Bishinik March 1981 Page 6 & 7
Origins of the Choctaw People Retold from Old Legends
Ancient Choctaw Calendar
By Len Green
The Choctaw civilization is considered one of the oldest on the North American continent. According to research by the late David Swanton and material collected by John Claiborne and H. H. Halbert, the Choctaw Civilization reached its peak about 800 to 900 A.D., and was already on the decline when Columbus discovered what the Native Americans knew was here thousands of years before. Research seems to indicate that a relationship exists between the Choctaws, the ancient Mayan, Toltec, lncan and Aztec civilizations of Mexico, Central and South America and perhaps to the ancient Japanese and Polynesian civilizations. All were builders of pyramids (except that the Choctaws worked in earth rather than in stone), all were sun worshipers, and all developed complex and far-reaching civilizations.
If you’ve let yourself be John Wayned into believing that your ancestors wore feathered headdresses, rode their horses madly across the plains emitting war whoops, attacked wagon trains and said prayers to the “Great Spirit,” then you have a completely erroneous picture of the ancient Choctaws. The influence of the ancient Choctaws was so strong that it was felt throughout the North American continent. For example, did you know that the intertribal trading language for trading between tribes consisted of several Choctaw trading words along with a traditionalized sign language? This has been proven by the fact that certain Choctaw “trading words” are still recognized by such tribes as the Rogue Indians of Oregon, the Sioux, the Hopi, the Navajo, the Apache and other plains tribes. This fact was attested by such nahullo explorers as artist George Catlin, trapper and scout Jim Bridger, Army scout Kit Carson and several other well known historians.
The most common name applied by the ancient Choctaws to their God, the sun was Hashtahli (which roughly translates into “the sun completes the action” or “the sun does it.”) The moon was the wife of the sun, and the stars were their children.
Perhaps one of the best ways to illustrate the civilization of the ancient Choctaws is to take a brief look at their concept of time and the fact that they had developed and observed a calendar. If you were living under the Choctaw calendar, rather than under the Julian calendar of the white man, this would be Hash Watallak or Hash Watonlak (month of the crane) [March]. As the ancient Choctaws were sun worshipers, a day naturally began when the sun father, Hashtahli emerged from his cave, opened his eye and started his daily inspection tour of his domain.
The day ended at sundown. Day was day. Night was night. No 24-hour days for the Choctaws. However, if you did a wrong at night, you might be observed and reported for your indiscretion by the moon mother, one of the star children or the fire, which was Hashtahli’s gift to the Choctaw to cook his food, fend off wild animals and furnish a little needed light during the hours of darkness.
The Choctaw year began with the first frost, which in the old Choctaw homeland in what is now the state of Mississippi, generally occurred in early to mid November. Should you ask an ancient Choctaw when a certain event occurred in the past, his answer might have been something like “Hushuk illi hanalli” (“grass dead six times” or “six years ago.”) The Choctaw year lasted for 364 days, and was divided into 13 months of 28 days each, with each new month beginning on the first night of the full moon. The various phases of the moon were explained as the “moon mother” cleaning her house. At the first of the month, the house was clean, and while the moon mother rested from her labors, the children (stars) dirtied the house up again. After resting, the moon mother would chase the children outside and clean up her house so that it would be bright and clean again to signal the first of the following month.
The 13 months were named either for some action of the tribe’s members or some natural event of significance to the tribe. The 13 Choctaw months were:
1. Hash Haponi (month of cooking).
2. Hash Haf (month of sassafras).
3. Hash Chaf iskono (month of little famine).
4. Hash Chafo Chito (month of big famine).
5. Hash Mali or Mahili (month of the winds).
6. Hash Bissi (month of the blackberry).
7. Hash Bihi (month of the mulberry).
8. Hash Takkon (month of the peach).
9. Hash Watallak or Watonlak (month of the crane).
10. Hash Luak Mosholi (month of the fires all out).
11. Hash Tek Inhashi (month of the woman).
12. Hash Koinchush (month of the wildcat).
13. Hash Koichus (month of the panther).
A look, month by month, at why the Choctaw months were given their particular names serves to further delineate the logic of the ancient Choctaws.
With the year starting frosts, the vegetables in Choctaw gardens had to be either utilized, preserved or lost. So naturally, as the Choctaws desired to stockpile as much food as possible against the winter that month would be called Hash Haponi or “cooking month.” As there was no canning or freezing in those days, these vegetables had to either be dried, stored or cooked in such a manner that they had a chance of remaining reasonably edible through the coming winter. Thus many of the Choctaw vegetables were incorporated into breads, as bread could be stored and kept reasonably edible and tasty for several months. As a result breads incorporated such vegetables as beans, sweet potatoes, acorns, berries, persimmons, nutmeats, squash, peas or onions. Some of today’s favorites such as sourbread, which could be kept as a living yeast culture from day to day and banaha (or shucknbread) could be stored in the shucks and reboiled even after several months.
The second month, Hash Haf (sassafras month) fell in our current months of late December and early January. Having learned that tree sap rises in the spring and recedes into the roots during the dormant months, the Choctaws believed that after the leaves had fallen the strength of the trees was concentrated in the roots. Thus during this month, the Choctaws dug sassafras, witch hazel, buckeye and snake root for medicines and teas, and puccoon, walnut, maple, native indigo and poke roots for their distinctive dyes, while the roots were of peak strength.
The names of the third and fourth months, Hash Chafiskono (little famine) and Hash Chafo Chito (big famine) falling in what we now call January and February are almost self explanatory. By late January, the Choctaw family’s supply of breads, dried meats, nuts, potatoes, pumpkin and corn stored against the winter were becoming a bit scarce. And much of the game sought by the Choctaw hunters were in hibernation or had drawn back so deeply into the swamps that they were hard to find and kill, thus adding to the scarcity of available foods. However, there was still enough around to add a bit of flavor to the tefalla (or “cold corn”.. sometimes called by the white man “tom fuller”), which was the mainstay of the Choctaw diet. This was Chafiskono or “small famine.”
By February, practically all of the reserved food was gone, except for a small hoard of dried meat and smoked cracked corn, which had been saved back to sustain the hunters who sought meat for the tribe. This was Chafo Chito or “big famine” time. Meals were for less regular and further between with a family sometimes subsisting several days on a pot of boiled cold corn flavored only with a bit of rabbit or squirrel. However, in late February, warm southeasterly breezes began to sweep in from the gulf, and the land began to green up. The women of the family could pick fresh greens such as poke salet, sour dock, lambs quarter, sheep shank and wild onions, and game began to become more plentiful. This was Hash Mali or the windy month.
The next three months, Hash Bissi (blackberry), Hash Bihi (mulberry) and Hash Takkon (peach) are, of course, named for the fruits which ripened during the period.
The ninth month, which fell in late June and early July, was called Hash Watallak or Hash Watonlak, with the month being named for the white crane a common bird in Mississippi during that era. Again the ancient Choctaw used his stomach to give the month a name. The squab, or baby, of the white crane was very, very high on the Choctaw’s list of yummy goodies. A batch of crane squabs, simmered long in a pot with tender greens and crushed corn made a one-dish meal that was savored by practically every member of the tribe. So, practically every Choctaw who was old enough or still young enough to be reasonably agile scrambled through the swampland and over the swamp islands raiding the nests of the white crane to secure enough of the young birds for a feast.
The tenth month, falling in July and early August, was called Hash Luak Mosholi, which more or less translates into English as “fire extinguished” or “fires all out”. This was the time of year when the corn crop for the year had reached “roasting ear” stage and a members of the tribe gathered at tribal or district camping grounds for the annual “Green Corn Dance.” The big “fun time” of the year for the Choctaws, the “Green Corn Festival” generally lasted for a week to two weeks, with feasting, singing and dancing to honor Hashtahli and thank him for another good crop of corn. Since just about every Choctaw family met old friends and renewed acquaintances at the Green Corn Festival, the annual event was usually followed with an “owa chito” or “big hunting party,” involving several families. On such hunting parties, every member of the family went along, turning the hunt Into a smaller, more personal extension of the annual Green Corn festivities, So actually, the fires in Choctaw homes would remain cold for several weeks thus literally making it a month when the “fires were all out.”
The 11th month was Hash Tek Inhashi or “month of the women,” again pointing to the fact that the ancient Choctaw was a civilized and logical person. Since it was forbidden for a young man to marry into his own clan (or iksa), the young man of marriage age who was ready for marriage would probably “make his move” on the young lady of his choice during the Green Corn Dance. (Incidentally, the Choctaws frowned upon the custom of marrying children too young. The average age of a male Choctaw at marriage was 25 and the average age of his bride was 23. They believed that if children married too young before they had fully developed that their children would be weak and deformed.) Too, even if the Choctaw already had a family, it just made good sense that a child born in May or June would be older and stronger and have a better chance of surviving the rigors of its first winter than would a child born later in the summer or in autumn. Therefore, the obvious time to “woo” the women was in August, when the living was easy and the smallest amount of clothing worn to facilitate courtship and perhaps laying the groundwork for a newer member of the Choctaw family come next spring.
The two final months of the Choctaw year, Hash Koinchush and Hash Koichush (wildcat and panther) were named for the two types of big cats which were common to the woods and swamps of Choctaw country. The offspring of the big cats were large enough to be allowed outside the dens, but still small enough to make the mother cat protective and easier to hunt and kill. Also, the big cats had been spending much time “denning” and sharing food with their young that they were leaner and boosted much less fat. During this period the Choctaw hunters concentrated on killing as many of the big cats as possible. Strips of lean flesh from these cats, cut into thin wafers and smoked dry over a hickory fire seemed to retain a fresh, meaty flavor longer than any other meats available for “jerky” to the Choctaws. Initial kills were smoked, dried and stored for hunters to keep them strong enough to keep on hunting through even the toughest of winters. After an ample supply for the hunters had been stored, each family made the effort to have as much of the dried cat meat as possible hanging in the home or food house against the times of the little and big famines.
Against the winter, the Choctaws also stored corn, potatoes and pumpkins. Corn cribs were built on posts eight to ten feet above the ground, as the Choctaws feared and hated snakes, which had a tendency to seek warmth in a corn crib when cool weather set in. Potatoes and pumpkins were stored within rock cairns, several inches above the ground, so that winter rains would drain away rapidly, thus preventing sprouting or rotting due to excess moisture. One district preserved potatoes by slicing them into thin slices and drying them with hickory smoke, so it might be said that the Choctaw actually invented the first potato chip. This district was named Ahi Apet Okla, which means “potato eating people” for this reason.
Old Choctaw Calendar
Until the early 1800’s, the Choctaws used a calendar with months based on the phases of the moon. Each month had a Choctaw name. These names, and the English months they correspond to are a follows:
hvshtula or onafa
October Chvfiskono little hunger
November Chvfo Chito big hunger
December Hvsh Koe Chito big lion month
January Hvsh Koinchus lion’s little brother month
February Hvsh Watonlak crane month
March Hvshi Mahli wind month
April Tek i Hvshi women’s month
May Hvshi Bihi mulberrry month
June Hvsh Bissa blackberry month
July Hvshkvf sassafras month
August Hvsh Takkon peach month
September Hvsh Hoponi cooking month
The year was divided in two parts as indicated, with Tek i Hvshi beginning around the time of the vernal equinox (about March 22) and Chvfiskono beginning around the autumnal equinox (September 22). There are approximately twenty-nine and one half days in the lunar month, from new moon to new moon. Twelve lunar months therefore makes a year of 354 days, about 11 days short of the 365 day solar year. As a result, if Tek i Hvshi was to begin on the vernal equinox this year, it would begin 11 days before the vernal equinox the next year. And in three year’s time, each month would arrive 33 days early. To prevent this, and so keep the months in harmony with the ripening of fruits and other seasonal events, every two or three years an additional intercalendary month, Lvak Mosholi ‘extinguishing fire’, was observed to “take up the slack”.
The months did not have the same names in all parts of the Choctaw Nation. In Louisiana, for example, Hvsh Watonlak was Hvshi Kaposha ‘snow month’, Hvsh Koe Chito was Onafa Hvshi ‘winter month’, and Tek i Hvshi was Tash Hvshi ‘corn month’.
The names and ordering of the months we have presented was related in the 1800’s by one Ilapintvbi.
Each month in the early Choctaw calendar had a name and the year was divided into two segments, hashtula, winter and tofa, summer, each having six months. Summer began around March 22, Tek i Hashi or, as it is now known, the vernal equinox. Winter began around September 22, with Chafiskono (October), the autumnal equinox. We’ve shown both the modern and the old Choctaw names.
Hashtula – Winter:
October Aktoba (Hochafo iskitini) Little Hunger month
November Nofimba (Hochafo chito) Big Hunger month
December Tisimba (Hashi koi chito) Big lion month
January Chanueli (Hashi koi nakfi ushi) Lions’s little brother month
February Fibueli (Hashi watonlak) Crane month
March Macha (Hashi mahli) Wind month
Tofa – Summer:
April Eplil (Tek i Hashi) Women’s month
May Me (Hashi Bihi) Mulberry month
June Chuni (Hashi Bissa) Blackberry month
July Chuli (Hashi kafi) Sassafras month
August Akas (Hashi Takkon) Peach month
September Siptimba (Hashi Hoponi) Cooking month
Until the early 1800’s, Choctaws used a calendar with the months based on the phases of the moon. And here’s something else you might find interesting. The basic meaning of the word hashi (month). It can also mean the moon, hashi ninak aya, “sun that travels at night”. Since the word “month” came from “moon”, hashi also means month.
There are approximately twenty-nine and one half days in each lunar month, from new moon to new moon, and twelve lunar months comprise one lunar year. However a lunar year has only 354 days in it, about 11 short of the 365 day solar year. As a result, if Tek i Hashi was to begin on the vernal equinox this year, it would be behind by 11 days of the vernal equinox that would occur next year. In other words, it would be constantly moving ahead by 11 days each year. To prevent this, and to keep the months in harmony with the ripening of fruits and other seasonal events, every two or three years an additional month, Luak Mosholi (extinguishing fire) was observed to take up the slack. It is not known at this time when that month occurred, or whether it was in the summer or winter, but that’s the way they used to do it.
Now, most Choctaws use the English calendar. The days of the week, nitak hollo, or wik, are as they are in English.
Monday Monti or nitak hollotuk onna (Day after Holy Day)
Tuesday Tusti or nitak Hollotuk I’misha (imishi) (Second day after Holy Day)
Wednesday Winsti or nitak hollotuk imisha nitak tuchina (Three days after Holy Day)
Thursday Hlusti or Nitak Hollotuk imisha nitak usta (Fourth day after Holy Day)
Friday Flaiti or Nitak Hollotuk imisha tahlapi (Fifth day after Holy Day)
Saturday Satate or nitak hollo nakfish (Holy Day’s brother)
Sunday Nitak Hollo (Holy Day)
Choctaw history: what was their calendar? How did they keep track of time and days?
According to the writings of H.B. Cushman, the method of counting time by the Choctaws of long-ago was thus:
The months, by the full or crescent moons; the years by the killing of the vegetation by the wintry frosts. Thus, for two years ago the Choctaw would say: Hushuk (grass) illi (dead) tuklo (twice); literally, grass killed twice, or, more properly, two killings of the grass ago. The sun was called Nittak Hushi – the Day-sun; and the moon, Nenak Hushi, the Night-sun and sometimes, Tekchi Hushi, the Wife of the sun.
Their almanac was kept by the flight of the fowls of the air; whose coming and going announced to them the progress of the advancing and departing seasons. Thus the owls of the air announced to the then blessed and happy Choctaw the progress of the seasons, while the beasts of the field gave to him warning of the gathering and approaching storm, and the sun marked to him the hour of the day; and so the changes of time were noted, not by figures, but by days, sleeps, suns and moon – signs that bespoke the beauty and poetry of nature.
If a shorter time than a day was to be indicated an Indian drew two parallel lines on the ground, a certain distance apart, and then pointing to the sun he would say, “It is as long as it would take the sun to move from there to there.” The time indicated by the moon was from its full to the next; that of the year, from winter to winter again, or from summer to summer.
To keep appointments, a bundle of sticks containing the (same) number was kept; and every morning one was taken out and thrown away, the last stick announced the arrival of the appointed (day). This bundle of sticks was called Fuli (sticks) Kauah (broken), broken sticks.