NU YAH! NU YAH! NU YAH! The sounds of the New Year at Tuscarora Nation in western New York. For the past one hundred years and longer the Tuscarora have celebrated the New Year in a very unique way.
Three days before the new year our men go out on a hunting competition. Old men versus young men is the battle. It doesn’t matter if you are 60 and have no children you are considered a young man. Old men are considered anyone with children. Only the reservation boundaries are eligible for the hunt. Rabbits, pheasant, and deer beware this day our men are looking for game to slay for the New Year’s Feast.
The hunt takes place from sunup to sun down. At 8:00 p.m. sharp all game must be at the Old Gym for The Count. There is a young man captain and an old man captain. Each present their group’s game and proceed to count in Tuscarora to see who will win the prize! The prize? The winner gets to watch the loser clean all the game.
The women of the territory will prepare the game for The Feast which will take place at noon on New Year’s Day.
The highlight of our New Year’s festival is the morning of January 1st when Nu Yah takes place. Young and old go door to door calling “Nu Yah! Nu Yah!” at each resident’s door. You must yell loud to be heard. If you don’t yell loud enough adults will prompt you to “say it again.”
Homemade cookies, brownies, rice krispie treats, doughnuts, and sometimes an apple are given from each home very similar to Halloween but adults participate too. Many visitors request a treat for the driver.
In the old days when I still participated in Nu Yah (before my family came along and I had to stay home to watch the door while my husband took our children Nu Yahing) we would often find a store bought cookie or an apple tossed to the side of the road. Homemade goods were the desired treats of the day.
If it was 10 degrees out we bundled up like snowmen and ran from the car to the house and yelled Nu Yah, threw our treats in our bag and headed right back to the warm car that waited. If it was warm out our Ma, Aunt, or Uncle or whoever was our driver would usually come to the door with us and spend some time standing at the door visiting and catching up with friends and family.
While our clan system of bear, deer, wolf, beaver, turtle, eel, and snipe runs through our maternal line, on New Year’s Day we also celebrated our father’s clan. If your father’s clan was a member of the house you visited for Nu Yah you also called out “Uwiire” to receive a special treat sometimes a gingerbread man or a piece of pie. In this way on this special day of the year the men were also recognized and important.
My mother who is 80, and one of 10 children, recalls her father walking with them to Nu Yah and directing them to his family clan homes so they knew which houses to ask for uwiire. I imagine this was also a way of teaching them to know who their family was. Her mother was a beaver just as all her sons and daughters were. Her father was a bear. A household that included a bear was a bonus for them to collect an extra goodie.
In the old days she said people would start coming at 6:00 a.m. and it was custom to yell Nu Yah and just walk in and grab your treat which was usually ready and waiting on a table by the door. Nowadays the first visitors arrive about 8:00 a.m.
While we looked forward with great anticipation to go Nu Yahing, we also looked forward to being old enough to help serve at The Feast. The women cooked for 3 days to prepare for this special day. The rabbits were soaked in water to make rabbit pie. The deer cooked to serve as a side dish.
While the men prepared the cornbread and cornsoup, the women peeled potatoes for mashed potatoes, baked hams and about 150 different pies all while visiting and laughing together. On the day of the feast when we got to be teenagers we would rush home from Nu Yah, change our clothes to something nice and get to the Old Gym to help bring the plates to the guests.
Everyone is welcome to come to The Feast. Many families planned their visits home on this special day so they could see and visit as many family members as possible.
The past few years at our Tuscarora Elementary School, our culture teacher has organized a school wide Nu Yah for our students. They go by grade to different rooms in the school and yell Nu Yah to receive their cookies. The Tuscarora Language teacher bakes cookies with the students for the adults to pass out. In this way each child can participate in Nu Yah and know our tradition even if, for some reason, they don’t get out to take part on New Year’s Day.
The best Nu Yah times that I can remember always involved the adults participating with us, coming in to the homes and taking a few minutes to visit.
To come from a cold, crisp morning into a cozy house with smiling faces and delicious aromas, relatives happy to see us, happy to share their lovely goods, and leave with a Nu Yah! Nu Yah! warmed us better than huddling over my grandparent’s old kerosene heat stove.
We always knew who had the best baked goods, who would be the happiest to see us, who would say every year, “gosh, you look just like your ma!” It was a good feeling to belong to such a loving community where our special New Year’s Festival has happened every year for over a hundred years because of the efforts and dedication of all our Tuscarora people.
Angela Jonathon is a resident of the Tuscarora Nation and affiliated with the Seneca-Iroquois Museum thorough the Tuscarora History Group. She has written this blog at the request of Dr. Joe Stahlman, Director of the Seneca-Iroquois Museum.