It’s a time of renewal, starting fresh and saying good-bye.
Kevin Deer, a Mohawk faithkeeper from Kahnawake, says it’s one traditional ceremony of the year people don’t want to miss – the Midwinter Ceremony.
“It’s such a powerful ceremony,” he told dozens of people who tuned in for a Zoom presentation last week to listen to him describe one of the most important Haudenosaunee ceremonies of the year.
Beginning five days after the first new moon in January and lasting for about eight days, the midwinter ceremony sees naming ceremonies for new babies, the choosing of new leaders, and the “stirring of ashes” – a symbolic turning over of Mother Earth to start fresh for the new year.
The whole ceremony is about renewal, said Deer, and people should put aside their “earthly affairs” as much as possible to take part in the ceremonies.
Normally held in the Longhouse, many ceremonies are being done in people’s homes and via Zoom sessions due to Covid restrictions.
Deer lit the sacred fire in the wood stove in his own home this year to stir the ashes, a ceremony that usually marks the beginning of the midwinter ceremonies.
“All of those rituals are about us as Onkwehonwe coming from this place of humility and beseeching the powers of the universe to not give up on us,” said Deer. “Whatever happened last year – that’s last year. The whole idea is to reflect, to think, and to try to keep positive with the people that you’re working with. This is really our New Year.”
Conflicts should be resolved at this time, he said.
“The Longhouse can’t work if there’s all of this dissention. You don’t want to bring that baggage from that year into this whole new year. If not, then you’re just going through motions. All of these ceremonies are about understanding our spiritual connectedness to our ancestors…we have to accept that we’re human beings. We have our frailties.”
Next is what he called the “dream guessing rite” where people talk about their dreams and qualified individuals interpret the dreams to help people understand them and what the dreams are trying to tell them.
“Our people have always been motivated by dream,” said Deer. “Everything in our culture is all as a result of dreams.”
Describing the dreams can help bring them to fulfillment, he said.
Deer said there are four “big affairs” or big business that take place during midwinter: the great feather dance, a drum dance, a personal chant and the “bowl game” or peach stone game.
There are dances in honour for each: chiefs, clanmothers, faithkeepers and then, all the people in the community.
During the personal chant, said Deer, sometimes people cry.
“Sometimes they’ve lost a loved one from last mid-winter to now. But the majority of people will talk about how grateful we are – to witness this ceremony of renewal again.”
The bowl game, also referred to as the peach stone game, is also played, where six peach seeds, burned on one side, are placed in a bowl and shaken in a sort of game of chance. The score is based on black sides or white sides showing up.
Sometimes men and women compete against each other in the game or clans will compete in the game, said Deer. Bets are also placed.
The outcome of the game predicts the success of the upcoming year’s harvest.
In past mid-winter ceremonies, there used to be a white dog sacrifice but it’s not practiced anymore.
“The dog took on the misdeeds of the people,” said Deer.
Anthropologists would equate those misdeeds to “sin” he said.
“We know we’re imperfect people. We have bad actions. The whole idea was through this dog, we can make some atonement – trying to get ourselves back in accord with the goodness of life.”
Today, he said, baskets are decorated and burned instead of the white dog sacrifice.
The ceremonies end with a thanksgiving address.