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

Kvco-Hvse, “Blackberry Month”

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.

Muscogee Nation News, June 2011

Sources:

Song of the South,” Wikipedia

Uncle Remus, His Songs and His Sayings: The Folk-Lore of the Old Plantation, by Joel Chandler Harris

Nights with Uncle Remus: Myths and Legends of the Old Plantation, by Joel Chandler Harris

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

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

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

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

A Grammar of Creek (Muskogee), by Jack B. Martin

Kē-Hvse, “Mulberry Month”

The calendar year in Mvskoke country winds down with a couple of months named for edible fruits: , “mulberry,” and kvco, “blackberry.” And like only one other month in cokv-walv Mvskoke (Hotvlē-Hvse, “Wind Month”), their traditional names include the word for “month” itself, presumably to avoid confusion between each month and its namesake. The remaining nine months bear distinctive names and thus don’t need to be specified as hvse.

is the Mvskoke word for “mulberry,” and it’s also the way you pronounce the letter “k” in the Mvskoke language, a semantic association that could serve as a handy teaching tool. An alphabet book designed for Mvskoke-speaking youngsters, for example, would undoubtedly use mulberries to illustrate the letter “k.” Am I the only one who wishes we had a children’s book titled “M is for Mvskoke”?

Like many flowering plants, mulberry trees are native to warmer climates around the world. The species unique to eastern North America is commonly called red mulberry, from the scientific designation Morus rubra. An older Mvskoke term for the tree is kē-vpē, literally “mulberry stalk.”

Travelling through Mvskoke country in the 1770s, botanist William Bartram found an abundance of kē-vpē, especially near the agricultural fields once cultivated by our ancestors. Encamped on the banks of the Oconee River, at the site of an old Mvskoke tribal town, he listed mulberries among the many species growing there:

“This flourishing grove was an appendage of the high forests we had passed through, and projected into an extensive, green, open, level plain, consisting of old Indian fields and plantations, being the rich low lands of the river, and stretching along its banks upwards to a very great distance, charmingly diversified and decorated with detached groves and clumps of various trees and shrubs, and indented on its verge by advancing and retreating promontories of the high land.”

Mulberries are an understory species typically found in mixed stands of deciduous forest. These small, shade-tolerant trees prefer moist soils and edge habitats, and today you can still find them sprouting around low-lying pastures and along the margins of fields. Both male and female mulberries flower in the spring, but only females produce berries; the fruit of red mulberry trees is known for its large size and strong, sweet flavor.

Not all of the mulberries Bartram saw were wild. He noted considerable evidence of old orchards populated with red mulberries and other food-bearing trees, concluding that “these trees were cultivated by the ancients, on account of their fruit, as being wholesome and nourishing food. Though these are natives of the forest, yet they thrive better, and are more fruitful, in cultivated plantations, and the fruit is in great estimation with the present generation of Indians.” ranked among the “principle articles” of their “vegitable productions,” constituting “a considerable part” of the Mvskoke diet. “They dry the fruite on boards in large cakes, which they keep in store, & stew it with bread, parch’t corn flower & oil.”

European colonists were quick to assimilate this indigenous commodity. At Ebenezer, in the Georgia colony, Bartram found a village of German settlers where “the Town is laid out in large Squairs so that every family has ground sufficient to plant a Mulberry Orchard, a Garden, & a Cornfield.” Visiting a plantation near the South Carolina coast, he observed a large orchard of imported white mulberry (Morus alba), “some of which were grafted on stocks of the native Mulberry (Morus rubra); these trees were cultivated for the purpose of feeding silk-worms,” a commercialized insect wholly dependent on mulberry leaves. As was so often the case, immigrants saw profit where Indians had seen only provision.

was a staple food for Mvskokes in the old country, so they marked time with the help of kē-vpē blossoms. According to one account of Mvskoke origins, documented at Pine Arbor Tribal Town in North Florida, the beginning was an age of great confusion. All beings existed without a place: “It isn’t very pleasant to be nowhere. It’s like being lost, only worse.” Thanks to the efforts of Turtle, Duck, and many others, the world was made and ordered and “everything now had an appointed place.” Then “a great Ceremonial Square Ground” was established, where important traditions could be nurtured.

It is said that seasonal variation began as a reminder of the trauma of creation: “For a season, cold and frost will be with you as a bitter memory and lesson, but berry and blossom will come forth to remind you of when all sat down together to learn and to seek balance and harmony. At the time of the Mulberry Blossom, all shall come together again and seek to renew these teachings.”

Muscogee Nation News, May 2011

Sources:

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

“Red Mulberry,” USDA Forest Service

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

Travels and Other Writings, by William Bartram

Creation Myths and Legends of the Creek Indians, by Bill Grantham

Muskogee Words and Ways, by C. Randall Daniels-Sakim

Tasahce-Rakko, “Big Spring”

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