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By Marcus Bankuti, Local Journalism Initiative reporter

On January 7, Mohawk Trail Longhouse faithkeeper Kevin Deer burned tobacco and stirred ashes in his wood stove at home.

“I started a whole brand new fire, so it’s starting the whole new year off on a positive note,” he said.

The annual ceremony of stirring ashes - kanonhwaro:ri - symbolizes turning over the fire of the previous year and starting anew.

Deer has participated in this ceremony every year since 1979, but it was his first time doing so in private. The practice would usually kick off seven days of ceremonies at the Longhouse, beginning five days from the first new moon after the winter solstice.

The ceremonies can attract as many as nearly 200 people to the Longhouse, but last year it was limited only to faithkeepers because of the pandemic.

This year, people were not able to gather at all. Some may be able to meet at the next new moon instead, depending on how Omicron develops, but this is still unclear.

“I’m happy that I can do it because I speak the language, I know the songs, but there’s a lot of people who don’t speak the language, who don’t know the songs, so it’s hard for them to do it,” said Deer.

Normally, Deer dresses up as one of two ceremonial “uncles,” whose role is to remind the community of the ceremonies and encourage them to attend.

The Midwinter Ceremonies include a wide variety of rituals, speeches, sacred songs, and dances that are connected to a spiritual acknowledgment of the natural world.

“It’s festive, but at the same time it’s ceremonial,” said Deer. “The whole idea is we’ve got to take the time to acknowledge all of these things that sustain us because, you know, if we don’t do our thunder dance and then this summer the thunder beings don’t come, we’re not going to get food.”

He said interest in the ceremonies has grown in recent years alongside a general cultural resurgence.

“We say that we’re Native people, and there are responsibilities that go with that,” he said. “It’s our languages. It’s who we are.”

For Deer, the Midwinter Ceremonies are also an opportunity to ground oneself in reflections about what it means to live in alignment with nature and how one can find ways to better live up to that ideal.

“Let’s not wait till we’re dead and we go back to clay to understand that, hey, we should have been acting in defence of the Mother Earth and all the natural things that sustain us every day,” he said.

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