Otvwoskv-Rakko, “Big Chestnut-Thrashing”

The American chestnut was one of the most important natural resources available to Mvskokes in the old country.  The ripened nuts are nourishing and delicious; they can be roasted, boiled, dried, ground into flour, salted for storage, or eaten raw from the bur.

Until recent times, chestnuts were also the most vital wildlife food in the eastern woodlands.  Animals of every kind—squirrel, crow, rabbit, raccoon, turkey, deer—relied on the annual harvest to survive winter.  “The bears are great Lovers of Chestnut,” observed colonist William Byrd in 1727, and they were adept at collecting its fruit.  In the early 1900s, a backwoods hunter watched one at work:  “The b’ar corkscrews up a chestnut and rakes down a bunch of burs, then gather ’em up and set beside ’em.  He takes a rock in each paw and mashes the burs open and eats the nuts.”

Humans have long used other parts of the tree to make medicine, supplies, and building materials.  The astringent leaves, for example, can be boiled and applied directly to open sores.  Drinking chestnut-leaf tea can ease the symptoms of head colds, whooping cough, upset stomach, and rheumatism.

Chestnut bark is full of tannin, the essential ingredient for processing animal hides into leather.  Local tanneries in the southeast blended oak, hemlock, and chestnut bark to produce various grades of leather, until this labor-intensive method was replaced by an industrial process in the last century.

The wood also is high in tannin, making it rot-resistant and more durable than other hardwoods.  Chestnut trees grow tall and straight, producing lumber that is very even-grained and relatively lightweight, easy to work by hand and less likely to warp as it cures.  In the days before power tools, it would have been ideal for post-and-beam construction on open ground:  brush arbors, palisades, stock fences.

So it’s not surprising that two of the twelve months in cokv-walv Mvskoke are named for this staple tree.  The fourth month of the Mvskoke year is Otvwoskv-Rakko, “Big Chestnut-Thrashing.”  The 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 augmentative suffix –rakko, “big.”

Interestingly, the Mvskoke word oto is very close to eto, the more general term for “tree” or “wood.”  Other native trees bear Mvskoke names that are more diverse and specific:  hecelwv, “yellow poplar”; lakcvpe-cate, “red oak”; ocē-vpe, “hickory”; ‘to-hvtkv, “white ash”; vhahwv, “walnut.”  But oto was the definitive eto of the Mvskoke homeland, both in nature and in the vocabulary of nature.

The English distinction between forest and orchard is not very useful for describing the Mvskoke relationship with oto.  The greedy settlers who displaced our ancestors in the nineteenth century quickly learned to exploit this tree, in part because they found chestnut groves waiting to be tended.

These were natural stands of mature, fruit-bearing trees that had been groomed by generations of native caretakers.  Clearing the underbrush and selectively thinning the chestnuts helped promote growth by opening the canopy.  Keeping the ground clean made it easier to gather nuts after they were thrashed down from the branches.  Picture an old-growth forest managed like an estate orchard.

A well maintained chestnut grove would be an Edenic spot in summer.  It must have been hard to leave these familiar places—cast out of the Garden, you might say, and driven to a land with no oto at all, where the Mvskoke people had to find new means of survival.

Yet this forced removal might have been a blessing in disguise, at least insofar as our dependence on the American chestnut is concerned.

In the late 1800s, Asian chestnut seedlings imported from Japan brought with them a fungus that infects chestnut bark.  Asian chestnuts have developed resistance to this parasite, but it proved deadly for the American species.  Diseased American chestnuts were first noticed at the Bronx Zoological Park in 1904.

What ensued has been called “one of the greatest natural disasters in the annals of forest biology” and “the worst ecological catastrophe in American history.”  In 1911, the New York Times reported that some letter-writers believed this plague had been caused by “the general wickedness of the people of the United States,” as “a scourge for sinfulness and extravagant living.”

Over the next few years, the virulent fungus attacked and killed nearly all of the four billion American chestnut trees spread over two hundred million acres in eastern North America.  “Chestnut blight remains the most destructive disease known for any host, including trees, other plants, animals, and humans.”

A handful of trees inexplicably survived the epidemic, and scientists have been working for decades to develop a blight-resistant strain of American chestnut.  With a little luck, future generations in Mvskoke country may be able to visit a mature stand of oto, and perhaps even join in some friendly otvwoskv.

Muscogee Nation News, October 2010

Sources:

Mighty Giants: An American Chestnut Anthology, edited by Chris Bolgiano

Native American Ethnobotany: A Database of Foods, Drugs, Dyes and Fibers of Native American Peoples, Derived from Plants

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

“Memories of the American Chestnut,” in Foxfire 6, edited by Eliot Wigginton

American Chestnut: The Life, Death, and Rebirth of a Perfect Tree, by Susan Freinkel

The Chestnut Cook Book: Recipes, Folklore and Practical Information, by Annie Bhagwandin

The American Chestnut Foundation

Otvwoskuce, “Little Chestnut-Thrashing”

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

Hvyo-Rakko, “Big Harvest”

Mvskoke tradition has long recognized corn as a sacred staple.  It’s among the first fruits of the land, and the Mvskoke year begins when the new corn crops are ready.

Yet this “little harvest” is followed by one that is even larger in size, if not in ceremonial significance.

Mvskoke agriculture was a mature, robust science in the eighteenth century.  William Bartram, the British-American naturalist, documented these practices while visiting the heart of Mvskoke country:

“On the east banks of the Oakmulge, this trading road runs nearly two miles through ancient Indian fields, which are called the Oakmulge fields:  they are the rich low lands of the river.  On the heights of these low grounds are yet visible monuments, or traces, of an ancient town, such as artificial mounts or terraces, squares and banks, encircling considerable areas.  Their old fields and planting land extend up and down the river, fifteen or twenty miles from this site.”

He was describing the Ocmulgee Old Fields, now part of Ocmulgee National Monument near Macon, Georgia.  A recent photo of the grounds is featured at the top of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation website.

Bartram cataloged an extensive list of edible resources that sustained our Mvskoke forebears.

“Their animal food consists chiefly of venison, bears’ flesh, turkeys, hares, wild fowl, and domestic poultry,” along with domesticated cows, goats, and pigs.  They were cultivating corn, rice, sweet potatoes, beans, cowpeas, squashes, pumpkins, watermelons, and other crops.  They tended orchards yielding peaches, oranges, plums, figs, and apples; harvested persimmons, berries, grapes, and brier roots from the forest; and gathered nuts under hickory, walnut, pecan, palm, and oak trees.

“Rice,” for example, “they plant in hills on high dry ground, in their gardens; by this management a few grains in a hill (the hills about four feet apart) spread every way incredibly, and seem more prolific than cultivated in water, as in the white settlements of Carolina; the heads are larger and heavier, and the grain is larger, firmer, much sweeter, and more nourishing.  Each family raises enough of this excellent grain for its own use.”

“They have in use,” Bartram concluded, “a vast variety of wild or native vegetables, both fruits and roots.”

So it’s not surprising that the second month of the Mvskoke year is Hvyo-Rakko, “Big Harvest.”  The name was formed by modifying the word hvyo, “harvest,” with the augmentative suffix –rakko, “big.”

Actually, there is some debate over the translation of this name.  The oldest written source, recorded in 1790, renders it “Big Ripening,” and the first Mvskoke dictionary, published in 1890, defines it as “Big Harvest.”  But as early as 1911, anthropologist John Swanton noted that the name might also mean “Much [or Big] Heat,” and today some Mvskokes prefer this translation of Hiyo-Rakko.

The apparent discrepancy may be due to historical or regional variations in pronunciation, or to the varied spelling systems used for written Mvskoke.  The root word hiyē, “heat,” is similar to hvyo, “harvest,” and of course it takes heat to make a harvest.  Perhaps “Big Heat” came into use as a playful interpretation of Hvyo-Rakko, a Mvskoke pun about the climate in Indian Territory around harvest time.

In any event, this month in cokv-walv Mvskoke reminds us of our collective agricultural heritage and of the personal health benefits that result from a balanced diet and an active lifestyle.  Most modern Mvskokes do not eat “a vast variety” of nutritious foods they produce by their own labor, though some are trying to change that.

The Mvskoke Food Sovereignty Initiative, the Creek Council House Museum, the Food and Fitness Policy Council of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, and other concerned citizens are doing important work in this area.  The Hanna Farm Project has several hundred acres of corn, wheat, soybeans, and watermelons under cultivation, with more to come.  A warm letter from Nancy Watson in the last issue of the Muscogee Nation News describes the neighborly service being performed by members of the Okfuskee Indian Community, who are delivering “fresh, clean, ready-to-eat vegetables from the community garden.”

One hundred years ago, while contacting native peoples who were once part of the Mvskoke confederacy, John Swanton visited the Alabama-Coushatta Tribe of Texas, where he recorded this synopsis of an Alabama oral tradition:

“There is a story to the effect that in ancient times the bear was the Indians’ hog, the turkeys their chickens, and the [brier root] their flour, but they did not watch them so they ran away and became wild.”

Watch what you eat, and you’ll feel better—and you may also help preserve one of the finest civilizations this world has ever known.

Muscogee Nation News, August 2010

Sources:

Travels and Other Writings, by William Bartram

Ocmulgee National Monument

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

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

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

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

Hvyuce, “Little Harvest”

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