Ah Christmas – the anniversary of the Christ Child’s birth. It is… a very sacred time – and also a very happy time. It’s a period to stop, think and wonder… at the graciousness of His arrival here upon the Earth Mother. Yes’sir, and in a world – and a time – when so much is being done – daily – to denounce Him, His father and what they… stand for… it’s always nice to reflect upon the birth of Jesus every year. We must restate this reverence annually – at least I do, anyhow. Happiness is what the day and season mean. And as goofy as it may seem, I see similarities between the Christmas celebration and Traditional American Indians’ celebrations all the time. Most of us see it as CHRISTmas – not Christmas.
Yep, and rumor has it, that the word “mas” means “mission” to the Catholic Church. Similar reporting has it that in the Jewish faith, the word “Christ” comes from christos , a Greek word meaning “anointed.” So, Christmas could be defined as “The Anointed One’s Mission” or the “Anointed Mission”. Anointment was a symbolic gesture to proclaim that someone was chosen to be a priest or king, but, over time, anointment became pretty much synonymous with the word “King”. I guess that makes sense, eh. But ya know, the Indians of old had no way of knowing about Jesus until those pale, goofily-dressed missionaries showed up. Yet, from that point forward, it’s been pretty much a harmonious relationship between most Traditional American Indians of North America and Christianity. See, the North American Indian was the easiest race upon the Earth Mother to cross over to this faith. That’s because, by and large, the belief systems of both are so similar. Oh, I’m sure not saying it was all ‘sweet & easy’, but generically speaking, almost all North American Indians held beliefs that were remarkably like the tenants of Christianity. So, overall, when Indians in North America were confronted with Christianity, many incorporated elements of the new faith into their own beliefs, creating a new, syncretistic system, if they didn’t covert totally. And, for the most part, this is still true today for many of us Injuns. So, it is that most Traditional American Indians still respect the sanctity regarding the day of Jesus’ birth. It is a sacred time to us – what your standard model #301 white two-legged would call…well… “holy”.
Um-hmm, and years after the invasion (we say invasion, whites say colonization; tomato – tomahtoe), Christmas, and the holiness that the season embodies, was still being re-stated. Being a book scribbler myself, I’ve always had a penchant for old Charlie Dickens’ book A CHRISTMAS CAROL . After it was published, Dickens said this regarding how important and revered Christmas is:
I have endeavoured in this Ghostly little book, to raise the Ghost of an Idea, which shall not put my readers out of humour with themselves, with each other, with the season, or with me. May it haunt their houses pleasantly, and no one wish to lay it.
Their faithful Friend and Servant,
Yeah, I know, he talks funny. It’s because he was an Englishman. And heck, his book, and the story it tells, is one that many Traditional American Indians can relate to – Old English or no. In essence, it’s about doing what is right which, to my Traditional Shawnee people, is all that ever matters. This is the premise of Christianity, too, and thus much of what the season is meant to mean. Charles Dickens’ tale has become a Christmas staple for all Americans, because it is a restatement of what Christmas is, and what the birth of Christ meant. Mmm-hmm, and I can’t help but feel mournfully sad… that this restatement is getting harder and harder to initiate every year.
Anyway, I’m sure you noted all the ghosts in that 1843 account, and that old man Ebenezer buys the biggest turkey in the poulterer’s window for the Cratchit family – right? Well, although pelewas (turkeys) were a staple of meat for American Indians, it’s the peshikthe (deer) and ghosts that ties this tale to another Christmas personality – one that restates the value of giving, such as the gift of Mishemene’toc (God) giving us His only begotten son – Jesus. And this aspect, is well… kind’a jolly.
Christmas has a more mysterious and whimsical wonder, and this part isn’t sacred or holy. But man, it is traditional, and sooooo much fun for the little ones, eh. Yes’um, I’m talk’n about that old rotund, bearded white dude, dressed in the heavy red suit, who delivers toys and is the world’s most renown ‘milk & cookie’ connoisseur. Oh, and he also employs ‘deer’ and ‘little people’, too. See what I mean? Sure, whimsical and mysterious to the ‘enth degree – that’s Khristopher Kringle of Santa Clause fame. But it’s his gift-giving, the deer, Dickens, and maybe the little people involved in it that makes me see the correlations.
The Iroquois people have their Jo-Ge – little people of their culture, who gave great gifts to the Iroquois people. Little people – gifts – I mean, there it is, eh. I’m penning a book right now, which carries much about May-may-gwayshi – the Water Spirit of Michigan Indian culture. But almost all American Indian nations have little people within their traditional tales. None of them build toys, have pointed ears or wear green, that I know of, but many are just as funny-looking. Shawnee little people are small nature spirits who live in trees or rocks in the wilderness, and like May-may-gwayshi , they’re a tad on the hairy side. You bet’cha, and gift-giving… well this is deeply imbedded in all American Indian cultures. Anyway, my point is that Traditional American Indians have tie-ins with this stuff, albeit, not always in a normally ‘Christmasy’ kind of way. Now, my maternal great grandfather was Chickasaw, and if you thought I forgot about the deer and ghost tie-in, then below, is an old Chickasaw story to remedy that. Like Dickens’ epic, it’s a ghostly tale. And there’s a white deer – but he’s sure not covered in Christmas snow. And unlike old Rudolph – it wasn’t his nose that was red, eh – nope, and you probably wouldn’t want him anywhere near you, much… less guiding your sleigh.
Ghost of the White Deer
A Chickasaw Oral Story
A brave, young warrior for the Chickasaw Nation fell in love with the daughter of a chief. The chief did not like the young man, who was called Blue Jay. So the chief invented a price for the bride that he was sure that Blue Jay could not pay. “Bring me the hide of the White Deer,” said the chief. The Chickasaws believed that animals that were all white were magical. “The price for my daughter is one white deer.” Then the chief laughed. The chief knew that an all-white deer, an albino, was very rare and would be very hard to find. White deerskin was the best material to use in a wedding dress, and the best white deer skin came from the albino deer.
Blue Jay went to his beloved, whose name was Bright Moon. “I will return with your bride price in one moon, and we will be married. This I promise you.” Taking his best bow and his sharpest arrows Blue Jay began to hunt.
Three weeks went by, and Blue Jay was often hungry, lonely and beat-up from being afield. Then, one night during a full moon, Blue Jay saw a buck deer, as white as the snow, that seemed to drift through the moonlight. When the deer was very close to where Blue Jay hid, he shot his sharpest arrow. The arrow sank deep into the deer’s heart, but instead of sinking to his knees to die, the deer… began to run. And instead of running away… it ran right toward Blue Jay, its red eyes glowing, with its horns sharp, menacing and… deadly.
A month passed and Blue Jay did not return as he had promised Bright Moon. As the months dragged by, the tribe decided that he would never return. But Bright Moon never took any other young man as a husband, for she had a secret. When the moon was shining, as brightly as her name, Bright Moon would often see the white deer in the smoke of the campfire, running, with an arrow in his heart. She lived hoping the deer would finally fall, and Blue Jay would return.
To this day the white deer is sacred to the Chickasaw People, and the white deerskin is still the favorite material for the wedding dress.
Okay. So it’s not a ‘cheery holiday tale’. But you do have a deer – white as snow – a ghost, and while the red anatomy here are the eyes rather than the nose… you do have this in the story, eh. But, when it’s all said and done, Christmas isn’t about these kinds of things, anyway. It’s about the arrival of Christ. Yes, and I would like to RESTATE this… for the record. So, on that note – Yukpa, Nitak Hollo Chito! – Merry Christmas in American Indian, everyone!