Nokahigas: Hoer Moon

nokahigas abenaki hoer moon

The sixth moon of the Abenaki lunar calendar is the Hoer Moon, following the planting moon (fifth moon) of Kikas, the Field Maker Moon. This is the time when the new sprouts of the year’s planting appreciate some nurturing care, in the competition of their warming rush toward the sun. The month began in this sun cycle with the new moon on June 3, 2019, and we are nigh on to the full moon which shines tomorrow, June 17th, and gives the name.

The word derives from two roots: noka- meaning “to soften” as in hoeing the earth, and -higas, a combination of “one who” and “moon”. Another name for this moon is the Strawberry Moon, in appreciation for the delicious earthly gift of the season: it is called Mskikoikas, after the Abenaki name for the strawberry itself, mskikoimens, “the little grass berry.”

And so we enter into Niben, the bountiful season of summer…

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An Ongoing Exploration: Getting to Know Red Ochre

iron seep 3 rt 30 brattleboro 2019

A very significant cultural component: ritual adornment, mortuary practice, healing properties, ornamentation… the importance of red ochre to the Abenaki, and to many indigenous cultures, cannot be overemphasized. The word  in Aln8baiwi is olamanjagw, red ochre mud; when mixed with grease,  it is simply olaman. In Anishinaabemowin, the word is very similar: onaman. Ochre is derived from natural iron oxide compounds, in mineral deposits, clay, or iron seeps , where iron oxidizing bacteria augment the chemical conversion.

iron ochre names royal society of canada 1885

Publication of Royal Society of Canada, 1885.

Local people sought nearby sources of this valuable material; if they were not fortunate in this respect, they were obliged to trade for it. Here in Sokwakik there is an abundance of iron in the local geology. An iron seep just north of Wantastegok yields an abundant flow of ferrous oxide mud, carried with the groundwater through a mineral-rich ledge of Waits River schist and emerging on the east face. In the summer, the iron-oxidizing bacteria colonies form amazing cellular structures. In the winter, these lose their shape and form a hard, crumbly crust. The pigmented mud accumulates in the crevices of the rock and can be collected simply, with a little careful examination of the best pockets.

The seep in summer.

The seep in winter

By collecting this dark red-brown mud, heating (oxidizing) ’til it reached its maximum color (too much heat will result in a darker, browner hue), and then sifting it, I  was able to produce a nice amount of orange/dark red/brown pigment on an initial trial. This could be further pulverized with a mortar and pestle, before mixing with a grease or oil and used for painting the body, or another use.

More to come…

 

 

Sogalikas: Sugar Maker Moon

native maple squirrel tradition

With the most recent new moon on April 5, 2019 in Sokwakik, we are now well into Sogalikas, the Sugar Maker Moon. Climate change has brought an earlier spring in recent years, shifting the time of sap harvest back toward Mozokas, but there is still some overlap, and the further north one travels, the longer the season persists. The Abenaki annual cycle is flexible and can be adjusted to reflect present realities… perhaps Mozokas will have a different face some day.

Agwa – “it is said” – that Native people learned of this delicious source of energy from the red squirrel nation, observing them nip off the end bud of a maple twig and drinking the sap that flowed from the tip. Following this example, a slanting cut was made in the bark of the tree as the days grew warmer from the strengthening return of kizos (the sun), and fitted with a shaped piece of bark or wood to direct the sweet water toward a bark container. The sap was boiled down in a large wooden trencher using red-hot stones.

Written historical accounts state that the first maple sugaring performed by  British settlers – in the person of Alexander Kathan – within what is now Vermont, took place at Sweet Tree Farm on Route 5 in Dummerston, just north of Wantastegok/Brattleboro and adjacent to the Kwenitekw/Connecticut River. The new arrivals would have learned this skill from the indigenous Sokwakiak, and most likely appropriated an existing sugar orchard for the purpose. Sugaring still takes place at the farm today.

Abenaki Fishing Places: Some Extrapolations

native net fishing

Fishing played an important role in the lives of the Abenaki/Aln8bak within their home riverscapes,  in a multitude of interconnected ways. The anadromous and catadromous migrations of salmon, shad, alewives, herring, and eels were especially significant. The seasonal cycles, the flush of spring and the awakening of earth’s gifts, the dependable and welcome return of the fish nations, the birth of new life… all of these give witness to a recognition that engenders a careful honoring of pervasive relationships.  Most of these relationships were severed or severely compromised with the arrival of the European colonizers, bringing a culture of separation and exploitation with the building of dams, roads, and bridges, and the choking and fouling of the rivers with logging, mining, industry, and large-scale agriculture. With this calamitous interruption, the People themselves were deeply affected as well.

Though most of the fish are gone in present-day 2019, the places where these harvests of the spring’s vast arrival of swimmers (and with eels, in the autumn) occurred are still honored and celebrated. Yet while these places remain, many of them are a shadow of their former vibrant, powerful selves, overtopped with mills, dams, bridges and blasted and channelized into ill straits in the service of commerce and convenience.

Every group of Abenaki has their home river (n’sibo – my river) and every river has these places, the Sokwakiak among them. In Sokoki country along the Kwenitekw, some of the fishing places are at the Rock Dam/Rawson’s Island/Montague, Mskwamakok/Peskeompskut/Turners Falls, the Azewalad Sibo/Ashuelot River, Vernon Falls/ Great Bend/Cooper’s Point, the confluence with Wantastegok/West River at Brattleboro, and Kchi Pontekw/Bellows Falls. At these places are found a set of conditions that act to focus the fish at constricting, usually rockbound features such as falls, rapids, narrows, and channels. Accompanying these settings is the tumultuous energy of rushing, swirling, shimmering, splashing  water in full voice.

8manosek peskeompskut kwenitekw rock dam

The convergence of spirit, the elements, and resurgent prolific life – epitomized by  over-arching sky, shaped and shelving bedrock, sunlight and reflection, deep and strong currents – create a place of exchange. Spirit is able to move between worlds more readily here; the edges between the underworld of earth and water, existence on the surficial plane, and the above world of sky, blur and cross over. Things are in a state of flux, moving and mixing, intersecting. The constant change of creation is present here, closer and better accessible. This is one reason that messages of acknowledgement in the form of petroglyphs are often found at these places. These ancient representations, placed by medawlinnoak, medicine people, as they worked to seek balance with and through the presence of spirit concentrated there, continue to speak their opportune truths into the present. We see and hear them even now, carrying through the dysphoria and disturbance of the modern milieu.

The Aln8ba8dwaw8gan (Western Abenaki) word for the action of fishing is 8maw8gan, with the root being 8m- signifying “to lift.” On a pragmatic level this can be seen as a simple reference to the fish harvesting techniques of using a net, or a spear, or a hook and line. On another level it speaks of active, upward transition from one place to another.

The great waves of sustaining life that swam up the rivers and streams in Sigwan – the Spring, the “emptying or pouring out” – in the form of salmon, shad, and their kin – were and are an embodiment of this free exchange of spirit, in the very real form of cyclic return of abundant sustenance. Converging on these significant places, met there by the Aln8bak (the Abenaki people) and joined by other relations – the feeding eagles, osprey, gulls, bear, and otter –  the swimmers were lifted up – 8mawa – from the under[water]world into the surface world of the Aln8ba, at that juncture transitioning into another form for the good of the people.

The recognition of this great transformative gift would result in an outpouring of gratitude and celebration, with reciprocal honoring (giving back) to the fish people and the life-giving river waters themselves. All of this in a ritual acknowledgement of “the way it is” – the connected circles of creation, the constancy of change, and the intention to find balance in the midst of it. If these agreements were not honored, and respectful acknowledgement made in the form of ceremonial practice (song, dance, gifts, prayer, proscribed or prescribed activities), it would have to be seen as a breach of conduct. It truly was unconscionable to not do so; that this approach of reciprocal relationship worked well and sustainably for thousands of years is ample testament to its efficacy. That these same processes are breaking down around us now is a corroborating witness to the ineptitude of the mindset that replaced it.

K8g8gwibakw: the Wintergreen, Teaberry, or Checkerberry

wintergreen-brattleboro-vt-nov

Many are familiar with this cheerful, diminutive forest creeper (Gaultheria procumbens); it’s often one of the few wild plants the average contemporary northeasterner can identify. I grew up knowing this tiny relative, taught by my grandparents about its wonderful aroma as we picked a leaf or a berry to chew on while we walked in the pine barrens and oak scrub of eastern Long Island (NY). That it was growing under pine and oak is a good reminder of its preference for acidic soils. It is a readily encountered neighbor here in Sokwakik as well, in the hills above the Kwenitekw under similar conditions.wintergreen-hinsdale-2018

The name wintergreen is easily understood: the shiny, leathery leaves are evergreen year-round and it also holds its berries through the snow. Though a little dry, the berries have the same eponymous “oil of wintergreen” flavor as the leaves. The scent of this essential oil is primarily due to methyl salicylate, which metabolizes to salicylic acid, a common non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID). This is the same compound derived from aspirin, which is acetylsalicylic acid.  As a medicinal tea, it is best known for pain relief – an analgesic  for rheumatic symptoms, headache, fever, sore throat, and various aches and pains, along with treating kidney ailments and as a blood tonic. Otherwise, leaves are used traditionally for tea as a beverage and for flavoring in cooking. The berries are, of course, an edible nibble food much of the year.

Other common names are: teaberry, for the above reasons, and also the source of the name of Clarke’s Teaberry chewing gum – another fond childhood memory associated with my grandparents; checkerberry, for the red fruit’s fancied resemblance to that of the Old World chequer tree (Sorbus torminalis), but the resemblance ends there; partridgeberry, a common name I prefer to use for Mitchella repens, which is often found in damp sites under conifers – often hemlock; and boxberry, which seems to be provoked by another awkward fancied resemblance to the European Box tree (Buxus sempervirens), which has evergreen leaves in a somewhat similar shape, but again, the resemblance ends there.

wintergreen-chesterfield-2018

The urn-shaped, downturned flowers of waxy white (sometimes pinkish) appear pendant below the leaves in June or July and mature into bright red berries (10 mm) in late summer or autumn. Often it is the berries that catch one’s eyes first. While an extensive spread of wintergreen may appear to be a collective of happily cohabiting individuals, the colony may actually be a clonal extension of a single plant, spreading by shallow rhizomes beneath the forest duff. Also, these short (5-20 cm) clumping plants are classified as a sub-shrub similar to many other members of the heath family, and not as a tender herb, due to the woody nature of the lower stems. Not all wintergreen is found under the forest canopy; they may also be found out in the open if the soil is acidic enough, and may turn a deep wine red (pigments known as anthocyanins) as a protective measure against strong sunlight.

wintergreen-wantastiquet-early-spring-2018

The Abenaki name for wintergreen is k8g8gwibakw or k8g8gowibakw. There are a couple of ways to understand the meanings, and thus the inspiration for the naming. Gordon Day gives the translation variously (keep in mind that “k” is often interchanged with “g”, especially with Day’s orthography) in his dictionary as:

  • g8g8gowibagw – a sawtoothed leaf (the wintergreen plant)
  • g8g8gowizak – little sawtoothed ones (a variant for wintergreen)
  • g8g8gw8bagwiz- little sawtooth leaf (alternate name for wintergreen)
  • g8gowibagw – a dentate leaf (a wintergreen plant)

Here, “g8g8g-” means sawtoothed or dentate, describing the leaf margin; “-owi-” creates an adverbial form, in the sawtooth way; and “-bagw” describes a leaf, and a plant by extension. And indeed the leaf is sawtoothed, although very subtly (see photos above); each marginal tooth actually has a very small hair or spine, which may suggest the root “g8wi-” also, which signifies a thorn, or pricker, or quill (as with a porcupine).

Interestingly, the Penobscot name for wintergreen is kαkάkəwipakʷ which is raven[berry]plant, from kάkαko – the word for raven. The inspiration here is that the berries serve as food for the ravens, who are also frequenting the pine-covered mountainsides. Thus, the words for wintergreen in the two closely related languages (Western and Eastern Abenaki/Penobscot) are near-homophones, but with 2 different points of origin. It is thought the raven’s name is onomatopoetic, simulating its call. It is interesting that the raven also has a sawtoothed ruff of feathers at its throat. Other languages assign ravenberry to a different plant, red bearberry being one. There are many different trails to arrive at a destination.

 

 

Mozokas: Moose Hunter Moon

bull-moose-jean-polfus

The third month of the Abenaki annual cycle – Mozokas – has begun. The new moon following Pia8dagos (second month) occurred yesterday on March 6, 2019 here in Sokwakik. In Western Abenaki, Mozokas means “moose hunter moon.” It is pronounced MOH-zoh-kahs. The word is formed polysynthetically with the combination of  the morphemes moz (moose) + ok (hunt) + as (moon).

The deep accumulation of an entire winter’s snowfall makes it easier for the snowshoed hunter to track and take the mighty eastern moose (Alces alces americana) in the uplands. The moose is tracked, with the assistance of dogs, working from winter hunting camps in the hills. Initial processing is done onsite, then carried back to camp by sled for further treatment, and eventually to the settlements in the river valleys. As the end of the winter approaches and food supplies dwindle, the people are grateful for the many gifts of the moose: meat, hide, hair, sinew, bone.

Illustration by Jean Lieppert Polfus.

Pia8dagos: Makes Branches Fall Into Pieces Moon

The second month of the Abenaki annual cycle has begun. The new moon following Alamikos (also known as  Anhaldamawikizos) occurred on February 4, 2019 here in Sokwakik. In Western Abenaki, Pia8dagos means “makes branches fall into pieces” or ‘falling in pieces branches maker.” Last night’s windstorm made the reasoning abundantly clear.