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.
“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