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On Tuscarora Nation, a sweet door-to-door ‘Nu Ya’ tradition

At 9 months old, Sam Crogan III just stared wide-eyed as his parents, grandparents and cousin entered Tom and Angela Jonathan’s house, calling out “Nu Ya!” But he didn’t hesitate to reach out with both hands for the sugar cookie frosted in light purple icing, collecting the baked treat that is part of a unique Haudenosaunee – or Iroquois – tradition.

Starting at about 9 a.m. Friday, people of all ages on the Tuscarora Nation in Lewiston were going house to house as part of a centuries-old, spirited New Year custom. Calling out “Nu Ya! Nu Ya!” people enter relatives’ and friends’ houses and are given a piece of pie, cookie or cake. Those related to the family may add another word, pronounced and sometimes spelled “ooweedeh,” to be given a more special treat.

“On that particular day, which is different from the rest of the days, you recognize your father’s clan, so you become what your father is,” said Jill Clause, a member of the Tuscarora Nation. “You go to your relatives that are in your father’s family, and you tell them, ‘ooweedeh,’ which tells them you are family, and they give you something a little bit more special because you’re family.”

None of that mattered to little Sam Crogan, held in the arms of his father and next to his grandfather of the same name, along with grandmother Tina, mother Lisa and cousin Dayla Crouse, each of whom selected a cookie and exchanged greetings before going on their way.

Because the Tuscarora language was transmitted orally, spellings vary. Some writers spell the greeting “Nu Yah.”

It is observed by other Six Nations people, as well. Halsey Jimerson, an Onondaga from Syracuse, accompanied reigning Tuscarora Princess Jazlyn Kirkland and her brother, Ethan Kirkland, 10, on what to Jimerson was a familiar ritual.

An article about Nu Ya in Two Row Times, published in Hagersville, Ont., said, “It’s spelled No:ia in Kanienke’ha (Mohawk). It’s been debated where this phrase originates and oddly enough it sounds like New Year with a harsh Brit accent. Nevertheless it is a time when people of Six Nations go door to door shouting “Nu yah!” and happily receiving Indian donuts and cookies. It’s like Halloween but without the commercialism and horror – or the horror of commercialism.”

Some folklore, reprinted in a newspaper article from 1948 and a scholarly article written in 1969 by Barbara Graymont of Nyack Missionary College, indicates that the Tuscaroras adopted the Nu Ya tradition from their German neighbors when they lived in North Carolina.

The Tuscarora shared ancient language and cultural roots with the Haudenosaunee, but migrated to North Carolina hundreds of years ago. They lived there until the early 1700s, when they were driven out by Colonial forces and their Native allies.

Graymont, who attended and documented the Tuscarora Nu Ya ceremonies of 1966, wrote that, “The Tuscarora women later made their own adaptation of this German custom by baking cookies in the shape of their particular clan eponym.”

Kenneth Patterson, a member of the Tuscarora Council of Chiefs, traced the Nu Ya tradition to the Haudenosaunee rather than German neighbors. “It seemed to have been here when we came,” he said, although at a different time of year. “New Year was around the last of January or the first of February. Here, it’s been moved to the same New Year which you people have.” Other Six Nations tribes keep the later observance, he said.

No matter what time of year, “It’s good to see everybody,” said Joseph Fagiani Sr., who brought his namesake son to the door. “I like to spend time with my dad and get some good baked goods!” said Joseph, 9.

Cousins Jerome Watkins, 9, and Cody Printup, 11, came by with their grandmother, Tess Smith, who confided that she takes the boys to the homes of the best bakers. When Angela Jonathan heard that unlike his cousin, Watkins wasn’t claiming ooweedeh at any house, she brought out a gingerbread man just for him, getting a happy smile in return.

Preparation for the day’s events began Monday, when people visited every house on the reservation asking for contributions for the feast held around noon by the Tuscarora Temperance Society. On Tuesday, the men of the reservation divided into two teams – “old men,” who have fathered a child, and “young men,” who have not, regardless of actual age – and hunt for game. After sundown, the groups tally their catch, with deer worth 50 points, turkey worth 25 points and rabbit worth a point. The losing team must clean all the game.

This year, the old men bagged several deer and scored 153, while the young men brought only one rabbit to the scoring table and good-naturedly cleaned the catch.

On Wednesday and Thursday, people prepare food, including the traditional boiled cornbread. In this labor-intensive process, hard kernels of white Tuscarora corn are soaked in wood ash to remove the outer skin, then rinsed and pounded into a hearty flour. The flour, mixed with hot water and a few red kidney beans, is shaped into oval loaves, which are boiled in simmering pots.

Tables for about 100 people were set in the spacious Tuscarora Nation House and the Temperance Society officers gave out tickets for several seatings. In the kitchen, women sliced ham, mashed potatoes and made salads, sweet corn and squash. Teenagers lined up to carry plates to seated diners and offered portions of rabbit pie. Lori and Kelsey Lachowski cut slices from 80 homemade fruit pies.

Everyone is welcome to the free meal. “People come from all over to the feast,” said Chief Patterson.

As people streamed in, Wendy Bissell reflected on the day. “It brings the community together; it teaches you about your clan. It’s our way of giving thanks,” she said.

For Natalie Capton, who greeted everyone with outstretched arms and a hearty “Nu Ya!” the day’s value was clear. “It’s a good way to start the new year, by giving everybody hugs.”