Native American Moons
Nature spoke constantly to Native Americans and they lived by its pulse and power, its cadence and dominion. The moon—the full moon—was a lyrical beacon of the natural order of things, a marker of time, and of the seasons of the year during which the First People held their big hunts, speared sturgeon, picked wild fruit, harvested corn, cached for winter, and hoped for spring. The moon, the sun, the seasons, were their clocks, the keepers of time.
The Colonists adopted the Indian moon names as their own. And when The Farmer’s Almanac was founded in 1818, it adopted the Native American full moon names, too, as part of its calendar. Today, even NASA and the American Astronomical Society use the Indian names for the full moons throughout the year. Following is a list of descriptions of the Indian full moons:
FULL WOLF MOON: January is the deep of winter. The frigid cold and deep snow has come with a vengeance and food is scarce. For thousands of years before whites ever settled in North America, Native tribes sleeping under their furs inside their teepees, wigwams, birchbark huts, longhouses, or igloos or would hear the howls of wolf packs echoing across the land and they found comfort in the arcing calls. The wolves were signaling to their pack a kill, or an impending hunt, or maybe just howling their plaintive cries of hunger. Some tribes called the January moon the Full Snow Moon or the Old Moon.
FULL SNOW MOON: February is generally the month of heaviest snow fall. Life was hard for human and beast. Hunting was difficult or, in some western regions, nearly impossible, the snow so deep, the mountain winds so brutal. Some tribes called this the Full Hunger Moon.
FULL WORM MOON: March begins to see breaks in the brittle winter, the ice crust on rivers and streams begins to thaw, water trickles, the frozen earth softens, earthworms stir, and begin to shed their casts above ground. It is a welcome sign for Natives and for the birds, inviting the return of robins and other birds migrating back from warmer climes. Northern tribes knew this month as the Full Crow Moon when crows cawed gleefully the end of winter and life rising from the ground. Some tribes also called this the Full Crust Moon because snow and ice thawed in the warming sun but froze in a thin crust again at night. Others called this time Full Sap Moon, when tapping maple trees for their syrup, then boiling the sap down over roaring campfires was a busy time for some tribes.
FULL PINK MOON: This April moon is named for the early wildflowers that heralded spring, blooming in profusion across North America: copious mounds of bright pink ground phlox, fields of brilliant magenta wild orchids called grass pink, and massive meadows of pink and lavender wild crocus, often sprouting even through the snow. Some tribes also called this month’s moon Egg Moon for the many birds laying eggs in newly-made nests, and—among coastal tribes especially of the Pacific Northwest—the Full Fish Moon, for the shad that swam upstream to spawn.
FULL FLOWER MOON: After the initial flush of early flowers in March, the earth explodes in carpets of color—prairie flowers in May. (Thus, the Old English saying: “April showers bring May flowers.”) Purple prairie violets, white-feathered Solomon’s Seal, pink, lavender and white prairie phlox, violet Jacob’s Ladder, pink anemones and Angelica, red and white columbine, orange butterfly milkweed, blue and white indigo, yellow marsh marigolds. And wild geranium of many colors. Native Americans used many of the flowers for herbal remedies, cooking, paint pigments, and wedding decoration. Their backyards were natural Gardens of Eden.
FULL STRAWBERRY MOON: June was the peak of wild strawberry picking for Native Americans. The fruit is smaller than their domestic cousins, but the taste is sweeter. They grew on vines along sunny riverbanks and the edge of forests. Woodland wild strawberries were found in moist, shady forests. Native Americans made a kind of fruit jam called “wojapi,” by crushing wild strawberries, blueberries, huckleberries, or black berries, cooking over a low campfire, then adding a little wild honey They would often eat in on fry bread. But it was also delicious with wild boar.
FULL BUCK MOON: July is the month when buck deer have sprouted antlers in velvety fur and they are in full-growth mode. The antlers grow fast—a half-inch per day. When their racks are full, the velvet will die and bucks rub against trees to remove the velvet and also to strengthen their necks for rut season.
FULL STURGEON MOON: Before whites came to North American and decimated the sturgeon population, giant, gnarly fish as big as men swam in many large lakes, especially the Great Lakes and waters in the areas of northern Minnesota and Wisconsin. This was spearing time for native tribes. One big fish provided much meat and it was dried and cached to tide over the people during lean winter months. This month was also called Green Corn Moon by some tribes.
FULL CORN MOON: The September full moon marked the time of corn harvests for many tribes. Not all tribes were nomadic and many, like the Iroquois, Omaha, Ponca, Cherokee, Pawnee, Comanche, Apache, Navajo, and many others, had adopted farming techniques. Native farmers planted a “Three Sisters Garden” of corn, beans and squash, based on a widely held Native legend, “Ones Who Sustain Us,” about three sisters who intermingled three vegetables that had ecological advantages:[provided nutrition and food stuffs for winter, revitalized the soil, and resisted pests and disease. Corn, called “maize” in many languages, dates back to perhaps 10,000 years in Mexico and spread throughout North and South America. Natives eventually bred up to 250 kinds of corn. When Columbus came to America, he took corn back to Europe and introduced it to that continent. Indians used corn in dumplings, tamales, hominy, grits, popcorn, corn pudding, a ceremonial “wedding cake” bread, or, simply, corn on the cob. Husks were used as bedding, woven into baskets, made into dolls, and other uses. Corn also became a trading currency and was a desirable commodity for non-farming tribes. Some tribes and many Colonists also called September’s or October’s moon the Harvest Moon.
FULL HUNTER’S MOON: October’s moon was a time of game fattening for winter, tribes caching for the long cold months, and the earth shedding its leaves and green foliage. October was also rut season when deer breed and are very active, an opportune time for hunting. Some tribes also called this the Dying Moon, portending winter.
FULL BEAVER MOON: The beaver was a highly honored animal among Native American tribes, as a powerful, resourceful and very industrious spirit animal. November was a time for both Native Americans and Colonists to set beaver traps before the swamps froze, to provide enough warm furs for winter. Many tribes, i.e., the Cree, Kutenai, Ojibwe, and the Yukon, ate beaver meat and considered beaver tail a delicacy. The Ojibwe called it “Indian pork.” Many parts of the beaver were used and important in native rituals and legend. Among some tribes, its spleen was believed to hold much power and used to foretell hunting fortunes. Its castor gland was used for medicinal purposes. A beaver’s head was never consumed and its eyes were closed before butchering so it could not see what was being done to its body. Sometimes shamans used beaver heads for magic, but usually the heads and leg bones were returned to the water, since it was believed the beaver spirit lived on. Some tribes, like the Crow, even had beavers as pets. When whites settled the continent and decimated the beaver populations, it was devastating to tribal cultures. Some tribes also called the November moon the Frost Moon.
FULL COLD MOON: December is the month when the cold and snows tighten their grip around the earth and all life is stilled, shrouded in snow. Sunlight is weak, the days short, and the nights long and frigid. Tribes hunker down in their shelters around campfires and under furs. The children play games. The elders tell stories and smoke pipes, The women cook over campfires or sit together beading, quilling or weaving to pass the hours. This moon is also called the Long Nights Moon.
Many Native American legends and rituals have been inspired by the moon, which, since primal times has been regarded as a nightly companion of the earth, a protector of life and a source of regeneration and strength. One particular ritual practiced by many Native women involves honoring Grandmother Moon. Women gather in a circle around a campfire under a full moon, beating drums, chanting songs of healing and thanks, using smudge pots of sage, and sharing pipes of “kinnickinnic” (various mixes of leaves and barks of sumac, dogwood, bearberry or other plants) or tobacco. Each woman takes a prayer cloth, throws some sage and tobacco in the fire, then turns to face Grandmother Moon, raises her prayer cloth, and shares that which she no longer wants to carry and holds tight that which she cherishes. Then she asks Grandmother Moon to give her strength, turns back and throws her prayer cloth in the flames, chanting to help the cleansing power of the fire. And she gives thanks.
PHOTOS: (1) January is Wolf Moon. Wolves seem to howl profusely in January—the deep of winter—probably to announce a kill or signal their pack during a hunt. (2) A chart of Native American names for the full moons throughout the year, marking the seasons and the major life activities of Indians to hunt, fish, forage for food, and other cache for winter survival. Graphic from theherbalhomestead.com. (3) On the shores of a lake, camping under a full moon. Perhaps this is the Full Sturgeon Moon of August, when Native Americans speared huge sturgeon and other big fish they would dry the meat for the long winter. Photo by Steve Wall. From Adventure Journal Magazine, April 2017 issue. Adventure-Journal.com.
© 2019 NOTES FROM THE FRONTIER Posted October 24, 2019
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