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

Eholē, “Frost”

The long growing season in Mvskoke country finally comes to an end with first frost, when surface temperatures drop low enough to transform water vapor into ice.

Various factors affect the formation of these spiny ice crystals, producing different types of frost.  Each plant, in turn, responds to the onset of freezing conditions according to its specific characteristics.  Farmers are especially concerned with the nature and severity of this annual transition, particularly in climates with shorter growing seasons.

When our farming forebears were driven west in the nineteenth century, the ones who survived found agricultural circumstances fairly similar to those in the Mvskoke homeland.

Forced removal to Indian Territory must have been even more traumatic for people from dissimilar climates.  Imagine the subsistence challenges that faced Seminoles arriving from the Florida Everglades, Potawatomis from the shores of Lake Michigan, and Modocs from northeastern California.

As it turned out, the average frost-free period in eastern Oklahoma is almost identical to that of the old country, with the last freeze typically occurring in early April and first frost in late October.  So the fifth month of cokv-walv Mvskoke was as fitting in the west as it had been in the east.

The name for this month is commonly translated “frost,” but like many English versions of Mvskoke words, some important information gets lost in translation.

The general term for ice and other forms of frozen water is hetutē.  This is the root word for at least two compound terms referring to different types of frost:  hetutē-hvtkuce, literally “little white ice,” and hetutē-lvste, literally “black ice.”  The apparent contradiction involving color may reflect the fact that frost crystals are usually translucent and can take on the cast of the underlying surface.

Eholē, on the other hand, seems to be archaic terminology with a more complex etymology.  Most written accounts of Mvskoke vocabulary render this month’s name as “frost,” but there are a couple of interesting exceptions.

In 1791, U.S. agent Caleb Swan translated it as “falling leaf moon,” highlighting one of the more obvious effects of first frost.  In 1928, anthropologist John R. Swanton translated the other eleven month names but omitted a direct translation of this one, instead describing it as a term “indicating a change in the weather,” yet another way to convey the arrival of freezing temperatures.

Eholē thus signifies first frost, falling leaves, a change in the weather.  But it is not a conventional term for “frost,” so how did this month’s name originate?

There are intriguing clues in the two comprehensive dictionaries translating Mvskoke words into English.

The first was published in 1890 at Red Fork, which is now part of southwest Tulsa.  Among its roughly eight thousand entries, the most likely candidates for words cognate to eholē are the verb holocetv, “to glisten, shine bright,” and the related adjective holocē, “bright.”

The second Mvskoke-English dictionary was published in 2000 by the University of Nebraska Press.  It includes an entry for a similar word, the adjective hololoccē, “iridescent, shiny (as of a feather).”

Both dictionaries also list words that might complicate this analysis:  vholocetv, “to cloud up,” for example.  On the other hand, I know at least one person who has heard eholē used to describe a woman wearing shiny clothes.

Frost is likelier to form overnight in the absence of cloud cover, when the land cools more rapidly and chills the moist air at ground level.  Perhaps this month’s name originated in the appearance of a transformed landscape after a cold, clear night:  bright, shiny, glistening, iridescent.  And the sight of frost in the morning sun can be particularly striking at its first occurrence each year, after seven months of weather above the freezing point.

Why bother with all this scrutiny of language and weather?

If these speculations are correct, they suggest that eholē is much more than a factual description of a natural phenomenon.  Think of it:  a month named “Glistening”!  The play of sunlight over our frost-covered world, a pristine landscape that just hours earlier displayed only earth tones and vegetation in decay.  Whoever coined this name had an eye for beauty where modern science sees mere crystalline ice and the refraction of light.

Any agricultural society might name one of its months for the coming of frost.  But it takes an aesthetic appreciation for the environment to settle on a word like eholē.  This is traditional ecological knowledge at its finest.

Our Mvskoke ancestors were wise people indeed.

Muscogee Nation News, November 2010

Sources:

“Guide to Frost,” SnowCrystals.com

“Understanding Weather: Frost,” BBC Weather Centre

“Freeze/Frost Maps,” National Climate Data Center

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

“Position and State of Manners and Arts in the Creek, or Muscogee Nation in 1791,” by Caleb Swan

Social Organization and Social Usages of the Indians of the Creek Confederacy, by John R. Swanton