Sitting up here in my nice, warm office and looking out the window, it’s difficult to see very far. Heavy snow is falling, being blown around by a stiff 20 mph wind out of the east-northeast.
Weather’s not fit for man nor beast, as W.C. Fields would put it. And looking at today’s weather, it’s easy to understand why some Native Americans named the February full moon–which made its appearance last night–the Full Snow Moon. Thinking about the lives they lived, it’s also pretty clear why others of the continent’s first inhabitants called it the Full Hunger Moon.
As the last glaciers retreated and the climate warmed to temperature ranges more familiar to us modern Fox Valley residents, the result was a relatively rapid cultural evolution that turned Ice Age hunter-gatherers into the village-dwellers of the Hopewell and Mississippian cultural traditions. By the time the first Europeans arrived in north central Illinois, those cultural traditions, too, had been eclipsed by much looser tribal structures based around clans and families.
By the Colonial era, agriculture still provided a major percentage of the diet of the native people living in the Fox Valley. Corn, beans, and squash were grown and then dried for use during the winter months. Also dried were fish and meat from deer and other game animals. Fortunately, northern Illinois was favorable for farming because those who lived here before Europeans arrived needed all the help they could get to make it through one of our winters.
The harvest was vital for Native Americans, just as it is for modern farmers. Corn was picked, husked, and stored on the cob in large baskets to dry for later use. Shelled corn was soaked in lye made from wood ashes to make hominy. Or it was ground for unleavened cornbread, or boiled with water and dried berries or fruit to make an Indian pudding. Beans were dried, as was squash, which could be served boiled with dried fish or meat.
Every fall, local tribes left their permanent villages to hunt buffalo on the prairies—sometimes as distant as across the Mississippi River. Buffalo killed during the hunt were butchered where they fell. Hides and meat were taken back to the temporary hunting camps where both were dried for transport back to permanent villages. Not only did drying preserve the meat for future use (as long as it was kept dry), but by removing the water, its weight was significantly reduced making it much easier to transport in those days before Europeans introduced horses.
Once back at their permanent villages, Native Americans pounded thoroughly dried buffalo meat, elk, or venison into powder in stone mortars. Bison tallow or bone marrow (or, farther north, bear fat) was added to the dried meat powder in a 50/50 ratio, along with dried fruit to make pemmican. It could be stored in tightly woven baskets or bark or pottery containers for long periods, providing an ideal energy food with its mix of protein, carbohydrates, fat, and Vitamin C.
Just before winter hit, tribal groups broke up into smaller family groups and moved to small hunting camps, a tradition that continued right up until American settlers arrived. For instance, most of the Pottawatomie, Ottawa, and Chippewa tribal groups here in the Fox Valley broke up into family groups that wintered along Aux Sable Creek and the Illinois River. By scattering, the groups were less likely to hunt out the areas they camped in than a much larger group would.
As winter really got under way, the dried meat and vegetables were supplemented with game hunted by the menfolk as the women literally kept the home fires burning. In addition, fur-bearing animals were trapped during the winter; their thick winter pelts prized for their additional warmth. After the fur trade era began, trapping became a survival activity of another kind. Without furs to trade, Indian families couldn’t purchase the brass kettles, wool blankets, glass beads, iron axes and hatchets they had come to rely upon.
January’s Full Wolf Moon rose to the howls of prairie wolves as families gathered around the fires in their lodges and exchanged stories and legends, giving way to February’s Full Snow Moon, so named because February is often the month with the deepest snowfall. But by the end of February, accumulated stocks of dried food were often running short, accounting for the alternative name for the February full moon, the Full Hunger Moon.
As March began, winter’s end was in sight, as was the coming of true spring, marking the end of yet another annual cycle with the Great Wheel ready to go round again.