The Annual Creek Busk

The solemn annual festival held by the Creek people of ancient and modern days is the púskita, a word now passed into provincial English (busk); its real meaning is that of a fast. In the more important towns it lasted eight days; in towns of minor note four days only, and its celebration differed in each town in some particulars. The day on which to begin it was fixed by the míko and his council, and depended on the maturity of the maize crop and on various other circumstances. Its celebration took place mainly in the “great house” of the public square, and from Hawkins description, who saw it celebrated in Kasiχta, 1 we extract the following particulars:

In the morning of the first day the warriors clean the area of the great house and sprinkle it with white sand, at the time when the black drink is being prepared. The fire in the centre is made by friction, very early in the day, by a ministrant especially appointed for the purpose, called the fire-maker. Four logs, as long as the span of both arms, are brought to the centre of the area by the warriors, and laid down end to end, so as to form a cross. Each end of this cross points to one of the cardinal points of the compass. At the spot where the logs converge, the new fire is kindled and the logs are consumed during the first four days of the púskita. The women of the turkey gens dance the turkey-dance, pínua opánga, while the powerful emetic pā’ssa is being brewed. It is drank from noon to mid-afternoon, after which the tadpole-dance, tokiúlka opánga, is danced by four males and four females, who are called the tokiúlka or tadpoles. In the evening the men dance the dance of the hiniha: hiniha opánga, and continue it till day light.

The second day begins with the performance of the gun-dance, ítch’ha opánga, danced by females about ten o’clock in the forenoon. 2 At noon the men approach the new fire, rub some of its ashes on the chin, neck and belly, jump head foremost into the river, and then return to the great house. Meanwhile the females prepare the new maize for the feast, and the men on arriving rub some of it between their hands, then on their face and breast, after which feasting begins.

The third day the men pass by sitting in the square.

On the fourth day the women rise early to obtain a spark of the new fire; they bring it to their own hearths, which were previously cleaned and sprinkled with sand, and then kindle their fires on them. When the first four logs are consumed, the men repeat the ceremony of rubbing the ashes on their chin, neck and belly, and then plunge into water. Subsequently they taste salt and dance the long dance, opanga tchápko.

The fifth day is devoted to the bringing in of four other logs, which are disposed and kindled as aforementioned, and then the men drink ássi.

On the sixth and seventh day the men remain in the “great house.”

The ceremonies of the eighth or last day in the square and outside of it are of a peculiarly impressive character. Fourteen species of physic plants are placed in two pots containing water, then stirred and beaten up in it. After the aliktchálgi or conjurers have blown into the mixture through a small reed, the men drink of the liquid and rub it over their joints till afternoon. The names of the medical plants were as follows:

  1. míko huyanī’tcha.
  2. tola or sweet bay.
  3. atchína or cedar (the leaves of it).
  4. kapapáska, a shrub with red berries.
  5. tchul’-íssa; signifies: “pine-leaves.”
  6. aták’la lásti, a shrub with black berries.
  7. tútka hílissua, the “fire-physic.”
  8. tchúfi insákka áfaga, “rabbit-basket-string.” a vine-like plant resembling the strawberry plant.
  9. tchúfi mási, a species of cane.
  10. hílissua hatki, the “white physic”; abbrev. hílis’-hátki.
  11. tútka tchókishi, a moss species.
  12. u-i láni, “yellow water”: the Jerusalem oak.
  13. oktchanátchku, a rock-moss.
  14. kóha lowági “switch cane, limber cane.”

To these plants the modern Creeks add, as a fifteenth one, the pā’ssa; cf. below.

Then another singular mixture is prepared, of which the ingredients must have been of symbolic significance: Old maize cobs and pine burs are placed in a pot and burned to ashes. Four girls below the age of puberty bring ashes from home, put them in the pot, and stir up all together, after which the men mix white clay with water in two pans. One pan of the wet clay and another of the ashes are brought to the míko’s cabin, the other two to that of the warriors, who rub themselves with the contents of both. Two men appointed to that office then bring flowers of “old man s tobacco,” ísti atchúli pákpagi, prepared on the first day of the busk, in a pan to the míko’s cabin, and a particle of it is given to every person present. Upon this the míko and his councilors walk four times around the burning logs, throwing some of the “old man’s tobacco” into the fire each time they face the east, and then stop while facing the west. The warriors then repeat the same ceremony.

At the míko’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.

The mad dance, opánga hádsho, is performed after night fall, and this terminates the long ceremony.

The celebration of the púskita had a favorable influence upon the minds of the people, for it was a signal of amnesty, absolving the Indian of all crimes, murder excepted, and seemed to bury guilt itself in oblivion. All former quarrels and hatred were forgotten and man restored to himself and to the community. Indians renewing past quarrels after this solemn festival, were severely reprimanded by others. This change of mind was symbolized by the custom of the women of breaking to pieces all the household utensils of the past year, and replacing them by new ones; the men refitted all their property so as to look new, and it was considered extremely disgraceful, even for the most indigent, to eat any of the new maize before the annual busk (Sketch, pp. 75-78). 3

The foregoing sketch would be incomplete without the addition of another account of a four days púskita, which C. Swan witnessed at Ódshi-apófa, near the confluence of the Coosa and Tallapoosa rivers; it explains and amplifies many of the incidents related by Hawkins.

The account inserted in Swan’s article (Schoolcraft, Indians V, 267. 268) is signed “Anthony Alex. M’Gillivray,” who was then a chief of the nation, and related by marriage to Milfort. We gather from his statements, that at Odshi-apófa or “Hickory Ground,” which is a white town also, the “priest, or fire-maker of the town” had the privilege of determining the days of the busk, and that in doing so he was led by the ripening of the maize-crop and by the growth of the cassine-shrub. At the break of the first day he went to the square, unattended by others, dressed in white leather moccasins and stockings, with a white dressed deer-skin over his shoulders, and produced there the new fire, by the friction of two dry pieces of wood. When the spark was blazing up, four young men entered the area at the openings of its four corners, each holding a stick of wood; they approached the new fire with high reverence, and placed the ends of their sticks to it ” in a very formal manner.” Then four other young men came forward in the same manner, each holding an ear of the newly ripened Indian corn, which the conjurer took from them and with formalities threw into the fire. Then four other men entered the square in the same manner, carrying branches of the new cassine, some of which the priest threw into the fire, the rest being immediately parched and cooked for ceremonial use. The mysterious jargon which he muttered during this ceremonial act was supposed to form a conversation with the great “master of breath.”

The male population having in the meantime gathered in the cabins, the prepared black drink is served to them, and sparks of the new fire are carried and left outside the buildings for public use. The women bring it to their homes, which they have cleaned and decorated the day before for the occasion by extinguishing the old fires and removing their ashes throughout the town. They are forbidden to step into the square, but dance with the children on its outside. On the second day the men take their war-physic, a decoction of the button-snake root, in such quantities as would produce strong spasmodic effects. The third day is spent by the older men in the square, in taking black drink, etc., by the young men in hunting or fishing for the last day of the festival. The females pass the first three days in bathing, and it is unlawful for the males to touch any of them even with the tip of the finger. Both sexes are compelled to abstain rigidly from any food, especially from salt. The fourth day all classes congregate in the “great house” promiscuously; the game killed on the previous day is given to the public, and the women are cooking the provisions brought in from all sides, over the new fire. After this convivial day the evening dances conclude the annual festivity. Any provisions left over are given to the “fire-maker.”

Less circumstantial descriptions of this curious ceremony, which is frequently called from analogy the “green corn dance,” are contained in Adair’s History, Argument VIII, in Bartram, Travels, pp. 507. 508, in Milfort and many other writers. It appears from all that the busk is not a solstitial celebration, but a rejoicing over the first fruits of the year. The new year begins with the busk, which is celebrated in August or late in July. Every town celebrated its busk at a period independent from that of the other towns, whenever their crops had come to maturity.

Religious ideas were connected with the festival, for the benefits imparted to mankind by the new fruits were the gifts of the sun, which was symbolized by the fire burning in the centre of the square. The new fire meant the new life, physical and moral, which had to begin with the new year. Everything had to be new or renewed; even the garments worn heretofore were given to the flames. The pardon granted to offenders gave them a chance to begin a new and better course of life. It was unlawful to pass between the fire in the area and the rising sun, for this would have interrupted the mystic communication existing between the two. The rigorous fasting observed also fitted the people to prepare for a new moral life, and made them more receptive for the supernatural j the convivial scene which closed the busk typified the idea that all men, whether low or high, are born brethren. The black drink was the symbol of purification from wickedness, of prowess in war and of friendship and hospitality.

Although the ritual of the busk differed in every Creek tribe, many analogies can be traced with well-known customs among the Aztec and Maya nations, whose “unlucky five days” at the year’s close equally terminated with rejoicings, as the precursors of a new life.

Creek, Dance,

Gatschet, Albert S. A Migration Legend of the Creek Indians. Pub. D.G. Brinton, Philadelphia, 1884.

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  1. Remember well that Kasiχta is a white or peace town.[]
  2. The dance is called so, because the men fire off guns during its performance; another name for this dance is tapútska opanga; cf. tapodshídshās  am shooting.[]
  3. For further particulars of the medicine-plants, see the items in the Notes and in the Creek Glossary.[]

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