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Ask Rufus: Green corn and dancing under a full moon

 

The beginning of a Choctaw dance in 1909. Photographed in Louisiana for Bureau of American Ethnology, Bulletin 48.

The beginning of a Choctaw dance in 1909. Photographed in Louisiana for Bureau of American Ethnology, Bulletin 48. Photo by: Courtesy photo

 

Rufus Ward

 

Last week there was a spectacular full moon. The news media called it a super moon. While its size and the earth's being at its closest point to the moon might justify the name, it actually was the Green Corn Moon. It is a native American name for the first full moon after the last corn planted has ripened. That is the full moon between late summer and early fall, or the August full moon. It was a time for a major celebration and a dance. 

 

In both the Choctaw and Chickasaw Nations of Mississippi dances played an important role in celebrations. H.B. Cushman, who was born at the Mayhew Choctaw Mission, wrote in 1899 that the Chickasaws and Choctaws engaged in basically the same "time honored" dances. The "ancient national dances" were the war dance, the scalp dance, the ball play dance, the green corn dance and the buffalo dance. There were also social or "fun-making" dances such as the chicken dance, the horse dance and the "tick dance." 

 

The Green Corn celebration had its roots in ancient times. It was a celebration of thanksgiving for a successful corn crop. Among the southeastern Indian nations it was the most important of all the seasonal ceremonies. In the late 1600s and early 1700s, the Natchez Indians celebrated it as the "Great Corn" Moon. 

 

The Green Corn Ceremony among the Choctaw and Chickasaw became much more than just a ceremony of thanksgiving. The ceremony would last for three or four days and include a combination of feasting and fasting. It was a time of thanksgiving, spiritual renewal, purification, rekindling of relationships, settling crimes that had been committed, healing and among some Choctaw towns the enacting of laws. There would be ceremonial dancing, the music provided by the beat of a drum. 

 

Peter Pitchlynn emigrated to Oklahoma with his family during the Choctaw Removal of the mid-1830s. In the mid-1860s he served as governor of the Choctaw Nation in Oklahoma. In 1846 he returned to Mississippi and visited his childhood home at Plymouth Bluff. While traveling through Mississippi he attended a dance held by Choctaws who had remained in the homeland. Though not the "Green Corn" dance, it was at the November full moon and his description in a letter to Gideon Lincecum conveys the imagery of such a dance. 

 

"...Here was a dance upon the green Earth, the pure air of the pine woods to be inhaled, & the full orbed moon and twinkling stars shedding their light beams on us and with those lights, we had the lightwood fire flaring up red blazing near which formed the moving circle of young men and women who danced to their own songs, in which all united their voices, and ever and anon made the war shout of the warriors which rang loud and long upon the air, and on they moved with varied song and change of dance till at the late hour in the night when they closed with a grand flourish in the Man Dance ... There was a wild enchantment about all this, yet the most natural and simple." 

 

Charles Hudson of the University of Georgia, in his classic book, "The Southeastern Indians," succinctly described the Green Corn ceremony as being, "if we combined Thanksgiving, New Year's festivities, Yom Kippur, Lent, and Mardi Gras." It was the great yearly celebration and assembly of towns and families of the Choctaw and Chickasaw homeland.

 

Rufus Ward is a Columbus native a local historian. E-mail your questions about local history to Rufus at rufushistory@aol.com.

 

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