Cokv-Walv Mvskoke Redux

The reliable return of summer solstice means the end of one year and the beginning of another in Mvskoke country.

Like other indigenous Americans, Mvskoke people “survived by knowing their natural environment well and making direct use of its surpluses. It was a land of abundance, but that abundance was only available to those who had the necessary skills,” writes J. Donald Hughes in North American Indian Ecology. “They kept track of annual cycles, naming the months after the natural changes they observed. Their lives were closely involved in nature’s rhythms, and they were conscious of this.”

Cokv-walv Mvskoke, the Mvskoke calendar, is one way our Mvskoke ancestors preserved their understanding of natural rhythms and resources. “The Indian names for the ‘moons,’ or months, show at least a part of their detailed knowledge of the seasonal cycles and rhythms of nature: when flowers or fruits would appear, when the young of animals would be born, when the lakes would freeze, when the birds would return. . . . The Indians’ science was a blend of observation, reason, insight and nature mysticism,” which is also a good description of modern technoscience if you replace nature mysticism with the profit motive.

And humanity’s great transformation from grounded spirituality to transcendent greed has laid the foundation for our current environmental crisis.

I began writing “Mvskoke Country” a couple of years ago in response to this crisis. In the first installment, titled “Return to Your Roots,” I commented on the landmark symposium organized by the Mvskoke Food Sovereignty Initiative and supported by all three branches of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation government, which is now an annual event. I also mentioned the National Congress of American Indians’ 2006 resolution “Supporting a National Mandatory Program to Reduce Climate Change Pollution and Promote Renewable Energy,” which remains one of the organization’s current initiatives.

After a year covering various environmental topics with a Mvskoke angle, especially in the context of anthropogenic (human-caused) climate change, I decided last summer to focus on the traditional Mvskoke calendar.

At first glance, this might not seem like fertile ground for cultivating ecological knowledge, since the Gregorian calendar used by the dominant culture bears little connection to nature. The English names for the months, for example, are based on a jumble of Latin numbers, Roman deities, and other useless anachronisms. And you may recall that the English word calendar comes from the Latin kalendarium, “moneylender’s account book,” an etymology that speaks volumes about the prevailing attitude toward natural rhythms: “time is money,” so they say.

Not so for cokv-walv Mvskoke.

The annual round begins with posketv, called “Green Corn” in English, along with little and big months named for the harvest, Hvyuce and Hyvo-Rakko; it is a time for reaping corn and other produce that will sustain the community through the year to come. This season of meskē, “summer,” continues with a couple of months announcing another kind of ingathering, Otvwoskuce and Otvwoskv-Rakko, when ripe chestnuts were thrashed down from the branches of a majestic tree now decimated by immigrant blight.

The next season—rvfo, “winter”—opens and closes with single months marking the arrival of falling temperatures and of rising winds: Eholē and Hotvlē-Hvse. In between these transitional periods are sibling months named for the season itself, Rvfo-Rakko and Rvfo ‘Cuse, when the natural world lies dormant and rests.

The third and final season is tasahcē, “spring”; it begins with paired months named for the season, Tasahcuce and Tasahce-Rakko, as the land awakens and invites the sowing of seeds. These are followed by two months honoring plants that provide edible fruit, Kē-Hvse and Kvco-Hvse, at a time when winter stores are running low and the new crops are not yet ready for harvest. The Mvskoke year then winds down with summer solstice and posketv as the annual cycle begins again.

No money changes hands under this calendar; the only transactions specified herein are ecological, not financial. Mvskoke citizens owe no allegiance to Roman imperialists—Julius Caesar (July), Augustus (August)—or to any culture that would conquer nature.

Instead, cokv-walv Mvskoke does exactly what a calendar ought to do: it reminds us where we are in time, just as a map helps us understand where we are in space. Both schemas work best when they situate a people in a place, orienting us to the means of survival through our natural environment.

It is good to have a Mvskoke calendar for Mvskoke country.

Muscogee Nation News, July 2011


North American Indian Ecology, by J. Donald Hughes

National Congress of American Indians: Climate Change

Wikipedia: Gregorian Calendar

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


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


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