Winter solstice amongst indigenous in the US

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A few miles outside of Collinsville, Illinois and north-west of St. Louis, sits mounds, but not just any patch of hills. These mounds are ancient.

Here, you will find evidence of a prehistoric, Native city that was the center of massive winter solstice festivals occurring thousands of years before Ireland’s Stonehenge.

Between Illinois and Missouri, are Cahokia Mounds, the largest archaeological site in the United States that evidences a sophisticated culture of people called, The Mississippians.

Cahokia Mounds Historical Site

Cahokia Mounds Historical Site is 2,200 acres, yet its original size estimates to be a six-mile-stretch. According to archaeological digs, the area once the city of Cahokia, and consisted of multiple-story housing and pyramid-like structures for over 100,000 people. Similar to Egyptian and Mayan pyramids, the mounds perfectly align with the solar system during the winter and summer solstice, and the spring and fall equinox.

Winter Solstice

Winter Solstice. Photo credit: Noah Silliman

In indigenous cultures around the world, the sun was acknowledged as a critical part of life. During winter solstice, the Earth’s maximum axial tilt to the sun is 23°23’ for a single moment in the year. In the northern hemisphere, the angle of the sun creates a day with the shortest amount of daylight.

At Cahokia, structures were built to align so perfectly that 408 miles away in Peebles, Ohio., another structure called, The Great Serpent, looks like it slithers away from the mounds in Illinois.

The mounds at Cahokia and its significance are so old, that Native Americans today still work to understand its fullness. Still, the mounds creation and who built them are a mystery parallel also to Mayan, Egypt, and Stonehenge structures.

More over, the closeness of winter solstice and Christmas is not a coincidence. When Christmas was implemented in Rome at about 300 A.D., it was around the celebration of the pagan holiday, Sol Invictus or the festival celebrating the invincible sun.

Turtle Island

Native American musicians at a Pow Wow. Photo credit: André Lui Bernardo

What is sure about winter solstice is the importance of the sun in daily life. The changing season meant the coming of the cold where crops did not grow. Animals were slaughtered for meat during the frigid months, as well, the storage of harvests took place.

There are a number of winter solstice celebrations among different native nations from South to North America. The general term used to describe winter solstice for native people is “Welcoming the return of the light on turtle island.”

For natives, turtle island is the their name for the world. Welcoming the sun is because after the shortest day, the winter solstice, the days in the year get longer until it reaches an apex, the summer solstice. Essentially, winter time is the end that ushers in a new beginning.

During ceremony, Native nations perform rituals that observe life, the ancestors, spirit worlds and the world in which they lived.

Unfortunately, after years of purging native tradition by Christianity and Catholicism, the traditions and a thorough understanding of the rites have been erased in a significant amount of native peoples (Click here for a list of Native Mounds in the United States).

With rise of Gen Xers, millennials and Generation Z looking for ancient ways to observe the winter holiday season, going back to traditional ceremonies is seen as more than a niche lifestyle, but permanent way of living.

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