The Iroquois Mid-Winter Ceremony, for continuation of all life-sustaining things is a series of rituals, observed by the six tribes of the Iroquois Confederacy, which celebrates new beginnings and serves as a spiritual new year. The ceremony does not have an official date on the calendar, but rather is determined when the first new moon arrives while both the Ursa Major and Ursa Minor constellations are visible, which occurs in either February or January.
- According to one calendar, this will be Feb 19 thru Feb 28, in 2018.
The major events of the Midwinter Ceremony consist of the Tobacco Invocation, the Dream Sharing Ritual, the False Face Society, the Peach Stone Game, the Bear Dance, the White Dog Sacrifice, the Great Feather Dance, The Big Heads and the Stirring of the Ashes, and a closing ceremony. These events take place over the course of ten days with no specific order, but generally begin with The Big Heads and the Stirring of the Ashes and ends with a closing ceremony.
- Big Heads and the Stirring of the Ashes
Generally, the first of the activities is the Big Heads and the Stirring of the Ashes. A group of anonymous messengers called the Big Heads visit the tribe’s longhouse. They wear ceremonial outfits made of buffalo skins and braided corn husk masks which symbolize the hunt and the harvest.
They also carry a corn mashing mallet used in the Stirring of the Ashes. In the Stirring of the Ashes, the Big Heads go from house to house stirring the ashes in fire pits of each household while they ask that the New Year brings renewal and fertility to the land. This is gesture of gratitude to “The Creator” as ashes serve as a symbol of the earth and the cycle of life.
- Tobacco Invocation
The next ritual to usually take place after the Stirring of the Ashes is the Tobacco Invocation. It consists of sprinkling tobacco in the embers remaining from the Stirring of the Ashes or outright smoking as an offering. The smoke that rises from the burning tobacco symbolically rises to the heavens to sign of giving thanks and to give messages to the Creator and other spirits.
- Dream Sharing Ritual
The Dream Sharing Ritual serves as a ritual of healing. It serves as a way to get rid of troubling thoughts and a way to make wishes come true as the Iroquois believe that dreams represent ways to resolve real life problems. Tribe members would describe their dreams in front of others so they may give their interpretation of the events that take place in the dreams.
The person who has the best interpretation has to then aid the tribe member in seeing that the issue gets resolved. For dreams that represent physical or mental ailments, they dreamer is sent to the False Face Society which is a group of medicine men.
- False Face Society
The False Face Society is a group of Iroquois medicine men who wear masks made out of wood. These people can consist of either men or women, but only the men wear the traditional masks. They are said to have the ability to scare off the evil spirits that cause illness. Those who are deemed of needing healing during the Dream Sharing Ritual are sent to these medicine men during their gathering. Healing rituals consist generally of blowing or rubbing hot ashes from a fire on those in need of curing.
- Bear Dance
The Bear Dance is another healing ritual that coincides with the False Face Society gathering. It is conducted by both men and women by lumbering and waddling like bear counter clockwise around a person that was ill.
This can be done either privately or publicly. The Iroquois believed that this dance can heal the problems of person that were placed upon them from the previous year.
- Peach Stone Game
The next event is the Peach Stone Game. This game symbolizes the Iroquois creation story where the Creator and his evil brother played a game in competition during the creation of the Earth, the renewal of the Earth like the Stirring of the Ashes, and the battle for survival of crops.
The game consists of six peach pits which are colored black (through burning for example) on one side. They are placed in a bowl and shaken while two teams take turns placing bets in the form of beans on how many black sides will face up. The teams are given an equal number of beans, and the first team to lose all of their beans loses the match. The results of this game are also used to predict the success of the coming year’s harvest.
- White Dog Sacrifice
One of the following events is the White Dog Sacrifice. Originally, this ritual consisted of killing a white dog, a symbol of purity, by strangulation as to leave no marks. The dog was then adorned in red paint, feathers, beads, wampum, and ribbons. It was placed on fire along with tobacco so that smoke may carry their, sacrifice, and prayers to the Creator.
Today, however, the act of killing a white dog is replaced by a white basket due to the animal cruelty in the original proceedings of the ritual.
- Great Feather Dance
The final event before the closing ceremonies is the Great Feather Dance. The dance is held on eight night of the nine-day festival, and serves as way to welcome the new spiritual year as well as thanking the Creator. Dancers wear traditional tribal clothing and turtle shell rattles, and dance to two singers that sit facing each other. They give thanks to all the Creator has bestowed upon them during the previous year by dancing in rhythm and shaking the rattles.
The event finally concludes with a closing ceremony where a speaker presenting an overview of the events and address of thanksgiving. New tribal council members who will lead the people until the next event are chosen and presented to the crowd. By the end of this ceremony, all members of the tribe are purified and a new year is welcomed.
Source: First Nation Rituals