April (Kawoni/ᎫᏬᏂ), "Month of the Flower Moon"

Signs of spring: buttercups blooming in the Virginia Tidewater

Signs of spring: buttercups blooming in the Virginia Tidewater

Dear Readers,

April in Cherokee is "The Month of the Flower Moon." The actual word for this month, "Kawoni," can mean either flower or duck in Cherokee, depending on the context in which it is used.  The syllabary version of the word April is ᎫᏬᏂ.  

You may recall that I experienced some confusion over the terms used for the Cherokee months of the year in my March blog post on that topic.  One of the reasons for this, come to find out, is that the Cherokee did not originally use the Gregorian calendar (12-month) that we use today, as they had no contact with Europeans until c. 1540.  Instead, they operated off a lunar-based system, naming their months after each full moon that occurred in the 29-day lunar cycle. Additionally, their calendar incorporated a 13th month (called "The Month of the Blue Moon") to make up for any discrepancies (in this case, all those extra days that eventually added up while following the 29-day lunar cycle all year: if you do the math, 365 divided by 29 equals 12.6, meaning that eventually you'd need a 13th month in there ocassionally).  This 13th "catch-up" month was only necessary every two to three years, and was observed with great ceremony.  According to one resource I found online, a Cherokee tribal elder is credited with this statement, saying that the 13th month:

…is a time of letting go of anything we might have against someone. That means we check ourselves. You might say the 13th month would be a time when we harvest our experiences and see what we need to let go of. It is probably the most important holiday in our year. It is a day of propitiation, a return to harmony.

You can read more about the phenomenon of the "Blue Moon" (from whence originates that popular catchphrase, "once in a blue moon") here.  

Anyway, April was traditionally a time of celebrating the renewal of life and the coming of spring.  According to one source I found online, the Cherokee would celebrate the advent of the new season with a dance called the "Knee-Deep (Spring Frog) Dance."  This dance, along with hundreds of others, is beautifully described by the brilliant anthropologist Frank G. Speck, who began working on his now out-of-print book Cherokee Dance and Drama in 1913.  He studied the Eastern Cherokee and other Native American tribes for many years, and his fascinating work on the Cherokee was published posthumously in 1951.  

Mr. Speck described the "Knee-Deep (Spring Frog) Dance" thus:

tu’stu [is] onomatopoetic for [the] voice of the diminutive tree frog, or spring peeper.

Two parallel lines of men and women circle counterclockwise in a slow, shuffling step. Each line has a singing leader, one of whom uses a gourd rattle after singing two songs; he is followed by a woman partner with turtle leg-rattles. At one side is a drummer, who does not sing, but all the dancers participate in the singing...The dance is popular for relaxation and sociability, and women are especially invited to participate.
— Frank G. Speck, Cherokee Dance and Drama

If you've never heard the sing-song voices of these little tree frogs, native to much of the Eastern half of the United States, click here to listen to a recording.  Here in the Virginia Tidewater, they are a cheerfully deafening chorus that welcomes April in with a flourish, come evenings in springtime.

Yours Truly,

Sarah