People of a certain age will remember Uncle Remus and his tales of Br’er Rabbit and other animal characters.
Growing up in the sixties, I enjoyed listening to my parents read stories that had been popularized a generation earlier by Disney’s Song of the South, a feature-length musical combining live action with animation. The movie was based on the writings of Joel Chandler Harris, an Atlanta journalist who invented “Uncle Remus” in the 1870s as a narrative device for retelling the folklore he first heard while living on a Georgia plantation during the American Civil War.
Most critics have traced this oral tradition to African roots, but Harris himself acknowledged that the same tales circulated in indigenous American communities: “The Creeks, as well as other tribes, were long in contact with the negroes, some of them were owners of slaves, and it is perhaps in this way that the animal stories became in a measure blended.”
More importantly, Harris was familiar with the contemporary work of W. O. Tuggle, a lawyer working for the Muscogee (Creek) Nation who collected stories on the side during his visits to Indian Territory. Some of Harris’s published tales clearly follow the organization of Tuggle’s unpublished drafts, and Tuggle’s manuscript was also freely copied in the 1920s by southeastern anthropologist John R. Swanton.
The most popular of the Uncle Remus storylines—and the one I remember best from my childhood—finds Br’er (Brother) Rabbit contending with a “tar-person,” a small figure made from pine tree pitch, which Harris calls “the Tar-Baby.” Having managed to get himself inextricably stuck to the tar-person, which was fashioned by Br’er Fox for just this purpose, Br’er Rabbit is in quite a fix.
While Br’er Fox debates whether to roast, hang, drown, or skin alive his tricky adversary, Rabbit distracts him with reverse psychology: “I don’t keer w’at you do wid me, Brer Fox,” says Cufe (“Rabbit”), “but don’t fling me in dat brier-patch.” Finally tricked into thinking this will be the most painful way for Cufe to die, Br’er Fox “cotch ‘im by de behime legs en slung ‘im right in de middle er de brier-patch.”
There follows “a considerbul flutter” in the thicket, but a short time later Br’er Fox sees Cufe-Laksv (“Liar Rabbit”) off in the distance, “settin’ cross-legged on a chinkapin log koamin’ de pitch outen his har wid a chip,” and he hears the Mvskoke trickster call out, “Bred en bawn in a brier-patch, Brer Fox—bred en bawn in a brier-patch!”
Of course, if Br’er Rabbit really is Mvskoke, he probably refers to his birthplace as kvco vlkat (“brier patch”) whenever he appears in Mvskoke country. Kvco is the Mvskoke word for “brier,” those thorny, prickly bushes that offer protection from predators for rabbits and other small animals. It’s also the name of the final month in cokv-walv Mvskoke.
So why is Kvco-Hvse generally translated as “Blackberry Month”?
In modern Mvskoke, kvco can refer to a brier or to a berry that grows on one. Two of the most common fruit-bearing briers are kvco-hvlkv, “dewberry,” and kvco-huerv, “blackberry.” The Mvskoke modifiers describe the growth habit of each plant: dewberries like hvlkv, “crawling” along the ground, while blackberries prefer huerv, “standing” more upright. A more precise name for “Blackberry Month” today might be Kvco-Huerv-Hvse.
But kvco and its compounds were used somewhat differently a hundred years ago. The first comprehensive dictionary of the Mvskoke language, published in 1890, defines kvco as a “brier” or “blackberry.” Another term for the blackberry plant itself was kvco-huerv, while another way to specify a quantity of blackberries was kvco-em-ette, literally “blackberry, its fruit” (most nouns lack plural forms in Mvskoke, so kvco alone could mean “blackberry” or “blackberries,” depending on the context). The older word for berries in general was nak-en-lokce, literally “thing, its ripe fruit.”
So while the modern translations “Brier Month” and “Berry Month” are generally accurate, since the blackberry is indeed a fruit-bearing brier, remembering Kvco-Hvse as “Blackberry Month” preserves an older, more precise usage of Mvskoke terminology. Think of it as a symbolic gesture, a small but significant way of honoring Mvskoke forebears who cared enough about this generous plant to name a month for it.
And don’t take this lexical slippage as a bad omen. Change is the hallmark of any living language, just as trading stories means recreation for every vital cultural tradition. We may never determine the tribal pedigree of Br’er Rabbit—he is a liar, after all—but we can know for sure that he’s one of us, especially when we need the help of a brier patch.
Long live Cufe-Laksv!
Long live Kvco-Hvse!
Long live Mvskoke country.
Shem, Ham & Japheth: The Papers of W. O. Tuggle, Comprising His Indian Diary, Sketches & Observations, Myths & Washington Journal in the Territory & at the Capital, 1879-1882, edited by Eugene Current-Garcia and Dorothy B. Hatfield