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Harjo: New starts

Now is the time when most people in this part of the world reflect on passages and prepare for what is to come. Celebrations for looking back and starting over are ancient and powerful rituals, more likely born in the hearts of children than in the visions of mystics or the minds of politicians.

In Native cultures, we are instructed to observe the ordinary world, pay attention to extraordinary signs and prepare the way. People throughout the world time their renewal ceremonies and preparations to movements of stars, phases of the moon and special things that happen in the sky.

A friend tells me that her traditional Blackfeet people start the New Year later, with the first thunder of spring. That's the signal to get ready for ceremony.

Deculturalized people in the European countries of Shakespeare's time (mid-1500s to early 1600s) struggled with their tribal peoples to put away cultural traditions of preparing for ceremony because nature said to, but they still believed in omens. The playwright's character Hamlet sets aside a premonition about a sword fight (his last, as it turned out), telling his schoolmate, ''we defy augury.''

Hamlet defines death almost as a ceremony of being prepared for it: ''There's a special providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be now, 'tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come: the readiness is all. Since no man has aught of what he leaves, what is't to leave betimes? Let be.''

The mere thought of existing in a constant state of readiness is exhausting, but that is what holy people, warriors, mothers and farmers do. The rest of the people make preparations and ceremonies to feed them, return them to society, teach their children, gather the harvest and amuse them. When the time is right, tears are wiped, blood is washed, visions are shared, babies are named.

An Onondaga friend explains that the Midwinter Ceremony of the Cayuga, Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Seneca and Tuscarora nations provides instructions to not mix Haudenosaunee ceremonies with those of their brothers.

The Midwinter Ceremony starts in the early part of the calendar year - on Jan. 4 in 2008 - and involves more than a week of giving names, interpreting dreams, playing games and dancing. Each ceremony is done in a precise way and order. At the conclusion, the earth is renewed and everything is made ready for the new time.

The Sun Dance is a New Year's celebration for our Cheyenne people. We call it a New Life Ceremony. In the summer when the medicine fields are in bloom, we envision the re-creation of Creation. Through our personal pledges and sacrifices, we dream and dance life into being and give new birth to the universe.

New Year's for the Muscogee Peoples is celebrated in the summer, too. It's called Posketv (Fast) or New (Green) Corn Ceremony. This is a ceremony of purification, renewal and forgiveness. People who take part in the ceremony prepare by cleansing their bodies, inside and outside, and by making a new fire of a pure heart and mind, free of ill will and filled with forgiveness of all wrongs.

Growing up in a multicultural home with a Cheyenne mother and Muscogee father, I was constantly asking about the origin of traditions. When I asked about the custom of eating black-eyed peas on New Year's Day, both parents claimed it. Dad knew that black-eyed peas are indigenous to the southeast United States, which is mostly traditional territory of the 60-plus nations of the Muscogee Confederacy, and to Central America, and that Native peoples cultivated the beans. Mom conceded the point, saying that black-eyed peas were probably a later-acquired tradition of the Cheyennes in Oklahoma.

The upshot was that I had to do a research paper on the subject. Basically, the white folks brought the tradition of New Year's Day being Jan. 1 and eating lucky foods then, and the Indians brought the black-eyed peas and wild hogs. The tradition spread throughout the South and now there are as many origin stories as there are recipes for cooking a great pot of beans.

For most of my life and as far back as I can remember, I have eaten black-eyed peas on Jan. 1. In those years when I've not eaten these beans on New Year's Day, I haven't had good luck, so I wouldn't think of starting off the new year without them.

About the time that I was getting all the traditions lined up with the right folks, we moved to Napoli, Italia, where Dad was stationed with NATO, Allied Forces Southern Europe. The family went to a New Year's Eve party on the top floor of our apartment building and I went to bed. Napoli, a fireworks capital of the world, also is home to a tradition of throwing dishes, glasses and furniture off balconies and into the courtyards and streets at midnight. Someone threw a firecracker with a slow-burning fuse into an orange crate of fireworks, which exploded and nearly killed the man who was carrying it into our building.

The explosion blew the nails out of the wall above my bed, dropping on my head a giant gilt-edged framed painting of the ''Last Supper.'' People at the party thought it was a big one, but nothing that unusual, until they looked up and down the stairs and saw all the double doors of thick oak blown off their frames. All the way to the hospital, people were throwing cherry bombs at us and the ambulance driver had to dodge debris from the midnight tossing of old stuff, which I learned is intended to make way for the new good luck.

The experience most closely approximated Dad's World War II stories, but I was thrilled about the adventure of it all and with Mom's gift of red underwear - it's considered good luck to wear red panties on New Year's in Napoli. I was 11 and very happy with this new tradition.

The world is filled with fine traditions and charming customs, like New Year's resolutions. The idea that we can wake up on Jan. 1 with the ability to send black-eyed peas to do combat with fat cells is more than charming - it's life-altering. It's the stuff that keeps you going until the new corn.

Suzan Shown Harjo, Cheyenne and Hodulgee Muscogee, is president of the Morning Star Institute in Washington, D.C., and a columnist for Indian Country Today.