Hello Spring!

Contributed by Emily Hurley

After months of cold temperatures and snow storms I’m sure we’re all looking forward to spring and warmer weather! This year the first day of spring, or the spring equinox, takes place on March 20th. To some, equinoxes mark nothing more than seasons passing by. But to others, they were and still are an important time for celebration.

For many Indigenous cultures around the world, the spring equinox is an important time for not only practical, but also ceremonial purposes. Equinoxes were traditionally used to determine what animals would be available for hunting, when to plant and harvest crops, and they marked periods of migration for nomadic groups.

The equinox is marked differently by Indigenous nations around the world, but because tracking the sun’s movements was essential for survival, some cultures found ways to do so in the form of solar calendars. The Maya calendar is perhaps the most well-known of these but there were many others. The Mayans also created other ways to track the sun. The Pyramid of Kulkulkan (or El Castillo) at the site of Chichén Itzá in the Yucatán Peninsula, displays a serpent along the staircase during the equinox. Many still flock to the site on the equinox to see the serpent today.

Image showing the descent of Kulkulkan at Chichén Itzá, March 21st 2009. Image courtesy of Bmamlin, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

At the prehistoric site of Cahokia in Illinois, archaeologists in the 1960s discovered pits arranged into five large circles. Fragments of wood inside the pits indicated that sacred red cedar wood had been used as posts. Archaeologists dubbed this area as “Woodhenge” after realizing that some of the posts act as seasonal markers, marking the solstices and equinoxes. On the day of the spring equinox, the post marking this event aligns with Monk’s Mound (the largest Pre-Columbian earthwork in the Americas and the residence of the leader of Cahokia), where the sun emerges from behind the mound.

An artist’s conception of Woodhenge at sunrise, circa 1000 CE. Image courtesy of Herb Roe, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons
The reconstructed Woodhenge at the site of Cahokia, 2010. Image courtesy of Ryan Wheeler.
Ryan Wheeler visiting the reconstructed Woodhenge at the site of Cahokia, 2010. Image courtesy of Ryan Wheeler.

Another example of using the sun to create certain images is found at the site of Chaco Canyon in New Mexico. At the top of the Fajada Butte are two spirals etched into the rock which on the equinox, are sliced by a dagger of sunlight, called the “Sun Dagger.” Unfortunately the rocks on the butte have shifted, possibly due to human traffic at the site, and now the sunlit images no longer appear. At other areas of the Chaco Canyon site, interred bird bones have been discovered, and archaeologists believe these were the result of sacrificing scarlet macaws during the equinox. Due to their red and yellow feathers, these birds were associated with the sun and fire, and it is thought that sacrificing them during the equinox was a symbolic way of ending the winter season. This was also a common practice among groups throughout the Southwest and Northern Mexico.

Fajade Butte in 2015. Image courtesy of Rationalobserver, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons.
A diagram of the sunlit areas that were present during equinoxes and solstices at Fajada Butte. The spring, or vernal equinox, is in the center. Image courtesy of Nationalparks, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

In the Anishinaabe tradition, spring is celebrated as the beginning of their new year. Known as the Sugar Moon, this was the time when maple sap would start to run from the trees. Maple sap is considered to have important medicinal properties to the Anishinaabe as it balanced the blood.

Spring traditions in many native cultures are inextricably linked to the sun and moon, as the beginning of spring is marked by the equinox. It was a time symbolic of balance, because during the equinox day and night are of equal length. Spring has also historically symbolized rebirth and growth. It is the time when the earth is awakening from its winter slumber, and the life cycle is beginning again. Animals come out of hibernation and plants begin to bloom and grow again. Many traditions that have grown out of the equinox are based around this idea of balance and new beginnings.

Spring was also recognized by many Native American groups as a time to gather together and make decisions about their communities. It was a time to discuss which groups travelled where, what to do about hostile tribes, and where they could find resources. Today, many Indigenous groups still hold spring equinox gatherings and celebrations, which generally include music, dancing, ritual ceremonies, arts and crafts, and a feast of traditional dishes.

While spring traditions may look different to everyone, I think most can agree that it is a time of growth and fresh starts. With the upcoming season we have a lot to look forward to. We get to smell the fresh, clean air after a spring rain and watch flowers start to bloom. And let’s not forget about spring cleaning! Hopefully warmer weather and fun spring activities are right around the corner!

For further reading check out these resources:

https://www.nationalgeographic.com/science/article/160317-spring-vernal-equinox-astronomy-native-american

http://blog.nativepartnership.org/spring-equinox-in-native-american-cultures/

http://muskratmagazine.com/indigenous-calendars-mark-much-more-than-the-spring-equinox/

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