Place Over Time

This week the phase of the moon transitioned from wi okiseya (half moon) to wi mimakanyela (near round moon). In astronomical terms, the moon transitioned from the waxing crescent moon intermediate phase to the waxing gibbous moon intermediate phase. The point in time between these two intermediate moon phases was the primary moon phase known as the first quarter moon, which occurred at 12:58 AM Mountain Time on Tuesday morning, April 20.

The sequence of astronomical moon phases alternates between primary and intermediate. The primary phases are specific points in time during the lunar cycle, whereas the intermediate phases are the approximately week-long periods between those points. The primary phases are new moon, first quarter moon, full moon, and third or last quarter moon. The intermediate phases are waxing crescent moon, waxing gibbous moon, waning gibbous moon, and waning crescent moon.

The astronomical lunar cycle begins with a new moon. Following it is the waxing crescent moon phase, and then the first quarter moon, followed by the waxing gibbous moon phase and then the full moon. Following the full moon is the waning gibbous moon phase, and then the third quarter moon, and lastly, the waning crescent moon phase. This is the sequence of the eight phases of the moon during a lunar cycle.

The Lakotan lunar cycle, on the other hand, begins with wi mima (round moon), followed by wi makatanhan (rising from the earth moon phase) and then wi yashpapi (bitten off moon), which is followed by wi t’inktakanyela (near dead moon phase) and wi t’e (dead moon). The next phase is wi lechala (not long ago moon), and then wi okiseya and lastly, wi mimakanyela.

We are about to begin a new Lakotan month. Right now is Magaksica Agli Wi (Ducks Return Moon). Appropriately, there are two pairs of ducks nesting on the small ponds here at Wingsprings. When approached, they paddle away from their nests before flying off with a loud cackling alarm.  When the Moon is next round, on the night of April 26, will be the beginning of Chanwapto Wi (Green Leaves Moon). Almost all of the trees are budding out and so will be waving their new leaves before the next wi mima, which will be Tinpsinla Itkahcha Wi, Ripe Turnips Moon.

The Lakotan month is based on the period of time between full moons, which is 29.5 days. Twelve of these periods is 354 days, but it takes 365 days for Earth to make one orbit around the Sun. So if the twelve month names were used only once and always in the same order, after three years Chanwapto Wi would be 33 days earlier than it is now. In order to keep their lunar month names somewhat aligned with the seasons of a year, Lakotans had more than 13 month names to choose from over the course of a year.

In the world as we know it today, such a calendar is too imprecise. But for Lakotans prior to reservation days, it served their needs. Lakotans were a relatively small population and relied on hunting and gathering for their subsistence. They needed to know where to find sustenance, and how to acquire it. Societies with large, sedentary populations, on the other hand, require an agricultural system that produces surpluses, and therefore they develop more accurate calendars to assist with scheduling agricultural as well as other social, economic and religious activities.

These more accurate calendars typically have a fixed number of months that align with the seasons of a year. The months are organized into weeks or some other subset of days, and eventually, the days of a week are named and then organized into hours, minutes, seconds, and even shorter periods of time.

Before Europeans arrived in their lands, Lakotans linked their names for months to the full moons and to the behavior of the natural animals and plants in their local environments.

This is perhaps why Vine Deloria, Jr. wrote that immigrants to America (by which he meant non-Natives) are primarily concerned with time, whereas American Indians are primarily concerned with place.