Around the world last night, revelers marked the start of the new year. But in the Northwest corner of the U.S., some Native American tribes began their celebrations early.
On Dec. 20, just before the winter solstice, tribes in Eastern Oregon held a ceremony called kimtee inmewit, a welcoming of the new foods.
“This goes back to when the world was new. The first food that was created was the salmon — we call it nusux,” says Armand Minthorn, the spiritual leader of the tribes that live on the Umatilla Reservation, on the dry side of Oregon.
Minthorn explains that Indian New Year is the time to celebrate the return of the sacred foods. “The second food was the deer. We call the deer nukt. … The third was the bitter root we call sliiton.” These foods will come back to the Indian people as the sunlight hours begin to stretch again, Minthorn says.
To honor these sacred foods, the tribe sings, drums, dances, prays and shares a meal together at the longhouse.
In the community kitchen, elder women prepare meat stew and Indian fry bread. One of them is Lynn Sue Jones, a tiny woman with a soft, round face. She kneads a mass of tacky bread dough to a loose rhythm. “We can be able to face our demons and take care of our health a little better. Just want to see another year to begin with,” she says.
Jones is 62. She is taking on new responsibilities this year, raising two granddaughters, ages 3 and 5. “I just want to ask the creator to give me the strength to do right by them,” she says. “I want to teach them the longhouse way.”
The tribes’ children sing to the elders during the community meal. “Christmas in America is OK with me, I like spending time with my family,” they sing. Lynn Sue Jones’ sister, Linda Jones, listens nearby as she stretches small balls of dough. She flattens each one, then floats them in sizzling oil.
Tribal elder Linda Jones teaches younger women and girls how to gather the traditional foods for the tribes. Every year she goes out to the mountains and bluffs to harvest the wild celery, bitter roots and huckleberries. The foods are sacred, she says, because they nourish the people, but also because, “when our elders pass on and go back to the ground, this is how they come back to take care of us, in these foods.”
Some of Linda Jones’ long, long hair is silver. She worries that not enough young people are living the tribal traditions. Sometimes she has to gather the sacred foods alone.
“Everything is passed by word of mouth, and that’s how we were brought up and that is how we do things,” Linda Jones says. “Whoever will listen. It ends up coming down to that — who’s gonna listen.”
Linda Jones hopes to kindle enough interest in the ancestors’ teachings so that the Umatilla tribes have enough hands to bring in the sacred foods this year and in the years to come.