Wednesday, December 9, 2020

The Challenge of the Winter Moons, Winter Solstice Time of Hope & Light

Above, "Snowshoe Dance at the First Snowfall, 1835-1837," by George Catlin.
The Challenge of The Winter Moons
Winter Solstice Time of Hope & Light

By Dakota Wind

Winter lasts five moons in the traditional Očhéthi Šakówiŋ calendar. 

The snow made hunting easier. When the first snow fell, Očhéthi Šakówiŋ men put on snowshoes and danced. They sang a song of Wópila (Thanksgiving) to Creator for sending snow. Snow may fall as early as Čhaŋwápe Ǧí Wí (the Moon when the Leaves turn Brown), or September, on the northern plains, but that doesn’t make it a snow moon. Generally, Waníyetu Wí (the Winter Moon), the first moon of winter is about the month of November.

Waníčhoka Wí (the Midwinter Moon) is about the month of December. According to Haŋwíyawapi Wičhóȟ’aŋ (the Moon Counting Tradition), each moon may be known by more than one name. The Midwinter Moon might also be called Tȟahékapšuŋ Wí (the Moon when Deer shed their Antlers). The Midwinter Moon may also be called Haŋyétu Háŋska Wí (the Long Night/Nights Moon).

The natural observation of the winter solstice was over the span of four days/nights. On contemporary calendars, this might be the nights of December 19-20, 20-21, 21-22, and 22-23. Astronomy informs us that the 2020 winter solstice will be on Monday, December 21, at about 4:02 AM CST. 

During these long nights, the Očhéthi Šakówiŋ gathered together in their lodges in wóčhekiye (prayer). There was no universal special prayer. The Očhéthi Šakówiŋ didn’t have formal prayer together as Christians do. Rather, an individual fostered his or her own relationship with Creator. While there might not be collective formal observance there were some things they did together.

Haŋyétu Háŋska Wí él Pahá Makȟásaŋ, or The Long Night Moon at White Earth Butte. A watercolor pictographic representation of the midwinter moon. Appearing upside-down at the top of the image is a profile view of that summit from the south looking north. 

The Winter Solstice was a special time. The Očhéthi Šakówiŋ shared many stories, among which was the story cycle of the cultural hero Wičháȟpi Hiŋȟpáye (Fallen Star, or “Star Boy”). Sometime during the longest night of the year his star, in the constellation commonly known as Auriga, rises above Pahá Makȟásaŋ (White Earth Butte, or “White Butte,” the highest point in North Dakota). In his last day among the Očhéthi Šakówiŋ he hiked to the summit with his kȟolá (his lifelong best friend; him who he did everything with as a brother) where Fallen Star lay down, died, and transformed into light. He rose into the sky to take his place in the heavens with his father Wičháȟpi Owáŋžila (the Star that does not move), or North Star, and from there sends rays of light and hope to his people. Fallen Star broke the trail so that the Očhéthi Šakówiŋ may return to the sky after death.

I asked Lekší Virgil Taken Alive about winter solstice observations, and he shared this incite: they prayed. “When I was a younger man I heard that this was the start of preparation for the upcoming times of ceremony,” he said. They smudged their čhaŋnúŋpa (sacred pipe), čhaŋčhéǧa (drum), and such that they held sacred. “After Čhaŋnápȟopa Wí (the Moon of Popping Trees) they went out to gather Čhaŋšáŋšaŋ (the inner bark of the Eastern Dogwood, or ‘Red Willow’),” he concluded. 

Wiótheȟika Wí, or the Moon of Difficult Times. The rib lines demarcate the concept for hunger.

The month following Waníčhoka Wí was a challenging one. They called it Wiótheȟika Wí (the Moon of Hard Times). 

Lekší Kevin Locke offered this retrospective of the Midwinter Moon, “In most accounts of pre-reservation days it seems to be a time when folks could enjoy the success of their winter preparation.” Locke reflected on the following month, Othehike Wi (the Moon of Difficulties), had good reason for being thusly named. 

Indeed, the Moon of Hard Times is represented in Plains Indian pictography as a figure with rib lines (to denote hunger) above an inverted crescent moon (the month). It can even be represented with an empty meat rack (another sign of hunger) above the sign for the moon or month.

Further, winter counts recall the most challenging winters. The High Dog Winter Count recalls the summer of 1800 as one of the most challenging years to survive. The summer heat was unbearably hot. The great gangs of bison went away, and hunting was poor. Flowers disappeared from the landscape, and the wind drank up the water. The birds refused to sing too.

A punishing winter followed, as remembered in the White Bull Winter Count.

Winter came, snow and ice were everywhere. A group of Lakȟóta decided to move winter camp from the bottomlands of one river to that of another. As they moved over the high plains, a blizzard caught them. Gradually some of them began to succumb to the cold and fell. As one person fell, another lifted and carried him or her for the rest of their journey. Kičhíč’iŋpi keúŋkiyapi, “They say that they carried each other.” 

Thiyóȟeyuŋka Wí, or the Frost in the Lodge Moon. A view of the interior of the lodge looking up through the smoke hole as a few snowflakes enter.

In a communique with Dallas Nelson, an educator and second language learner of Lakȟóta, Nelson shared what he learned from his lekší and other relatives in his community, “Aŋpétu Wí kiŋ haŋbléčheyapi iyéčheča hečhé, it appears as if the Sun were on a vision quest. For those four days the sun prepares himself. Readies himself for the coming seasons. A medicine man may offer prayer or hold ceremony during the winter solstice. He prays for that season [winter].” Nelson noted that they “cleanse each other,” he said, and they smudge their hóčhoka (the ground upon which they have ceremony) and their čhaŋnúŋpa. 

“They tell traditional stories after sundown in the winter months,” said Nelson. He shared a traditional warning too, “they say if you tell stories at the wrong time you’ll get hairy!” As for the winter solstice, he concluded to me that observations during the winter solstice was a sacred time and that prayer was highly individual, concluding, “Many people pray at home.” 

Throughout the winter moons they sheltered in place, from about the time we call today November to about March or April. The men prepared themselves for the coming seasons. They worked on their bows, made arrows, and other needed tools. Hunting parties went out from time to time when their meat supply ran low. Severe winters brought starvation. The women kept busy too, they made and repaired winter apparel, gathered wood and water, and kept a kettle of soup ready. 

The late Harriet Skye informed me during the difficult times of winter the mothers and grandmothers reached into a pouch containing Haȟúŋtahu kiŋ Sú (Blue Flax Seed) and drew forth a handful. “They added that to their soup to make it go further. When unexpected company came they did this too. Where the grandmas were prepared to feed all within their lodge, a moment later they could feed many more. They were prepared to share.” The harsh winter taxed their supply of precious seed. 

Ištáwičhayazaŋ Wí, or the Sore Eyes Moon. The last winter moon on the traditional calendar. The name for this moon and the pictograph represent the concept of snowblindness.

The Flame Winter Count recalls the winter of 1845-1846, as a winter feast. That winter took a toll on the people and there wasn’t enough food to go around. A young man they called Curley Hair (he would later be known as Crazy Horse) rode through camp calling the people to his family’s lodge where they had food. 

The Battiste Good Winter Count recalls the winter of 1720-1721 as a starvation winter. Three lodges of people died. The pictograph for this year denotes a man standing next to a lodge, his ribs are showing. Going out in the winter, whether to make war on an enemy or to hunt, could prove disastrous; a later entry in this same winter count for 1738-1739 informs us of a war party that went out and perished in the cold. 

Starvation in the winter moons made the people consider eating things that they wouldn’t normally consume. Drifting Goose recalled the winter of 1689 as the winter that they ate their own with great difficulty. White Cow Killer recalled the winter of 1839-1840 as the year they ate horses they captured from the Pawnee. In a later entry of his winter count, Drifting Goose recalled the brutal near-starvation conditions of winter internment at the Fort Snelling prison camp in 1865. 

The Blue Thunder Winter Count recalls the winter of 1788-1789 as a deadly cold winter. It was so cold the birds fell dead from the sky. A dead crow bird represents the concept for this year’s entry. 

Winter took its toll on the horses too. The Cloud Shield Winter Count recalls the winter of 1865-1866 as the year they lost many horses to starvation. 

The fourth moon of winter, Thiyóȟeyuŋka Wí (the Moon When Frost Enters their Lodges), informs us of the lingering cold. The long winters took a toll on the people. Long cold nights, short gray days. Today that emotional toll is known as Seasonal Affected Disorder (SAD), but long before the medical diagnosis the Očhéthi Šakówiŋ this winter stress as Čhantípiskiče (Something pushing against his/her/their heart/s). 

Wíačhéič’ithi, the Sun makes a fire for himself. This winter feature in the sky is commonly known as a "Sundog." In this image, it appears above the Little Apple Creek Fork in the Missouri River valley.

Regarding the cold gray that settles into one’s heart during the winter, Lekší Cedric Good House shared the story of Wíačhéič’ithi (the Sun makes a fire for himself). Long ago during a bleak seemingly endless winter. Many days had passed since they last saw the sun. The people called for council in the middle of winter camp. After prayer and deliberation, they built two fires east of camp. As they prayed for a break in the weather, the sky began to lighten and the clouds dissipated, the winds calmed, and the sun broke through. As the sun ascended into the sky, the two fires east of camp rose up into the sky on each side of the sun. I vaguely recollect lalá Innocent sharing this with me as a young boy. Lekší Cedric remembered lalá Ed Good House (Innocent’s older brother) sharing this story. Iná Carmine Good House (my mother’s sister) recalled that the winter gloom caused the people to have bad dreams, which was the impetus for calling a council in the middle of the camp.

The end of winter was marked by natural signs. When the ice broke. When the first flower Hokšíčhekpa, what settlers call the Pasque Flower, blossomed - often when snow was still on the ground. When the geese returned. When the meadowlarks sang out, “Oíyokhipi! Omákȟa tȟéča,” or “Take pleasure! The world is anew!” 

Lekší Kevin thoughtfully shared a benediction, the kind of prayerful and hopeful philosophy that is embraced by the Očhéthi Šakówiŋ during difficult times. He said, “Although surrounded by adversity, nonetheless, may you safely emerge on the other side.” I inquired with both Lekší Kevin and Lekší Virgil how I might best articulate this Lakȟól’iya. 

Akhé Haŋyétu Háŋska Wí ú. Akhé kičhíč’iŋpi kte. Ohómni wótheȟike ečhéča takómni uŋmáčhetkiya yakpáptapi kta héčha. Mitȟákuye Owás’iŋ.  Again, the Long Night Moon approaches. Again, let’s carry each other. Although surrounded by adversity, nonetheless, may you safely emerge on the other side. All my relatives. 

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