The world, according to Ojibwe legend, was created when muskrat brought mud from the bottom of the flood to be placed on turtle’s back. The resulting island which formed from the mud was known as Turtle Island (now Northern America):
If you look at the shell of any turtle in North America you will find that it has thirteen central plates (called scutes), surrounded by twenty-eight smaller plates. For First Nations people, the turtle’s shell was the original calendar – the larger plates representing their thirteen moon lunar cycle, and each moon containing 28 days.
The names of each moon are influenced by natural phenomena, animal activity, and cultural practices and beliefs.
Last week we finished the final chapter of the Birch Bark house. The Birch Bark House is the first of four books by Louise Erdrich. It has taken us through one Ojibwe calender year. It seems a perfect time in our studies to look into the Ojibwe calender which has similarities and differences to our own Gregorian calender.
We had already experienced, through Erdrich’s book, the importance of seasonal, life dependent activities. We reviewed the activities each season brought:
- Summer: birch bark gathering, fishing, berry gathering, hunting, wigwam making
- Fall: gathering wild rice, hunting, trapping, preserving and storing food for the lean months
- Winter: hunting, fishing through the ice, trapping, birch bark biting
- Spring: gathering maple sap and making maple syrup and maple sugar, spear-fishing
We had a perfect go along book with The Thirteen Moons on a Turtle’s Back:
In this book, Joseph Bruchac and Jonathan Landon have told the stories of one moon from each of thirteen different groups of Native Americans, including Moon of Popping Trees (Northern Cheyenne), Baby Bear Moon (Potawatomi), Maple Sugar Moon (Anishinabe), Frog Moon (Cree), Budding Moon (Huron), Strawberry Moon (Seneca), Moon When Acorns Appear (Pomo), Moon of Wild Rice (Menominee), Moose-Calling Moon (Micmac), Moon of Falling Leaves (Cherokee), Moon When Deer Drop Their Horns (Winnebago), Moon When Wolves Run Together (Lakota Sioux), and Big Moon (Abenaki). Each different moon has it’s own poetic story to go along with it that describes why they have named that specific moon.
After I had read the book through once for them, I read each poem for each moon once more. As I read the poem I asked the children to visualise what important activity or event was going on. I had them fill in their empty turtle shell to reflect the individual pictures the poems brought forth:
The children understood the importance of the arrival of each moon and the seasonal activities each were associated with to the Native American. I asked the children whether they too felt that their lives were ruled (as it were) by the changing moons.
Then I asked if they felt their lives changed at all according to the seasons. Together we chatted about the names we would give to the thirteen moons which would reflect accurately our own lives. I asked them to repeat the activity above, renaming the moons and illustrating the reason for the names:
It was the Maple Sugar Moon which was linked to the Anishinabe nation (Ojibwe). I reread it again and also read the description of the maple sugar collecting in the Birch Bark House book. I asked the children to write their own poetry conveying another activity that the Ojibwe were known for – collecting wild rice. I read the passage in the book which dealt with the ricing period in Omakaya’s life to give them a start. Together they came up with the following Ricing Moon poem (which I rather absentmindedly typed onto a print of a maple leaf instead of rice shafts!):
The penultimate activity was carrying out some research on the names of the thirteen Ojibwe moons and the seasonal activity they refered to. I had thoughts of some sort of arty activity and wondered if any Ojibwe (or in deed any Native American) artist had ever attempted portraying the turtle calendar. I found two, both very different. The first is by artist Arthur Amiotte called Turtle Seed:
The second is by Keyeriakweks and is called Farming by the Thirteen Moons:
I loved both of them! The children enjoyed discussing why the top one was called Turtle Seed (a turtle inside a capsular seed) and what, therefore, that Turtle Seed would grow into (a seed grows into something much bigger than its humble beginnings much like the turtle does in the Ojibwe creation story)
I chatted with the children about how we could make our own art based on the Ojibwe Thirteen Moon Calender. We decided to take our inspiration from the picture studies we have already done of the Ojibwe floral designs and Ojibwe Gathering of the Clans and we stuck to solid bright colours. We used the above pictures to inspire a huge turtle. The children cut out thirteen circular ‘moons’ and drew a different (Ojibwe) activity which would have been carried out during each lunar period. These were coloured in with crayon. These ‘moons’ we stuck onto the turtles back to represent the 13 lunar cycles, as well as adding the 28 days around the edges. Here is the finished product – Ojibwe inspired art Calender:
We enjoyed seeing how tied up the Ojibwe nation lives are with the moon and therefore the seasons. There is a sense of each man, woman and child being closer to the earth, integrating themselves so deeply it is difficult to understand one without first understanding the other.
How fun is that? I’m thinking the children will never forget that the native American calendar was made up of the thirteen moons! It was also an important exercise in illustrating just how different our lives are now compared with those in the past. Really, apart from celebration days, our lives are not particularly dictated by the moons, months or even seasons.