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


“Guide to Frost,”

“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

West Texas or Worse

Earlier this fall I visited Glacier National Park in Montana.

I had been there twice before, during the mid-sixties, when our family camped across the northern plains to escape the southern plains’ summer heat.  Home movies shot on 8mm film preserved brief glimpses of glaciers that are now only a memory, of glacial runoff that no longer flows.

Although I don’t remember much from those childhood trips, I’ve always wanted to go back, a desire that has grown more urgent in recent years as I’ve learned about global warming.  I hoped to see the last of the park’s main attractions before they’re gone.

By coincidence, I arrived at the gateway hamlet of East Glacier on the eve of the heavily promoted PBS series The National Parks.  But I didn’t ride Amtrak halfway across the continent to watch television, so I’ll have to catch it on reruns.

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Glaciers are formed during periods of regional cooling, when snow accumulates from year to year and gradually turns to ice.  If this process continues long enough, the combined weight of snow and ice forces the bottom layers to move across the land, eroding terrain like a giant scouring pad.

But glaciers produce more than just scenic landscapes.

Meltwater from alpine glaciers amounts to about a quarter of annual mountain runoff.  These cool, clear streams provide more than half of the world’s fresh water supply.  Turn off the glacial spigot, and a lot of people are going to get thirsty.

If the climate turns warmer and drier, glaciers start retreating.  And they’ve been under attack since the Industrial Revolution, when humans began exploiting fossil fuels and filling the atmosphere with greenhouse gases.  This has accelerated in recent years as we’ve increased our consumption of nonrenewable energy.

Scientists estimate that 98% of earth’s glaciers are now in retreat, and that 80% of them will disappear by the end of this century.

In 1850, there were about 150 glaciers in the area that would become Glacier National Park.  When my family visited the park in the mid-sixties, there were about 50 left.

Today there are only 26.

Park brochures and exhibits currently say these dwindling survivors won’t last beyond the year 2030.  But talk with a park ranger and you’ll learn that the latest measurements indicate they’re melting even faster than predicted.  The glaciers of Glacier National Park will be completely gone by 2020, just a decade from now.

Glacier was established in 1910 as the United States’ tenth national park, so government officials and local leaders are gearing up for next year’s centennial.  Since we humans can’t seem to kick our addiction to coal and oil and natural gas, maybe this would be a good time for a new name:  Glacier MEMORIAL National Park.

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What does all this have to do with Mvskoke country?

The Mvskoke people have lived in warm, humid environments for a very long time.  The Mvskoke language doesn’t even have a word for glacier, though it wouldn’t be hard to come up with one—akhvsē-rakko hetutē (frozen lake) might do.

The impact of global warming may be more obvious at higher altitudes and latitudes, where glaciers tend to live.  But every part of our planet is feeling the effects of anthropogenic (human-caused) climate change.

The average temperature on the Great Plains is already up 1.5 degrees compared to 1979, a remarkable increase in just thirty years.  And it will likely jump another couple of degrees during the next decade.

Temperature rise in the southern plains will be largest during the summer months.  Extreme weather events—heat waves, heavy rains, tornadoes—will become more frequent.

The southern plains will get less precipitation during the twenty-first century, especially in the west.  The panhandles of Oklahoma and Texas could dry up enough to produce another Dust Bowl.

In the very near future, people in Mvskoke country are going to find themselves living in a climate that is noticeably hotter and more arid than they remember.

It is almost as if the Creek Nation has pulled up roots and started migrating to the southwest.  You may roll out of bed one morning and wonder how you ended up in West Texas, or worse.  Could this be a second great removal, with the Mvskoke people—and everyone else—embarking on a long passage into the unknown?

The earth simply cannot sustain our current levels of consumption and waste.  Anthropogenic climate change is tempting fate on this organic, blue planet.

Muscogee Nation News, November 2009


Glacier National Park

Crown of the Continent Research Learning Center

Northern Rocky Mountain Science Center

United States Global Change Research Program