For Aboriginal people, it was time to honor their old deity in the sun. On winter solstice day, many Aboriginal communities hold religious ceremonies or community events. The winter solstice is the day of the year when the northern hemisphere has fewer hours of sunshine and the southern hemisphere has the greatest number. They passed on their knowledge to succeeding generations through complex stories and ritual practices. For decades, scientists have been studying the astronomical observations of ancient Indians and trying to understand their meaning. One of these places was at Cahokia, near the Mississippi River, in what is now Illinois, near St. Louis.
In Cahokia, the Indians built many pyramids or burial mounds of temples, which resembled the more than one thousand years built by the Aztecs in the buildings of Mexico. Among its buildings is a fascinating structure of wooden poles, arranged in a circle and now known as “Woodhenge”. To understand the purpose of Woodhenge, scientists observed how the sun had emerged from this structure at the winter solstice. What they found was enlightening: the sun was in tune with Woodhenge and the top of a temple, a temple built on a pyramid with a flat top in the distance. They also found that the sun is lined up with another temple hill at the summer solstice.
Archaeological evidence suggests that the people of Cahokia worshiped the sun as a deity. Researchers believe that ancient indigenous societies carefully observed the solar system and incorporated this knowledge into its architecture.
Zuni Pueblo is a contemporary example of indigenous peoples with an agricultural society in western New Mexico. They grow corn, beans, pumpkins, sunflowers and more. Annual harvest festivals and numerous religious ceremonies take place every year, including the winter solstice. At the winter solstice, they celebrate a feast of several days, known as the Shalako Festival. Parties are chosen by religious leaders. The Zuni are very private and most events are not public.
However, what is shared with the audience is towards the end of the ceremony when six Zuni men disguise themselves and embody the spirit of the giant bird deities. These men use Zuni prayers for rain “to the four corners of the earth”. Zuni deities are believed to provide “blessings” and “balance” for the coming seasons and the agricultural year.
All Aboriginal peoples did not ritualize the winter solstice with a ceremony. However, that does not mean they have not found other ways to party. The Montana Blackfeet tribe, of which I am a member, has historically organized a calendar of astronomical events. They marked the winter solstice and the “return” of the sun or “Naatosi” during their annual trip. They also opposed their tepees or tapered portable tents facing the rising sun. Large religious gatherings are rarely held in winter. Instead, the Blackfeet saw the winter solstice as a good time for community games and dances. As a child, my grandmother enjoyed attending community dances at the winter solstice. He recalled that each community held its own meetings with unique styles of drums, songs, and dances.
Later, during my own research, I learned that the Blackfeet had moved their dances and ceremonies in the early years of bookings, from their religious calendar periods to those accepted by the US government. The dances, which took place at the time of the solstice, were postponed to Christmas or New Year’s Eve. Today, my family is still spending the darkest days of winter playing card games and dances of the local community, as well as my grandmother.
Although some of the traditions of the winter solstice have changed over time, they still remember the Aboriginal peoples’ understanding of the complex functioning of the solar system. Or as the rituals of the Zuni people are shown to all the peoples of the earth, an ancient understanding of the interdependence of the world.