The History of the Iroquois Midwinter Ceremony

Published on July 29, 2011 by Amy

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Iroquois Dream Mask
Iroquois Dream Mask

The Iroquois Midwinter Ceremony is held in either January or February. When the dipper constellation appears in the sky directly overhead, you then wait for the new moon to be seen. This is when the spiritual year begins. You then wait 5 days after the new moon to begin the ceremony. The celebration lasts 9 days with a lot of traditional events, as well as choosing new council members for the next year.

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This celebration is observed among the tribes of the Iroquois Confederacy or The Six Nations:
Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, Seneca and Tuscarora. Because the Mohawk flag is purple and white, I chose to use that color scheme for this page.

This is also known as the “New Year’s Ceremony” because it marks the beginning of a new ritual year. The “Big Heads” announce this ceremony. They are masked messengers who visit the longhouse (a bark covered structure where the Iroquois used to live) now used as a public activity space. The Big Heads invite everyone to participate.

There is no specific order to this ceremony. Each tribe has their own way of doing it. But the usual custom is to first begin with the “Stirring of the Ashes” as a symbolic gesture of showing gratitude for all the blessings bestowed during the previous year. There is a public naming event where all the children born during the previous year are now given their Indian names. There are also two traditional Indian dances, The Bear Dance and the Feather Dance.

Tobacco is an important element in many Native American celebrations. In the Midwinter Ceremony, they have a Tobacco Invocation ceremony that represents a way of communicating to the Creator, both a message of thanksgiving, as well as a plea for a successful growing season for the new year.

The Iroquois also believe that dreams are not just fantasies. They feel dreams represent a cure for diseases and mental disorders. So they have a Dreamsharing Ritual. They feel that by getting people to share their dreams in public, getting opinions on what those dreams might mean, the Iroquois believe that they are better able to resolve whatever problems or conflicts gave rise to the dreams in the first place. They have a group of medicine men known as The False Face Society, who perform the appropriate curing ritual once these dreams have been interpreted.

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. For more on this read further below under the specific customs. However, it could be a bit disturbing for animal lovers and some children.

The Midwinter Ceremony ends with a speaker who gives a summation of the 9 days of the celebration. He also gives a brief thanksgiving address. It is at this time that the new council members (who have been chosen for the upcoming year) 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.

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