"The Snow Snake
Game," by Ernest P. Smith (Seneca, 19071975). Tonawanda
Reservation, New York. Indian Arts and Crafts Board Headquarters
Collection, Department of the Interior, at the National Museum
of the American Indian. 26/2224
In the Northern Hemisphere, December 21 will be the years
day of least sunlight, when the sun takes its lowest, shortest path
across the sky. North of the Arctic Circle, it will be the midpoint
of the period of darkness, when even twilight doesnt reach
the horizon. As we did before the solar
eclipse in August, this December we asked our Native friends
to share traditions theyve heard about the winter solstice.
Their answers highlight winter as a time for storytelling.
Ojibwe (Minnesota Chippewa Tribe): This description of winter
in many Native communities was prepared by the Indian
Land Tenure Foundation/Lessons
of Our Land as background for teachers:
Like many events in American Indian culture there is a proper
time and place for all activities. Traditional storytelling is
reserved for the winter months for many tribes. This was a practical
choice given the fact that during the other season's, people were
busy growing, gathering, and hunting food. It was in the winter,
with the long dark evenings, the snow and wind blowing outside,
that telling stories was a way to entertain and teach the children.
Another reason is that many traditional stories contain animal
characters. To be respectful, people waited until the winter when
animals hibernate or become less active so they cannot hear themselves
being talked about.
To have a storyteller tell you a story is like receiving a gift.
To be respectful, a gift of tobacco is offered to the storyteller
before the story begins. The storyteller will often take the tobacco
outside and place it on the earth as an offering to the spirits
of the story.
San Carlos Apache (Arizona): This reminds me when I was
young. My grandfather would ask a really older man to come visit.
We would eat dinner; they would visit, smoke. Then my grandpa would
put a bundle at his feet. Soon he would start telling stories most
of the night.
Ho-Chunk Nation of Wisconsin: We have to wait for the Winter
Moon, and there has to be snow on Mother Earth for those stories.
Blackfoot (Calgary, Alberta): Blackfoots are the same with
the snow and stories.
Acoma Pueblo (New Mexico): The winter solstice marks our
New Year in Acoma. We mark the time with ceremonies not privy to
Its also the time of haamaaha, storytelling of the
coyote, stories of heroes, stories of the animals, sharing of knowledge.
My parents said that when you call haamaaha, people will arrive
with piñon nuts gathered in the fall that are roasted and
Passamaquoddy (New England): In traditional calendars in
the Northeast, the solstice is always marked. For my folks its
a sign that the frost giants will be returning to the North.
Assiniboine/Sioux (South Dakota): Waniyetu [winter]time
for gathering can'sa'sa [red willow bark] while the Thunder
Syilx (Washington State & British Columbia): What I
know is that it marks the point in time when our Winter Ceremonies
can be held. My grandmother sometimes held her first ceremony of
the winter at this powerful time. We have winter dance ceremonies;
prayers for the new year to come, for the berries, roots, four-leggeds,
and fishthe four Food Chiefs; prayers for our families and
ourselves. There are songs, dancing, feasting, and a give-away.
This is held during the evening and can go all night, depending
on the number of sacred singers who come to share. The ceremonies
are called winter dances. Or my grandfather also called them Chinook
dances. In our territory to the south in Washington State around
Nespelem, my grandfather told me of one dance ceremony lasting ten
nights in a row!
Dennis W. Zotigh (Kiowa/San Juan Pueblo/Santee Dakota Indian) is
a member of the Kiowa Gourd Clan and San Juan Pueblo Winter Clan
and a descendant of Sitting Bear and No Retreat, both principal
war chiefs of the Kiowas. Dennis works as a writer and cultural
specialist at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian
in Washington, D.C.
The Indian Land Tenure Foundation (ILTF) is a national, community-based
organization serving American Indian nations and people in the recovery
and control of their rightful homelands. We work to promote education,
increase cultural awareness, create economic opportunity, and reform
the legal and administrative systems that prevent Indian people
from owning and controlling reservation lands.
of Our Land
Lessons of Our Land teaches the Native American story of this land
from historical to modern times. The nonprofit Indian Land Tenure
Foundation (ILTF) developed the curriculum to provide both Native
and non-Native students with broader insight and understanding of
land, cultures, inherent rights and tribal sovereignty.