Celebrations of Life


By Roy Cook

clip_image0043American Indian thoughts for the Holiday season from SCAIR, Southern California American Indian Resource Inc. Alpine, CA.

Winter Months are times for American Indian story telling and rest for many of the living things on the earth. Our lessons for life are evident all around us. As the Earth rests so should we. Harvest feasts are traditionally a good time for young people to see and meet each other. Feast days break up what would otherwise have been a very hard life, filled with work. In addition to work and rest, there is also time for artistic expression. In the Southwest, Indian sculptors carve small stone figurines in animal, human, and supernatural shapes, usually known as storytellers or Some, like Zuni fetishes, were carvings and featured inlaid eyes and heart lines; others, like Navajo storytellers, were strung together into necklaces that served as reminders for traditional stories. Southwest artists carved figurines from clay and fired them in their pottery kilns, and the Hopi carve kachina dolls from whole cottonwood roots.

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In the Northwest, Indian woodcarvers are best known for their impressive totem poles and intricate bentwood boxes. The Ojibway and other northern Plains Indians carved pipes and ceremonial objects out of catlinite clay (known as pipestone). The Iroquois tribes and their distant relatives the Cherokee were known for their elaborate wooden carvings and masks, and the Algonquian peoples of the east carved staffs and bowls primarily out of tree roots. Further to the north, the Inuit (”Eskimos”) carved ceremonial dance masks from wood and figurines from ivory and soapstone. Of course, from earliest times, there were lively trade routes throughout native North America different American Indian sculpture styles spread beyond a single tribe or culture group, and after colonization, displacement from their native lands made it hard for Indian sculptors to find their traditional materials, so fusion styles of sculpture arose. Today many contemporary Indian sculptors also use Western materials and techniques to depict native people, experiences, and themes.

Indian people have endured many types of cultural experiences but generally, they are categorized in two groups: One of these is the Traditionalist, usually of single tribal identity and that grew up on the federally recognized reservations. Another type is the off reservation Indian that grew up in an urban area, usually but not always have mixed tribal identity, and brought up with Christian influence. However, with BIA relocation and the US military experience, these are very general categories. All who live their Tribal custom and tradition and language are Indian people.

Everyday is American Indian Christmas. Every meal is our Christmas feast. At every meal, we take a little portion of the food we are eating, and we offer it to the spirit world on behalf of the four legged, and the winged, and the two legged. We pray, to thank the Creator and the spiritual Grandfathers for all their generosity and life.
The Indian Culture is actually grounded in the traditions of humility, generosity and courage. The life-ways of the Creator are the way Indian People live. With this tradition of spirituality, we can call upon help for the sick and the needy. We have high respect for this spirituality because we believe that it is in giving that we receive.

We are taught as children that we live in abundance. The Creator has given us everything: the water, the air we breathe, the earth as our flesh, and our energy force: our heart. We are thankful every day. We pray early in the morning, before sunrise, the morning star, and the evening star. We pray for our relatives who are in the universe that someday we will all be together again.

To the Indian People Christmas is everyday and we don’t believe in taking without asking. Herbs are prayed over before being gathered by asking the plant for permission to take some cuttings. An offer of tobacco is made to the plant in gratitude. We do not pull the herb out by its roots, but cut the plant even with the surface of the earth, so that another generation will be born its place.

It is important that these ways never be lost. Today we feed the elders, we feed the family on Christmas day, and we honor the tradition of Saint Nicholas. We explain to the little children that to receive a gift is to enjoy it, and when the enjoyment is gone, they are pass it on to the another child, so that they, too, can enjoy it. If a child gets a doll, that doll will change hands about eight times in a year, from one child to another.

If neighbors or strangers stop over to visit at your house, we offer them dinner we bring out the best food. If we don’t have enough, we send someone in the family out to get some more and mention nothing of the inconvenience to our guests. The more one gives, the more spiritual we become.

Many Native American people found that the story of Christmas and Christ’s birth fulfilled tribal prophecies and found the message to be consistent with the truth that was handed down by their ancestors. Historically, other social customs, that were introduced to them by the European missionaries have become adapted to the native cultures and are an integral part of Tribal Christmas traditions today, just as they are in most non-Indian homes.

American Indian Holiday Dances

clip_image014Many Tribes, including the Laguna Indians, many of whom accepted Christianity some 400 years ago, have the custom of a dance on Christmas Eve or Christmas, where gifts are offered at the Manger.

Also, Tribal dances are an important part of our American Indian tradition. This participation would sometimes prepare individuals for a task, or add to the celebration of a particular event. The historical story of the tribe is often seen in the dances. They are very sacred to us. Also, the customs give us a framework for our lives. Customs surrounding birth, death and initiation into adulthood and so on all played an important part in the development of the tribe and its members.

Other gift bringers come at different times of the year, often in the summertime, but the gifts are always a part of American Indian culture. Gifts are appropriate whenever the tribal gathering occasion is social or ceremonial.

In many other tribes, there are many representations of gifts brought to the people. All life is a gift from the creator. Our time on this earth is but a dance. Listen to the wind and the sounds of the earth, there is a song being sung each day. Celebrate life and share the gifts of the Creator. In this way, it will be complete.

This amusing animated video storybook presents a whimsical look at what a Native American Christmas Eve might be like when Old Red Shirt (the Indian Santa Claus) comes a-calling with his team of flying white buffalo to deliver commodities, fry bread and other goodies. Based on an adaptation of the beloved Christmas classic “A Visit from St. Nicholas” Nominated for the “Best Animated Short Film” at the 2006 American Indian Film Festival.

Santa Claus, St. Nicolas
clip_image016The American version of St. Nicholas, or Santa Claus originally came from the Dutch version called Sinter Klaas. This tradition was brought with the Dutch people who settled the East Coast of Indian America at Amsterdam, New York.

Our modern day non-Indian version of how Santa Claus should look comes from the Christmas poem A Visit From St. Nicholas by Clement C. Moore. Written for his children in 1823, the family poem was later published for the public and included what became the now famous 1863 picture of Santa Claus by Thomas Nast.

Countless legends are told about the Patron Saint of Giving known as St. Nicholas. He has been the patron saint of Russia, Moscow, Greece, children, sailors, prisoners, bakers, pawnbrokers, shopkeepers and wolves. His gift-giving role in Christmas rites probably comes from his fame as the friend of children.

Everyday is Christmas in Indian Country. Daily living is centered on the spirit of giving and walking the Red Road. Walking the Red Road, means making everything you do a spiritual act. It doesn’t matter if it is Christmas or not. All my relations.