Tasahcuce, “Little Spring”

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

Hotvlē-Hvse, “Wind Month”

The last month of the winter season brings blustery weather to Mvskoke lands, an annual turn as predictable in Indian Territory as it was in the old country. Today this is still the windiest part of the year in northern Alabama and Georgia, and anyone now living in eastern Oklahoma knows it’s the time of year when the wind starts to pick up.

So it makes sense that the eighth month of the Mvskoke year is Hotvlē-Hvse, “Wind Month.” The name was formed by combining the words hotvlē, “wind,” and hvse, “month.”

Hotvlē is cognate to the verb hotvletv, “to blow (of the wind)” or “to be breezy, windy.” It is also the more general word for “air” and appears in compound terms involving the movement of air, which suggests that Mvskoke people have always appreciated the dynamic nature of atmospheric conditions. For example, hotvlē-rakko—literally, “big wind”—can refer to a hurricane, tornado, or other storm characterized by violent gales.

Curiously, Hotvlē-Hvse is one of only three months in cokv-walv Mvskoke whose name includes the word for “month.” Most Mvskoke speakers today take hvse to mean “sun,” but it probably had a broader meaning in the past. The Miccosukee language—one of our closest linguistic relatives—still uses haashe to refer to either the sun or the moon, adding a modifier to specify “day” or “night” luminary. The lunar cycle is the natural basis for months in the Mvskoke calendar, so the name for “Wind Month” preserves this older usage of hvse.

Even more distinctively, Hotvlē-Hvse is the only Mvskoke month whose name corresponds to that of a Mvskoke clan. Hotvlkvlke designates the “Wind clan,” which figures prominently in a portion of the Mvskoke origin account. This story is nicely presented in English by “Este Mvskoke (The Muscogee People),” a documentary produced in 1983 by the Communications Department of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation.

It is said that, “in the beginning, the Mvskoke people were born out of the earth itself. They crawled up out of the ground, through a hole, like ants.” They found themselves near high mountains, “the backbone of the earth,” but then a thick fog obscured their vision. “They wandered around blindly, calling out to one another in fear.” Soon they were “separated into small groups, and the people in these groups stayed close to one another in fear of being entirely alone.”

Finally, Hesaketvmesē took mercy on them. “From the eastern edge of the world, where the sun rises, he began to blow away the fog. He blew and blew until the fog was completely gone. The people were joyful and sang a hymn of thanksgiving to the Master of Breath.”

Then the people in each group “turned to one another” and vowed the loyalty of kinship. “They said that from then on these groups would be like large families. The members of each group would be as close to each other as brother and sister,” parent and child.

“The group that was farthest east and first to see the sun praised the wind that had blown the fog away. They called themselves the Wind family, or Wind clan.” As the fog cleared, other groups named themselves after the first animal they saw: bear, deer, alligator, raccoon, bird, and more.

Thus the various clans have come into being. Together they form the bedrock of Mvskoke civilization, organizing social relations in much the same way that cokv-walv Mvskoke illuminates the passage of time. And like the names of the Mvskoke months, the clan names symbolize the environmental consciousness of our indigenous forebears.

It would be a tragic mistake to regard these totems as little more than team mascots. Fans of the Texas Longhorns, for example, don’t refrain from eating beef; in fact, they consume more cattle than most humans on the planet. And they don’t disavow marrying other Longhorns fanatics (though it might improve the gene pool if they did). Hotvlkvlke and the rest of the Mvskoke clans remind us of our fundamental kinship with the natural world, regulating how we interact with other-than-human persons—and with one another.

Wind Month blows fresh air through Mvskoke country, bringing to mind the origin of clans and heralding a seasonal turn from dormancy to new growth.

Muscogee Nation News, February 2011

Sources:

“Average Wind Speed,” NOAA Comparative Climatic Data

“Tulsa, Oklahoma Climatology,” National Weather Service

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

Este Mvskoke (The Muscogee People),” MCN Communications Department

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