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When waiting in the reception area in the Native American Health Center on Capp Street, visitors can easily feel the coming festival season: Ornaments in the shapes of Christmas trees, snowmen, stockings, hats, and gifts decorate the room.
Laura Cedillo, who has been working here for 12 years, however, would rather use the words “winter feast,” or “holiday celebration,” instead of “Christmas.”
In Native American traditions, winter is a season of storytelling and reflection. In the past, some didn’t survive the extreme winters. So this was a time when tribes would gather around a fire, share stories, and stay close to make it through and celebrate in the spring, once winter had passed.
Nowadays, some urban native communities “are tied to Christianity, and others are not,” said Cedillo.
What is unique to Native cultures in general is that many include traditional designs in decorations, whether it’s on the Christmas tree or stockings. So when people see those tribal shapes and patterns, they recognize those ornaments as “indigenized.”
Another tradition is the tamale, made with nixtamalized corn and wrapped with corn husk or banana leaf.
“But there’s also a lot of folks who eat different types of seasonal food. So I would say it really varies per tribe,” explained Cedillo.
The center welcomes visitors from many tribes, like Apaches, Paiutes and Navajos. When serving for this intertribal community, Cedillo has to remind herself to be cautious and respect every group’s traditions.
This year, the Native American Health Center, at 160 Capp St., will hold an event where visitors can drink some egg nog, enjoy a meal and pick up a scarf. Cedillo said she would not pinpoint such an event to Christianity, but instead labels it as community-based winter gathering, especially for those houseless members to have something warm to wear in winter.
A few blocks away, the Health Center’s sister organization, Friendship House Association of American Indians, is more open with the word “Christmas.” It is a healing center with approximately 300 staff and clients.
Verna Garcia, the director of hospitality service of Friendship House, said it has long held a Christmas dinner. She usually helps cook in the kitchen first, and then serves the food for three hours. Residents can share ham and enjoy traditional pow wow drumming and singing. Children and elders can get gifts.
“We incorporate everything,” said Garcia, “It’s just a way of getting everybody together as a community, and just letting them know that we’re here and make sure everybody has a good time.”
“But the reality is that we’re not exempt from influences of the city and influences of other cultures as well,” Cedillo points out. She personally just considered it as a time for relaxing, and said she would visit her family in Los Angeles this year.
She asked a group of her Native friends about their holiday plans. And here is what they said:
I FEEL A GREAT SENSE OF JOY TO KNOW THAT MY INDIGINOUS BROTHERS AND SISTERS ARE CARING FOR EACH OTHER. TO BE ACKNOWLEDGED AND LOVED IS THE GREATEST GIFT ONE PERSON CAN GIVE TO ANOTHER. CONTINUE THE INTERACTION THROUGHOUT THE YEAR. SINCERAMENTE,
ALFREDO GUERRERO ESCANDON ( MY MOTHER COMES FROM SOUTHER APACHE AND YAQUI