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By BARBARA GRAYMONT
NEW YORK HISTORY, April 1969
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. Note 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. Note 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." Note 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." Note 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.