A Very Michif New Year

In his book, "Indian Boyhood", Charles Eastman (Sisseton Dakota) described the events of his first New Years celebration at a winter camp of Metis in the Mouse River Valley, North Dakota, during the late 1800s. Eastman's band of Dakota were camped near the Metis winter camp, and after an initial shock, were invited to participate in a stunning event.


Eastman describes this event below:


"A little way from our camp there was a log village of French Canadian half-breeds, but the two villages did not intermingle. About the Moon of Difficulty (January) we were initiated into some of the peculiar customs of our neighbors. In the middle of the night there was a firing of guns throughout their village. Some of the people thought they had been attacked, and went over to assist them, but to their surprise they were told that this was the celebration of the birth of the new year!


Our men were treated to minnewakan or "spirit water," and they came home crazy and foolish. They talked loud and sang all the rest of the night. Finally our head chief ordered his young men to tie these men up and put them in a lodge by themselves. He gave orders to untie them " when the evil spirit had gone away."


During the next day all our people were invited to attend the half-breeds* dance. I never knew before that a new year begins in mid-winter. We had always counted that the year ends when the winter ends and a new year begins with the new life in the springtime.


I was now taken for the first time to a dance in a log house. I thought it was the dizziest thing I ever saw. One man sat in a corner, sawing away at a stringed board, and all the while he was stamping the floor with his foot and giving an occasional shout. When he called out, the dancers seemed to move faster."



"The men danced with women — something that we Indians never do — and when the man in the corner shouted they would swing the women around. It looked very rude to me, as I stood outside, with the other boys and peeped through the chinks in the logs. At one time a young man and woman facing each other danced in the middle of the floor. I thought they would surely wear their moccasins out against the rough boards; but after a few minutes they were relieved by another couple.


Then an old man with long curly hair and a fox-skin cap danced alone in the middle of the room, slapping the floor with his moccasined foot in a lightning fashion that I have never seen equalled. He seemed to be a leader among them. When he had finished, the old man invited our principal chief into the middle of the floor, and after the Indian had given a great whoop, the two drank in company. After this, there was so much drinking and loud talking among the men, that it was thought best to send us children back to the camp."


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SOURCE: Eastman, C. A. (1904). Indian boyhood. McClure, Phillips.



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