For Some Tribes, New Year's Foods Provide A Sacred Link To The Past

Jan 1, 2012
Originally published on January 1, 2012 10:53 am

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.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

In eastern Oregon, Native American tribes are holding their traditional New Year's ceremonies, which begin at the time of the winter solstice. Anna King of the Northwest News Network visited the Umatilla Tribe and has this report on the ceremony, which welcomes to the year's new foods.

ANNA KING, BYLINE: Armand Minthorn is a spiritual leader of the tribes that live on the Umatilla reservation on the dry side of Oregon. The celebration is called kimtee inmewit.

ARMAND MINTHORN: This goes back to when the world was new. And the first food that was created was a salmon we call nusux.

KING: Minthorn explains that the Indian New Year is the time to celebrate the return of the sacred foods.

MINTHORN: The second food was a deer, and we call a deer nukt.

KING: These foods will come back to the Indian people as the sunlight hours begin to stretch again.

MINTHORN: The third is the bitter root we call sliiton.

KING: To honor these sacred foods, the tribe sings, drums, dances, prays and shares a meal together at the longhouse.

(SOUNDBITE OF PEOPLE SPEAKING FOREIGN LANGUAGE)

KING: In the community kitchen, some elder women prepare meat stew and Indian fry bread. Lynn Sue Jones is tiny with a soft, round face. She kneads a mass of tacky bread dough to a loose rhythm.

LYNN SUE JONES: We can be able to face our demons and take care of our health a little bit better. And I'm glad I'll be able to see another year, to begin with.

KING: Lynn Sue Jones is 62. She is taking on new responsibilities this year - raising two granddaughters, three and five.

JONES: I just want to ask the creator to give me the strength to do right by them. You know, I want to teach them the longhouse way.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHILDREN SINGING)

KING: The tribe's children sing to the elders during the community meal. Lynn Sue Jones's sister, Linda Jones, listens nearby as she stretches small balls of dough. She flattens each one, then floats them in sizzling oil.

(SOUNDBITE OF SIZZLING)

KING: 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. Jones says the foods are sacred because they nourish the people but also:

LINDA JONES: 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.

KING: Some of Linda's long, long hair is silver. She worries not enough young people are living the tribe's traditions. Sometimes, she has to gather the sacred food alone.

JONES: Everything is passed by word of mouth and that's how we were brought up and that's how we do things. Whoever will listen. It ends up coming down to that, who's going to listen.

KING: Jones hopes to kindle enough interests in the ancestor's teachings so the Umatilla tribes have enough hands to bring in the sacred foods this year and in the years to come. For NPR News, I'm Anna King in Mission, Oregon. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.