Iroquois Midwinter Ceremony

Iroquois Midwinter Ceremony

Type of Holiday: Calendar/Seasonal, Religious (Iroquois)
Date of Observation: January-February; begins five days after the first new moon in January
Where Celebrated: New York, Wisconsin, Canada
Symbols and Customs: Bear Dance, Big Heads, Dreamsharing, False Face Society, Great Feather Dance, Peach Stone Game, Stirring of the Ashes, Tobacco Invocation, White Dog Sacrifice


The Iroquois Midwinter Ceremony is a Native American event related to religious traditions and seasonal change. The history of this and other Native American cultures dates back thousands of years into prehistoric times. According to many scholars, the people who became the Native Americans migrated from Asia across a land bridge that may have once connected the territories presently occupied by Alaska and Russia. The migrations, believed to have begun between 60,000 and 30,000 B . C . E ., continued until approximately 4,000 B . C . E . This speculation, however, conflicts with traditional stories asserting that the indigenous Americans have always lived in North America or that tribes moved up from the south.

The historical development of religious belief systems among Native Americans is not well known. Most of the information available was gathered by Europeans who arrived on the continent beginning in the sixteenth century C . E . The data they recorded was fragmentary and oftentimes of questionable accuracy because the Europeans did not understand the native cultures they were trying to describe and the Native Americans were reluctant to divulge details about themselves. The tribes belonging to what is known as the Iroquois Confederacy or Six Nations-the Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, Seneca, and Tuscarora-celebrate their Midwinter Ceremony in January or February, beginning on the fifth day after the first new moon in January and lasting for nine days. Also known as the New Year's Ceremony because it marks the beginning of a new ritual year, the celebration is announced by the masked messengers known as the BIG HEADS , who visit the longhouse-formerly a bark-covered structure in which the Iroquois lived, but now used primarily as a public activity space-and invite everyone to participate in the ceremonies that are about to begin.

Although the order in which the rituals take place varies according to the tribe and the location, the Midwinter Ceremony usually begins with the STIRRING OF THE ASHES to show people's gratitude for all the blessings that have been bestowed on them during the preceding year. There is a public naming ceremony at which all the children born during the year receive their Indian names, and the performance of ceremonial dances, including the GREAT FEATHER DANCE and the BEAR DANCE . Tobacco plays an important role in many Native American celebrations, and the TOBACCO INVOCATION ritual performed during the Midwinter Ceremony is a way of communicating a message of thanksgiving and a plea for a successful growing season directly to the Creator.

Communal DREAMSHARING is an important part of the Midwinter Ceremony. The Iroquois believe that dreams, rather than being merely fantasies or random images, represent a cure for diseases as well as mental disorders. By sharing their dreams in public and getting other tribe members' opinions about what these dreams represent, the Iroquois believe that they are better able to resolve whatever problems or conflicts gave rise to the dreams in the first place. The FALSE FACE SOCI ETY also plays a role in dreamsharing by performing whatever curing rites are needed once the dreams have been interpreted.

One of the highlights of the Midwinter Ceremony, the WHITE DOG SACRIFICE , is no longer practiced. The Iroquois love their dogs, and to have one of their pets killed as a sacrifice was an indication of how seriously they took this thanksgiving ritual. The dog was strangled and decorated with beads, ribbons, and wampum. Its carcass was then burned, and people believed that the smoke would carry their gratitude and prayers to heaven. Nowadays a fancy white basket is considered an adequate substitute for a dog.

The Midwinter Ceremony concludes with a speaker who summarizes the events of the preceding nine days and makes a brief thanksgiving address. The new council members who have been chosen for the coming year are introduced at the longhouse and the rest of the tribe's members, now purified and released from the burden of their dreams, welcome a new year. The traditional Iroqouis ceremonial year is divided into two parts: winter, which is controlled by men, and summer, which is under women's domain. Thus, men take charge of winter ceremonies. After the Midwinter Ceremony, the women are formally given charge of the ceremonies for the next half of the year.


Bear Dance

The Bear Dance, which is performed by many North American Indian tribes, is part of the curing rites associated with the Iroquois Midwinter Ceremony. The Iroquois bear dancers, which include women as well as men, imitate the lumbering, waddling movements of the bear as they dance in a counterclockwise circle. Although the Bear Dance may be performed privately for an individual who is ill, it is also performed at communal festivals like the Midwinter Ceremony to help "cure" the people of the problems and misfortunes that have beset them over the past year.

Big Heads

Often referred to by the Iroquois as "our uncles" because they represent the tribes' founders, the messengers known as Big Heads dress in buffalo skins and cornhusk masks with braids, thus symbolizing both the hunt and the harvest. They make visits throughout the village at the New Year to announce that the festivities are about to begin, carrying the wooden mallets used to mash corn and using them to stir up the ashes in household fires (see STIRRING OF THE ASHES ).


Also known as "dream guessing," dreamsharing is a sacred activity through which the Iroquois try to rid themselves of troubling thoughts and make their wishes come true. They describe their dreams in front of the assembled tribe members, who then offer their interpretations and suggestions. The idea is to help the dreamer identify what need, wish, or desire the dream is trying to express; sometimes people reenact each other's dreams and then invite the spectators to guess what they mean. Those who come up with the most accurate interpretation are then required to help see that the dream is fulfilled, either by presenting the dreamer with symbolic gifts or by actually helping the dreamer satisfy his or her needs.

Dreamsharing is central to the Iroquois Midwinter Ceremony because it helps to cure people of the "illnesses" that are symptomatic of unresolved conflicts and unfulfilled desires. To correctly interpret someone's dream and then help resolve the situation it represents is considered not so much an obligation as an honor, one that cements tribal friendships and traditions.

False Face Society

The False Face Society is an Iroquois medicine society whose members are believed to possess the power to scare off the evil spirits that cause illness. This power resides primarily in the masks they wear, which are carved out of the wood of a living tree and have deep-set slits for eyes and large noses that often extend across the forehead with a spiny ridge or crease. The society holds its most important annual meeting in the longhouse during the Midwinter Ceremony, and its members participate in the ceremony's curing rituals, often reaching into the hot ashes of a fire without burning their hands and rubbing or blowing the ashes on those in need of a cure (see STIRRING OF THE ASHES ). Although both men and women can belong to the False Face Society, only men are allowed to wear the society's frightening masks.

Great Feather Dance

The Great Feather Dance is held to give thanks to the Creator for all he has bestowed on the people during the year. The dancers wear full tribal regalia and dance to the accompaniment of only two singers, who sit face-to-face and use turtle-shell rattles to establish the rhythm. The Feather Dance is usually held on the next-to-last night of the nine-day Midwinter Ceremony. Along with the PEACH STONE GAME , it is one of the "Four Sacred Ceremonies" named by the eighteenthcentury Seneca prophet Handsome Lake as being essential for salvation.

Peach Stone Game

Also known as the Bowl Game, this is a sacred Iroquois game that symbolizes the game played by the Creator and his evil brother as they competed with each other during the creation of the earth. Six peach stones, each with one side burned or blackened, are shaken in a bowl, and the score is based on whatever combination of "black" sides and "white" sides ends up showing, much as dice are used in other games of chance.

As played during the Midwinter Ceremony, the Peach Stone Game symbolizes the renewal of the earth, particularly the battle for survival that fruits and vegetables wage against the harsh elements of Nature, and the outcome is used to predict the success of the next year's harvest. It also symbolizes the good luck that the Creator has bestowed on the inhabitants of the earth. Men play against women, or one clan challenges another. The game can last two or three days, and bets are often placed on who is going to win.

Stirring of the Ashes

Stirring or blowing the ashes in both household and longhouse fires at the start of the Midwinter Ceremony is a symbolic means of showing gratitude to the Creator and of asking that the New Year bring renewal and fertility to the earth. Ashes symbolize the earth to which all living things return when they die and from which new life springs.

Tobacco Invocation

The STIRRING OF THE ASHES is often accompanied by the sprinkling of tobacco on the burning embers. The smoke from the tobacco is believed to rise up to heaven, taking with it the Iroquois' messages of thanks to their Creator. In fact, the Iroquois are often referred to as the "Tobacco People" or "Tobacco Nation" because their name comes from the word ierokwa, meaning "they who use tobacco."

In addition to its use as a ceremonial offering and a means of communicating with the spirit world, the Iroquois used tobacco to treat burns, sores, the pain of toothache, and diseases. Tobacco was indigenous to the New World, and it was the one crop that women were not responsible for cultivating. When Native American men got together to make peace or conduct business, they often shared a longstemmed pipe of tobacco called the calumet, which was believed to induce "good thoughts."

White Dog Sacrifice

The central sacrificial rite of the Midwinter Ceremony traditionally involved the killing of a white dog because it symbolized purity, and the sacrifice was a symbolic way of purifying the entire community. The dog was strangled so there would be no blood or marks on it, and it was decorated with red paint, feathers, and ribbon. After it was laid on the fire, a basket of tobacco was thrown on the flames. Today, of course, the basket itself is white and is burned in place of the dog.


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First Nations Technical Institute on the Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory in Ontario, Canada
Holiday Symbols and Customs, 4th ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2009