The Tuscarora New Year Festival

Reprint from
The Tuscarora New Year Festival is a blend of the old and the new. This article describes the ceremony and traces its evolution from ancient traditional origins to the present. Barbara Graymont is a member of the faculty of Nyack Missionary College, Nyack, New York.

Among the Iroquois Indians of today, there are two different ceremonies in observance of the New Year. The Midwinter Festival is the "old way" and is preserved by the followers of the traditional Iroquois religion. The Nu Yah, as it is called, is still another type of celebration, which is observed in its most highly developed form among the Tuscaroras of New York State. 1

The Midwinter Festival, or "Most Excellent Faith," is the most sacred celebration of the Iroquois ritual calendar. It occurs at the end of January or the first part of February, depending on the appearance of the Pleiades and the first new moon after the winter solstice. It is a time of thanksgiving to the beneficent spirits for all the good things in creation and a focus for bringing mankind into closer unity with the good spirit forces in nature. 2 Historically there were always ritual variations from one tribe to another and even from one village to another within a single tribe. Ceremonial differences are still apparent today among the different Longhouses, as the traditional Iroquois religious centers are called. There was, however, a basic pattern from tribe to tribe which included the following elements: community confession of sins prior to the opening of the Midwinter rites, the visitation of all the houses in the village, stirring the ashes upon the hearths, the dream guessing ceremony, sacrifice of the white dog to the Creator, burning of tobacco as an invocation to the Creator, medicine society rites for curing purposes, sacred and social dances, Adowa or personal thanksgiving chants, food collecting in the village for a feast, the feast itself and the bowl game. The latter is a gambling game played with wooden bowl and peach stones and in its ritual symbolizes the life of man. "The sacrifice, playing straight to win the reward, and the danger of losing---all teach the lesson of love, of sacrifice, and 'good' with the fun of a wholesome game."3 As one scholar has so aptly said of this whole festival, "It stands as an integration of practically all the separate elements of ritual . . . which are known to the religious leaders of the group."4

This Midwinter Festival is still observed by the traditionalists of five of the six nations of the Iroquois Confederacy. At the Six Nations Reserve in Canada, only the Tuscaroras, who are mostly Baptists, generally hold aloof from the ceremonies at the four Longhouses. The traditionalist elements among the Mohawks, Oneidas, Cayugas, Senecas, and Onondagas observe the old festivals, while the Christians in these tribes usually do not. Even among some of the church Iroquois, however, the pull of the Longhouse is still strong. In New York State, there are Longhouses on the Onondaga and the three Seneca Reservations, and all the traditionalist ceremonies are carried on there. The New York Tuscaroras have no Longhouse on their reserve and the strongest religious affiliation among them is, again, Baptist.

The Tuscaroras long ago did away with their Longhouse and adopted Christianity. As a result, they do not have the traditional ceremonies that are characteristic of the other nations of the Iroquois Confederacy. With the exception of the raising of a chief, which is done in the old way, there are no more traditional ceremonies left. There is only one major festivity during the year that would seem to have any remnant of traditionalist elements, and that is the New Year celebration.

The events surrounding this winter festival begin three days before January 1, and the celebration itself ends on New Year's day, unless January 1 falls on a Sunday. In that case, the celebration is held the following day, January 2, as happened in 1967. Since Nu Yahing and the preparation of the feast both take place in the morning, the activities would abolish church attending if they were held on Sunday.

The festival as it is presently observed among the New York Tuscaroras includes the following events: a visit to each house on the reserve by collectors to obtain food for a feast, a hunt which is a competition between the young men and the old men of the community, a visitation of as many houses as possible on New Year's morning by people who are making the rounds and calling out, "Nu Yah!" at each stop, the presentation of these visitors with a cookie or piece of pie or cake or a piece of fruit at each house visited, the feast in the afternoon, and a meeting of the Tuscarora Temperance Society in the evening.

The question arises whether this festival evolved from the old Midwinter rite or was an innovation, devised perhaps to take the place of that ceremony. In reality, what we see in this observance is an important fusion of cultures, representing both traditional Tuscarora practices and adaptations from certain aspects of white culture as the Tuscaroras encountered it in Pennsylvania and New York.

When the Tuscaroras settled for a while in Pennsylvania during their eighteenth century migration northward after their disastrous wars in North Carolina, they found that their German neighbors would go visiting on Neu Jahr and receive little cakes or Festkuchen. They liked the custom and adopted it. The Tuscarora women later made their own adaptation of this German custom by baking cookies in the shape of their particular clan eponym. This practice has now fallen into abeyance and the clan cookies are no longer made.

With their settlement in Pennsylvania and contact with the Germans, the Tuscaroras thereafter had two New Year celebrations observed by the whole community: one on January 1, and one whose date was determined by the midwinter moon.

The Tuscaroras did at one time stir the ashes during their visitation rounds at Midwinter, but not at Nu Yah. Those who became Christians abandoned the traditional Midwinter rite, charging those who followed the old way with being pagans. The last Midwinter rite as such on the Tuscarora reservation was celebrated about 1852. Both Christians and non Christians, however, continued to observe the Nu Yah throughout this period.

In order to understand how and why this festival evolved and what needs it met, we must examine the religious pressures upon the Tuscaroras over the years, for in the nineteenth century there was a long and evidently bitter struggle between Christian and non-Christian elements on the reservation.

Samuel KirklandThough the pre-Revolutionary Tuscaroras, living in Oneida territory, had had some slight contact with Christianity as a result of French Catholic and Anglican missionaries among the Confederacy tribes, it was not until Samuel Kirkland
Samuel Kirkland. [Courtesy of Walter Pilkington,
Hamilton College.]

came as a missionary to the Oneidas that the Tuscaroras had a fulltime Protestant missionary resident nearby.5 Kirkland's ministrations to the Tuscaroras were only sporadic, for his primary work was among the Oneidas, and he never mastered the Tuscarora language, but there was, nevertheless, a small Christian congregation among the Tuscaroras as a result of Kirkland's efforts.

Mission work among the Tuscaroras was largely disrupted as a result of the Revolution. After the war, the Tuscarora nation gradually moved westward to settle on the Niagara Frontier, where some of their pro-British brethren had moved earlier. This took them even farther from Christian ministrations. The Christian faith was maintained by a small group of Tuscaroras but there was no regular organized Christian church among them. In 1800 the New York Missionary Society sent Elkanah Holmes as a short-term missionary to the Tuscaroras and to the Senecas at Buffalo Creek. He returned after a few months and agreed to spend another short term of nine months among these Indians. In 1802 he agreed to a third trip and was appointed a permanent missionary to both tribes, charged not only with the religious oversight of these Indians, but also with the responsibility of supervising their educational needs.6 As a result of his work, a church was organized among the Tuscaroras in 1806 with approximately eleven members.

The church was organized in July 1806 by Dr. John McKnight, who had been sent by the New York Missionary Society specifically for this purpose, over the opposition of the pastor, Elkanah Holmes, whose Baptist principles on matters of infant baptism and church organization caused conflict between him and the Missionary Society. McKnight gave a list of eight persons who had been previously baptized and were in full communion at either of the places where the Tuscaroras had formerly received mission services-Oneida and New Stockbridge. These eight were Nicholas Cusick and his wife, Paulus (Apollas?), Peter, Jacob, Christian, Molly, and Margaret. He also baptized four others: Sacharissa (Sagwari'thraeh, or "Spear Trailer," a Turtle Clan sachem) and his wife, Captain William Printup, and George. The church then elected and McKnight ordained Cusick, Sacharissa, and Paulus as ruling elders. John Elliot, who the Tuscaroras as schoolmaster in 1827 and was later licensed as a minister, gave a slightly different list of the original members in his 1828 report to the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, which had taken over charge of the church. His list included: Sacharissa and his wife, Nicholas Cusick and his wife Elizabeth, Apollas, Mary Pembleton, William Henry, and Catherine. 7

After 1800, the religious pressures on the Tuscaroras became quite intense, for this was the period of the great revival of the traditionalist religion. In 1799 there was a revival of the white dog sacrifice at Oneida, after an absence of thirty years, as a result of the preaching of a prophet from the Six Nations Reserve in Canada. 8 In a letter dated March 17, 1800, the noted Tuscarora leader Nicholas Cusick wrote to his friend Samuel Kirkland:

One thing is I feel oneasy to hear from my neibours the oniadah the[y] made feast of old heathen way[.] I fear some will draw away there minds from Religion which the[y] go hear.
I wish some Body would prevedet [prevent] this Ceremony.!

Between 1811 and 1820 there was a long struggle between Christian and non-Christian Tuscaroras. The mission was destroyed as a result of the Tuscaroras' support of the Americans during the War of 1812. Toward the end of December 1813, their entire village was burned by invading forces from Canada. The missionary, Andrew Gray, did not return; and there was no mission work on the reserve from 1814 to 1817. The traditionalists, meanwhile, increased their strength, ridiculed the Christians, and, during a great traditionalist revival in 1820, sought to break up the mission work permanently by moving the tribe to Canada and leaving the missionary without a flock or any potential converts. Only seventy persons finally joined the emigration party to Canada. At this period, the church membership consisted of only sixteen persons. 10

The church membership remained fairly steady at about fifteen persons throughout the 1820's, despite a gap in regular missionary oversight between 1823 and 1827.11 By 1833 the church had fifty-three members and a much larger number of attendees. The total number of Indians admitted to church membership between 1833 and the organization of the church in 1806 was seventy-four.12

The New York State Indian Census for 1845, taken by Henry Schoolcraft, listed 63 Christians on the Tuscarora Reservation and 247 traditionalists. Gilbert Rockwood stated that his charge, the Tuscarora Mission, which was then a Congregational church, had a membership of 53 and an average attendance of 70 persons. If the Census figures were accurate, then there were only 10 members of the Baptist church; however, there seems to be a serious discrepancy in the enumeration. The Baptist pastor James Cusick, in a letter to Schoolcraft dated August 4, 1845, claimed that his church had then "in good standing fifty members . . . ." In 1844 it had had 64 members. The Baptist church was actually in steady decline because of the plans of most of the members to emigrate to Kansas. Cusick was the leader of the emigration movement and was absent in Washington and elsewhere during all the winter of 1845-1846 arranging for the emigration. During his absence, no meetings were held at the Baptist church. 13 The Christian potential on the reservation was actually greater than the Census implied. Schoolcraft's method of enumeration was very faulty. Children of church members and church attendees who had not as yet become members were automatically included in the Census under the traditionalist heading.14 Whatever the actual count may have been, the traditionalists were still a force to be reckoned with at mid-century. 15

By 1832 interest in the Temperance Society seemed to have waned considerably. In order to revive interest and give the Society a direct role in community life, Jacobs conceived the plan of having the temperance people sponsor a feast on New Year's Day, even as the Longhouse people did at Midwinter. Jacobs was a church member and later a deacon and lay preacher, but he was also, in many respects, a bridge between two religions and between two cultures. He saw much of value in some of the traditionalist practices and sought to preserve, at least in modified form, what he believed was of benefit from the old observances. The Temperance Society became a permanent and significant part of the life of the community and grew in influence over the years. The 1845 Census listed 231 Tuscaroras as being pledged to temperance principles. Gilbert Rockwood, pastor of the Mission, wrote:

It is within the memory of many now living among them, when drunkenness was almost universal; now, comparatively few are intemperate. A majority of the chiefs are decidedly temperance men, and exert a salutary influence. They have a temperance society, and hold frequent meetings. They utterly forbid the traffic in intoxicating drinks on their own soil.

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