I’ve been doing considerable research on the religious beliefs and practices of the Native American tribes that appear The Return. The Seneca, the westernmost tribe of the Iroquois Confederacy, held our ancestor Jacob Hochstetler captive from the fall of 1757 to May 1758, when he managed to escape. I'm finding their major religious ceremonies and festivals especially interesting. A very well-researched 5th grade textbook titled The Magic Moccasins by Jane Barks Ross (copyright 1985), now out of print, has been especially helpful, along with several online resources I found, which are listed below. The Seneca observed the following six major ceremonial festivals during the year to give thanks to Nauwaneu, the Master of Life.
- The Maple Festival, in which they gave thanks to the maple trees for yielding their sweet waters, and to the Master of Life for the gift of the maple.
- The Planting Festival, when they invoke the Master of Life to bless the seeds and cause the rain to fall and the plants to grow.
- The Strawberry Festival, a thanksgiving for the first fruit of the season.
- The Green Corn Festival to give thanks for the ripening of the harvest.
- The Harvest Festival, which is a general thanksgiving to the Master of Life for the abundance of the harvest.
- The Midwinter or White Dog Ceremony.
The White Dog Ceremony was the Seneca’s most important (and most interesting) festival. It was celebrated at the time of the new moon at the end of January or first of February to inaugurate the beginning of their new year by making a sacrifice for sins. It was believed that this would help the Master of Life bring back the spring and keep his evil brother from obstructing him.
|White Dog sacrifice at Onondaga Castle, January 18, 1872|
|Dancing in Worship of the Great Spirit|
The next 2 or 3 days found the committeemen dancing and running through the town with bearskins wrapped around their legs, firing their guns and running tortoise-shell rattles across the walls of the houses. Each carried a basket and demanded from the townspeople tobacco and other items to use for incense at the sacrifice. Ceremonial dances were held in which all the townspeople participated.
|Iroquois Cornhusk Mask|
The chiefs conferred on the affairs of their nation throughout the 9 days of the festival and planned for the future. On the final day everyone feasted on meat, corn, and beans cooked together in large kettles. Then the war dance was performed, followed by the peace dance. After the people smoked the peace pipe, they returned to their homes feeling that they had been cleansed from their sins to start the new year.
Some of these customs may seem outlandish to us today, but they held great meaning to the Seneca as the means of making atonement for their sins. Their religionincluded some beliefs and practices that helped to open the hearts of many of the native peoples to the preaching of the Gospel. In next month’s post I’ll describe the festivals of the Lenape, or Delaware tribe, whose religious beliefs made this tribe especially fertile ground for the ministry of Moravian and other Christian missionaries.
What religious festivals are particularly meaningful to you? Please share how they help you to worship and draw closer to God.