Mvskoke Country

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Tasahce-Rakko, “Big Spring”

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The dominant culture in North America tends to make a big deal out of the vernal equinox, around March 20, when night and day are about equal in length. Among those who define seasonal change according to strictly astronomical criteria, this marks the beginning of spring—a welcome relief from the cold and dreary conditions of a temperate-zone winter.

Of course, there are other ways to conceptualize the seasons. In Mvskoke country, you may know, we’re already a month into tasahcē, “spring,” the third of three seasons in the ancient Mvskoke calendar. The vernal equinox comes at the transition from Tasahcuce, “Little Spring,” to Tasahce-Rakko, “Big Spring,” which are the first two months of this four-month season.

Thanks to cokv-walv Mvskoke, we get an extra month of spring! Please try not to brag in the presence of your non-Mvskoke neighbors.

Last month’s column featured writings by Alexander Posey, the renowned journalist, poet, and humorist. Complementing his affection for birds, flowers are another favored topic of Posey’s nature poetry.

In his poem “For Me,” for example, the Mvskoke bard celebrates a personal relationship with the environing world: “The blue of the sky and the green branches waving— / The sweet invitation of nature to rest / Seem to satisfy all of the soul’s eager craving / To live in a land by eternal spring blest.” It is the heyday of flowering plants, a time for new growth in every domain. “The mountain, the river, each flower, each tree,” this stanza concludes, “Had a love-song to sing and all, all was for me!”

Although some critics would dismiss these lyrical sentiments as garden-variety romanticism, Mvskoke people have always personalized their connection to the natural environment.

Think of our various clans, which express a fundamental sense of kinship: Kaccvlke, “Tiger Clan” (literally, “Tiger People”); Fuswvlke, “Bird Clan”; Vhvlvkvlke, “Sweet Potato Clan”; and Hotvlkvlke, “Wind Clan,” to name just a few. Or consider the many animal dances still enjoyed at our ceremonial grounds, including Yvnvsv-Pvnkv, “Buffalo Dance”; Setahvyv-Pvnkv, “Feather Dance”; Cetto-Pvnkv, “Snake Dance”; and Ēsapv-Pvnkv, “Gar Dance.”

This indigenous personalism is also evident in modern surnames and in the playful monikers given to individuals by family and friends. Natural names are a venerable tradition in Mvskoke country, one sometimes extended even to transient guests.

In April of 1774, the Alachua Seminoles were visited by William Bartram, an Anglo-American naturalist from Philadelphia. Bartram’s specialty was botany, the study of “the tribes of plants and trees,” and he particularly liked tracking down native flora in bloom.

Arriving on the outskirts of Cuscowilla, Bartram and his party were met by “the women and children,” who “saluted us with cheerfulness and complaisance,” he noted in his journal. “We were welcomed to the town, and conducted by the young men and maidens to the chief’s house,” where Ahaya—called “Cowkeeper” by the colonists—”attended by several ancient men, came to us, and in a very free and sociable manner, shook our hands, or rather arms.”

After the requisite formalities of Mvskoke hospitality, the mēkko “was then informed what the nature of my errand was, and he received me with complaisance, giving me unlimited permission to travel over the country for the purpose of collecting flowers, medicinal plants, etc.” Ahaya also dubbed him “Puc-Puggy” (pvkpvkē, “flower,” though the word has undergone subtle changes in both pronunciation and meaning since the eighteenth century; in modern Mvskoke, “flower” is pakpvkuce). This gesture was probably at least partly in jest, and Bartram only compounded the irony by construing his new nickname as “the flower hunter,” perhaps one of the earliest examples of playing Indian in American history.

The following year, while travelling through the Mvskoke heartland, Bartram learned more about their agricultural practices. This communal tradition was surely as beautiful as any fragrant flower:

“In the spring, when the season arrives, all the citizens, as one family, prepare the ground and begin to plant, commencing at one end or the other, as convenience may direct for the general good, and so continue on until finished; and when the young plants arise and require culture, they dress and husband them until the crops are ripe. . . . The design of the common granary is for the wisest and best purposes, with respect to their people, i.e., a store or resource to repair to in cases of necessity. Thus when a family’s private stores fall short, in cases of accident or otherwise, they are entitled to assistance and supply from the public granary.”

Muscogee Nation News, April 2011

Sources:

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

Song of the Oktahutche: Collected Poems, by Alexander Posey

Travels and Other Writings, by William Bartram

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

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

Otvwoskv-Rakko, “Big Chestnut-Thrashing”

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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

Written by James Treat

October 1, 2010 at 12:00 am

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

Written by James Treat

August 1, 2010 at 12:00 am