Both Stephen McComber and Ka’nahsohon Kevin Deer have been going to the Longhouse since they were young children. Though they’ve been celebrating the traditions of Midwinter Ceremonies for years, every stirring of the ashes has taught them new lessons and given them new memories to share.
“I’ve seen a lot of changes, and every year, it gets more and more special,” McComber said. “When you’re younger, sometimes you don’t always pay attention to things. But as you get older, you see certain stuff. I see a very promising future.”
For McComber, seeing younger generations experience their first Midwinter Ceremonies has been meaningful.
“This is an ancient ceremony that’s been maintained over generations. Looking at all the big smiling faces of all the people, of all the kids, it’s very promising,” he said. “It’s their duty that young people will have to carry this. I think our duty as elders is to teach them the best that we can, to show them, because they have to carry this one day. We’re entrusted to make sure that this goes into the future.”
Midwinter Ceremonies, which took place from January 26 to February 1, are about renewal, explained Deer.
“We stir the ashes to reflect renewal. The past year is gone now, and we’re stirring ashes for a new year and lighting a new fire,” he said. “All the ceremonies, the songs, the dances, the speeches, are us humbling ourselves to the elements of the natural world.”
At the Mohawk Trail Longhouse, ceremonies lasted for seven days.
“It starts with the announcement from the uncles. In the Sky World, the ceremony is beginning so we have to line up and put ourselves in accord with that,” explained Deer. “The next thing is medicine renewals.”
Medicine renewals happen on the second day of Midwinter Ceremonies and address sickness.
“You don’t have a good quality of life if you don’t have health, and all the medicine is about promoting health,” he explained. “Sometimes sickness is attributed to some of the things we do in our carelessness. Sometimes it’s a result of dreams. Sometimes it’s a sickness that just comes around. So we go see our own ‘seers’ for lack of a better word, and they’ll prescribe what the medicine will be.”
According to Deer, a dog would then be dressed in wampum and sacrificed as part of the Midwinter Ceremonies, though now baskets are decorated and burned in place of the sacrifice, he explained. The dog, or the baskets, carry the misdeeds of people to the Great Spirit, Deer said.
“A dog is loyal. In our creation story, there are dogs; they’ve always been a part of who we are right from the outset,” Deer said. “When you train a dog to do a certain work, they do it. So when the dog is dressed up to take what we would say are human frailties and offer it up to the Great Spirit, we’re asking that our wrongdoings will be pardoned, for lack of a better word.”
Deer explained that there are sacred ceremonies, which include the great feather dance, personal songs, the naming of babies, the drum dance, and the bowl game.
“The bowl game represents the cosmic interplay between two twin brothers,” Deer explained.
The brothers, Tharonhiawa:kon and Shawiske:ra, represent leaders of the day and night, with the overturned bowl representing the sky dome. The game uses peach pits shaken in a bowl, the score being based on which side of the pit lands facing up. Being a game of chance, the “winners” of the game each year change, representing a balance integral to the Midwinter Ceremonies.
Precious gifts are also gathered and offered up during the game.
“Historically, it’s a lacrosse stick, wampum, a turtle rattle, and leather. Whatever you give up in this world, and you give up in ceremony, is supposedly waiting for you in the next world. So don’t be stingy,” said Deer.
Midwinter Ceremonies are celebrated across the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, though there can be variations in the length of celebrations – the Onondagas, for instance, celebrate for 14 days.
“There are some variations, but it’s not particular to any nation, or to any Longhouse. Every community of Haudenosaunee – the Mohawks, Oneidas, Onondagas, Cayugas, Senecas, Tuscaroras – all celebrate and all commence the ceremony with stirring ashes,” McComber explained. “The stirring of the ashes signifies that the old fire is turned over, so putting things in the past and looking for renewal. New fires are rekindled going into the new year.”
Midwinter is ultimately a time for everybody to come together and celebrate – no matter their own historic involvement in Longhouse traditions, said Deer.
“When you’re happy, you dance,” Deer said. “Instead of listening to your MP3, or listening to the Top 10s, we’re doing sacred ceremony songs and dances for life. For all life. For our people, but for the whole world. That’s what Midwinter is about.”