Quebec History Marianopolis College

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L’Encyclopédie de l’histoire du Québec / The Quebec History Encyclopedia


Calendar of Indians


[This text was originally published in 1907 by the Bureau of American Ethnology as part of its Handbook of American Indians North of Mexico. It was later reproduced, in 1913, by the Geographic Board of Canada. The work done by the American Bureau was monumental, well informed and incorporated the most advanced scholarship available at the time. In many respects, the information is still useful today, although prudence should be exercised and the reader should consult some of the contemporary texts on the history and the anthropology of the North American Indians suggested in the bibliographic introduction to this section. The articles were not completely devoid of the paternalism and the prejudices prevalent at the time. While some of the terminology used would not pass the test of our "politically correct" era, most terms have been left unchanged by the editor. If a change in the original text has been effected it will be found between brackets [.] The original work contained long bibliographies that have not been reproduced for this web edition. For the full citation, see the end of the text.]



Although the methods of com­puting time had been carried to an advanced stage among the cultured tribes of Mexico and Central America , the Indians N. of Mexico had not brought them beyond the simplest stage. The alternation of day and night and the changes of the moon and the seasons formed the bases of their systems. The budding, blooming, leafing, and fruiting of vegetation, the springing forth, growth, and decay of annuals, and the moulting, migration, pairing, etc., of animals and birds were used to denote the progress of the seasons. The divisions of the day differed, many tribes recognizing 4 diurnal periods - the rising and setting of the sun, noon, and midnight - while full days were usually counted as so many nights or sleeps. The years were generally reckoned, especially in the far N., as so many winters or so many snows; but in the Gulf states , where snow is rare and the heat of summer the dominant feature, the term for year had some reference to this season or to the heat of the sun. As a rule the four seasons - spring, summer, autumn, and winter - were recognized and specific names applied to them, but the natural phenomena by which they were determined, and from which their names were derived, varied according to latitude and environment, and as to whether the tribe was in the agri­cultural or the hunter state. Some authorities state that the Indians of Virginia divided the year into five seasons: (1) The budding of spring;. (2) the earing of corn, or roasting-ear time; (3) summer, or highest sun; (4) corn-gathering, or fall of the leaf; and (5) winter (cohonk). According to Mooney the Cherokee and most of the southeastern tribes also divided the year into five seasons. Swanton and Boas state that some of the tribes of the N. W. coast divided the year into two equal parts, with 6 months or moons to each part, the summer period extending from April to September, the winter period from October to March. Many tribes began the year with the vernal equinox; others began it in the fall, the Kiowa about Oct. 1, the Hopi with the "new fire" in November, the Takulli in January, etc. The most important time division to the Indians N. of Mexico was the moon, or month, their count of this period beginning with the new moon. So far as can be ascertained, it was not universal in the past to correlate the moons with the year; where correlation was attempted, in order that the moons should bear a fixed relation to the seasons, 12 was the number usually reckoned; but some of the tribes, as those of New England, the Cree, and some others counted 13. The Kiowa system, although counting 12 moons to the year, presents the peculiarity of half a moon in one of the unequal four seasons, and the other half in the following season, thus beginning the year with the last half of a moon. Among the Zuni half the months are "nameless," the other half "named." The year is called a "passage of time," the seasons the "steps" of the year, and the months "crescents," probably because each begins with a new moon. The new year is termed "mid-journey of the sun," i. e., the middle of the solar trip between one summer solstice and another, and occurring about the 19th of December usually initiates a short season of great religious activity. The first six months have definite and appropriate names, the others, while called the "nameless" months, are designated, in ritualistic speech, Yellow, Blue, Red, White, Variegated, and Black, after the colours of the prayer-sticks sacrificed in rotation at the full of each moon to the gods of the north, west, south, east, zenith, and nadir, respectively represented by those colours (Cushing in Millstone, ix, 58, Apr. 1884). There appears to have been an attempt on the part of some tribes to compensate for the surplus days in the solar year. Carver ( Trav ., 180, 1798), speaking of the Sioux or the Chippewa, says that when thirty moons have waned they add a supernumerary one, which they term the lost moon. The Haida formerly intercalated what they called a "between month," because between the two periods into which they divided the year, and it is likely that this was sometimes omitted to correct the calendar (Swanton in Am. Anthrop ., v, 331, 1903). The Creeks counted 12½ moons to the year, adding a moon at the end of every second year, half counted in the preceding and half in the following year, somewhat as did the Kiowa. The Indians generally calculated their ages by some remarkable event or phenomenon which had taken place within their remembrance; but few Indians of mature years could possibly tell their age before learning the white man's way of counting time. Sticks were sometimes notched by the Indians as an aid in time counts. The oldest of these among the Pima (Russell in Am. Anthrop ., v, 78, 1903) dates from the meteoric shower of 1833, a notable tally date in Indian time reckoning. Some of the northern tribes kept records of events by means of symbolic figures or pictographs. One of these is an extended calendar history, called the "Lone-dog winter count," said to have been painted originally on a buffalo robe, found among the Dakota, the figures of which cover a period of 71 years from 1800 (Mallery in 10 th Rep. B. A. E .). Another series is the calendar history of the Kiowa, described by Mooney in.17 th Rep. B. A. E.


Source: James WHITE, ed., Handbook of Indians of Canada , Published as an Appendix to the Tenth Report of the Geographic Board of Canada , Ottawa , 1913, 632p., pp. 72-73.

© 2004 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College