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  • Writer's picturezhaawano

Spirit of the Seasons, part 10: Why We Celebrate the New Year in Winter

Updated: Feb 22

Gichi-manidoo-giizis (Great Spirit Moon) (January 12, 2024)


Watching the Grandfathers Dance, painting by Zhaawano Giizhik




Each time I tell and share a story, or create a piece of jewelry or a painting, I return home. By that I mean that I tap into Anishinaabe inaadiziwin. Anishinaabe inaadiziwin is how we call our common shared way of being that’s based on our language, our histories, and our ceremonial practices, and that's rooted in Anishinaabe Aki, the land that the Anishinaabeg peoples live on since many generations.

In doing this, I am always aware that Anishinaabemowin, the language, is key to reclaiming our land and our culture. Or, as we would say nowadays, to "decolonizing" ourselves. Knowing, but above all, UNDERSTANDING the language is paramount if we want to "biskaabii" —return—, or, better yet, "giiwekiiwin" —a return to our homeland. Return to our homeland, in a metaphorical sense that is, and not necessarily in the literal sense of the word. Many Natives live in the city, cut off from their original family ties, and not everyone has a land to return to.

What's the concept of Giiwekiiwin?

The process of Giiwekiiwin, or Giiwekiibiiyaang ("We Return to Our Homeland"), is derived from, and based on, the principles of Anishinaabe-inaadiziwin (Anishinaabe way of being). These principles, which were given to us by the spirits, have developed over generations and resulted in a wealth of dibaajimowinan (true life stories or chronicles based on firsthand experiences); aadizookaanan (sacred stories); Anishinaabemowin (language as a way of life); and anishinaabe-izhitwaawin (our culture, teachings, customs, and history).

But what is the literal meaning of giiwekiiwin? It's a contraction of the verb "giiwe" - which means "(s)he returns" - and aki- which means "land." The ending "win" is a nominalizer that turns the verb giiwekii into a noun.

Giiwekiiwin, or Giiwekiibiiyaang, "We Return to Our Homeland," is a concept describing that moment of returning home after a long journey. It's like, after a long and trying journey to Waaban (the east), then to Zhaawan (the south) and Ebangishimog (the west), we finally return to Giiwedin, the north. Now, break down "Giiwedin." Do you notice the "giiwe" part? The North is our home! The North is a place of wisdom, where we can rest, share stories, a time to reflect! It's a time of looking back and passing on one's life experience onto the younger generations in a good way.

So, in a metaphorical sense, Giiwekiiwin refers to the notion of cultural resurgence, resisting colonial oppression, and reclaiming Anishinaabe language and culture. Giiwekiiwin (sometimes called "biskaabiiwin": "A Return to Ourselves") is about cultural and economic freedom for Indigenous people with the goal of achieving sovereignty and the right and ability of to practice self-determination. But above all, it is about UNDERSTANDING the way our ancestors looked at the world and UNDERSTANDING that this understanding helps us in getting our identity back, makes us gain control over our own thoughts and emotions, and, most importantly of all, gives us the psychological and emotional freedom that we need to achieve mino-bimaadiziwin: Living good, healthy, and upright lives.

Giiwekiiwin, in short, gives us back our dignity and our self-esteem. And, not unimportantly, our ability to wonder.

There are so many things in our lives to wonder about!


The Ojibwe Grandmother Turtle Lunar Calendar drawn on the Turtle's back shield, painting by Zhaawano Giizhik

For the Anishinaabeg Peoples, the turtle is like a grandmother. She represents the spirit of the people, the women, and the land. To the Anisinaabeg, the shell of the turtle represents the body of events, teachings, and origins of the People. The thirteen large sections on the back of the turtle represent ashi niswi giizisoog (thirteen moons) in the Earth’s rotation around the sun. Thirteen also represents the four seasons in the Earth’s cycle around the sun, plus the nine moons it takes for the developing of a human child in the mother’s womb. The scutes (scales) that surround the large sections on top of the turtle's back represent the number of days that make up an entire lunar cycle . Click here to read more about this topic.


A few weeks ago we witnessed Winter Solstice. This phenomenon marks the changing of the old year into a new one as the earth is purified while she lies underneath her blanket of snow. When this happens, I put my asemaa (tobacco) down with wonderment and gratitude for this annual time of rebirth. But is the practice of celebrating the start of a new year on New Year's Eve —which, according to the Gregorian Sun calendar, falls on the last day of December and first day of January— an original Anishinaabe tradition? Or is it our tradition to regard the Winter Solstice, which occurs a few days prior to that, as the start of the new year? Did our ancestors, who lived their lives according to a completely different calendar —the Grandmother Lunar calendar— celebrate the beginning of a new year in the winter —or is that something the European colonizers forced upon us? Isn't it more likely to presume that in the old days the new year started in spring, when the lakes and rivers would thaw and the flowers and trees started to bloom? After all, isn't it a common tradition with the majority of the Indigenous peoples of Turtle Island that New Year occurs every year on the new moon of the first lunar month, around the beginning of spring?

Ambe! Giwe-akiikan, let's return home and find out!

The question we ask ourselves today is: Did the gete-anishinaabeg (ancestors) actually celebrate new years, and if so, when? Listen to what, not so long ago, a respected gete-ayaa (Elder) had to say about it.

"Yes, they did. They called it ceremony. This is winter ceremony where you got together and you feasted. It’s the beginning. See, Anishinaabe counted years from winter to winter…abi’aboon to abi’aboon. When you talk about last year you talk about nishkwaaj abi’aboon (the one that just came by) and then next would be minaawaa bitiboon for next winter. And this year, the present winter, is abi’aboon. The beginning of winter for us really is—or the New Year—is the full moon after solstice. When the sun starts to come back; the coming back of the sun after it stood still (usually around December). After the sun starts coming back, then we know the next moon is really the New Year because we went by the moons rather than anything else. So the full moon was the New Year; that’s when you held a ceremony, feasted and sang, talked about it, talk about why we’re having it."
—Misi-zaagiing Anishinaabe Gidigaa Migizi, Ginoozhe Doodem, Oshkiigmong (The late Mississauga Elder Doug Williams, Northern Pike Clan of Curve Lake First Nation)*

Although, like I mentioned above, most Indigenous lunar calendars dictate that a month starts with each new moon and the new year starts in spring, Anishinaabeg tradition has it that a month starts with the rising of a full moon; accordingly, the new year starts around the time of the winter solstice and when the moon is full. (There are exceptions to that rule though. One is a tradition held sacred by the Anishinaabe Waabanoowiwin Lodge; to them, the Spring Equinox is the beginning of the new year —unlike the Midewiwin Lodge, whose new year begins in Winter. To the Waabanoo, Minookamin (Late Spring) is a time to celebrate and fell just after the Maple camps. To others, the beginning of the lunar calendar -- and thus the New Year --  starts when the full moon rises in the month of February, when the bears begin to awaken from their winter dens. In the southeastern part of Anishinaabe Aki , February is therefore known as Makwa-giizis, or Bear Moon; another name for this time of year is Makoonsag-gaa-nitaawaadi-giizis; Moon when the bear cubs begin to be birthed. Then there are also Anishinaabeg who see the moons in which the sap of the maple trees starts to run as the beginning of a new year; this happens, depending on the region, from mid-March to mid-April.)

Now, you may ask yourself, when exactly did 2023 turn into 2024 according to our lunar calendar? To answer this, we must first decide when the Winter Solstice occurred, and when did we see the full moon rise shortly after that? These events took place on respectively December 21 and December 26. So, according to the Ojibwe Grandmother Lunar calendar, the new year (2024) started in the period between 21 December (when there was a solstice) and 26 December 2023 (when the moon was full). So, I guess one could say that, technically, oshki-bibooni-giizis, the Anihinaabe New Year, started in the last week of December 2023.


Wiindigoo, Creator of the Earth's Poles painting by Zhaawano Giizhik



Why is that most Anishinaabeg celebrate the new year in the winter? There is no clear-cut answer to this. Some would argue that celebrating New Year on January 1 is something the European invaders, who brought the Gregorian solar calendar to Turtle Island, imposed on us. This is of course very true. But there is more to it. Although the traditional Anishinaabe New Year seldom falls on January 1, it does occur in the week before, or after , depending on when the full moon rises right after the Winter Solstice. An ancient teaching, probably stemming from pre-contact times, has been passed down by an old warrior society known as the Windigookaan (No-flight Contraries; literally: "Society of the Cannibal Winter Monster"), indicating that it was the wiindigoog who were responsible for the creation of biboon (winter). They did this to save the planet; their interference from the sky created the pole caps and the seasons, which marked the beginning of the Anishinaabe lunar calendar...

This teaching tells us that everything in the cosmos is ice until it heats up enough to melt it on a planet or by a sun/star. This is where the Wiindigoo spirits come in. Regardless of their whereabouts — be it on earth or in space —, wiindigoog follow the edge of the ice/water.

It is believed that way back in history, the wiindigoog weren't humans, but spirits whose homes could be found on the shores of the Jiibay-ziibi, the mighty River of Souls that meanders its way through the Galaxy. Ghastly creatures they were, looking like huge terrifying skeletons with their bones pushing out against their skin which was colored the ash-gray of death! Here, in this galactic land floating through the sky, permeated and surrounded by gas, debris, and huge clouds of water, they used to lay in ambush to snatch and devour those poor deceased human beings whose souls were unprepared for their journey home to Waakwi — the Land behind the stars where their ancestors lived.

But then, many, many strings of lives ago the earth shifted, bringing chaos to the world, and this is when the ishpiming wiindigoo, who lived on the red planet nowadays called Alpha Orion, volunteered to bring back order. Straight through the void of space from the stars and amid a shower of Orionids he came, moving through the earth to stabilize the tumbling, holding the Earth's poles constant. Because of this, the wiindigoog were gifted with the gift of ice for holding the actual poles of the earth! This event marked the creation of biboon (winter) and the beginning of the Anishinaabe calendar, and from that moment on the cycle of the seasons started around the time of the Winter solstice — a few days before the rising of the full moon, when the sucker fish spawn.

Since that day, "Gaa-biboonikaan" (Bringer of Winter) is the name by which the Wiindigoo who came from the stars is known. So, each time you search the southwestern night sky to see the Bebooniked Anangoog, the Winter Maker Star Constellation (Orion) rise, find the red planet in the shoulder of the Winter Bringer and remember who it was who created the poles and gave us our winter traditions - including the celebration of the New Year...

Miigwech gibizindaw, thank you for listening.


Illustrations (top to bottom):

"Watching the Grandfathers Dance" ©2023 Zhaawano Giizhik. See the webshop for details.

"Grandmother Turtle and the Dance of the Thirteen Moons" ©2023 Zhaawano Giizhik. See the webshop for details.

"The Creation of the Earth's Poles" ©2024

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