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Big Spring in Mvskoke Country

James Treat
4/14/11

The dominant culture in North America tends to make a big deal out of the vernal equinox, around March 20, when night and day are about equal in length. Among those who define seasonal change according to strictly astronomical criteria, this marks the beginning of spring—a welcome relief from the cold and dreary conditions of a temperate-zone winter.

Of course, there are other ways to conceptualize the seasons. In Mvskoke country, we’re already a month into tasahc?, “spring,” the third of three seasons in the ancient Mvskoke calendar. The vernal equinox comes at the transition from Tasahcuce, “Little Spring,” to Tasahce-Rakko, “Big Spring,” which are the first two months of this four-month season.

Thanks to cokv-walv Mvskoke (“Mvskoke calendar”), we Mvskoke get an extra month of spring! (I asked readers of this column in Muscogee Nation News to try not to brag in the presence of their non-Mvskoke neighbors.)

In his poem “For Me,” the Mvskoke bard Alexander Posey celebrates a personal relationship with the environing world:

     The blue of the sky and the green branches waving—
     The sweet invitation of nature to rest
     Seem to satisfy all of the soul’s eager craving
     To live in a land by eternal spring blest.

It is the heyday of flowering plants, a time for new growth in every domain. “The mountain, the river, each flower, each tree,” this stanza concludes, “Had a love song to sing and all, all was for me!”

Although some critics would dismiss these lyrical sentiments as garden-variety romanticism, Mvskoke people have always personalized their connection to the natural environment.

Think of our various clans, which express a fundamental sense of kinship: Kaccvlke, “tiger clan” (literally, “tiger people”); Fuswvlke, “bird clan”; Vhvlvkvlke, “sweet potato clan”; and Hotvlkvlke, “wind clan,” to name just a few. Or consider the many animal dances still enjoyed at our ceremonial grounds, including Yvnvsv-Pvnkv, “buffalo dance”; Setahvyv-Pvnkv, “feather dance”; Cetto-Pvnkv, “snake dance”; and ?sapv-Pvnkv, “gar dance.”

This indigenous personalism is also evident in modern surnames and in the playful monikers given to individuals by family and friends. Natural names are a venerable tradition in Mvskoke country, one sometimes extended even to transient guests.

In April of 1774, the Alachua Seminoles were visited by William Bartram, an Anglo-American naturalist from Philadelphia. Bartram’s specialty was botany, the study of “the tribes of plants and trees,” and he particularly liked tracking down native flora in bloom.

Arriving on the outskirts of Cuscowilla, Bartram and his party were met by “the women and children,” who “saluted us with cheerfulness and complaisance,” he noted in his journal. “We were welcomed to the town, and conducted by the young men and maidens to the chief’s house,” where Ahaya—called “Cowkeeper” by the colonists—“attended by several ancient men, came to us, and in a very free and sociable manner, shook our hands, or rather arms.”

After the requisite formalities of Mvskoke hospitality, the m?kko “was then informed what the nature of my errand was, and he received me with complaisance, giving me unlimited permission to travel over the country for the purpose of collecting flowers, medicinal plants, etc.” Ahaya also dubbed him “Puc-Puggy” (pvkpvk?, “flower,” though the word has undergone subtle changes in both pronunciation and meaning since the 18th century; in modern Mvskoke, “flower” is pakpvkuce). This gesture was probably at least partly in jest, and Bartram only compounded the irony by construing his new nickname as “the flower hunter,” perhaps one of the earliest examples of playing Indian in American history.

The following year, while travelling through the Mvskoke heartland, Bartram learned more about their agricultural practices. This communal tradition was surely as beautiful as any fragrant flower:

“In the spring, when the season arrives, all the citizens, as one family, prepare the ground and begin to plant, commencing at one end or the other, as convenience may direct for the general good, and so continue on until finished; and when the young plants arise and require culture, they dress and husband them until the crops are ripe.… The design of the common granary is for the wisest and best of purposes, with respect to their people, i.e., a store or resource to repair to in cases of necessity. Thus when a family’s private stores fall short, in cases of accident or otherwise, they are entitled to assistance and supply from the public granary.”

James Treat is an enrolled citizen of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation of Oklahoma. He writes about environmental issues for the Muscogee Nation News and teaches courses on indigenous traditions at the University of Illinois. You can find more information about Mvskoke Country, including an archive of previous columns, at MvskokeCountry.wordpress.com.

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