The Choctaw Solar Eclipse

Hvshi Kania: The Solar Eclipse

 

On April 8, 2024, portions of the Choctaw Nation Reservation will experience a total eclipse of the sun. In Idabel, the sun will start to dim at 12:28pm, reach total darkness at 1:45pm, begin to regain daylight four minutes later, and be back to normal brightness by 3:06 PM. Poteau will see 1 minute 2 seconds of total eclipse. Areas in the northwest of the Reservation, such as McAlester, will experience a partial eclipse.

A total solar eclipse happens somewhere on earth about every year or two, but the one coming to Choctaw Nation is special. It will be the longest total eclipse over land anywhere on earth in a decade. We won’t see another one in the contiguous United States until 2044. Statistically a total eclipse returns to the same location only every 360-410 years. The eclipse coming to Choctaw Nation is a rare vent. Huge numbers of people from all over the world will be coming here to experience it with us.

A solar eclipse happens when the moon passes between the sun and the earth. The moon being much smaller, but also much closer to earth than the sun can block the sun’s light from getting to a small portion of the earth’s surface for a short period of time. This is the total eclipse. A partial eclipse happens in places on the earth where the moon is lined up to block only a portion of the sun’s light.

What does a solar eclipse look like from a traditional Choctaw perspective? Understanding this requires understanding a bit about how our Choctaw ancestors thought about the sun.  At the time of first sustained contact with Europe, most Choctaw people believed in a supreme God and creator. One of his most common Choctaw names was Hvshtahili. This name is a contraction of Hvshi Atahli, meaning the Sun’s Completed Order. In the sun, hvshi, Choctaw people saw God’s eye. When the sun shone on the earth, it brought life and it illuminated Hina Hanta, the Bright Path to victory (Wright 1828:179). Choctaw diplomats preferred to address foreign leaders when the sun was shining brightly (O’Brien 2005:3).

Fire was sometimes referred to as Luak Hvshtahli Itichapa, meaning Fire the Partner of God (Wright 1828:179-180). This name captured the belief that fire was allied with the sun and communicated with God. Each Choctaw community maintained its own sacred fire, which was never allowed to go out except when it was ceremonially extinguished. People sought to maintain the purity of their community’s fire through interacting morally with each other and with the earth. Annually, the most important spiritual and social function was Luak Mosholi, Fires Extinguished, an event known in English as the Green Corn Ceremony. During this event, the fires were extinguished. The community cleansed, forgave each other’s for past wrongs, and new fires were lit. When an alliance was made with another community, burning coals were exchanged from the fires of each (O’Brien 2005:58).

With the sun being connected with God, being recognized for its role in sustaining life on earth and being tied to the most important spiritual event of the traditional Choctaw calendar, it should come as no surprise that our Choctaw ancestors were keen observers of the sun. Some of the ways they thought about the sun are reflected in the Choctaw language. The direction east is called hvshi akuchaka, which literally means where the sun comes out, a reference to the Atlantic Ocean. West is hvshi aiokatula, meaning where the sun reclines into the water, a reference to the Pacific Ocean. The Choctaw word for darkness, okhlili, is a contraction of oka ailli, which means died in the water. This also refers to the sun’s reclining into the Pacific at night (Adair 1775:53; Mould 2004:85). The Choctaw word for time of the day, hvshi kanali, means movement of the sun. The Choctaw word for the winter season, hvshtula, literally means reclining sun.  This reflects the observation that after the summer solstice, the sun progressively reclines farther and farther in the southern sky until the winter solstice, bringing cold weather. The moon is hvshi ninak aya, the sun that travels at night. The moon was considered to be female and was conceived of as the wife of the sun or the second eye of God (Cushman 1899:246; York 2013:49). The traditional Choctaw calendar is lunar based, and the Choctaw name for month, hvshi, probably referrs to the sun that travels at night.

Today, there is an assumption that Choctaw culture was unchanging, that people didn’t come up with new knowledge, that one Choctaw community didn’t understand or do things a little differently than another community. This is, of course, not the case. The following Choctaw oral story was recorded in the Bayou Lacomb community more than 100 years ago (Bushnell 1909). Unfortunately, the name of the teller was not recorded with it. Incorporating physical as well as spiritual elements, this story conveys how one community or perhaps one individual understood the sun to be. Pay attention to how it refers to some of the Choctaw words described above:

Tvshka and Walo were brothers who lived long ago. Every morning they saw the sun rise above the horizon, pass high overhead, and late in the day die in the west.

When the boys were about four years old, they conceived the idea of following the sun and seeing where he died. So, the next day, when he was overhead, they started to follow him; but that night, when he died, they were still in their own country, where they knew the hills and the rivers. Then they slept, and in the morning when the sun was again overhead, they once more set off to follow him. And thus, they continued for many years to wend their way after the sun in his course through the heavens.

 Long, long afterward, when the two boys had become men, they reached a great expanse of water, and the only land they could see was the shore on which they were standing. Late that day, when Sun died, they saw him sink into the water; then they also passed over the water and entered Suns home with him. All about them they saw women—the stars are women, and the moon is Suns wife. Then Moon asked the brothers how they had found their way so far from their home. They told her how for many, many years, ever since they were mere boys, they had followed Sun in his daily journey.

 Then Sun told his wife to boil water. Into this he put the boys and rubbed them; this treatment caused them to turn red and their skin to come off. Sun then asked them whether they knew the way to return to their home, and they said, No;” so he took them to the edge, whence they looked down to the earth, but they could not distinguish their home.

 Sun asked why they had followed him, as it was not time for them to reach heaven. They replied that their only reason for following him was a desire to see where he died. Sun then told them that he would send them home, but that for four days after reaching their home they must not speak a word to any person. If they spoke during the four days they would die, otherwise they would then live and prosper. A large buzzard was then called by Sun and the two boys were placed on its back. Buzzard then started toward the earth. The clouds are midway between heaven and earth; above the clouds wind never blows. As buzzard flew from heaven to the clouds the brothers could easily keep their hold; but from the clouds to the earth the buzzard was blown in all directions. All reached the earth in safety, however, and the boys recognized the trees that stood about their old home.

 They rested beneath the trees, and while there an old man passed by who knew the brothers. He continued down the road, and soon meeting the boysmother, told her the boys had come back. She hastened to see them. When she saw them, she began to talk and made them answer her. Then they told her that, as they had spoken during the first four days after their return, they would surely die. Knowing she had forced them to speak, on hearing this the mother was greatly worried. Then all went to the mothers home, and the brothers told of all they had seen and how they had followed Sun during many years. After they had told all, they died and went up to heaven to remain forever.

Given how much importance the sun had in Choctaw language and culture, when a solar eclipse occurred, it was a significant event. The Choctaw term for eclipse, hvshi kania, the sun goes away, doesn’t convey a lot of meaning in the absence of the context shared above. In practice, when a solar eclipse occurred, on a day just like any other day without any warning, we can only imagine what kinds of thoughts and probably terror went through people’s minds. The following comes from Israel Folsom, a Choctaw minister, and Trail of Tears survivor:

When the sun began to get less in his brightness, and grow dark and obscure, they believed that some ethereal black squirrels of large size, driven by hunger, had commenced eating him and were going to devour him.  With this belief, they thought it was their duty to make every exertion they could to save the great luminary of day from being consumed by them. Therefore, every person, both men, women, and children, who could make a noise, were called upon to join in the effort to drive the squirrels away. To do this, they would begin in the same manner as persons generally do in trying to start a squirrel from a tree. Some would throw sticks towards the declining sun, whooping and yelling at the same time shooting arrows toward the supposed black squirrels (Swanton 1931).

 Horatio Cushman, who grew up in Choctaw country before the Trail of Tears claimed to have seen Choctaw people respond to more than one total solar eclipse.  He describes women shouting and banging metal pots together, dogs barking, and men calmly shooting their guns towards the sun to scare away the black squirrel (Cushman 1899-290-291).

 Rather than black squirrels, other Choctaw communities thought of a solar eclipse as the sun cleansing itself to in order to be able to continue its important work or thought of it as the sun resting. However, you choose to experience the 2024 solar eclipse, remember that you are witnessing a part of history… and Choctaw culture.

To obtain a copy of this article’s bibliography, please contact the Choctaw Nation Historic Preservation Department.