New Year Festival

At the first new moon of the new year, which sometimes occurs three weeks after New Year’s Day, the chiefs assemble and call what they term a “holy meeting,” the order of which is as follows: A bench or table is placed in the center of the circle of chiefs, upon which are placed their strings of Indian wampum. One then rises and makes a long speech, in which he introduces the sayings, maxims, and teachings of Handsome Lake, who, nearly a century ago, introduced a new form into the Seneca religion. Speeches of this kind occupy four days. On the fifth day the principal chiefs, taking hold of the wampum, say: “I put all my words in this wampum”; “I have been drunk”; or, “I have sinned,” &c. On the sixth day the warriors go through the same form of confession. On the following day the chiefs pass the wampum around among the assembly.

At the conclusion of this portion of their ceremonies the U-stu-ä-gu-nä, or feather dance, sometimes called the dance of peace, is performed. For this there is a particular costume, by which it must always be accompanied. The dance is simple. Two men are chosen to stand in the center and are encircled by dancers.

After this dance the clans are divided for the games as follows:

Bear, Deer, Eel and Hawk against Wolf, Beaver, Snipe, Turtle.

The clans thus divided hold their feasts in separate houses, even although husband and wife be divided. On the fourth day each of these divisions, singing a chant, repairs to the Council House. The gambling then commences and continues three more days. The gambling and betting concluded, two Indians, costumed as medicine men, run into all the houses, and raking up the ashes call on all to repair to the Council House. In the evening of this day begins the “scaring of witches”; speeches are made; Indian songs or chants are sung the while an old man or woman enters, appearing to wish or search for something, the assembly guessing at the object desired. Should the guess be correct, a reply of “thank you” is made. He or she receives it, and as a return proceeds to dance.

On the following evening a number of Indians in frightful costumes enter on their knees, yelling and groaning. Shaking their rattles, they proceed to the council fire, where they stir up the ashes. The chiefs then present to them Indian tobacco, and they are commanded to perform all the errands and act as the messengers for the evening.

On this same evening it is given forth that on the ensuing day, at a given hour, the white dog will be roasted. For this purpose a perfectly pure, unblemished white dog is selected, and five young men of the most spotless reputation are chosen to kill the dog, around whose neck two ropes are fastened, and the young men then pull the ropes till the dog is strangled. When dead it is presented to the victorious gambling party, who proceed to comb out its hair carefully with teasels. It is then decorated [pg 114] with wampum, ribbons, Indian tobacco, strips of buckskin, small baskets, silver brooches etc.

The four winning clans then form in a circle around the dog and the four leading chiefs. The first chief chants around the dog; the second puts it upon his back; the third carries an extra basket trimmed with beads, brooches, and ribbons, and filled with Indian tobacco; the fourth chief, bareheaded and scantily clothed, follows as they pass in Indian file to the other Council House, where the defeated division makes an offering, which is accepted by the fourth chief. All then proceed together to the appointed place for the dog roasting. While the fire is being lighted the chiefs chant and praise the Great Spirit, after which, while the warriors are shooting up at the sun, the dog is thrown into the fire, which ceremony unites all the clans. This is followed by chants. The leading chief then gives notice of the dance for the following day. At this first day of rejoicing or dancing the “feather dance” is repeated, and a chant is sung which embraces almost the entire language of the Protestant Episcopal canticle, Benedicite omnia opera Domini; but the translation, in place of commanding the works of God to render him praise, praises the works themselves. Instead of “O ye angels of the Lord,” that passage is rendered, “O ye four persons who made us and have charge of us, we praise thee,” etc

The feast then follows, consisting of meats garnished with sunflower oil, &c. The third day of dancing is devoted to the war dance, which is dedicated to the sun, moon, stars, and thunder. The feather dance is again introduced, the women this time participating in it. In itself the dance is very monotonous, except for the variety introduced by whooping, beating the floor with the war clubs, occasional speeches, and offerings to the dancers.

At the conclusion of the feather dance the Si-ti-gă-ni-ai, or shuffle dance, follows. This is executed solely by the women, who do not lift their feet from the floor. The men keep time by drumming and using the rattles. Then succeeds the guide dance, performed as follows: Two or four men stand inside a circle and sing a dance song, while all the people join in the dance in pairs, the couples facing each other. Consequently, two out of each four have to go backwards, but at a signal in the music all change places. This is invariably the closing dance of the new year’s festival, but it is then arranged that seven days later the medicine men shall all reappear, and for a day and a night go about in the houses and chase away all diseases, &c. This closes by all repairing to the Council House, where a large kettle of burnt corn, sweetened with maple sugar, is prepared for the medicine men, who eat it from the kettle. From this Council House fire the medicine men throw the ashes upon the assembled people for the purpose of dispelling witches and disease. This concludes the new year’s festival ceremonies after a duration of three weeks.

Myths of the Iroquois