Winter Solstice

The cycle of the seasons were important to our ancestors. They watched the phases of the moon, annual cycles of movement of the sun and stars, the seasonal flowering of different plants. In this way they noted the seasons to go harvest camas, when to expect various fish runs, and all other important seasonal activities. One way of tracking time was by counting days with bundles of sticks. For each day, one stick was removed from the bundle.

As a part of this knowledge our ancestors marked the Winter Solstice, which this year falls on December 21. The winter solstice is the day when the sun appears at its lowest,southernmost point on the horizon, has the shortest hours of daylight and longest hours of night. After the winter solstice, the daylight hours begin to lengthen again (until the summer solstice in June). The winter solstice was called “when the sun goes back/returns”; la t’kalis biinats’ andq’wale’es biinats’ in Hanis and Milluk Coos respectively. I think the name may be the same for the summer solstice as well-when the sun returns. Annie’s friend Agnes Johnson (Hanis) once remarked that both solstices were noted and recognized the north and south motions of the sun over the course of the year. 

The word for ‘return’ that Annie uses here, biinats’, is interesting. The verb appears several times in the Miluk texts, but only appears in the form biinats’ in Hanis with the phrase for solstice, tk’alis biinats’. In Miluk the root for ‘return’ is bii- and does appear in other constructions, such as biitsiim-return it to me! Now in Hanis, there is a verb that appears as pii(x)- or bii(x)-and it means to go home. (In Miluk to go home is wos-). However I have not found any other instances of pii(x)-/bii(x)- as biinats’. If I had to guess at the structure, in Hanis -n can be a distributive affix. Which usually means distributing the action to each and every subject and/or object. But the only ‘subject’ mentioned in conjunction explicitly mentioned here is the sun, but maybe it refers somehow to traveling back and forth the same route in the sky year after year. The -ts in Hanis usually marks a transitive verb (a verb with an object; unlike verbs like ‘sleep’ and so forth that do not have objects). But curiously this ts does not appear to be a regular suffix at all in Miluk. In Annie’s Miluk texts, it almost never appears except as biinats’. Regardless, it does seem the root bii-/pii- has some meaning of ‘return’, ‘go back’ in both Hanis and Miluk, and in Hanis it has come to spedifically mean ‘go/return home’.

Alas, a term or phrase for solstice was never recorded in Siuslaw-Lower Umpqua. But, based on the literal meaning of the Coosan versions, we could coin one. The usual word for ‘sun’ in Siuslaw is tsiitiix, pronounced tsiitiixa in the Quuiich (Lower Umpqua) dialect. There are a couple of different verbs that mean ‘to return’, chiin- xwiitl’-. So we could construct a phrase like tsiitiix(a) chiin or tsiitiix(a) xwiitl’atl’ for ‘sun returns’.

Annie Miner Peterson was the only person from our tribes that left a record of a solstice dance, and she had never seen the dance herself, only heard a description of it from her mother. According to Annie, there was a dance held at night. The adults all wore what she described as ‘ugly masks’ which were made of:

dried deer heads…[or] sewed-together eel skins; or of half or less of salmon skin. The skin would be fastened over the head…. Some may have on a dried wild cat head. Mrs. P. thinks all the dancers, men and women both, have masks. Some women weave maple leaves for garments (cape and skirt) for just this dance, or ferns are made in a cape and skirt for this dance. The men wear a hide (wild cat, panther, deer) of some sort with fur on, for this dance. (Jacobs notebook 93, page 101).

Children were frightened of the masks. Annie was told that the children were so scared that they might become sick so they were not allowed to go to this dance.

Unfortunately that is all Annie Peterson learned of the dance from her mother. The meaning behind the masks and the dance is now lost. 

However it is illuminating to note that many northern cultures celebrated Winter Solstice as a time that symbolizes death and rebirth. The sun appears to come near death as it reaches its nadir at the solstice, but then it appears to return to life as it climbs higher in the horizon and the days lengthen, and many cultures had feasts or religious ceremonies to help (in their view) bring the sun back to life. Perhaps this dance also held a similar meaning for the celebrants.

About shichils

Just sharing some fun on language
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