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.
“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