Native American Winter Ceremonies

Presented by Roy Cook

blanketThe Northwest Coast American Indian Potlatch is a festival ceremony practiced by indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest Coast. This includes Haida, Nuxalk, Tlingit, Tsimshian,  Nuu-chah-nulth, Kwakwaka’wakw,  and Coast Salish cultures. The word comes from the Chinook trade language, meaning “to give away” or “a gift”. At potlatch gatherings, a family or hereditary leader hosts guests in their family’s house and holds a feast for their guests. The main purpose of the potlatch is the re-distribution and reciprocity of wealth.

Different events take place during a potlatch, like storytelling, singing and dances, sometimes with masks or status regalia, such as Chilkat blankets. For many potlatches, spiritual ceremonies take place for different occasions. This is either through material wealth such as foods and goods or non-material things such as songs and dances. For some cultures, such as Kwakwaka’wakw, elaborate and theatrical dances are performed reflecting the hosts’ genealogy and cultural wealth they possess. Many of these dances are also sacred ceremonies of secret societies like the hamatsa, or display of nwcoastfamily origin from supernatural creatures such as the dzunukwa. Typically the potlatching is practiced more in the winter seasons as historically the warmer months were for procuring wealth for the family, clan, or village, then coming home and sharing that with neighbors and friends.

shieldWithin it, hierarchical relations within and between clans, villages, and nations, are observed and reinforced through the distribution or sometimes destruction of wealth, dance performances, and other ceremonies. The status of any given family is raised not by who has the most resources, but by who distributes the most resources. The hosts demonstrate their wealth and prominence through giving away goods.

“We will dance when our laws command us to dance, and we will feast when our hearts desire to feast. Do we ask the white man, ‘Do as the Indian does?’ It is a strict law that bids us dance. It is a strict law that bids us distribute our property among our friends and neighbors. It is a good law. Let the white man observe his law; we shall observe ours. And now, if you come to forbid us dance, be gone. If not, you will be welcome to us.”

pipeCelebration of births, rites of passages, weddings, funerals, namings, and honoring of the deceased are some of the many forms the potlatch occurs under. Although protocol differs among the Indigenous nations, the potlatch will usually involve a feast, with music, dance, theatricality and spiritual ceremonies. The most sacred ceremonies are usually observed in the winter.

totemThe totem carvings tell a story that are revealed only if one knows the meaning assigned to various animals, fish, birds and designs and where they are placed on the pole.  There were a number of reasons why a particular figure or design was chosen by a clan.  The connection between the clan and the various figures carved into the pole may have been as a result a special gift from the animal, fish or bird spirits.  Or, there may have been a recent encounter with that figure.  Some clans claimed to be descended from certain totem figures.
The meaning of many totem poles is lost with time. Even some of today’s totem poles cannot be understood except from one person - it’s owner. Understanding the symbolism and stories hidden within the totem pole is more than a simple exercise in learning the attributed meanings of the figures.  It is possible to know the meaning assigned a figure by the people of the Northwest, but it is not always possible to know its significance to the over-all story.

toem2Totem figures are not Gods. Totems are not worshiped like religious icons nor used as a  talisman.  They were never used to ward off evil spirits and claims of bizarre, magical “totemism” practices are fiction.   A totem pole may be compared to the symbolism portrayed in the Great Seal of the United States or a Coat of Arms.  These national emblems are roughly equivalent to the meaning bound up in a totem pole except they identified clans not an entire nation.

It is important to note the differences and uniqueness among the different cultural groups and nations along the coast. Each nation, tribe, and sometimes clan has its own way of practicing the potlatch so as to present a very diverse presentation and meaning. The potlatch, as an overarching term, is quite general, since some cultures have many words in their language for all different specific types of gatherings. Nonetheless, the main purpose has been and still is the redistribution of wealth procured by families.

Navajo Night Chant

The Navajo are the American Indians native to Arizona and the rest of the south west. The most sacred of all Navajo ceremonies is the Night Chant which was first performed around 1000 b.c.e. It is celebrated in late fall or early winter for 9 days.

The ceremony involves memorizing hundreds of songs, dozens of prayers and several very complicated and intricate sand paintings.

The Night Chant is lead by a trained Medicine Man (doctor-priest) who has had a long apprenticeship and learned the intricate and detailed practices that are essential to the chant.  The ceremony uses techniques that shock and arose in order to scare off sicknesses and ugliness.  Once disorder is gone, and then order and balance are restored through song, prayer, sand painting and other aspects of the ceremony.

The Night Chant has a very large dance component.   There are teams who dance about 12 times each with half-hour intervals in between.  It totals more than 10 hours straight of dancing! The dance movements are a lot like the Virginia reel, with two lines facing each other.  Each of the 6 male dancers takes his female partner, dances with her to the end of the line, drops her there and then moves back to his own side.

Sand paintings are also very important in the healing rituals in the Night Chant.  Each traditional sand painting design is associated with a particular story and is accompanied by specific songs, prayers and ceremonial procedures. The medicine man rarely is the one who makes the sand paintings. But, he is the one responsible for overseeing their preparation.  It’s the assistants who do the actual painting by dribbling small amounts of colored sand through their fingers onto a smooth surface.  The whole purpose of these sand paintings is to allow the patient to absorb the powers depicted in them.  The patient does this by sitting or sleeping on it.


For the Navajo, every grain of sand in the painting must be placed perfectly.  Each design takes days to complete because of the intricate detail.


Haudeshaune, Iroquois, Midwinter Ceremony

The Iroquois are one of the largest Native American tribes in history.   As you may already know the Iroquois Confederacy is made up of six Indian Nations: Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, Seneca and Tuscarora.

The Iroquois Midwinter Ceremony is in either January or February depending on the moon cycle.  When the new moon appears the spiritual year begins and five days after, the ceremony starts.  The celebration lasts 9 days with a lot of traditional events, as well as choosing new council members for the next year.

Each tribe celebrates a little differently.  The usual custom is to first begin with a   “Stirring of the Ashes” ceremony to symbolize thanks for all the blessings bestowed during the previous year.  There is also a public naming event where all the children who were born that year are given their Indian names.


The two traditional Indian for this season are The Bear Dance and the Feather Dance.   The Bear Dance is a dance to curing medical problems.  Both men and women participate in the dance which somewhat resembles the actions of an actual bear.

This dance can be performed publicly or privately for a sick person to cure them of their problems and any misfortunes that have had over the past year.   The Feather Dance is a more cheerful dance to bring in the New Year.

One of the highlights of the Midwinter Ceremony used to be what was called The White Dog Sacrifice. It is no longer done!  Instead today, instead of a dog, they use a white basket.

The Midwinter Ceremony ends with a speaker who gives a brief thanksgiving address.  It is also at this time that the new council members are introduced to the crowd at the longhouse.  The rest of the tribe’s members are now purified and released from the burden of their dreams. And a new year is now welcomed.

The Peach Game is often played around this time to predict the success of next year’s harvest of fruits and vegetables.    Supposedly based off of a game played by “The Creator” and his evil brother as they competed with each other during the creation of the earth, it symbolizes the good luck that he has given to mankind.

Six peach stones (peach seeds smoothed to an oval shape) are either burnt or blackened on one side.  Then they are put into a bowl and shaken.  It is a game of chance a lot like dice, or flipping a coins heads or tails, and works similarly to a fortune teller.   It’s played in two teams and beans are used as points.   The first team to lose all of their points looses the match.   Men usually play against women. One clan can play against another clan. The game can go on for as long as two days!  Bets are often placed also on who will win.

Tohono O’odham Tribe

whirlWinter is traditionally the time for Creation storytelling. Stories and baskets have traditionally played a large part in the social and economic culture of the Tohono O’odham tribe.  Aspects of traditional stories often are woven into the designs of the Tohono O’odham baskets. Mostly, baskets were very important in the everyday life of the tribe.  It was the women’s achievement and artistic expression in the tribe to weave the baskets.  The baskets were used to haul grain and food.  Many baskets were woven so tightly that they could hold water and liquor.  Baskets were also very important in ceremonies, such as the Saguaro wine Rain Ceremony.

redWhat makes the Tohono O’odham basket so uniquely beautiful is their style of weaving.   The Tohono O’odham tribe has one of the most beautiful styles of basket weaving.  The tight coiled basket and amazing designs make their baskets so appealing.  Some of the baskets are woven so tight that they are used to hold water and other liquids.  A few tribe members believe that the ancient baskets are of better quality than those that are made today.  Curators at the University of Arizona State Museum looking at ancient baskets retrieved during archaeological digs admire the workmanship and learn prehistoric designs and patterns. Many of the old baskets are made with splits of willow branches that are typically hard to work with.  Most Tohono O’odham weavers today use primarily yucca, bear grass, and devils claw.  The designs in the baskets are not made with any dyes.  All of the baskets are made of natural colors.  The white stitches in the baskets are yucca and the coil is shredded bear grass.  The black is from devils claw, the rusty red is from the root of the yucca plant, and the green is from yucca leaves.

It has become harder for the Tohono O’odham tribe to gather the necessary materials for basket weaving.  Today tribal members have to travel many miles to gather material for basket weaving, but it is important to the identity of the tribe, so the tradition, although more difficult has been maintained.  In the ancient weaving of the Tohono O’odham the basic material for basketry weaving could be collected with little effort, even though many elements ripened or were unusable during different seasons. There is little open land to the public and so much development of land that it is getting more and more difficult to find the material needed to make baskets.  Some Materials, such as, devil’s claw are now being cultivated in a community garden in Sells, Arizona.

mazeBasket weaving for the Tohono O’odham has gone from an essential part of life to a hobby.  In ancient times, baskets were used every day for holding food, gathering food, holding water and for ceremonial use.  As time went on and modern inventions came into tribal life, basket weaving became a hobby for many people and a way to keep the tradition alive.  Baskets were sold for very little money and used by people for common things like trashcans.  Then people began to realize the art that went into basket weaving.  Simple baskets took hours and hours of work, both for the weaving and the collection of the weaving materials.  People from all over the United States would go to the Tohono O’odham reservation to buy baskets for very little money and then sell them for hundreds and sometimes thousands of dollars, to people all around the country.  When the O’odham tribe realized how much their baskets were selling for they decided to market the baskets themselves, cutting out the middleman.  As a result, sales are the main reason for weaving nowadays, though some baskets still have traditional uses.

There is no one meaning to the Man in the Maze. Interpretations of the manmazeimage vary from family to family. A common interpretation is as follows: The human figure stands for the O’odham people. The maze represents the difficult journey toward finding deeper meaning in life. The twists and turns refer to struggles and lessons learned along the way. At the center of the maze is a circle, which stands for death, and for becoming one with Elder Brother I’itoi, the Creator. Other O’odham see the image of a man as representative of an individual, or all of mankind, or I’itoi himself.

Hopi Soyaluna Festival

The Hopi are one of the many Pueblo tribes.   Their Winter Solstice festival is called the Soyaluna and is observed on December 22.  Although a black Plumed Snake is the basic symbol of this ceremony it is not based on snake worship. It is one of the Hopi’s most sacred ceremonies and is also called the “Prayer-Offering Ceremony” because it is a time for saying prayers for the New Year and for wishing each other prosperity and health.

The Hopi believed that on the summer solstice, when the days are the longest, that the Sun God is closest to Earth.   In turn, on the winter solstice, that takes place in December the Sun God has traveled as far from the earth he can.    So, in order to bring the Sun God back the warriors have a great festival.

Therefore, the whole purpose of the Soyaluna ceremony that the Hopi do still to this day is to prevent the disappearance of the sun at the time of the year when the days are the shortest.


The preparations for the Soyaluna ceremony start by cutting pieces of cotton string and tying feathers and pinion needles to the end. These are exchanged among friends and relatives during the day.  Sometimes this is done by tying them in the recipient’s hair.

The main celebration includes telling the story of the holiday.   Members of the tribe dress as snakes, warriors, and most importantly the Sun God. They pretend that the God is leaving earth forever in darkness.   The black snake symbolizes the evil influences that are driving the sun away.  So the assembled chiefs make their offerings of prayer and meal to this black Plumed Snake to try to persuade him not to “swallow” the sun, like he does when there is an eclipse. The warriors must convince The Sun God to return by offering gifts, he comes and they celebrate.