February 1991

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An Iroquois

New Year's Celebration


Robert G. Koch

The Iroquois new year was marked, around our February 1, by a Mid-Winter Ceremony. A month or so later another ceremony thanked the maple, as its sap began to rise. During the year there were also Corn Planting and Strawberry Festivals, the Green Corn Ceremony, and an October Harvest Festival. All incorporated a traditional Thanksgiving Prayer.

The mid-winter New Year celebration was a comprehensive renewal of Iroquois religious beliefs. They began with thanks for the Earth's bounty provided by the Creator, supplication for their continuation, and a preview of the traditional ceremonies. The first day included, according to anthropologist, Anthony F. C. Wallace, "the public naming of babies followed by a celebratory eating of corn soup."

Next, according to the 1848 account of Lewis Henry Morgan, a Rochester attorney, in his ground-breaking book, League of the Iroquois, gathered from his indispensable Seneca Indian informant, Ely Parker, there were two official male Faithkeepers, "disguised in bear skins or buffalo robes, which were secured around their heads with wreaths of corn-husks . . . Wreaths of corn-husks were also adjusted around their arms and ankles." They were dressed by two women Faithkeepers.

As they made their rounds, they admonished village families: "Prepare your houses. Clear away rubbish, Drive out all evil animals. We wish nothing to hinder or obstruct the coming observances." They stirred the ashes in these homes, strongly urged people to unriddle their dreams as preparation for rituals indicated by them, thus protecting themselves from being "obsessed by the desire that generated the dream."

Each subsequent day had a focus. On the third day, people exchanged visits, stirring the hearth ashes of their neighbors and guessing at each other's dreams. Households also received morning, afternoon, and evening visits from the Faithkeepers, now plumed and painted as warriors. Raising ashes on a wooden paddle, they sprinkled them upon the hearth and said, "I thank the Great Spirit that He has spared your lives again to witness this New Year's celebration."

During the middle days of the New Year festival, Feather, Fish, and Trotting dances produced much gaiety. And boys disguised with false faces, paint and rags, made up "thieving parties," so called. They "strolled from house to house, accompanied by an old woman carrying a huge basket. If the family received them kindly, and made them presents, they handed [these] to the female carrier…" and performed a thank-you dance. "But if no presents were made…" the boys "purloined whatever articles they could most adroitly and easily conceal." Later, all the articles collected were displayed and anyone "who had lost…[a particularly prized] article…was allowed to redeem it, on paying an equivalent. But no one was permitted to reclaim, as the owner, any article successfully taken…" The proceeds of this activity provided a feast.

Games like the "Snow-snake, or GAWASA, a carefully shaped hickory stick, five to seven feet long, was propelled across the snow crust for as many as three or four hundred yards. Although a general direction, rather than a fixed point, was indicated, team scores were determined much as in lawn bowling or bocce.

A central ceremony in the New Year Celebration was the sacrifice of a white dog. White signified purity and, according to Morgan and Parker, "The fidelity of the dog, the companion of the Indian, as a hunter, was emblematical of their [own] fidelity [to the Great Spirit]. No messenger so trusty could be found to bear their petitions to the Master of Life… They hung around the [dog's] neck a string of white wampum, the pledge of their faith… This sacrifice was the most solemn and impressive manner of drawing near to the Great Spirit known to the Iroquois." With much solemnity, ritual, and deep thanksgiving for the Creator's largess, the dog, which had been killed earlier, was burned so that its spirit could ascend as trusted messenger from the grateful Iroquois.

This festival and a couple of others ended on a gameful note. Six peach pits, with one side burnt black, were tossed in a bowl and the chance of their landing dark or light side up was wagered with a hundred beans as counters until one side or the other prevailed. Occasionally, the game continued excitedly into a second day.

Meanwhile, their New Year's thanksgiving had remembered Mother Earth, with her rich green stores, life-giving waters, medicinal and pleasurable fruits, our brother animals and birds, and the Sun that sustains all life.

© 1991, Robert G. Koch
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