Sun Dance Season: An Abenaki Summer
Written onMay 26 , 2015
Every culture has a different take on summer. The northern Europeans considered the summer solstice “Midsummer’s Day,” while in the United States we treat the solstice as the beginning of that season. For the Abenaki, summer officially begins during the hoeing and planting times, what we consider late spring, and lasts up to the Green Corn Festival, the official “kick-off” of the harvest.
I would like to share with you what I have recently learned about how the First Vermonters till the soil and plant and nurture their crops in ways that may be quite distinct from what we are used to.
Late May and June usher in the agricultural season. Ancient signs are sought by Abenaki farmers as a signal that it is time to begin tilling and planting. The disappearance of snow from a distant, beautiful mountain is the sign for the Upper Connecticut River Valley Abenaki Community of Koas to begin planting. The indigenous gardening technique of choice is what I call the “truncated conical mound,” a small flat-topped hill from three to five feet in diameter at the base. Koasek elder Peggy Fullerton puts it this way: “The mounds are weeded by the children, and we always make sure that their little hands can make it to the middle of the mound to pull out the weeds, without disturbing the soil.” So the weeders set the parameters of mound size.
Former Koasek Chief Nancy Millette says that when she was a child, she and her little friends went to the Connecticut River and its tributaries in the spring to catch the sucker fish that ran in huge schools so thick “that your could almost walk upon them.” She says the fish were not for eating, but for the gardens. This was a revelation to me, because I had known that the Abenaki word for sucker fish was “kikômkwa,” and the first syllable was hauntingly similar to “kikôn,” the Abenaki word for field. I had dismissed the connection, but after Chief Nancy’s information sunk in, I discovered from 18th-century Abenaki dictionaries that the word originally meant “the garden fish.” So linguistics from years ago explains an obscure cultural connection between spring fish runs and the gardens that were being prepared at the same time. Today, it is traditional to insert one or more fish or parts of fish “about the size of your open hand” 8 to 18 inches deep in the mound.
The arrangement of the Wabanaki mound plantings varies with the crops selected. Modern corn, bean, and squash varieties are usually companion-planted with corn in the center, pole beans to the side, and squash on the edge of the mound—the standard “three sisters” system. However, the three sisters companion-planting schema does not work with the newly (re) discovered indigenous Wabanaki cultivars (Local Banquet, Spring 2015), because Wabanaki corn is too short, the bean vines are too long for the corn, and the squash plants are too tall, shading out all else and allowing mold and pest infestation. An old system has been resurrected in the Upper Connecticut River Valley to allow the three local species to perform better together. In the center of each mound a “bean tipi” of saplings is erected and the vines trained up the framework. The corn is planted around the beans with the squash planted as usual on the periphery and allowed to trail down into the inter-mound areas. The seeds are laid on top of the mounds, then “punched in” with the index finger, its joints the measuring stick determining the appropriate planting depth. The beans are planted some time after the corn and squash. Jerusalem artichoke roots and sunflower seeds are planted to the side of the mound areas because of the sunflowers’ height and the artichokes’ invasive character. Recently, one Indigenous farmer discovered that ground cherries discourage Japanese beetles and are companion planted with crops such as “Norridgewock” beans that are especially susceptible.
Field preparation and planting, like all parts of the agricultural cycle, is a social and religious event. Planting ceremony may be relatively simple, just a quiet moment of prayer in the Northeast Kingdom; there are more elaborate ceremonies in the Connecticut River Basin. The first part of the more complex planting ceremony involves a recognition of the four directions by one or more elders. I suspect that it may be a descendant of the various recorded historic Wabanaki “calling in” songs that are supposed to alert the ancestors and spirits that a ceremony is about to take place. I especially like the (unnamed) Koasek Ceremony where children take cornmeal from small wooden boxes and spread it on the fields. It’s a wonderful sight to see the kids marching solemnly around the field’s perimeter giving a blessing to the fields for a good summer and harvest. There is always a fire pit lending its fragrance to the event, usually with last year’s beans or other goodies baking, and coolers of frosty beverages—ready for a meal following the ceremony and planting!
This is the time when Wabanaki ceremony also turns to asking the sky beings, especially the Sun and the Rain, to bless the growing crops. The first rite is the Sun Dance, a directional-based ceremony where the cardinal directions and the people living in those directions come together to honor the Sun. The dance consists of the sun dancer and eight dancers, arranged in pairs (usually a man and a woman) who execute a graceful choreography of circling the sun dancer and then approaching and retreating as a sign of respect. This is still performed during the planting season, often as an expression of identity and culture, as well as to seek nurture of the crops.
After planting, and checking for proper germination, the fields more or less fend for themselves during June through early August. When possible, gardeners fence in their plots from deer and other pests. Most gardeners just use inexpensive chicken-wire fencing from the local hardware store. However, the Abenaki Heritage Garden in the Burlington Intervale has built more traditional willow “living fences.” They are made by cutting live willow branches in the early spring and planting them in the cool, saturated soil. A significant number take root and flourish. Those that do not can be replaced with freshly cut stock. The flexible branches are woven together to keep the four-footed herbivores out, but do not seem to deter rabbits and raccoons. I worry that willows are horrific water users and may deplete the fields’ moisture, making them not a useful horticultural tool. Maybe if the fences are kept small, more distant from the mounds or root pruned, they could be used, so I am unsure about their efficiency—pest management vs. water loss.
After the summer solstice, the Rain Dance is added to the Sun Dance, to make a combined ceremony of asking for nurture of the crops by the sky beings. It is interesting that the Rain Dance is the only agricultural ceremony that we have a written record of, in a Highgate, Vermont oral history that recalled an early 20th-century man who performed the dance. The Rain Dance also has the Sun Dancer, but adds the Moon Dancer and a group of at least four women who portray a passing thunderstorm, with their carved and befeathered staffs representing lightning and thunder. Between representations of storms, the Sun and Moon Dancers dance together to symbolize their influence over the growing crops and other life on earth. And so with hand tending, song, and dance, the gardens grow strong.
By August, the waiting is over, the corn and beans are rapidly approaching ripeness, and the squash and pumpkins are obviously going to succeed, so it is time to take a breath. Ripe summer squash can be harvested and made into delicious summer stews, and the skunk beans can be cooked, as are lima beans—a mere harbinger of the harvest that awaits, offering new opportunities for ceremony and new cuisine to the mix. But that is another story!