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Green Corn Festival

Below is the Nene Hvtke’s latest newsletter, which contains a detailed discussion of the Green Corn Festival. The Green Corn Festival was brought to the Southeast around 1250 AD by Tamale refugees, who had been forced out of their Native Tamaulipas by Chichimec barbarians. Prior to that time, Muskogeans used the Maya calendar, which begins on the Winter Solstice. Still today, the surviving Tamale, now living in Chiapas State, compose the only indigenous ethnic group in Mexico, who start their calendar on the Summer Solstice, celebrate the Green Corn Festival and eat corn on the cob. Bet ya anything that they also like Southern-fried chicken, barbecue, hush puppies and brunswick stew! LOL

Lee Wilson wrote me this morning that she has seen a shrine in the Nacoochee Valley of Georgia that had the same style triangular stone stelae that POOF researcher, Julia Sennette, found in Fannin County, GA last year. Lee also wrote that when she was young, there were ruins of ancient stone structures on the Kenimer Mound (c. 800 AD). However, they were gone by the time that she was an adult.

Jon Haskell called from Indiana yesterday to say that he believes the Wilmington Tablet that he is studying, contains a portrayal of an agave plant. Mark Hooten responded by saying that he knows of several artistic portrayals of agave plants in Southeastern Art. The agave is cultivated in Mexico to make pulque (beer) and tequila. This is significant because in 1658 French explorer and ethnologist, Charles de Rochefort, wrote that giant plants, resembling agave, were grown on the terrace complexes in the Georgia Mountains and Upper Piedmont. The variety grown in the Southern Highlands, were described as having qualities like the members of the touch-me-not family. The leaves curled when touched by humans. Alternatively, the mid-17th century explorers may have confused the significantly smaller native touch-me-not plants to be juvenile plants of the agave family. The drawings of these plants in De Rochefort’s book certainly look like the giant variety of agave that is cultivated in Mexico.

Corn – Vce (pronounced “uh-chee” in Muskogee)

by Mike Kendrick

As the staple food of the people, corn is a central component of all things Muskogee. The ceremonial cycle is adapted to and revolves around its’ growing season. Essentially, the ceremonies correspond to the stages of the corn crop – planting, sugar ripe (green corn) and meal stage harvest. It is the supreme symbol for the blessings of God and the nurturing of the earth. It is a symbol of the union of the masculine solar generative powers with the fructifying feminine essence of the earth. Indeed, on one level the ceremonies are all about thanksgiving for the corn.

The Green Corn Ceremony itself testifies to the fact that corn is the crucial blessing of the Creator, which the first fruits offering on the fire dramatizes. The centrality of corn is often verbalized by Muskogees in a traditional formulaic prayer: Hele Hesaketemese; Totkv, Uewv, momen Vche; Mvto which translated means, Praise to God, for the Fire, the Water, and the Corn, thank you. The whole ceremonial cycle illustrates the interaction between the solar and terrestrial. At Berry the seeds are planted in the nurturing womb of the earth. As the seed germinates, it emerges from the soil. Its green shoots absorb the enlivening light and heat of the sun – allowing it to grow and bring forth its fruit.

At the time when the corn is first fit for human consumption – the ceremony of Green Corn is held. This ceremony is also the New Year and the time of the new fire which is considered to be the younger brother of the sun. Thus the corn – which is the seed born of the earth – comes to fruition and is intimately connected to the sun – via the medium of the fire – whose heat and light empower its life and growth to maturation. Seen in this perspective, the offering of corn takes on an additional connotation. It is as if the corn being consumed in the fire is the acknowledgment of the corn (and, by extension, the earth) that its life is due to the blessing of the sun. This offering is a symbol that life and the blessings of the middle world come from the Creator through the earth.

At Little Green Corn, the sugar ripe harvest of the second corn crop and the beginning of the meal stage of corn is celebrated. It is, of course this corn meal which is a crucial resource for the survival of the people through the dark days. Although the fourth High Holiday, Harvest Busk, is a celebration of the fall crops; it is also the conclusion of the corn cycle. Because many types of corn with different maturation times are planted over several months, the last of the corn is often not gathered in until late fall. Thus the entire round of High Holidays is structured around the planting and harvesting of the corn.

However, to truly understand the importance of corn requires an understanding of the interrelated mythical, spiritual, and historical origins of corn. In Muskogee legends of the origin of corn, an old woman feeds a specific clan or an orphaned or adopted boy corn. Eventually, it is discovered that the old woman scrapes the corn from her feet or thighs (in some versions corn is scrapped from one thigh and beans from the other). This horrifies the discoverer. The old woman then goes into a corn crib where a great racket is heard – and when the door is opened, the crib is full of corn seeds to be planted according to previously revealed techniques. In another version, the old woman is voluntarily dismembered and dragged through a field from which corn subsequently sprouts. (The old woman in most versions does this as punishment for the disgusted reaction of the discoverer. No longer would the corn be freely given – but henceforth much care, preparation, and labor must be put forth to cultivate, harvest, and store it.) Thus it was that corn was given to the people. This legend is extremely important and illustrates the idea of corn as a gift and inculcates the sacredness of corn to the people.

This legend, of course, conflicts with the historical origins of corn. (This does not mean that it conflicts with reality or truth as will be evident when the spiritual origins of corn are discussed.) Factually speaking, corn was domesticated over a very long period of time in Central and South America from teosinte – a type of wild grass. From there, it was spread to North America, constantly being adapted to different environments by selective breeding. Its extensive cultivation in the Southeast corresponds to the appearance of one of the migratory waves of Muskogees into that region. With the adoption of this maize agriculture, the people were able to develop a reliable surplus food source which in turn allowed for both population growth and the increased cultural complexity of the Mississippian Moundbuilding Period.

The legend reflects some important core truths concerning the development of corn. The orphaned boy is a hunter; this represents the ancient hunting culture. The old woman is both symbolic of MOTHER EARTH (in the vegetative guise of CORN WOMAN) and is archetypal WOMAN. In the ancient culture, man hunted and woman gathered wild produce. In the story, it should be noted that the woman instructs the boy about the animals he hunts – he learns his skill by listening to Mother Earth – who is in the legend his adopted Mother – for he sprang to life as blood that was on the soil and she then raised him as her own. (This is an explicit connection of blood to life; and a symbol for mans’ relationship to the earth – from the dust you were formed, to the dust you shall return – as the scriptures put it.) How true this is for we are the union of the soil (earth/matter) and the blood (symbol for life and spirit) who are raised like orphans by the earth to which we are by matter related and yet are distant from and often disrespectful towards.

When the boy returns from his hunts, the old woman takes his kills and uses them to supplement her various corn dishes. This recounts the fact that hunting was usually, although important, not the primary food source. Notice it is the woman who prepares the meal – both that portion from the hunt and the corn which she contributes. This contribution of corn by the woman reflects that it was women who did the bulk of the planting and harvesting. It also implies that it was women who domesticated corn, which makes perfect sense. Anciently, woman gathered wild plants, over time they discovered that they could cultivate them so that there was a more reliable supply of them. Eventually, over eons of selecting the best seeds, corn was developed into a crop that produces a surplus of food.

The original harvesting of wild foods which required relatively little labor is pictured by the direct gift of corn from the woman’s body. The man’s disrespect reflects man’s dismissal of women’s gathering contribution, this disgust results in woman’s domestication of these wild plant resources – which in turn culminates in the hard work of intensive maize agriculture (in which man had to assist, especially in clearing the fields). However, from the population growth which this gift of corn permitted, the Muskogees were able to adopt the settled life of farmers and thus develop the distinctive Muskogean culture.

This interpretive analysis is not intended to secularize the sacredness of corn but rather to expound the emphasis upon the role and contribution of Muskogee women. Indeed, the mythical and historical origins of corn are not at odds. These two disparate origin versions are harmonized by understanding the spiritual origin of corn. Remember each plant is a physical manifestation of the PLANT which is overseen by a hiyaulgee. Corn Woman is the hiyaulgee of CORN. Over eons of time, Corn Woman blessed the work of women – altering the CORN into a plant that could reliably feed the people. The scratching of the kernels from the old woman’s body reflects the nature of CORN. In most preparations, the kernels are scraped from the cob. Thus, CORN is indeed a gift from the CORN WOMAN; just as corn is a contribution of women to the survival of the people.

This association of corn to womanhood is further seen in some of the symbolic similarities attributed to them. In some Squares at Green Corn, the men would rub their bodies with roasting ears of corn – so that their bodies would be anointed with its juice. Because of its milky appearance, this was considered to represent the milk of Corn Woman. (Of course this rubbing with the corn was also supposed to bring to mind that the corn was originally rubbed off from Corn Woman’s body.) Additionally, corn silk symbolized the flowing hair of Corn Woman. Thus corn in itself is a visual depiction of Corn Woman and therefore a blatantly insistent icon of the sacredness of corn and the origin of corn as a divine gift intermediated by the Corn Woman.

However, the color of corn also captures its connection to the sun. Although Muskogees had some varieties of colored corn, most of the corn they cultivated, whether dent, flint, “gourd”, or popcorn, was either the deep yellow of modern field corn or the pale yellow of sweet corn. Yellow was identified with the sun. Ancient varieties of corn often had only four rows of kernels; while the varieties that Muskogees grew during historical times normally had either eight or sixteen rows of kernels. Suffice it to say that these numbers have great significance including a relationship to the ancient Muskogee solar calendar. Remember, the Muskogee New Year begins at the Green Corn Busk. This solar connection is intensified by the unique relationship of the corn to the fire.

Muskogees prepared most of their corn dishes by first soaking the corn kernels in lye water which was derived from ashes. Thus the corn and the fire were joined in Muskogee corn dishes. This actually not only made the corn more digestible but also made it more nutritious. The lye made from ashes added Vitamin B a nutrient which corn lacks. Interestingly, when southern colonists adopted a corn based diet in imitation of the Muskogees they often suffered from pellagra a serious deficiency caused by insufficient niacin in the diet. This is because they did not adopt the use of ashes into their corn recipes.

Ultimately corn is thus intimately conjoined with both the fire and Muskogee ceremonial life and is also the impetus for much of it. The expression of communal gratitude to Hesaketemese for the corn is at the heart of the Muskogee Way – for recognition of the blessings of the Creator and thankfulness for them is the beginning of a proper relationship with the divine.

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Richard Thornton is a professional architect, city planner, author and museum exhibit designer-builder. He is today considered one of the nation’s leading experts on the Southeastern Indians. However, that was not always the case. While at Georgia Tech Richard was the first winner of the Barrett Fellowship, which enabled him to study Mesoamerican architecture and culture in Mexico under the auspices of the Institutio Nacional de Antropoligia e Historia. Dr. Roman Piňa-Chan, the famous archaeologist and director of the Museo Nacional de Antropologia, was his fellowship coordinator. For decades afterward, he lectured at universities and professional societies around the Southeast on Mesoamerican architecture, while knowing very little about his own Creek heritage. Then he was hired to carry out projects for the Muscogee-Creek Nation in Oklahoma. The rest is history. Richard is the Tribal Historic Preservation Officer for the KVWETV (Coweta) Creek Tribe and a member of the Perdido Bay Creek Tribe. In 2009 he was the architect for Oklahoma’s Trail of Tears Memorial at Council Oak Park in Tulsa. He is the president of the Apalache Foundation, which is sponsoring research into the advanced indigenous societies of the Lower Southeast.

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