Mooncakes and Native Americans


August 15 in the Chinese calendar is the mid-Autumn mooncake festival (zhongqiu jie, a family reunion time). Do not ask how that differs from the solar calendar since China combines both the lunar (29.5 days lunar cycle) and the solar (365.24 days a year). But the lunar one determines the festival as the sky always shows a full moon mid-August, thus the mooncake allusion. In the Gregorian calendar 2015, that’s Sept. 27.

The circular pastry of a mooncake is appropriate to remind one of the unity of all things. That unity was originally observed with the eldest in a clan cutting the mooncake into pieces and distributing it around the folks gathered for the occasion. Now, s/he just distributes the wrapped mooncakes to members of the family, with the pastry losing its gastronomic value over the symbolic power of a gathered clan.

Reunion and gathering were seen separately. The reunion was for the wife to visit her own family without accompaniment of husband before joining the family gathering of his—a subtle denigration of the wife from a social status perspective but in the yin-yang tradition of holding opposites within the same circle, the separate clans for the wife and the husband are equally important.

I once helped launch a community consultation in Vogar, Manitoba, among forgotten natives Metis (mixed blood) who intermarried with the European and other Caucasian fur trappers, excluded from being classified with Canada’s Reserve Indians of the “pure bloods.” Metis in Regina and Saskatoon of Saskatchewan, and Winnipeg in Manitoba, led a dismal existence.

The Okie in Uptown Chicago, originally with the Oklahoma territory where the U.S. once gathered Native Americans (Shawnee, Cherokee, Apache, Seminole, Cheyenne, Dakota, et al) to Oklahoma, fared no better. 

It was a visit to the Hulunbuir area in Inner Mongolia in 2012 when we ran into a tribe in E’rguna that tended deer and other wildlife. They knew themselves to be related to the forebears of migrants to North America, crossing the Bering Straits down to the Prairies and the Plains, the East Coast, the Southwest and the South. Perhaps their Turkic physical features number them among those who crisscrossed the Argun River that connects to the Amur of the Far East of Russian Siberia bordering into China’s Province of Heilongjiang. It was at the small river town of Shiwei, with their famed city square spark-spitting bonfire under the moon, where we met Russian-speaking Chinese and Chinese-speaking Russians.

Their proud demeanor reminded me of the Cheyenne-Arapaho Indians that I chanced meeting later, not to mention tribes associated with the Olmec and the Maya, the Aztec and the Inca in Sud-America.

Native Americans are known for having a term for all the full moons of the year, including the blue moon, the fourth moon of a three-month season in the northern hemisphere. The lunar is shorter by 11 days than the solar calendar so once every two-and-a-half Gregorian reckoning is an extra full moon, from where the romantically labeled “blue moon” derives from. Two full moons occur in the same 29.5-day period.

The moon in January goes with the wolf, in February with the snow, and March gets the worm. It turns pink in April, after a species of early blooming wildflower; the generic flower is in May, and the strawberry in June. July gets us the buck (male deer), but August is for the sturgeon, the scale-less fish roe better known as caviar. September gets the harvest moon hand’s down, October honors the hunter; November brings out the beaver, and December, the cold moon.

Clearly, Native Americans hear the echoes of the grasslands of Inner Mongolia where long ago, in the fullness of the moon, the unity of life was affirmed and the power of the mooncake was felt. 

Tracing ethnicity is a futile exercise if one is after purity. All humankind descended from West Africa and our DNA is 97 percent similar. Still, the Bureau of Indian Affairs of the United States started one of Whitey’s misguided actions when it moved scattered Native Americans to east of the Mississippi River, Oklahoma in 1820. There were 65 tribes involved including the Cherokee’s famed “Trail of Tears.”

Sixty years later, Congress passed the China Exclusion Act, making the distant relatives of the Native American a no-no to U.S Immigration. Sometime in between, the nation convulsed in a Civil War over the emancipation of slaves from West Africa.

Relating Native Americans to mooncakes of the Asian grasslands is not gerrymandering cultural anthropology; we’ve always considered Native Americans to be of Mongolian origins, related to North China.

We find the Mid-Autumn Festival of China serendipitously coinciding and compatible to the Native American emphasis in today’s U.S. calendar. We pride ourselves as a multi-ethnic diverse country, Charleston SC notwithstanding, and it is nigh time we salute the first settlers of the American prairies and plains.

Here, have a moon cake.

Jaime R. Vergara | Special to the Saipan Tribune
Jaime Vergara previously taught at SVES in the CNMI. A peripatetic pedagogue, he last taught in China but makes Honolulu, Shenyang, and Saipan home. He can be reached at

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