New Year: A Time of New Beginnings

Happy New Year, and may this be a year of good health and help for you and your family. The New Year’s holiday provides a unique window in which we can look back at the previous year and dream about the year ahead. While some of us are just now celebrating the gift of a new year, some Native nations have been observing the blessings of a new year for a few weeks now.

Unlike the January 1 New Year based on the Gregorian calendar, traditional Native American New Year observances coincide closer to the “natural” cycles of Mother Earth. For some American Indians, the winter solstice provides a time to celebrate the good things to come.

For the Umatilla tribes of Oregon, the winter solstice represents the return of the sun. Along with it, the sun brings longer days and the foods sacred to the Umatilla. On the day before the winter solstice, December 20, the Umatilla gather to honor the salmon, deer, and bitterroot with communal song, dance, prayer, and a meal.

These foods are considered sacred not only because they are the foods that sustained the ancients, but because they play an important role in the cycle of life. As an Elder passes on and is buried, they return as part of these sacred foods to care for the people. Also, it is because of these foods that tradition can pass down from one generation to the next. Elder women teach the younger women of their community how to gather, harvest, and prepare the wild-growing vegetation of eastern Oregon. Elder men pass on the knowledge of hunting and fishing to the next generation that will take their place.

While there is much joy and celebration in this time of renewal, there is also a sad reminder of how history has shaped indigenous life in the US. Like other Native nations, the Umatilla pass down their knowledge through oral tradition. Yet, it is up to an interested next generation to absorb the words of their Elders and preserve traditional knowledge. As younger generations become assimilated into the dominant culture, there is concern that interest to carry on indigenous traditional ways will continue to diminish. In this sense, the New Year gives us an opportunity to see how far we’ve come and how far we still have to go.

We give thanks for the things that we’ve been blessed with, and humbly ask for help in the future to make a better life for family, community, and self.

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