The New Maize
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
The most famous and interesting ceremony of the Muskhogean tribes is that which has come to be known in English as "the Busk" (a corruption of the Creek puskita, meaning "fast"). This was a celebration at the time of the first maturing of the maize, in July or August, according to locality, though it had the deeper significance of a New Year's feast, and hence of the rejuvenation of all life.
In the Creek towns, the Busk was held in the "great house," which consisted of four rectangular lodges, each divided into three compartments, and all open-faced toward a central square, or plaza, which they served to bound. The lodges were fitted with banks of seats, and each compartment was assigned to its own class of men. The place of honour (in some towns at least) was the western lodge, open to the morning sun, where was the seat of the head chief. In the centre of the square was kept burning a fire, made from four logs oriented to the four cardinal points. The structure is highly suggestive of a kind of temple of the year, the central fire being the symbol of the sun and of the four-square universe, and the twelve compartments of the lodges perhaps indicative of the year's lunations. Al-though the Busk was not a festival of the summer solstice, it came, none the less, at the season of the hottest sun, and so marked a natural change in the year.
The Busk occupies four days in the lesser towns, eight in the greater; and the ceremony seems to have four significant parts, the eight-day form being only a lengthening of the performance. On the first day, all the fires of the village having been previously extinguished, a new fire is kindled by friction, and fed by the four logs oriented to the cardinal points. Into this fire is cast a first-fruits' offering, consisting of four ears of the newly ripened maize and four branches of the cassine shrub. Dances and purificatory ceremonies occupy the day. On the second day the women prepare new maize for the coming feast, while the warriors purge themselves with "war physic," and bathe in running water. The third day is apparently a time of vigil for the older men, while the younger men hunt in preparation for the coming feast. During these preliminary- days the sexes are tabu to one another, and all fast. The festival ends with a feast and merry-making, accompanied by certain curious ceremonies, such as the brewing of medicine from a great variety of plants, offerings of tobacco to the cardinal points, and a significant rite, described as follows:
"At the miko's cabin a cane having two white feathers on its end is stuck out. At the moment when the sun sets, a man of the fish gens takes it down, and walks, followed by all spectators, toward the river. Having gone half way, he utters the death-whoop, and repeats it four times before he reaches the water's edge. After the crowd has thickly congregated at the bank, each person places a grain of `old man's tobacco' on the head and others in each ear. Then, at a signal repeated four times, they throw some of it into the river, and every man, at a like signal, plunges into the water to pick up four stones from the bottom. With these they cross themselves on their breasts four times, each time throwing one of the stones back into the river and uttering the death-whoop. Then they wash themselves, take up the cane with the feathers, return to the great house, where they stick it up, then walk through the town visiting."
In the opening ceremony (according to one authority) the fire-maker is said to converse with "the Master of Breath." Doubtless the cane tipped with white feathers is (as white feathers are elsewhere) a symbol of the breath of life, and the rite at the riverbank is thus to be interpreted as the death of the year throughout the world's quarters.
That the Indians regarded the Busk as a period of momentous change is clear from its attendant social consequences. The women burned or otherwise destroyed old vessels, mats, and the like, replacing them with new and unused ones; the town was cleansed; and all crimes, except murder, were for-given. The new fire was the symbol of the new life of the new year, whose food was now for the first time taken; while the fasting and purgation were purificatory rites to prepare men for new undertakings. The usual date for the ceremony was in July or August, though it varied from town to town with the ripening of the maize. Ceremonies similar to the Creek Busk, though less elaborate, were observed by the Chickasaw, Seminole, and, doubtless, by other Muskhogean tribes.