Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Native North American Harvest Feasts

A traditional Native American harvest festival dish, succotash (photo courtesy of http://www.bonappetit.com/)

Often when celebrating Thanksgiving in the US and Canada, we forget that it was not the first holiday of its kind in the Americas, far from it. Anthropologists believe that similar harvest festivals in the Americas existed for more than 12,000 years before Europeans arrived on the scene. Throughout North, Central and South America, various indigenous tribes could (and still do) party with the best of them, celebrating not only the end of the months of grueling agricultural labor, but also the bounties that were reaped and could be stored away for the winter months. Corn, squash and beans, the holy trinity of crops known as The Three Sisters, are the center of most feasts. Native American/First Nation festivals such as the Green Corn Festival, Cheno i-equa and Nowatequa occur during the full moon (usually the August or September full or "harvest" moon) and mark when the corn or other crop is ready to be harvested. These holidays are still widely celebrated in Native American communities, not only to show respect for and to preserve ancestral heritage, but to express gratitude for family, friends and good fortune throughout the year. November is American Indian and Alaska Native Heritage Month and the perfect time to highlight the original harvest festivals and thanksgivings of North America.

Dancer at the Green Corn Festival, Piscataway Conoy Tribe, Maryland, USA (photo courtesy of http://www.piscatawayconoy.com/)

Green Corn Festival: celebrated by many tribes including the Creek, Cherokee, Seminole, Yuchi, Piscataway, Natchez and Iroquois, the Green Corn Festival is held during a full moon in the late summer or early fall when the corn crop has ripened and is ready to be harvested. Although it sounds counter-intuitive, "Green Corn" refers to ripe or sweet corn. The holiday is also a time of cleansing and forgiveness, beginning with a period of fasting and cleaning known as Busk. After the cleansing period is finished and the harvest is in, the feasting can begin. Traditional dishes served are succotash (a mixture of corn, squash and beans), boiled or fried corn bread, sweet potatoes, corn soup and chicken with corn.     

Nowatequa: also known as the Harvest Festival, is celebrated by the Cherokee and is held in October. This festival also begins with a fasting period, normally up to seven days, and focuses on giving thanks to Unethlana, the apportioner. The full moon, known as Duninudi, is represented by Kana'ti "The Lucky Hunter", a helper of  Unethlana. Traditional Cherokee foods include ramps (wild leeks), bean bread, chestnut bread, wild greens, fry bread (originally fried in bear, beaver or groundhog fat and topped with wild honey) and roasted corn.

Cherokee Fry Bread (photo courtesy of http://www.bakespace.com/)

Ochpaniztli: in Mexico, the Aztecs celebrated a harvest festival known as Ochpaniztli, or Sweeping of the Roads, representing a time of cleaning and rebirth. It was celebrated in the 11th month of the Aztec calendar known as the Xiuhpohualli (roughly the first three weeks of September) and marked the beginning of the corn harvest. This was a very female-centered celebration: women conducted the opening ceremonies, engaged in mock battles, and the goddesses, Teteo Innan the Mother Goddess and Toci, the Grandmother, were honored. The festival did have its dark side, involving human sacrifice, flaying, wearing of human skins and mock warfare, but death to the Aztecs was not a morbid affair; it simply represented one part of the continuous cycle of the universe: birth, life, death and rebirth, so was thought to be joyous and a necessary part of the celebration and thanksgiving. Festivals goers could partake of parched maize kernels, tortillas, beans and squash, but also fish and shellfish such as crab and freshwater fish and 30 different types of birds, including duck, pheasant, partridge, turkey and geese. The Aztec farming system was sophisticated and complex, involving irrigation canals, dams, aqueducts and gates. The Aztec also widely cultivated experimental and personal gardens, producing a wide variety of exotic produce and herbs.  

A typical Aztec farming system incorporating chinampas, small rectangular floating plots of land (image courtesy of http://www.latinamericanstudies.org/aztec-society.html)

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