It’s likely that there is no Native word for “phenology,” the study of cyclical changes in the natural world. Yet phenology was part of the fabric of Native tradition that kept the generations alive, and that ancient, evolving tradition appears in the many Native American moon names.
Unlike the nod to ancient Roman gods (such as two-faced Janus for January or the war god Mars for March) that became the standard for most Western cultures, each First Nation used the naming of most months to pass along information about what to expect and how to prepare, passing knowledge of nature between the generations.
Traditionally, there are 13 moons within the full circle of Earth around the sun, so true traditional calendars marked 13 months, but shared here are the equivalents of 12 months named in five languages—Ojibwe, Diné, Oneida, Dakota and Cherokee.
Many names indicate something that will likely happen or that should happen during the particular cycle of days from new moon to new moon. Even within a single language, such as Ojibwemowin—the language of the Anishinaabe people—names vary as do lingual dialects. So, for the Ojibwe people on the western side of Lake Superior, March indicates Onaabani-giizis or Hard Crust on the Snow Moon while the milder eastern side names Iskigamizige-giizis, Maple Sugar Moon (which comes one month later in the west).
For the western Ojibwe, we are entering February, Namebini Giizis or the Sucker Moon.
“The month gets its name in honor of the sucker fish, which sacrifices its life to sustain the Anishinaabe people,” states a January 26 weekly e-newsletter from the Red Cliff Band of Lake Superior Chippewa. “As the teaching goes, as the month of January gradually becomes February, the burden of hunger afflicted the Ojibwe. It was a time of great hardship, for food and game were scarce during Gichii Manidoo Giizis – The Great Spirit Moon (January). It was at this time that sucker fish, seeing the Anishinaabe suffering, decided to give his life so that the Ojibwe may live on.”
“February was traditionally a time when the women would begin netting more and more suckers through the ice,” the newsletter continues. “Likewise, the men would increasingly find the sucker more plentiful when spearing through the ice or in open running water. This is why the sucker fish continues to hold great importance to the Ojibwe today. To everything is a place and purpose as the Ojibwe journey through the circle of life.”
In the Native tradition, moon names often prepared people for what they would need to do, such as indicating when to plant or what to harvest.
One of the interesting and valuable aspects of retaining these traditional names can be within the modern study of phenology. By seeing what should or used to happen, we might better understand the changes wrought by climate alterations. The Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission in Odanah, Wisconsin, has launched a phenology study seeking tribal observation and knowledge for just that purpose.
January: Gichi-manidoo-giizis, Great Spirit Moon
February: Namebini-giizis, Sucker Moon
March: Onaabani-giizis, Hard Crust on the Snow Moon
April: Iskigamizige-giizis, Maple Sugar Moon
May: Waabigwanii-giizis, Flower Moon
June: Ode´imini-giizis, Time for Picking Strawberry Moon
July: Aabita-niibino-giizis, Half-way through Summer Moon
August: Manoominike-giizis, Ricing Moon (time for wild ricing)
September: Waatebagaa-giizis, Leaves Changing Color Moon
October: Binaakwii-giizis, Falling Leaves Moon
November: Gashkadino-giizis, Ice Is Forming Moon
December: Mannidoo-giizisoons, Little Spirit Moon
In this video, Terry Teller explains how to pronounce the names of each month. Teller mentions that the traditional year began in October, but these are presented January to December. He also give older names, but the current names are found here.
January: Yas Niłt’ees, Frying Snow (melting snow for water source)
February: Atsá̜ Biyáázh, Little Eagles (time of eaglets hatching)
March: Wóózhch’í̜í̜d: (this word mimics the eaglets first sounds)
April: T’á̜á̜chil, Little Leaves
May: T’a̜a̜tsoh, Big Leaves
June: Ya’iishjááshchilí, Small Planting
July: Ya’iishjáástsoh, Big Planting
August: Bini’anit’á̜á̜ts’ósí, Small Harvest
September: Bini’anit’á̜á̜tsoh, Big Harvest
October: Gha̜a̜ji̜’, Back to Back (summer back to back with winter)
November: Níłch’its’ósí, Slender Wind
December: Níłch’itsoh, Big Wind
January: Teyakohúhtya’ks. Someone’s Ears Are Freezing
February: Tsha’tekohsélh̲a̲’, Midwinter
March: Tewʌhníslya’ks, The Day Is Cut in Two (split days)
April: Wahsakayu:té:se̲’, It’s Thundering
May: Latiyʌ́thos, They Plant
June: Awʌhíht̲e̲’, Strawberry
July: Ohyótshel̲i̲’, String/Green Bean
August: Onʌ́stase̲’, New Corn
September: Yeyʌthókwas, Someone Harvests
October: Yutékhwayʌh̲e̲’, Someone Stores Food
November: Tehutʌnuhela:túh̲e̲’, They Give Thanks
December: Wahsu:tés, It’s a Long Night
The University of Minnesota Wi Akenuåpa page provides descriptions and pronunciations for Dakota names of the month. The new font, soon to be on the website, was provided by U of M Dakota Language Teaching Specialist Joe Bendickson, who reminded, “Keep in mind that some communities use different words.”
January: Wítheȟi wí, Hard Moon (difficult moon)
February: Wičhá thawí, Raccoons’ moon
March: Ištá wičháyazaŋ wí, Sore Eyes Moon (snow blindness)
April: Maǧá okáda wí, Geese Laying Eggs Moon
May: Wóžupi wí, Planting Moon
June: Wažúšteča šá wí, Strawberries Ripening Moon
July: Čhaŋphá šá wí, Chokecherries Ripening Moon
August: Wasúthuŋ wí, Harvest Moon
September: Wayuksapi wi, Corn Harvest Moon
October: Čhaŋwápa kasná wí, Leaves Shaking Off the Trees Moon
November: Thahé čapšúŋ wí, Deer Shedding Antlers Moon
December: Čhaŋkáphopa wí, Popping (or Exploding) Trees Moon
Cherokee language uses a special font to express words. The Cherokee Nation provides a word list that includes the Cherokee font spelling, the phonetic spelling and an audio pronunciation guide (and you can look up each month through the list). These phonetic spellings and translations come from an 1890s calendar used at Cherokee Seminaries (boarding schools) and sent by translation specialist John Ross. The Cherokee font, and other Native language fonts, can be downloaded for free via Language Geek.
January: Unolvtani, Windy Moon
February: Kagali, Stationary Moon
March: Anvyi, Strawberry Moon
April: Guwoni, Duck (hunting time)
May: Anusgvti, Moving Large Basket
June: De-ha-lu-yi, Violet Moon
July: Gu-ye-quo-ni, When Wind Turn Blue
August: Ga-lo-ni, Drying Up Moon
September: Du-li-s-di, Moon From a Black Butterfly (perhaps the Black Swallowtail, Oklahoma’s state butterfly)
October: Du-ni-no-di, Sala Moon
November: Nv-da-de-qua, Big Moon
December: V-s-gi-yi, Frosty Moon
This story was originally published February 1, 2017.