The Green Corn and New Year festivals

Part of the special series for the Creek New Year – 2021

“Lies that your anthropology & history professors told you”

by Richard L. Thornton, Architect & City Planner

Photograph of the Bone Family Gathering in the 1960s at a farmstead in Dewey Rose, GA (Elbert County)

Are the Green Corn Festival and the Creek New Year, the same event?

My mother’s family celebrated the Green Corn Festival as a Homecoming, usually in the latter half of June, but occasionally on July 4th weekends.  The actual date was determined by the family elders, who chose a weekend when there was a full moon and the roasting ears (fresh corn) were coming ripe.  The communal potluck meal was held on a Sunday at one of the family’s 19th century farmsteads and always featured that old Creek favorite, Brunswick stew.

In an introductory anthropology course at Georgia Tech, taught by Archeologist Lewis Larson (of Etowah Mounds fame), we were told that the Green Corn Festival marked the beginning of the Creek New Year, but the date varied each year according to the cycle of the moon.  This is what the article in Wikipedia on the Green Corn Festival says.  

In 1976,  University of Georgia Anthropology professor, Charles M. Hudson, published The Southeastern Indians.  For the rest of the century, it established Hudson in the minds of the media as “the expert” on the Southeastern Indians.  We now know that this book, like most of his books, contained the uncredited research papers of his undergraduate and graduate students.  Thus, it has accurate statements mixed in with some inaccurate descriptions of Native American culture and traditions.  For the most part, this book though is drawn from The Creek Indians and their Neighbors by John R. Swanton, and thus tends to be accurate about cultural traditions in an eclectic way.

In The Southeastern Indians [pp, 365-375],  Hudson stated that the date of the Green Corn varied throughout the Southeast from late spring to late summer.  I found it fascinating that our family’s methodology for setting the date matched that of the Chickasaws, not the Creeks.  I now know that the Chickasaws had a substantial presence in NW South Carolina until the mid-1700s and in Northeast Georgia until 1818.   The NE Georgia Chickasaws were members of the Creek Confederacy and thus were labeled Creeks by the whites.   

Later books by Hudson became increasingly inaccurate, because he seemed to rely more and more on biased student papers. In Knights of the Cross, Warriors of the Sun,  (about the De Soto Expedition) the largest chapter, “De Soto in the Land of the Cherokee”, was written by and credited to a Cherokee graduate student.  It is pure fiction. 

The Cherokees were nowhere around in 1540 AD and are not mentioned in the De Soto Chronicles.  French and Dutch maps show them living north of the St. Lawrence River in southern Ontario until 1650.  They were vassals of the Hurons and therefore driven out of Canada that year by the Iroquois Confederacy.  Nevertheless, from 1998 onward (when the book was published)  Cherokees have used this book as “proof” that they were indigenous to the Southeast and full participants in the Southeastern Mound-building culture.  More about that later.

Hudson first briefly linked the Green Corn Festival with the Creek New Year in Knights of the Cross . . . but devoted a significant part of the book,  Conversations with the High Priest of Coosa [2003] to a mostly fictional account, which equated the Green Corn Festival with the Creek New Year on the Summer Solstice.  Hudson even claimed that groups of Creek men fabricated wriggling “Feathered Serpents” and danced through the town in the manner of the Chinese Dragon on Chinese New Year’s Day.   He said that the tongue of the serpent-dragon was carved from wood and wiggled back and forth.

This chapter had numerous reference citations, which gave it the appearance of being brilliant historical research. Apparently, nobody called Hudson’s bluff.  I did not fact-check the chapter until I had a discovered the “Lost Original Copy of the Creek Migration Legend” in 2015.  None of the cited references are eye witness accounts of a combined Green Corn-New Year celebration . . . and certainly not the Creek version of the Chinese Dragon.  At best, some cited references are speculations by ill-informed academicians.  Nevertheless, I like thousands of other Creek descendants from then on, believed the chapter to be factual. 

What do the eyewitness accounts say?

The wooden box at Lambeth Palace in London contained much more than the so-called “Lost Creek Migration.”  It contained numerous interviews with Creek and Uchee leaders by Georgia Colonial Secretary Thomas Christie.  Each province and ethnic group within the Creek Confederacy determined its own date and rituals for the Green Corn Festival.  The date of the festival generally coincided with the ripening of the roasting ears. Most branches of the Creeks set at the time of the first quarter of the lunar month. The Chickasaws and some Upper Creek towns set it nearest the full moon. The most southerly provinces, especially those near the ocean or Gulf of Mexico had two crops of corn and therefore had two Green Corn Festivals. Some provinces also had a Little Green Corn Festival that occurred at the time when the corn seeds had sprouted and sent a green shoot out of the ground.

Celebration of New Year’s Day was entirely different.  The date of the Summer Solstice was rigidly set by Keepers of the Day (astronomers).  It was a solemn day in which couples announced the beginning of a one-year trial marriage, happy couples announced their wedding vows and married couples journeyed to their local temple to obtain hot coals, with which to re-kindle their domestic hearth. They renewed their wedding vows at this time.  Divorced adults came individually to obtain hot coals.

First Green Corn Festival in the new rotunda at Tama Tribal Town, GA – June 1976

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