Shawnee Moons: The Cycle of  Life

The Shawnee organized their sacred and secular  life around the cycle of the year.  The annual cycle was divided into two seasons:  the summer season during which the "three sisters" --  maize (corn), beans and squash -- were grown,  and the  winter season when hunting and trapping were the main concerns of  life. Within the two seasons, however, was a great veneration for the spirits of the four winds -- the four cardinal points -- let loose for  the Shawnee and other native nations to provide them with the necessities of life.

Shawnee Moons

The  summer season began about the middle of April. The sap of in the maple trees had begun to flow and sugar had been made, now all the signs of spring were coming to pass. Then the preparations were made for the sacred Spring Bread Dance that inaugurated the beginning of the ceremonial calendar that would continue until about mid-October.  Then the Fall Bread Dance served both as a harvest festival and the  beginning of the hunting season when family bands dispersed to temporary  winter camps for hunting. In late winter, trapping would replace the hunting until it was time once again for the Spring Bread Dance.

   The division into two seasons was  reflected in the roles of men and women in the Bread Dance Festivals. In the Spring, the leading roles were played by the women as befitted their part in planting and growing throughout the summer season.  In the Autumn, the men took the leading roles since their occupation as hunters during the long winter moons was the major concern. The sacred Bread Dance Festivals thus brought harmony not only to the cosmos, but to society as men and women and the clans found a new beginning that harkened back to the creation of the world, renewing the covenant with the Creator and giving meaning and  substance to life.

   This division into two seasons is seen in the tendency to translate the word for what Europeans called   Spring as Summer and the word for Autumn as Winter. When pressed, the Shawnee have often indicated the Spring, Melo'kami, as something like the 'coming' of summer. Early summer would probably be a more appropriate free rendering.  Likewise, Takwaaki -- what Europeans might see as 'Autumn' -- might better be expressed as Early Winter.  The two terms for Summer and Winter, Pelaawi and Pepooni then refer the fullness of these seasons.

   The Shawnee give great deference to the 'grandfathers' of the four winds who are shown in the four corners of the  image shown above.  The Creator, shown in the center,  handed down these grandfathers to provide mankind with the necessities of life. The circle shows a rough correlation of the moons with the  months of the Julian lunar-solar calendar, as well as the words for the moons in the annual cycle of life. The circle with the names of the        month might be seen as spinning one way or the other by a half a month or so, depending on weather conditions, the part of the country the Shawnee lived in at the time, or a lack of synchronization between the moons and the seasons.

    In the 19th century the famous collector of Indian tales, Jeremiah Curtin, preserved for us the tale of the adventure of the grandson of the grandmother of the South, Shawaki. The grandson and eleven companions in pursuit of twelve lovely maidens north to the mountain of ice where the grandfather of the North, Pepoonki, was the chief -- and the father of the twelve maidens.  In their travels all of his companions froze to death, but Shawaki's grandson had been given power  to summon his grandmother to his aid.  At the crucial moment, he used this power and Shawaki came to his aid, bringing the warm winds of the South from which the North Wind, Pepooki, fled. The grandson, however,        grasped the hair of the youngest maiden to prevent her flight and he took her back South with him to be his spouse. This is the reason that  there is sometimes a cold wind from the South -- it is caused by the wife of Shawaki's grandson.  Read this tale here.

   The name of this grandmother, Shawaki, is related to the word shawani 'it (the weather) is warm',  and other similar words.   While the Shawnee no longer have this word for the South, it is preserved in the name of the tribe,        the Shawanwa (individual or tribe) or the plural Shawanooki  (also Shawanwaki) 'the Shawnee people'.   The other tribes recognize this word as meaning Southerners, because the Shawnee lived south of all the other Algonquian people to whom they were related by languge and culture -- south of the Kickapoo, Sauk and Fox, Miami and other Algonquians of the Great Lakes area, and south of the Delaware, Mohegans, and other Algonquian tribes of the Eastern seaboard --  and many of these tribes had this word for South and the related word for Southerner -- the place from which the warm comes.

   In Shawnee itself, however, word for south is Lawa'kweeki, meaning 'halfway', alluding  to  the position of the sun in the middle of the day.   It is probable that the word for Southerner, derived from the word for warm, was the word from which the term South developed in some  Algonquian languages.   In Potowatomie, I have seen the word for South translated something like the place from which the warmth comes.  Although the Shawnee know that other tribes have the meaning of Southerner for their name, the Shawnee in the past century had no native recollection of the meaning of their tribal name.

Nevertheless, the stem shawa- is preserved as a word for 'warm' (with reference to the weather), and, in their most    sacred myths of creation and the Shawnee Laws, as well as in prayers given at the Shawnee Bread Dance, this root remains in the word  for the South Wind -- the ruling deity of the Southern half of the earth.  In addition, it is used in these contexts with a directional meaning  without the formative -n. That is, it occurs as shawaki 'Southerner, South Person' or South-wind person.

A NOTE ON 'MOONS'. The Shawnee did not reckon the year strictly according to a lunar calendar.  A lunar calendar is based on the   number of days between full moons. Astronomically, this period (called a "synodic month") has roughly 29.5 days (29.530588 or about 29 days, 12 hours, 44 minutes and 2.9 seconds). A strictly lunar calendar therefore will go through 12 cycles in about 354 days. As it does not correspond with the approximately 365 days of a solar year, the same moons would not occur at the same time each year.  For example, when the moons are continued one after another in unbroken sequence the April moon (Half Moon) will occur just a bit earlier each solar year -- about one-third of a moon.      

One way to adjust the moon with the seasons would have beens to add an extra month every second (as the Creeks apparently did) or third year. We do not have a record of this  being done by the Shawnee in ancient times, though other tribes did have this practice.  Since the Sap Moon (roughly March) might be delayed (that is, when it is time for the sap to flow and it doesn't, this would signal that the moons were out of phase with the season), then it might have been the case that moon between the Crow Moon and the Sap Moon was given  different name. (The Shawnee Prophet had a moon called "Hauhtaa Pukeneethar" which might have served this end (This name was not translated, but it night come from ha't- 'ripening' plus paka 'moist'; perhaps Ripening Moon).

Another way would be to do this would be in the autumn since the Bread Dance that ended the summer season and inaugurated the winter hunt was held at this time. The signs of fall, such as the rutting season of the deer or the first frost, might not occur by the  end of the Papaw Moon or be in evidence with at the beginning of the Wilted Moon, so another month could be intercalated at this point between        the Papaw Moon and the Long Moon or something of this sort. Voegelin had a Deer Moon in the Autumn that would fit the bill for an autumn   intercalation.

However, while we do have some extra moon names,  they may have been variations due to the practices of different Shawnee divisions, or due to their use in different periods of time. We just have no record that either of these possibilities, or something like them, were put into  practice. This being the case, the most attractive possibility is  signalled by the name of the "Long Moon" itself; perhaps this moon was allowed to continue longer so that two full moons actually occurred it every two or three years. This would make sense of the name      itself and this practice would bring the moons into line with the seasons, thus solving the problem.

If anyone has any additional information about Shawnee Moons, please drop me a line at