Iroquois Midwinter

by Linda Pascatore

©1995 The Gobbler: Winter Crystal

Iroquois longhouse settlement along nearby winter stream 500 years ago.

Illustration from National Geographic article on Iroquois Longhouse community by Richard Schlect.

What would the Native Americans have been doing during our Christmas season? No one really knows anymore exactly what their activities were before the coming of the white men. There were eight seasonal festivals celebrated by the nations of the Iroquois Confederacy. However, the historical accounts of these events were recorded well after Christianity and European culture had influenced and changed the native customs. The following account of an Onondagan celebration is based on a report published in 1883.

The New Year or Midwinter Festival began on the first new moon after the solstice. It was the longest of the eight festivals, lasting almost three weeks. It must have been a welcome break from the monotony of winter, when the weather often required spending a lot of time indoors. At the beginning of the festival, the chiefs gathered and laid out their wampum belts. Speeches were given, and confessions were made of any wrongdoing in the past year. Then the feather dance, a dance of peace, was performed.

Games were the next activity. The Bear, Deer, Eel and Hawk Clans would join in a team to play against the Wolf, Beaver, Snipe and Turtle Clans. After the games, feasting and gambling were held in separate houses for each clan. This meant that couples were separated for this part of the festival, since it was forbidden to marry someone from the same clan.

The village would gather together again for the white dog ceremony. A pure white dog was killed, decorated, and thrown into the fire as the warriors shot arrows into the sun. This was an offering to Aireskoui, the Sun god and god of war. It was probably performed at this time, just after the darkest time of the year, to thank the Aireskoui for the lengthening days and slow return of the light.

Dancing was a big part of the New Year Festival. The war dance was offered to the sun, moon, stars, and thunder. The shuffle dance, in which one's feet never leave the ground, was done by women only. The guide dance was a couples dance, and marked the closing of the festival.

However, seven days after the festival ended, the medicine men would come to purify each house, chasing away witches and disease. After this cleansing ceremony, everyone gathered at the Council House. A special dish was prepared for the medicine men. A large pot of burnt corn, sweetened with maple syrup, was cooked over a fire. The medicine men gathered the ashes from this fire and threw them on everyone in the village to protect them from witches and disease.

The Iroquois practice of confession of past wrongs, purification of the people and the village for the new year's beginning, and of course feasting and dancing are all common themes found in New Year's festivities around the world.

"Myths of the Iroquois," by Erminnie A. Smith, 1883; reprinted by Iroqrafts Ltd., Ontario, Canada, 1989.