Details of the Specific Symbols and Rituals of the Iroquois Midwinter Ceremony

Published on July 29, 2011 by Amy

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Iroquois Games and Dances
Iroquois Games and Dances

Bear Dance

The Bear Dance is a medical curing ritual. Iroquois Bear Dancers include both men and women. Their movements are a somewhat lumbering, waddling mimic of a bear as they dance in a counterclockwise circle. This bear dance can be performed publicly or privately for a sick person. It is done for the purpose of curing people of their problems and any misfortunes that have beset them over the past year.

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Big Heads and Stirring Ashes

The Iroquois refer to them as “Our Uncles” because they represent the tribal founders. The Big Head messengers dress in buffalo skins and cornhusk masks with braids. They carry wooden mallets used to mash corn. This symbolizes both hunt and harvest. They make visits throughout the village at the New Year to announce the festivities start. When at a house, they take their mallets and stir up the ashes in the household’s fire. Why? They consider it a symbolic gesture of gratitude to The Creator. While doing this they also ask that the New Year bring renewal and fertility to the earth. Ashes symbolize the earth to which all living things return and that life springs from.

Tobacco Invocation

After the “Stirring of the Ashes” (described above) there is often the sprinkling of the tobacco on the burning embers. The smoke from the burning embers is believed to rise up to heaven, taking with it the message of thanks to their Creator. The Iroquois are also referred to as “The Tobacco People” or “Tobacco Nation.” The word “ierokwa” is where their name originates from and it means “they who use tobacco.”
Besides using tobacco for ceremonial purposes and communicating with spirits, they also use tobacco to treat burns, sores, the pain of a toothache and diseases. Tobacco was the one crop that women were not responsible for cultivating. When Naive American men got together to make peace or conduct their business, they often shared a long-stemmed pipe of tobacco called the calumet, which they believed induced “good thoughts.”


This is a sacred activity in which the Iroquois try to get rid of troubling thoughts and make their wishes come true. It is also known as “Dream Guessing.” What they do is describe their dreams in front of the tribe members. After listening, this assembled group then offer their interpretations and suggestions. The purpose is to try to help the dreamer identify exactly the dream is trying to relay to him: a need, a wish or a desire. Sometimes people reenact each other’s dreams; and, then invite the spectators to guess what they mean. Those that come up with the most accurate dream interpretation are then required to help see that the dream is fulfilled. This is done by either presenting the dreamer with symbolic gifts or by actually helping him/her satisfy their needs.

The Dreamsharing is considered a central part of the Midwinter Ceremony because they believe it helps people be cured of their illnesses that are symptomatic of unresolved conflicts and/or unfulfilled desires. The person who correctly interprets someone’s dream and then helps to resolve their situation is honored. It’s not considered an obligation. And, by doing this it is felt that tribal traditions and friendships are cemented.

False Face Society

This society is a group of medicine men who wear masks carved out of a living tree. They have deep-set slits for the eyes. The noses are large and extend across the forehead with a spiny ridge or crease. The False Face Society members are believed to possess the power to scare off evil spirits that cause illness. The group holds its most important meeting in the longhouse during the Midwinter Ceremony. The members participate in the curing rituals, often reaching into the hot ashes of a fire without burning their hands. Then they rub or blow off the ashes on to those in need of a cure. Although both men and women can belong to the False Face Society, only the men wear the masks.

Great Feather Dance

This dance is performed for the purpose of giving thanks to The Creator for all he has bestowed on the people during the past year. The dancers dance to two singers who sit face-to-face. Turtle shell rattles are used to create the rhythm. The dancers are dressed in full tribal regalia. The dance is held on the 8th day (next to last night) of the 9-day festival. This dance is considered one of the “Four Sacred Ceremonies” essential for salvation as named by the 18th Century prophet, Handsome Lake.

Peach Stone Game

This is another one of the “Four Sacred Ceremonies”, which symbolizes the game played by The Creator and his evil brother as they competed with each other during the creation of the earth. Six peach stones are either burnt or blackened on one side. Then they are put into a bowl and shaken. The score is based on how many of the “black” sides and “white” sides ends up showing. This is a game of chance a lot like dice, or flipping a coins heads or tails.

When it’s played during the Midwinter Ceremony, it symbolizes the renewal of the earth, especially the battle for survival that fruits and vegetables have against the harsh elements of Nature. The outcome of this game is used to predict the success of next year’s harvest. It also symbolizes the good luck that The Creator has bestowed on the inhabitants of the earth. Men 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.

White Dog Sacrifice

The central sacrificial rite of the Midwinter Ceremony involved the killing of a white dog. This is no longer done today because the Iroquois love their dogs and to have one of their pets killed as a sacrifice was a sign of how seriously the actually took this ritual. Killing a white dog symbolized purity. So sacrificing the dog was a way of purifying the entire community. The dog was killed by strangulation so there would be no marks on it. It was decorated with red paint, feathers, beads, wampum and ribbons. It was then laid on the fire, and then a basket of tobacco was thrown on the flames. It was the belief of the Iroquois that the smoke would carry their gratitude and prayers to heaven. As I said, this is no longer done today. Instead they use a white basket as a substitute of burning a white dog.

Source: brownielocks Unabridged
Based on the collective work of, © 2015 Native American Encyclopedia.
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