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Canku Ota
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(Many Paths)
An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America
December 2013 -
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Winter Stories and Ceremonies
by Roy Cook
Moonchildren settle back. Remember the cold. Remember the dark nights and short days of time before time and when the Earth is at rest. Sit closely together in the long nights of time and recall the stories told and retold.

Winter stories from many tribes on this Indian land. Our voices sustain us as we spin in the universe as the seeds spin in gourd rattles. Stand closely together, link arms and dance. Dance in our orbits of life and tradition.

Circles of life are the round dance in form and in respect the example of our celestial relations. We are all made of star stuff. Dance our brother sun back from these short days and cold nights. Our songs are a prayer and the dance a testament to our spirituality. Dance, dance, dance and let the stories fill your heart.

At the Winter Solstice, we honor our children and dance to bring warmth, light and cheerfulness into the dark time of the year. Winter Holidays such as these have their origin as special days. They are the way human beings have marked the sacred times in the yearly cycle of life.

The winter solstice is the moment when the earth is at a point in its orbit where one hemisphere is most inclined away from the sun. This causes the sun to appear at its farthest below the celestial equator when viewed from earth.

Solstice is a Latin borrowing and means “sun stand”, referring to the appearance that the sun’s noontime elevation change stops its progress, either northerly or southerly. The day of the winter solstice is the shortest day and the longest night of the year.

The sun image at left is from rock paintings of the Chumash, who occupied coastal California for thousands of years before the Europeans arrived. Solstices were tremendously important to them, and the winter solstice celebration lasted several days.

Another winter dance is the Bear Dance symbolizes putting the Great Bear to sleep for his winter hibernation. First, the Bear appears (as a ghost) and walks the area of the dance to clear it of all bad spirits that may be present. When Bear is done clearing the area, the living Indians start a log fire and begin the Bear Dance with song or chant. As they dance, their ancestors join the dance in spirit form. Slowly the Bear is lulled to sleep for the winter and the dance is complete.

Another dance that usually follows the Bear Dance is the Round Circle (or Cycle) of Life dance. This dance begins with a log fire symbolizing the light and warmth of the sun and continues until the light fades or dawn.

Before the Maya of Central America built their arrow-straight roadways, the creative Hopewell culture flourished in North America’s Midwest to rise up monuments of earth that rivaled England’s Stonehenge in their astronomical accuracy.

In the area that comprises Ohio, Kentucky, Indiana and Illinois, the Adena, Hopewell and Fort Ancient peoples erected hundreds of astronomical circles, octagons, rectangles (and later animal effigies) stretching thousands of feet in length and reaching 15 feet in height. The works served as incredibly precise in plotting and marking the moon’s subtle rhythms.

The remarkable technical capacity and culture of the Adena (who built cones and rings starting from 600 BC), the Hopewell (who specialized in geometric enclosures from 100 BC to AD 400), and later the Fort Ancient (building animal shapes from 700-1200 AD) peoples are, at best, overlooked even within the region where they concentrated their efforts, erecting earthworks of astonishing size and precision.

Cherokee: In the beginning, there was only darkness and people kept bumping into each other. Fox said that people on the other side of the world had plenty of light but were too greedy to share it. Possum went over there to steal a little piece of the light. He found the Sun hanging in a tree, lighting everything up. He took a tiny piece of the Sun and hid it in the fur of his tail. The heat burned the fur off his tail. That is why possums have bald tails.

Buzzard tried next. He tried to hide a piece of Sun in the feathers of his head. That is why buzzards have baldheads.

Grandmother Spider tried next. She made a clay bowl. Then she spun a web (Milky Way) across the sky reaching to the other side of the world. She snatched up the whole sun in the clay bowl and took it back home to our side of the world.

Zuni story: Back when it was always dark, it was also always summer. Coyote and Eagle went hunting. Coyote was a poor hunter because of the dark. They came to the Kachinas, a powerful people. The Kachinas had the Sun and the Moon in a box.

After the people had gone to sleep, the two animals stole the box.

At first Eagle carried the box but Coyote convinced his friend to let him carry it. The curious Coyote opened the box and the Sun and Moon escaped and flew up to the sky. This gave light to the land but it also took away much of the heat, thus we now have winter.

Navajo Indians of North America, Tsohanoai is the Sun god. Everyday, he crosses the sky, carrying the Sun on his back. At night, the Sun rests by hanging on a peg in his house.

Tsohanoai’s two children Nayenezgani (Killer of Enemies) and Tobadzistsini (Child of Water) were separated from their father and lived with their mother in the far West. Once they were older, they tried to find their father, hoping he could help them fight the evil spirits tormenting mankind.

They met Spider Woman, who gave them two feathers to keep them safe on their journey.

Finally, they found Tsohanoai’s house, and he gave them magic arrows to fight off the evil monsters, Anaye.

Northwest Coast: Tells us of the time when the sky had no day. When the sky was clear there was some light from the stars but when it was cloudy, it was very dark.

Raven had put fish in the rivers and fruit trees in the land but he was saddened by the darkness.

A chief in the sky kept the Sun at that time in a box.

The Raven came to a hole in the sky and went through. He came to a spring where the chief’s daughter would fetch water. He changed himself into a cedar seed and floated on the water.

When the girl drank from spring, she swallowed the seed without noticing and became pregnant.

A boy child was born which was raven. As a toddler, he begged to play with the yellow ball, that grandfather kept in a box. He was allowed to play with the Sun and when the chief looked away, he turned back into Raven and flew back through the hole in the sky.

The Tohono O’odham name for December - “moon of the backbone.” This is because the days are half dark and half light. Seems fitting for the month of the winter solstice. Ofelia Zepeda tells of traveling to Waw Giwulig, the most sacred mountain of the Tohono O’odham, to ask for blessings-and forgiveness. She writes that one should always bring music to the mountains, “so they are generous with the summer rains.” And, still, “the scent of burning wood / holds the strongest memory. / Mesquite, cedar, piñon, juniper, . . . / we catch the scent of burning wood; / we are brought home.” It is a joy to see the world afresh through her eyes.

The earlier Hohokam were concerned about their place in the universe and, therefore, the observations and solstice/equinox markings served to initiate and confirm ceremonial cycles important to the Hohokam. Near Phoenix, Arizona the Shaw butte site has indications that that Certain group rituals may have been performed in the cleared areas inside the compound before, during or after special solar or lunar events, as determined by a sacred calendar maintained by Hohokam priests. For rest of the year, an individual sun watcher may have been responsible for maintaining the site and making observations. The Tohono O’odham (Papago) Indians assigned sun and star watching to a single individual, who reported his observations to the village chief. Those observations established a seasonal ritual calendar.

The Hopi sun priests make use of thirteen points on the horizon for the determination of ceremonial dates. Their ritual year begins in November with a New Fire ceremony, which is given in an elaborate and extended from every fourth year, for it then includes the initiation of novices into the fraternities. Other ceremonies are similarly elaborated at these same times; while still other rites, as the Snake- and Flute Dances, occur in alternate years. The Hopi year is divided into two unequal seasons, the greater festivals occurring in the longer season, which includes the cold months. Five and nine days are the usual active periods for the greater festivals, though the total duration from the announcement to the final purification is in some instances twenty days. Of the greater festivals, the Soyaluna follows the New Fire ceremony of November at the winter solstice. This is which the germ god is supplicated and the return of the sun, in the form of a bird, is dramatized; the Powamu, or Bean-Planting. This time comes in February. The main object being the renovation of the earth for the coming sowing and the celebration of the return of the Kachinas, to be with the people until their departure at Niman. Following the home dance, summer solstice; the Snake Dance alternates with the Flute-Dance in the month of August. Theseare only a few of the annual festivals, a striking feature of which is the arrival and departure of the Kachinas. The period during which these beings remain among the Hopi is approximately from the winter to the summer solstice. Also, found only in Kachina ceremonies, is the presence of clowns or “Mudheads”–a curious type of fun-maker whose presence in Zuni Cushing ascribes to the ancient union of a Yuman tribe with the original Zunian stock.

Spinning rattles in the night. Songs calling the people to smile, cry, love and live in the life our elders told and retold us. Rattles spin in time and call to our relations of the past and celestial to shine.

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