Vermont Folklife Center

Malian's Song - Measuring Seasons and Counting Moons in Abenaki

By Marge Bruchac

In the region between southern New England and southern Canada, there are four distinct seasons of the year: winter, spring, summer, and autumn, each lasting approximately 91 days.

The Western Abenaki names for the seasons are:

 

Abenaki seasons
Word Definition
Pebon winter season
Sigwan spring season
Niben summer season
Tagwôgo autumn season

 

For generations, Native people have measured the year by a lunar cycle of 13 full moons, which are visible every 28 days, over the couse of the 365 days that make up a year. In Abenaki, the word “kesos” or “kisos,” which also means “sun,” is used to refer to the full moon only when it looks like a fully round orb. The names of the full moons varied from tribe to tribe, and from region to region, since each full moon was known by whichever natural resources were most abundant at that time. By 1759, many Abenaki people at Odanak had also adopted the English and French calendar system of 12 months to measure the year. They continued to use the old names for important seasonal resources and hunting or gathering activities.

 

18th Century Abenaki Names for the Full Moons
Moon Name Meaning
1st moon Alamikos new year’s greeting moon (January)
2nd moon Biaôdagos boughs-shedding moon (February)
3rd moon Mozokas moose-hunting moon (March)
4th moon Zogalikas maple sugar-making moon (April)
5th moon Kikas planting moon (May)
6th moon Nokkahigas hoeing moon (June)
7th moon Sataiikas blueberry-maker moon (midsummer)
8th moon Temashikos hay-making moon (July)
9th moon Demezôwas harvesting crops moon (August)
10th moon Skamonkas Indian corn-reaping moon (September)
11th moon Benibagos leaf-falling moon (October)
12th moon Mezatanos ice-forming freezing moon (November)
13th moon Pebonkas winter-maker moon (December)

 

In 1645, the fur trader William Pynchon noted that the Agawam, Nonotuck, and Pocumtuck Indians used the following names for the full moons. Since the English measured the year by only 12 months instead of 13 moons, Pynchon did not record a translation for the moon named “qunnikesos.” His list reflects the importance of corn (Zea mays) cultivation at that time, a fact reflected in the vast quantities of corn that were being grown, stored, and traded by Native people in the middle Connecticut River Valley during the 1600s.

 

17th Century Agawam, Nonotuck, and Pocumtuck Names for the Full Moons
Word Meaning
1. Squannikesos When they set Indian corne (pt of Aprill & pt of May)
2. moonesquan nimockkesos when women weed their corn (pt of May & pt of June,
3. Towwakesos when they hill Ind corne (pt of June & pt of July)
4. matterl lawawkesos when squashes are ripe & Ind beans begin to be eatable
5. micheeneekesos when Ind corne is eatable
6. pah quitaqunkkesos ye middle between harvest & eating Ind corne
7. pepewarr bec: of white frost on ye grass & grain
8. qunnikesos  
9. papsapqhoho about ye 6.th day of January
10. Lowatannassick So caled bec: they account it ye middle of winter
11. Squo chee kesos bec ye sun hath strength to thaw
12. Wapicummilcom bec ye ice in ye River is all gone (pt of February & ...March)
13. Namassack kesos because of catching fish (pt of March and pt of Aprill

 

During the late 1600s, many Native families from the Connecticut River Valley moved north to join the Abenaki villages of Cowass, Missisquoi, Pennacook, and/or Saint Francis/Odanak. In 1967, ethnologist Gordon Day found that the 17th century Agawam names for the full moons were very similar, phonetically, and culturally, to the 20th century Western Abenaki dialect.

 

original words, phonetically recorded by William Pynchon comparative words in St. Francis Abenaki St. Francis Abenaki modern translation
1. Squannikesos sigwani gizos spring moon
2. moonesquan nimockkesos mezaskenimek gizos keeping weeds out moon
3. Towwakesos 8towahkahigamek gizos hilling corn moon
4. matterl lawawkesos matahtawal gizos mature flowers moon
5. micheeneekesos mitsini gizos eating moon
6. pah quitaqunkkesos pohkwidagw8goo gizos it is early fall moon
7. pepewarr toopuwudt when there is frost
8. qunnikesos kwenigizos long moon
9. papsapqhoho babass8pkwao he (winter) half passes
10. Lowatannassick n8wihponassik where it is middle winter
11. Squo chee kesos tokskwatsit gizos ice honey-combs moon
12. Wapicummilcom mat ohpihkamalkino not stepping on it (ice)
13. Namassack kesos namassak gizos fishes moon

 

See Gordon Day. 1967. “An Agawam Fragment,” International Journal of American Linguistics, Volume 33, no. 3, pp. 244-247.

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