Early History of Christmas in Native American Communities

The origins of Christmas may stem from several events based on different religious and cultural beliefs, such as the Celebration of Yule, the integration of St. Nicholas, the birth of Jesus Christ, or the recognition of Winter Solstice. When European settlers came to the Americas and discovered the existence of Indigenous peoples who had never heard of these things, they made it their mission to introduce these concepts as a pathway to build trust, integrate and subvert the traditional ways of Native Americans.

Today, Christmas is celebrated in many diverse ways and is considered one of the most celebrated holidays throughout the world. So, how did the early Native Americans celebrate Christmas?

It’s been said that winter is the season of stories. In the past, winters restricted the amount of movement tribes could make, so they would gather resources and do the best they could to hold out through the season. During this time, celebrations of the Winter Solstice took place as well, and more often than not families and friends would gather around a fire and tell origin stories, tales of spirits, and other anecdotes.

After the introduction of Christmas,  tribes in the east, west, north and south developed unique ways to celebrate the holiday. One of the earliest recorded instances of tribal participation in Christmas happened in the 1600’s when a Jesuit priest helped the Huron people write their first Christmas carol. Singing has always been a large part of Indigenous cultures, and even in this new tradition, they integrated old customs.

Many tribes also saw Christmas day as part of the story of Jesus and a prophecy being fulfilled. Today, you will find many examples of traditional ways and Christianity joined in different denominations of beliefs. The communal nature of tribes is still very important in many celebrations, reminding people to celebrate and take care of one another with kindness and compassion.

Regardless of the origins of Christianity in Native culture, and many of the intentions when it comes to colonizing the tribes, we can still see the value of the holiday. Christmas brings an opportunity to reflect on shared values of gratitude, compassion, charity and joy.

Today, the holiday is celebrated through singing, dancing, sharing, eating and giving. The ways our ancestors celebrated Christmas and how we continue to celebrate today shows that our culture can adapt and has the room to celebrate and be accepting of new traditions, stories and legends, no matter who held them.

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Give the Gift of Water this Giving Tuesday

Giving Tuesday is an opportunity to join in on the global generosity movement to support urgent causes. One of the most critical requests for communities in Indian Country is water. Many of us don’t think twice when we turn on a faucet to wash our hands or pour ourselves a glass of drinking water.

Unfortunately, clean water access is an ongoing crisis in many remote reservation communities. Rising temperatures and declining rainfall over the past century have depleted the groundwater that was once the principal source of drinking water for many Native Americans. Today, tribes face constant legal battles over water access and water rights on Native lands. They also lack infrastructure and funding for necessary repairs and improvements in plumbing.

On the Navajo Nation alone, 30 percent of residents lack access to running water while 42 percent of homes do not have complete plumbing facilities. On average, Navajo households are traveling 48 miles to get drinking water and pay 71 times the amount that urban area residents pay to access clean water.

This is especially concerning when we’re fighting a global health pandemic and frequent handwashing helps deter the spread of the virus. While tribal communities are enforcing social distancing, curfews and stay-at-home orders to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, many Native people are nonetheless forced to break these guidelines to haul water from other places.

Not surprisingly, emergency requests for water have escalated and PWNA is including water in nearly every delivery to the reservations. Already this year, we sent more than 40 shipments of drinking water for nearly 6,500 people. However, we need help from our generous donors to continue to serve those in need.

Today – #GivingTuesday – PWNA will receive matching donations dollar for dollar up to $100,000 to ensure we’re impacting as many lives as possible. We hope you’ll donate today and join us in giving hope and clean water to Native Elders, Children and families.

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Q&A: Irish-born musician Danny Burns talks about his latest single, “Many Moons Ago,” and why he supports the Native American community

The connection between Native Americans and Irish descendants runs deep. The relationship began in the mid 1800’s when Native Americans offered relief to the Irish during the potato famine. Recently, many Irish people have returned the favor by donating to help Native American tribes impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Earlier this year, Irish born folk singer-songwriter Danny Burns released a song inspired by these gestures. “Many Moons Ago,” feat. Grammy award-winning folk singer Sarah Jarosz, pays tribute to the unique connection between these two cultures.

We recently caught up with Danny and learned more about his connection to Native Americans, his thought process when writing this song, and why he’s passionate about raising awareness around Native American communities. Today, we’re sharing our conversation with Danny:

PWNA: There’s been an outpouring of support for Native American communities from the Irish amid the COVID-19 pandemic. How do you feel about that?

DB:  It makes me very proud of both communities, how our sense of family is so important in both cultures. It just shows how the bond has grown and survived for so long. It dates back to many years ago, with both Irish and Native Americans sharing similarities that a lot of people might not be aware of.

PWNA: What inspired you to record this song?

DB:  I started writing this song when I was 14 years-old after starting a school project about the workhouses. These were the colonial housing projects where families could be fed and work, but in return they had to give up their land to the English. Similarly, in Ireland, there was a place where families were sent after the crops failed in the famine. During that time, half of the population of the island either left or died at the hands of the English. Ultimately, it took me a long time to finish this song, but it perfectly combined both cultures’ heritage once it was done.

PWNA: What’s the main message you’re hoping to convey with this song?

DB:  The main message I really wanted to show was the bond and kindness we’ve shared over the generations, but in a way that conveyed the similarities we both share as well. We’re both indigenous peoples, with myself being from Ireland, and Native Americans in North America. We both share a history of colonial injustices, which is partially why we’ve maintained our friendships for so long. Recently, the Irish Lacrosse team volunteered their spot for the Iroquois Nationals team to take their place at the 2022 World Games.

PWNA: What’s your personal experience or connection to Native Americans?

DB: I have many close friends who are Native American. They range from fellow artists to lawyers and trade men. We had a tribal chairman attend our record release show in Washington, D.C. at the City Winery when we were promoting my last record. He is a member of the Little Shell Tribe in Great Falls, MT.

PWNA:  What do you want people to take away from this song?

DB:  I hope this song continues to grow the friendship between the Irish and Native American communities. In Ireland, we have so much respect for these great individuals and our strengthened relationship over time really solidifies that. It’s always my goal when writing a song to make music that connects people and tells a story from start to finish.

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Recently in Native News

This month has been full of change. As we wrap up 2020, we’re sharing our selection of notable Native headlines from the month of November. From voter turnout to celebrating Native American Heritage Month, there is a lot to discover. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn to stay up to date with the latest Native news headlines all year.

Navajo Nation reinstates stay-at-home order as COVID-19 cases surge via HuffPost

  • “The Navajo Nation on Monday will reinstate a stay-at-home lockdown for the entire reservation while closing tribal offices and requiring new closures and safety measures for businesses due to rising COVID-19 cases.”

Native American voters in Arizona showed up in force for Biden as COVID-19 ravaged Tribal Nations via BuzzFeed

  • “This has been a catastrophic year for the Navajo Nation. The coronavirus pandemic has spread like wildfire through the sprawling reservation, infecting thousands and killing hundreds. Still, Diné, the Navajo people, voted in huge numbers this election, and largely in favor of Joe Biden, helping turn Arizona, a longtime deep red state, blue.”

335 homes connected to Navajo Nation electric grid through CARES Act via KTAR News

  • “Funding from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act has connected 335 homes to the electric grid in Navajo Nation. According to the Navajo Tribal Utility Authority, crews have been working 10-hour days to help connect the homes and more families are expected to be connected in the coming days. NTUA’s stated goal is to provide electricity for 510 families identified in the 2020 Light Up Navajo II application process.”

A record number of Native American women were elected to congress on Tuesday via Global Citizen

  • “Native American women are more represented in the US government than ever before. A record number of Native American women, nine Democrats and nine Republicans, ran for Congress in the 2020 election on Tuesday, compared to just two in 2018, according to the news site the 19th. Three of the candidates won House seats.”

How one fitness enthusiast is tackling the Navajo diabetes crisis via Men’s Health

  • “Loren Anthony’s backyard gym keeps growing. Early this year, he had a few wooden beams. When summer ended, he had railroad ties, chains, and crates, MacGyver-ing them together for deadlifts and shoulder presses. The 37-year-old grits out a workout session nearly every day, often uploading clips to his Instagram or Facebook account. It’s how he inspires his Diné people to find ways to train—and he desperately wants them to do that. “I want more people to understand that fitness is a lifestyle that isn’t a trend,” he says.”
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Celebrating Thanksgiving through Gratitude and Generosity

When the colonists faced bitter cold, illness and hunger in an unfamiliar land with few resources for survival, the Native Americans gave them life-saving help. Their generosity brought forth a bountiful harvest more than 400 years ago that served as inspiration for the modern interpretation of what Thanksgiving represents. However, the colonists’ gratitude toward Native Americans was short-lived and the Native Americans continue to face the resulting challenges, even today.

Historically, Native Americans relied on the abundance of Mother Earth to nurture their communities. Now, though, there is typically little fresh or healthy food available to Native Americans who live on the remote reservations established by the U.S. government during the Westward expansion.

With limited grocery stores, the food choices are wanting – even on Thanksgiving. This, complemented by the staggering unemployment rates and limited transportation within tribal communities, leaves fewer opportunities for prosperity than for the descendants of America’s early settlers.

For 30 years, Partnership With Native Americans has worked to ensure Native American communities are not forgotten about, even when the rest of the nation is celebrating Thanksgiving. We collaborate with tribal partners through our Northern Plains Reservation Aid and Southwest Reservation Aid programs each year to offer healthy Thanksgiving meals to those most in need.

While our Native partners on the reservations have had to adjust their distribution methods for 2020 to comply with COVID-19 safety guidelines, they are still dedicated to providing Thanksgiving meals to Native Elders, children and families. We are supporting the distribution of family meal bags that Elders can prepare at home with their families, in addition to a limited number of socially-distanced, congregate meals for community members. This year,  despite the challenges brought forth with the COVID-19 pandemic, we are grateful the pandemic has raised critical awareness of the realities of life across Indian Country. In the past, mainstream media often did not cover the significant impacts of an emergency on a reservation community. This year, we’ve seen an increased understanding from the media and general public relative to what it means to live remotely – oftentimes with limited food, water and connectivity.

As we continue to recognize American Indian Heritage Month, we hope that you will encourage your family to remember Native Americans as you come together – in person or digitally – to celebrate what you are most grateful for this Thanksgiving.

Here are a few ways you can celebrate Native Americans this Thanksgiving:

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Rock Your Mocs 2020

Rock Your Mocs 2020 (RYM 2020) is here!  The annual week-long campaign brings together tribes across the country – and globe – to show off their moccasins and honor Native American ancestors and Indigenous peoples as an extension of American Indian Heritage Month. RYM 2020 will be recognized Nov.15-21, 2020.

RYM was founded in 2011 by Jessica “Jaylyn” Atsye of the Laguna Pueblo in New Mexico. She partnered with Emergence Productions – A Native American-owned event production company – to bring this cultural celebration to life. Originally celebrated on Nov. 15, RYM is now celebrated for a full week so that more people have a chance to share in the tradition.

Each year, organizers around the world host awareness events, dances, marathons, and workshops to bring communities together. These events can occur anytime during the week but with the ongoing pandemic, we recommend you check local listings for updates and follow local guidelines about social distancing and gatherings. Many participating organizations are getting creative this year, such as the Isleta Pueblo in New Mexico. They’ll be hosting a virtual 5K run in moccasins where participants can sign up to run (or walk) their 5K on their own time.

Participating in the RYM movement is simple – even if you don’t own moccasins! Just wear a turquoise ribbon for awareness and solidarity, take a picture of your mocs or ribbon and post it on social media, using the official hashtag, #ROCKYOURMOCS. The hashtag will allow people to follow along and see the unique designs and types of moccasins used by tribes around the world.

The RYM movement aims to inspire cultural pride and empowerment for tribes and Indigenous peoples and raise awareness of Native causes, such as the efforts of PWNA, which has served Native communities for 30 years. Being able to celebrate our culture is fantastic, and RYM is a wonderful way to support our communities, teach younger generations about our history, and bring people together to share in honoring and preserving Native American heritage.

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National Diabetes Month & Diabetes in Native Communities

Diabetes probably affects someone in your life, but what do you really know about it?  Well, heads up. Diabetes affects 423 million people worldwide, including about 30 million Americans and 1 in 10 women, and is the seventh leading cause of death in the U.S. A very serious disease, some learn to cope with diabetes, while others are less able to cope physically or financially.

Split into two categories, Type 1 diabetes is characterized by the body’s inability to produce insulin, and Type 2 is characterized by the body’s ineffective use of insulin, without which the body cannot properly absorb sugar and low blood sugar (or hyperglycemia) can occur. Health issues related to blood sugar, blood pressure, and even poor healing of extremities can occur from diabetes.

Why bring up these facts on diabetes now? November is National Diabetes Month and diabetes affects some of those close to me. Remember that 423 million affected? Well, diabetes among Native Americans is twice as likely as it is for whites. And why is this?

I’ve personally heard a couple of different reasons. One is “artificial” or processed sugars, or more specifically, the rapid introduction of processed sugar into Native diets during colonization. Some say that our bodies were unable to quickly adjust to this type of sugar and became overly sensitized to it, while also becoming desensitized to the naturally-occurring insulin our bodies had always used. A second reason is the introduction of commodity foods to relocated tribes. Historically, commodity foods were heavy in sugar and carbohydrates, cheap ingredients so distributing them makes financial sense — but the families reliant on commodities were often predisposed to diabetes.

My father was diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes in 2001. I remember when he used to collapse due to blood pressure issues, and a specific instance when he was hospitalized because of it. In his own words, “It took me 14 years to do anything about it. One day I just realized that if I didn’t start managing my diabetes a lot better, I wouldn’t live to be very old… One day I just woke up and said, ‘I can do better.’” Since then, my father has improved his dietary choices, exercise, and regimen of medication. With the 3 critical aspects of diet, exercise, and medication, his diabetes has been much more manageable since 2015.

This month, PWNA applauds the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive Kidney Diseases for raising awareness of diabetes and its impact on school-age youth under 20. PWNA also applauds its reservation program partners who work tirelessly toward diabetes prevention, such as the Special Diabetes Program at Sells Indian Hospital, the Ohkay Owingeh Wellness and Diabetes Program, and the Acoma Diabetes Program to name a few.

High carb foods, high sugar foods, and highly-processed foods all contribute to diabetes, and a sedentary lifestyle only worsens the condition. While many might see the disease as crippling, it doesn’t have to be. Type 2 diabetes is preventable and can be managed with small steps and mindfulness, whether that is walking a mile a day, having fewer desserts, or choosing healthy foods and gardening to ensure your diet includes fresh produce. If you or someone you know is suffering from diabetes, take heed that you can manage it, and that diabetes can kill. As my father reminds me, “I can remember some friends that, after these 14 years, aren’t around anymore” due to diabetic complications.

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PWNA turns 30! Celebrating our Milestone Anniversary this American Indian Heritage Month

November is American Indian Heritage Month and we’re honoring this month-long observance alongside the celebration of our 30th anniversary as a nonprofit championing hope for Native Americans.

In 1989, PWNA’s founder read an article about the poverty and isolation on the Rosebud Reservation, and our organization was founded shortly after that. Since then, we’ve been an advocate of and ally to Native American communities that are often overlooked and underserved.

We recognize how far we’ve come these past 30 years and are proud of the lives we’ve impacted, including:

  • Preventative health care for 3.7 million people
  • Relief from food insecurity for 2 million Native Elders, families and children
  • Holiday support for 1.2 million people
  • Disaster preparedness and emergency response aid for 875,000 people
  • Supplies and financial assistance for 835,000 students
  • Rescue and rehabilitation for 370,000 animals on reservations

After 30 years, we’re still assisting tribal communities that are facing challenges most Americans will never have to face such as food insecurity, water shortages, limited access to health care and lack of basic utilities such as electricity and running water. Our programs are designed to not only support immediate relief but also to offer long-term solutions toward self-sustaining, community-based initiatives.

Currently, we’re focused on delivering critical resources to communities so that they can continue battling the COVID-19 pandemic. Native Americans are 5.3 times more likely to contract COVID-19, so delivering supplies such as food, clean water and PPE means delivering a fighting chance at stopping the spread of the virus.

Together with our partners, we’ve been able to improve quality of life for Native Americans for three decades now. None of our work would be possible without the generosity of individual donors, funders and in-kind supporters who believe in PWNA’s mission.

All this month, we’ll be celebrating American Indian Heritage Month and this milestone achievement with new content and giveaways. Be sure to check out 30 actions you can take these next 30 days to increase awareness of realities for Native Americans, and follow along on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram .

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Recently in Native News

The Native American vote is pivotal in the 2020 presidential election. We’re sharing our selection of notable Native headlines from the month of October. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn to stay up to date with the latest headline news throughout the  year.

How one Native American tribe in S.D. created its own wireless education network via Argus Leader

  • “A South Dakota Native American tribe has solved one of the biggest challenges facing tribal schools amid the deadly COVID-19 pandemic by developing a plan to provide computers and cost-effective, high-speed internet connections to all students and teachers. As the pandemic rages on, schools that serve Native communities have been closed and students are being taught remotely, a concept that has forced tribal governments to grapple with the longstanding, expensive problem of providing computers and connecting tribal members to high-speed internet service.”

Native Americans face steep election hurdles via The Guardian

  • “The pandemic has led to a surge in postal ballots but mail posted on the reservation has to travel as much as 244 miles further than mail posted off-reservation. Tamisha Jensen requested a mail ballot in mid-September. Mail ballots don’t ship in Arizona until 7 October, but she’s worried her first absentee ballot won’t get to her. Jensen, a jeweler who lives in the Navajo Nation, doesn’t have a regular mailing address – she writes “a mile west of Cameron Chapter House” – and the US Postal Service doesn’t deliver to her rural, desert home.”

A Native American community in Baltimore reclaims Its history via Smithsonian Magazine

  • “One chilly March afternoon in 2018, Ashley Minner, a community artist, folklorist, professor and enrolled member of the Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina, gathered the elders together for a luncheon at Vinny’s, an Italian eatery on the outskirts of Baltimore. The group crowded around a family-style table, eager to chat with friends after a long winter. Over a dessert of cannoli and Minner’s homemade banana pudding, she got down to business to show the group what she had found – a 1969 federally commissioned map of the Lumbee Indian community in Baltimore as it stood in its heyday. Her discovery was met with bewildered expressions.

Native Americans in Minnesota Keep COVID-19 at Bay via U.S. News & World Report

  • “COVID-19 has taken a disproportionate toll on Native Americans in many communities. Here’s how one band has avoided the worst. After the COVID-19 pandemic made its jarring entrance onto U.S. soil earlier this year, leaders of the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa watched closely as the disease inched inward toward their reservation, 100,000 square acres of wooded land and mossy swamps in northeastern Minnesota.”
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Back to School Update

It’s been a little more than five months since I first wrote about how COVID-19 affected my spring semester of college. Since then, new guidelines and teaching styles were implemented for the fall semester and I want to share what our new normal looks like.

In my opinion, my college in South Dakota has handled its response to the pandemic well. We were able to start the semester as safely as possible because they established guidelines for social distancing and wearing face masks and handled some of the scenarios that arose on campus.

Of course, social distancing means limited capacity in the classroom and even the largest classes can only accommodate 20-30 people. This has led to adjusted in-person class schedules, where students take turns attending class in person vs. online, so that everyone can participate in some in-person instruction each week. Some classes have also continued to follow a fully online schedule.

The spread of the virus spiked at one point at my school (numbers released were based on student reports), and some projections showed it would be school-wide within a few weeks. Thankfully, the staff were diligent and effective with contact-tracing and quarantining students. This incident was curtailed after only a couple of weeks and the rate of new infections reduced by more than 75 percent.

Several friends of mine argued about the effectiveness and necessity of these protocols; in response, I pointed to those close to me who are living with chronic medical issues and are at higher risk for contracting COVID-19. I explained that following the recommended guidelines was critical to protecting them and others.

Despite trying to follow protocols as carefully as possible, there’s only so much one can control. The odds are you will eventually be exposed to someone who has COVID-19. Several of my friends have contracted COVID-19; some felt they had a cold and others felt like their chest was on fire. I’ve been lucky because I haven’t contracted it, but I did have to quarantine for about a month after being in contact with infected peers.

Unfortunately, my fiancé also had to quarantine. In-person labs and clinicals are not only essential to her degree but mandatory to pass. Nonetheless, she was unable to attend labs or go to work and that created some financial grief on top of the anxiety around her schoolwork. Now, we’re playing catch up and for my fiancé, this means 12+ hour days in the lab and at the hospital.

For me, returning to campus feels foreign when you’re still unable to see your friends or have contact with people outside of your home. The online learning structure and necessary curriculum changes have made classes feel different too.

Honestly, I didn’t see the impact of this pandemic clearly until we both had to quarantine, even after testing negative. The virus was easy to ignore – until it wasn’t.

COVID-19 created some bumps in the road, but I ‘m glad my school has been reasonably accommodating as we continue navigating this new normal.

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