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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Rvfo ‘Cuse, “Winter’s Younger Brother”

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

Rvfo-Rakko, “Big Winter”

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