Bmadzewen [life] and our existence are in tune with the environment. We interact with our world in concurrent cycles of four, understanding that physical and spiritual realms are always in motion. Our sacred medicines, lifecycles, directional powers, and the creation and destruction of worlds progress on this principle.
Governing our ancient world were the seasons. Each season warranted and prohibited certain activities, and was welcomed with celebratory ceremonies, songs, dances and stories. Today, Potawatomi still honor the seasons with wisne’wéwen [feasts], the most important falling on the vernal [spring] and autumnal [fall] equinoxes. Each feast commences with the lighting of a sacred shkodé [fire] that is protected and attended to over the four day period.
Mnokme was the time when the spirits reawakened and life was restored. Ceremonies were performed thanking the spirits for their winter protection and for fertility, as new life emerged.
With the approaching Jejaukgises [Crane Moon] temperatures rose, the rivers and lakes thawed, and maple sap began to flow. Potawatomi would disperse into familial syrup camps with each group claiming matrilineal rights to portions of maple forests known as sugar bushes. Through bzegwaboté [tempering], sap was converted into ziwagmedé [syrup] and zizbakwet [sugar], both used to season the daily fare as well as food and drinks for feasts and gatherings. Given its flavorful qualities, it was a prized and profitable commodity among Woodland tribes and foreign traders.
Aside from being skilled hunters, fishermen and food gatherers, Potawatomi were successful agriculturalists. Villages used an ancient technique known as slash and burn to clear and convert forests into enriched agricultural fields. Utilizing the lands natural topography, fields were established in various sizes and patterns. During Gtegangises [Planting Moon], tools made of bone, stone and wood were used to cultivate a variety of crops including peanuts, potatoes, onions, melons and what we refer to as the “Three Sisters” [corn, beans and squash]. Agrarian duties were traditionally those of women, yet many times communal efforts were needed in preparation for specific events.
Niben was the “time of plenty.” Villages would converge to dance, celebrate and play games, creating an interconnected framework that supported and strengthened Potawatomi people and culture. Traditional games of skill, including pegnegewen [stickball] and peskia [double-ball] were played as well as various games of chance such as mamkeznéwen [moccasin] and gwzegé’wen [bowl and dice].
Procuring foods in the warmer months took top priority, so as to secure enough food for customary events and the colder months. During Minkegises [Berry Picking Moon] these ceremonial and utilitarian foods were gathered by women and children from patches belonging to respective villages and families. Aside from nutrition, berries were used ornamentally on garments and as jewelry prior to the introduction of glass beads as well as natural dyes for clothing and various textiles. Etemengises [Strawberry Moon] was highly revered among Potawatomi, denoted by ceremonies honoring rites of passage for young women.
Potawatomi referred to the transition from niben to dgwaget as Mnomnekégises [Ricing Moon]. Throughout Ricing Moon, domesticated and wild plants began to bear fruit, motivating Potawatomi and other Neshnabek to migrate to their annual menomen [wild rice] camps for harvest. Considered a primary food staple, it was extensively traded among Algonquin tribes and foreign merchants. Aside from diet, menomen was used medicinally and spiritually in various ceremonies, its therapeutic value aided in the remedy of burns, heart and stomach ailments.
Literally meaning “a shortening of the days,” dgwaget was traditionally a time of harvest and preparation. Crops planted in spring yielded a bounty of vegetables and a variety of nuts [acorns, chestnuts and beechnuts] were gathered from village orchards. During Giwségises [Hunting Moon] game such as deer, elk and turkey were hunted; the meat dried and persevered for the approaching leaner months.
Migrating to winter camps, Potawatomi would focus on attaining food through the trapping of small game and ice-fishing. Food that had been collected from the previous month’s hunts, harvests and gatherings were used to supplement diets. Meats and fish were smoked, dried and stored on elevated pallets to deter theft from animals, insects and raiders. Crops such as corn, beans and nuts were also protected; stored in subterranean pits and baskets.
During Bbongises [Snow Moon] Potawatomi and other Great Lakes tribes played a traditional sport called Zhoshke'nayabo or Snowsnake. Typically played by men and boys, snowsnake was not only for amusement, but for spiritual and therapeutic means. It is thought that the comradery amongst players remedied the sick. Games lasted for several hours and were played by teams of four, each equipped with a spear-like implement called a zhoshke'nayabo. Carved from local hardwoods and polished smooth, zhoshke'nayabo ranged from two to seven feet in length and one inch in diameter. The object of the game was for each competitor to hurl their zhoshke'nayabo, down an icy track, farther than their opponent. When thrown, the zhoshke'nayabo was thought to resemble a snake slithering, hence the name snowsnake. The team with the longest cumulative distance won.
With much time spent indoors, Bbon was the time when elders would tell stories, passing on oral traditions and histories. Wiske or Nanabozho were central to these narratives as it was considered taboo to recount them outside of the winter months. Bbon also brought stories of the Windigo, a man-eating creature that traveled in blizzards devouring ill-mannered children.