Tuesday, Dec. 28, 2011, My Turn • The New Year gives us a chance to start over

Some of our traditions are probably as old as humanity itself.

My friend Yao grew up in a tribal family on Africa’s Ivory Coast. Despite living in America and making a living as a traditional African tribal dancer, he remains very connected to his prior life in Africa. His parents, who recently sold their “dirt house” and moved into their first “wood house,” frequently send him a very specific assortment of African herbs and roots which he then soaks in gin for a month or so to make a gritty tonic he says is good for every disease and discomfort known to man and maybe some unknown aliments, too.

It’s firewater central, let me tell you, and it tastes sort of like ordinary gin steeped in lots of hot, spicy garlic. Just throw back a shot of “roots” (as Yao calls the concoction), and you can feel the burn all the way to the tips of your toenails. For days.

On one of my trips to visit Yao and his wife, I took a copy of the Lassen County Times that contained a story on the Bear Dance. Every spring, the Maidu people celebrate their New Year with the Bear Dance, asking for protection from two of their most potent enemies — the bear and the rattlesnake. In exchange, the Maidu also promise to respect those two creatures and not harm them, either.

It’s also a time for forgiveness and redemption when participants let go of their bad feelings toward others and make amends to improve themselves in the New Year ahead. At the conclusion of the dance, the participants pray and cleanse themselves with wormwood in a nearby creek.

The Maidu say the Creator gave them the dance as he passed through the Willard Creek area just outside of Susanville way back at the dawn of human history. They say the dance is as old as the Maidu people themselves.

Yao read my story with great interest, nodding his head up and down as he took in my words about how the different circles of dancers moved in opposite directions, and the bear and the rattlesnake swirled among them as drummers and singers provided a hypnotic musical accompaniment.

When he finished reading my story, Yao had a strange, far away and confused look in his eyes.

What’s the matter, I asked?

We have the same dance in my country, he said slowly, only it’s not the bear and the rattlesnake — it’s the pigs, leopards, hyenas and cobras. It’s the same asking for and granting forgiveness, the same ritual cleansing for the New Year. It’s the same dance.

Wow, I said, surprised that two different indigenous peoples separated by thousands of miles of ocean with no known contact between them would have such a similar New Year’s ritual. Hmmm, that means it must be a mighty old dance, I said, trying to sound worldly and wise.

Actually, I’m guessing the idea of celebrating the New Year must be as old as humanity itself. When mankind finally stumbled down the mountain out of our stone age caves and created the world’s first civilization in Sumer something like 4,000 years ago, those people celebrated the New Year. Hmmm, so that must be a mighty old celebration, too.

Many of us, including me, will make our typical New Year’s resolutions about quitting smoking, eating, drinking, snapping at passing car tires, etc.

But this year, I think I’m also going for the simpler, reportedly more primitive kind of resolutions like forgiveness and repentance. Maybe these old ideas really are the key. Don’t you think we could use a little more peace on earth and goodwill toward men right now?

Happy New Year!