Thrashing.”  The name was formed by combining the noun oto, “chestnut,” with an inflection of the verb wvsketv, “to thrash,” producing the phrase otvwoskv, “chestnut-thrashing,” then adding the augmentative suffix –rakko, “big.”

Interestingly, the Mvskoke word oto is very close to eto, the more general term for “tree” or “wood.”  Other native trees bear Mvskoke names that are more diverse and specific:  hecelwv, “yellow poplar”; lakcvpe-cate, “red oak”; ocē-vpe, “hickory”; ‘to-hvtkv, “white ash”; vhahwv, “walnut.”  But oto was the definitive eto of the Mvskoke homeland, both in nature and in the vocabulary of nature.

The English distinction between forest and orchard is not very useful for describing the Mvskoke relationship with oto.  The greedy settlers who displaced our ancestors in the nineteenth century quickly learned to exploit this tree, in part because they found chestnut groves waiting to be tended.

These were natural stands of mature, fruit-bearing trees that had been groomed by generations of native caretakers.  Clearing the underbrush and selectively thinning the chestnuts helped promote growth by opening the canopy.  Keeping the ground clean made it easier to gather nuts after they were thrashed down from the branches.  Picture an old-growth forest managed like an estate orchard.

A well maintained chestnut grove would be an Edenic spot in summer.  It must have been hard to leave these familiar places—cast out of the Garden, you might say, and driven to a land with no oto at all, where the Mvskoke people had to find new means of survival.

Yet this forced removal might have been a blessing in disguise, at least insofar as our dependence on the American chestnut is concerned.

In the late 1800s, Asian chestnut seedlings imported from Japan brought with them a fungus that infects chestnut bark.  Asian chestnuts have developed resistance to this parasite, but it proved deadly for the American species.  Diseased American chestnuts were first noticed at the Bronx Zoological Park in 1904.

What ensued has been called “one of the greatest natural disasters in the annals of forest biology” and “the worst ecological catastrophe in American history.”  In 1911, the New York Times reported that some letter-writers believed this plague had been caused by “the general wickedness of the people of the United States,” as “a scourge for sinfulness and extravagant living.”

Over the next few years, the virulent fungus attacked and killed nearly all of the four billion American chestnut trees spread over two hundred million acres in eastern North America.  “Chestnut blight remains the most destructive disease known for any host, including trees, other plants, animals, and humans.”

A handful of trees inexplicably survived the epidemic, and scientists have been working for decades to develop a blight-resistant strain of American chestnut.  With a little luck, future generations in Mvskoke country may be able to visit a mature stand of oto, and perhaps even join in some friendly otvwoskv.

Muscogee Nation News, October 2010

Sources:

Mighty Giants: An American Chestnut Anthology, edited by Chris Bolgiano

Native American Ethnobotany: A Database of Foods, Drugs, Dyes and Fibers of Native American Peoples, Derived from Plants

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

“Memories of the American Chestnut,” in Foxfire 6, edited by Eliot Wigginton

American Chestnut: The Life, Death, and Rebirth of a Perfect Tree, by Susan Freinkel

The Chestnut Cook Book: Recipes, Folklore and Practical Information, by Annie Bhagwandin

The American Chestnut Foundation

Otvwoskuce, “Little Chestnut-Thrashing”

The third month of the Mvskoke year is commonly translated as “Little Chestnut,” but there’s more to it than that.

In linguistic terms, this month’s name was formed by combining the noun oto, “chestnut,” with an inflection of the verb wvsketv, “to thrash,” producing the phrase otvwoskv, “chestnut-thrashing,” then adding the diminutive suffix –uce, “little.”  So a literal translation of Otvwoskuce is “Little Chestnut-Thrashing.”  Like other months in cokv-walv Mvskoke, it has a counterpart in the annual cycle—in this case, the month that follows:  Otvwoskv-Rakko, “Big Chestnut-Thrashing.”

Why chestnut?  Why thrashing?  And why name two of the twelve Mvskoke months for a single use of a single tree?

The American chestnut was once the dominant hardwood in the eastern woodlands.  This majestic tree could grow to over a hundred feet tall, with a massive trunk more than twenty feet in circumference at the base.  One nineteenth-century writer called it “a very grandfather among trees.”

The bark is brown-gray and furrowed with age.  The leaves are dark green, oblong and taper-pointed in shape, and edged with more and sharper teeth (dentata) than other chestnuts (castanea)—which accounts for the tree’s scientific name, Castanea dentata.  American chestnuts bloom in the summer, later than other deciduous trees, producing clusters of small, cream-colored flowers on a pencil-sized spike.  They bear fruit in the form of spiny husks containing one to three smooth, reddish-brown nuts.

The documentary record on this “king of the forest” goes back nearly half a millennium.  A member of Hernando de Soto’s 1540 expedition through Mvskoke country noted that “wherever there are mountains, there are chestnuts.”  In 1775, William Bartram observed a similar pattern south of the Alabama River, where “the highest hills near large creeks afford high forests with abundance of Chesnut trees.”  The first catalog of North American trees, published in France in 1810, described the American chestnut as “most multiplied in the mountainous districts of the Carolinas and Georgia,” where “the coolness of the summer and the mildness of the winter in these regions are favorable.”

Oto loves mountains, especially the southern Appalachians, but its natural range extends from New England to southern Ontario to the lower Mississippi valley.  Iroquois, Mohegan, Delaware, Cherokee, and other native peoples have used various parts of the tree for food, medicine, supplies, and building materials.  Even the Natchez had a month named for the chestnut.

Their burs develop through the summer and begin to open around the time of first frost.  The edible nuts are nutritious and surprisingly sweet.

Henry David Thoreau was fascinated by this bountiful tree, especially around harvest time; from October 1856:  “It is a rich sight, that of a large chestnut tree with a dome-shaped top, where the yellowing leaves have become thin, . . . all richly rough with great brown burs, which are opened into several segments so as to show the wholesome-colored nuts peeping forth, ready to fall on the slightest jar.”  He loved to go “a-chestnutting,” best pursued as a social activity.

How to get more of the precious fruit to drop from on high?  There are several methods.

Thoreau admitted to heaving a big stone against the trunk of a chestnut to shake things loose, though he regretted the act:  “The tree whose fruit we would obtain should not be too rudely shaken.”

Others tossed clubs into the crown of a tree to bring down the nuts.  Tonawanda artist Ernest Smith’s painting “Gathering Chestnuts” shows a Seneca man clubbing a large chestnut while his wife and son gather the burs and nuts that have fallen.  As a child, Jimmy Carter celebrated his October 1st birthday each year by clubbing chestnuts on the family farm near Plains, Georgia.

Perhaps the least invasive way to harvest chestnuts involves the use of a thrashing pole.  A handbook for girls published in 1887, for example, describes “nutting-parties” where low-hanging fruit is “thrashed down from the branches by some of the party, who use long poles for the purpose.”

This was apparently the method preferred by Mvskokes before being forced to move west.  There is evidence for this in the most recent dictionary of the Mvskoke language, where the full definition of wvsketv is “to thrash (pecans, fruit, etc. with a pole so as to knock them down).”

But when our Mvskoke ancestors arrived in Indian Territory, they found no oto—just its scrawny cousin, the chinquapin.

Several decades later, on the eve of the American Civil War, the authors of the first comprehensive grammar of the Mvskoke language translated Otvwoskuce as “Little Chestnut Gathering.”  And then the collective memory of this vital activity faded with each passing generation, until the third month of the Mvskoke year was known only as “Little Chestnut.”

Muscogee Nation News, September 2010

Sources:

Mighty Giants: An American Chestnut Anthology, edited by Chris Bolgiano

PLANTS Database, USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service

Native American Ethnobotany: A Database of Foods, Drugs, Dyes and Fibers of Native American Peoples, Derived from Plants

Whetung Ojibwa Crafts and Art Gallery

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

A Grammar of the Mask[o]ke, or Creek Language, by H. F. Buckner