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Tasahcuce, “Little Spring”

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In the spring Mvskoke people lightly turn to thoughts of love and wild onions, if not necessarily in that order.

Writing at the gloomy close of the nineteenth century, Mvskoke poet Alexander Posey was glad to hear “a lone bird sing” amid the “frosty winds” of winter’s end, announcing “the warm smile of Spring.” Posey was a lover of birds, and of the natural world more generally, his passion clearly evident in the nearly two hundred poems collected in Song of the Oktahutche. He was especially fond of birdsong along the river, “As one by one the cold days pass, / And Life and Love come on a-wing / In early sens’ous days of Spring.”

Posey’s poetry and prose amount to a literary geography of the Mvskoke landscape in Indian Territory. For example, Oktahutche (Oktah-hvcce, “Sand River”) is the Mvskoke name for the North Canadian River, which meanders past Wetumka (Ue-Tumhkv, “Pounding Water”) and Weleetka (Ue-Lētkv, “Running Water”) on the way to its confluence with the Canadian River, a spot now submerged under Lake Eufaula (Yofalv, the name of a tribal town).

The poem “Spring in Tulwa Thlocco” celebrates this seasonal turn at Tvlwv Rakko, “Big Town,” another Mvskoke place. Inspired by a winding river that flows “With murmurs falling into rhyme,” the Mvskoke bard notices “Crocus, earliest flower of the year,” and several kinds of flowering trees: plum, dogwood, redbud. The neighborhood pulses with color, “The fresher hue of grass and tree” in spring.

Delectable growth can be found underground as well: this has long been the time of year for harvesting wild onions in Mvskoke country, and for serving them at wild onion dinners.

Posey was an accomplished poet, but he was better known for the dialect humor of his “Fus Fixico” letters. One such dispatch published in the Eufaula Indian Journal on February 27, 1903—at the brink of spring—opened with this sad news: “Well, so that last cold spell was ruin Choela’s wild onion crop on Shell Creek bad and make the chickens go out a business laying eggs. So looks like Choela was want a mix onion with eggs too soon . . .”

Four decades later, another Mvskoke correspondent reported weather more favorable for untamed vegetables. Thomas Moore’s “Buddy Harjo” pieces sometimes combined este-cate (literally, “red man”) English with poetic meter, as in this installment: “Pretty soon wild onion time is come again; / He grow whole lot all over every way, / An’ I pick him any time I want it; / Eat wild onion three four times a day.” The aging Mr. Harjo was somewhat less excited about the prospect of hitching mule to plow and working his field, a labor very few know these days.

Yes, Mvskoke people do love their wild onions, maybe so even more than they care for love itself. And food romantics of any stripe can do a lot worse than tafvmpuce, “wild onions.”

The scientific name is Allium canadense L., commonly called “meadow garlic,” a flowering perennial native to most of North America east of the Rockies—including parts of Canada, thus the specific designation canadense. There are hundreds of species in the Allium genus, which includes onions, shallots, leeks, scallions, chives, and garlic—allium is the Latin word for “garlic.”

Mvskoke nomenclature is not inconsistent with Linnaean taxonomy, and it’s more colorful to boot. The word tafvmpuce is based on the general term tafvmpe, “onion,” modified by the diminutive suffix –uce, “little.” Another important foodstuff is tafvmpe-vhake, “garlic” (“resembling onion”). The latest dictionary of the Mvskoke language also includes entries for ‘pelof-tafvmpe, “wild onions from the woods” (literally, “swamp onion”) and hvyakpo-tafvmpe, “wild onions from the prairie” (literally, “prairie onion”), which may correspond to other species of Allium. All of these names are apparently rooted in the word fvmpē, “stinky, bad-smelling,” which also appears in ‘to-fvmpe, “cherry tree” (literally, “stinky tree”) and heles-fvmpe, “turpentine” (literally, “stinky medicine”).

Tafvmpuce might be known for its smell, but those tiny bulbs hold a buried treasure of nutritional benefits. The pungent staple thrives in moist, sandy soil with some shade, the kind of conditions often found along rivers and streams. Digging, cleaning, and cooking this seasonal delicacy can be labor-intensive, but the groceries are free if you know where to shop.

I’m glad we have writers like Alexander Posey and Thomas Moore to remind us of the glories of tasahcē, the Mvskoke spring. And I’m glad we can still eat wild onions. Hompaks cē!

Muscogee Nation News, March 2011

Sources:

Song of the Oktahutche: Collected Poems, by Alexander Posey

Oklahoma Place Names, by George H. Shirk

The Fus Fixico Letters, by Alexander Posey

Sour Sofkee, by William Harjo [Thomas E. Moore]

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

“Allium L.,” USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service

“Allium canadense L.,” USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service

Otvwoskuce, “Little Chestnut-Thrashing”

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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

Written by James Treat

September 1, 2010 at 12:00 am

Hvyuce, “Little Harvest”

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In one story from Mvskoke oral tradition, it is said that an old woman was living in a certain place.  She lived alone until an orphan boy came to be with her.  He learned to hunt and provide meat, while she fed him tasty dishes made from a mysterious ingredient.

One day he spied on her and discovered that the food came from her body:  it was corn, and she was the corn mother.  She taught the orphan boy how to care for this new grain, and how to use the different varieties.  Then she sent him on a long journey.

Later, when he returned with a wife, the old woman’s house was gone.  The place was occupied instead by tall, green stalks of corn.  And it has been the essential Mvskoke food ever since.

Mvskoke people have acknowledged their dependence on this sacred staple from time immemorial.  Even today, the most important annual event at our ceremonial grounds is posketv, known in English as “Green Corn” because it marks the ripening of a new corn crop.

One of the earliest written accounts of the Green Corn ceremony was recorded in 1775 by British-American naturalist William Bartram.  He described it as the “principal festival” and “most solemn celebration” in Mvskoke country.  Posketv is a “feast of first fruits” that occurs when the “new crops of corn are arrived to perfect maturity.”

Each Mvskoke town celebrates separately, Bartram noted, “when their own harvest is ready.”  After a period of cleaning and preparation, of fasting and purification, a new fire is struck in the town square.

“Then the women go forth to the harvest field, and bring from thence new corn and fruits, which being prepared in the best manner, in various dishes, and drink withal, is brought with solemnity to the square, where the people are assembled, apparelled in their new clothes and decorations.”

The men of the town partake together, then the women and children eat at their homes.  That evening all “repair to the public square, where they dance, sing, and rejoice during the whole night, observing a proper and exemplary decorum.”

Green Corn thus signals the end of one annual cycle and the beginning of another.  It typically happens in the days after summer solstice, initiating the Mvskoke month of Hvyuce, a designation offering further evidence of our agricultural heritage.

The name was formed by modifying the word hvyo, “harvest,” with the diminutive suffix –uce, “little.”  So the first month of the Mvskoke year is Hvyuce, “Little Harvest.”  Like other months in cokv-walv Mvskoke, it has a counterpart in the yearly sequence—in this case, the month that follows:  Hvyo-Rakko, “Big Harvest.”

In modern times, citizens of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation extend these traditions when they participate in the Muscogee Nation Festival, which takes place in Okmulgee following the summer solstice.  The first such event was held in 1975, two hundred years after William Bartram learned the significance of Green Corn while travelling through Mvskoke country.

This year’s thirty-sixth annual Festival was bigger than ever, with a long list of scheduled activities.  Not many Mvskokes grow their own corn these days, but the sacred staple could still be found at certain places:

Roasted ears and other corn-based dishes were available from vendors serving food on the Omniplex midway.

Fresh, locally grown corn was for sale at the farmers market on the west lawn of the Creek Council House.

Traditional games organized by Cvkotakse Seccvlke, the Mvskoke Bow Shooters Society, included a cornstalk shoot west of the Mound Building.

Senior activities at the Okmulgee Elderly Nutrition Center featured a safke contest.

The Senior Citizens Gift Shop, located in the main building of the capitol complex, has a great selection of homemade ingredients for traditional foods including safke corn, hominy, and dried sweet corn.

It is also worth noting that the meal served before the stomp dance on Thursday evening, the official opening of the Festival, did not include dishes made from fresh corn, since some of those participating were from ceremonial grounds where they are still fasting in preparation for posketv.

Industrial civilization has not been kind to corn and other living things.  Mvskoke people bear an age-old responsibility to care for the vital plants that sustained our ancestors, and that will feed us and our descendants if we respect the sources of life.

Muscogee Nation News, July 2010

Sources:

Travels and Other Writings, by William Bartram

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

Religious Beliefs and Medicinal Practices of the Creek Indians, by John R. Swanton

Mvskoke (Creek) Customs and Traditions

2010 Muscogee (Creek) Nation Festival

Written by James Treat

July 1, 2010 at 12:00 am

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