Christmas across Indian Country
The introduction of Christianity to the original peoples of the Americas can be controversial in Native circles. Europeans brought Christianity to this half of the world and imposed it on Native communities, knowingly replacing existing spiritual beliefs with the beliefs taught in the bible. Cruelty and brutality often accompanied the indoctrination of Native peoples. Yet it is also true that some tribes, families, and individuals accepted the bible and Jesus’ teachings voluntarily.
Music played an important part in converting Native people, establishing their practice of worship, and teaching them how to celebrate the Christmas season. Perhaps the earliest North American Christmas carol was written in the Wyandot language of the Huron-Wendat people. Jesous Ahatonhia (“Jesus, He is born”)—popularly known as Noël huron or the Huron Carol—is said by oral tradition to have been written in 1643 by the Jesuit priest Jean de Brébeuf. The earliest known transcription was made in the Huron-Wendat settlement at Lorette, Quebec, in the 1700s.
During the 1920s, the Canadian choir director J. E. Middleton rewrote the carol in English, using images from the Eastern Woodlands to tell the Christmas story: A lodge of broken bark replaces the manger, the baby Jesus is wrapped in rabbit skin, hunters take the place of the shepherds, and chiefs bring gifts of fox and beaver furs. A much more accurate translation by the linguist John Steckley, an adopted member of the Huron-Wendat Nation of Loretteville, makes clear that the carol was written not only to teach early Catholic converts within the Huron Confederacy the story of Jesus’ birth, but also to explain its significance and to overturn earlier Native beliefs.
Here are the first verses of the carol in Wyandot and Steckley’s complete English translation:
Estenniayon de tsonwe Iesous ahatonnia
onn’ awatewa nd’ oki n’ onyouandaskwaentak
ennonchien eskwatrihotat n’onyouandiyonrachatha
Iesous ahatonnia, ahatonnia. Iesous ahatonnia.
Ayoki onkiennhache eronhiayeronnon
iontonk ontatiande ndio sen tsatonnharonnion
Warie onn’ awakweton ndio sen tsatonnharonnion
Iesous ahatonnia, ahatonnia. Iesous ahatonnia.
Have courage, you who are humans; Jesus, he is born
Behold, the spirit who had us as prisoners has fled
Do not listen to it, as it corrupts the spirits of our minds
Jesus, he is born
They are spirits, sky people, coming with a message for us
They are coming to say, "Rejoice (Be on top of life)"
Marie, she has just given birth. Rejoice"
Jesus, he is born
Three have left for such, those who are elders
Tichion, a star that has just appeared on the horizon leads them there
He will seize the path, he who leads them there
Jesus, he is born
As they arrived there, where he was born, Jesus
the star was at the point of stopping, not far past it
Having found someone for them, he says, "Come here!"
Jesus, he is born
Behold, they have arrived there and have seen Jesus,
They praised (made a name) many times, saying "Hurray, he is good in nature"
They greeted him with reverence (greased his scalp many times), saying “Hurray”
Jesus, he is born
"We will give to him praise for his name,
Let us show reverence for him as he comes to be compassionate to us.
It is providential that you love us and wish, 'I should adopt them.'"
Jesus, he is born.
All throughout Indian Country, Native people now gather in churches, missions, and temples to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ by singing carols and hymns in their Native languages. In some churches, the story of Jesus’ birth is recited in Native languages. Some Native churches host nativity plays using Native settings and actors to re-enact the birth of Jesus Christ. Among Catholics, Christmas Eve Mass traditionally begins in Indian communities at midnight and extends into the early hours of Christmas Day. In tipis, hogans, and houses, Native American Church members also hold Christmas services, ceremonies that begin on Christmas Eve and go on all night until Christmas morning.
In contemporary times, traditional powwow singing groups have rearranged Christmas songs to appeal to Native audiences. A humorous example is Warscout’s NDN 12 Days of Christmas, from their album Red Christmas. Native solo artists also perform Christmas classics in Native languages. Rhonda Head (Cree), for example, has recorded Oh Holy Night, and Jana Mashpee (Lumbee and Tuscarora) Winter Wonderland sung in Ojibwe.
Native communities host traditional tribal dances and powwows on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. Among the Pueblo Indians of the Southwest special dances take place, such as buffalo, eagle, antelope, turtle, and harvest dances. The Eight Northern Pueblos perform Los Matachines—a special dance-drama mixing North African Moorish, Spanish, and Pueblo cultures—takes place on Christmas Eve, along with a pine-torch procession.
For Native artisans, this is the busy season as they prepare special Christmas gift items. Artists and craftsmen and women across the country create beadwork, woodwork, jewelry, clothing, basketry, pottery, sculpture, paintings, leatherwork, and feather work for special Christmas sales and art markets that are open to the public. The National Museum of the American Indian holds its annual Native Art Market in New York and Washington, D.C., a few weeks before Christmas.
In many communities and homes, Christian customs are interwoven with Native culture as a means of expressing Christmas in a uniquely Native way. The importance of giving is a cultural tradition among most tribes. Even in times of famine and destitution, Native people have made sure their families, the old, and orphans were taken care of. This mindset prevails into the present. Gift-giving is appropriate whenever a tribal social or ceremonial gathering takes place.
In the same way, traditional Native foods are prepared for this special occasion. Salmon, walleye, shellfish, moose, venison, elk, mutton, geese, rabbit, wild rice, collards, squash, pine nuts, red and green chile stews, pueblo bread, piki bread, and bannock (fry bread) are just a few of the things that come to mind. Individual tribes and Indian organizations sponsor Christmas dinners for their elders and communities prior to Christmas. Tribal service groups and warrior societies visit retirement homes and shelters to provide meals for their tribesmen and women on Christmas Day.
According to the Urban Indian Health Commission, nearly seven out of every ten American Indians and Alaska Natives—2.8 million people—live in or near cities, and that number is growing. During the Christmas holidays, many urban Natives travel back to their families, reservations, and communities to reconnect and reaffirm tribal bonds. They open presents and have big family meals like other American Christians.
To see how Native people spend Christmas in Indian Country, I asked Native people on the Internet to share their family’s day:
Tama, Iowa: “As a special day of feasting, we first set aside prayer and food offerings in the sacred fire for relatives before our own indulgence. The respect is that you allow your remembrances—those who have passed—to eat first. Oftentimes with the greater ghost feasts you are also sending prayers for good health, long life—for yourself as well as for your family, plus any others. It is promised that your requests will be granted.”
Southern Maryland: “Our Elders Council (Choptico) have our winter gathering and feast close to or on the day of winter solstice. This year’s menu: Seafood and root veggies. We still have a traditional Christmas dinner for the extended family. Historically Maryland Natives were proselytized by Jesuits and many, if not most, tribal members remain Catholic today.”
Barona, California: “This year I’m doing tamales, meat pies, and empanadas! Someone else made tamales and I’m making the rest.”
Carnegie, Oklahoma: “I remember when we would camp at Red Church or White Church Christmas week. There would be snow on the ground. We slept in the tent with our Ah-Pea (grandmother), and people would get up and cook in the dining hall all three meals. All those paper sacks would be lined up in the church and filled with fruit and Christmas candy. Everyone got a treat sack and missionary gift. Church ran late; sometimes we’d be sleep on the floor. I wouldn’t trade anything for those days. Singing and praying in Kiowa. Some beautiful memories. They have all gone on now. Thank you for letting me share.”
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: “On Christmas eve my grandkids have a sleepover with their cousins and we have singing and dance contests (the best steps win a prize) with the kids to encourage them all to sing and dance. Food-eating contests, too (who can eat the most fry bread). We wind up having a little powwow in the house. It tires them all out, too. Breakfast is a big pot of sofkee (seasoned grits). I cook fry bread, three sisters [corn, beans, and squash], salmon, turkey, ham, corn-on-the-cob, cornbread, bread pudding, sweet potato pies, wild rice, string beans, other vegetables. All fresh, nothing from a can. My mother this year started a new tradition: She wants us to write down on a paper and bring it to Christmas dinner to speak on what we are all thankful for and how our year went. My mom also leads us in the traditional holiday songs everyone knows.”
Wisconsin Dells, Wisconsin: Christmas was introduced to certain families back in the late 1920s early 1930s by my grandfather (Choka) George Lonetree and his cousin, Sister Kate Massey, who was a priest. They both were in boarding school in Toledo, Iowa, when they first knew about Christmas and the art of giving presents to people. So my Choka decided to gather families who were curious about Christmas. These Christmas gatherings happen near Wisconsin Rapids, Wisconsin. We always have some Native food on the table. My mother always made sure of that. It could be Indian corn soup, fry bread, cranberries, duck, rabbit, and sometimes wintergreen tea. Right around Christmastime, the Eagle Clan of the Ho-Chunk Nation of Wisconsin will have their Winter Clan feast. The winter solstice, yeah, like the first day of winter.”
Parker, Arizona: “Sheep ribs cooked over the coals, tortillas, vegetable and mutton stew. Roasted Hatch chili salsa, yeast bread, coffee, and maybe empanadas.”
British Columbia, Canada: “We try to include Native-inspired dishes—salmon, berries, roots, deer meat. I only cook turkey for the kids. But if I cook a turducken (turkey, duck, and quail) it seems more inspiring lol.”
Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo, New Mexico: “At Ohkay Owingeh the Turtle Dance is the driving event. Everything else is second or worked around the dance.”
Crystal Falls, Michigan: “Gotta have some wild rice and venison is we what have. It is always good, and turkeys are native to here, though I’m not a wild turkey fan lol.”
Tappahannock, Virginia: “Dinner is mostly the regular holiday foods except we have to have potato salad and corn pudding. Our Christmas breakfast is oyster stew and watercress if we can gather enough.”
Chicago, Illinois: “Ten years ago we would cook up ham and turkey with all the side dishes. For years the American Indian Center had a Thanksgiving dinner and a Christmas party. We would decorate the tribal hall. I would hear people talking about how traditional they were and still celebrating these holidays and not caring about their cultural teaching. So I decided to change it. I just reworded it to a "giving thanks feast” and encouraged everyone to write what they were truly thankful for. We had a "winter feast.” No decorations, and we shared the teachings of how we celebrate the seasons and why each is important to us. I had many positive comments, and it seemed like they were listening and questioning the religious beliefs. It wasn't about shopping and presents. Unfortunately they have not been doing any of these events since I left. Everyone wants their urban rez back.”
Ardmore, Oklahoma: “Our church plays have Christmas hymns in Choctaw language, and we always get that brown paper bag filled with fruit, ribbon candy, and orange slice candy. Our church is the Ardmore Indian Baptist Church, in the Chi-Ka-Sha Baptist Association.”
Maui, Hawai’i: “We cook pigs underground here on the Islands. It's called imu. This year we are going to do it for the homeless. We pretty much go around and see if everyone is fed.”