Indigenous Thoughts Network
PHILOSOPHY AND RELIGION
PHILOSOPHY BY REGION
Where the Rivers Meet (WTRM) Website
Assignment 3 2 – Reflections/Responses
The Blackfoot and Dakota Sioux (Manitoba)
My interest in the people of the Canadian Plains is the Sun Dance (metaphysics). I helped prepare the grounds for a Dakota Sioux Sundance in the early 1980s, which also provided me the opportunity to be introduced to the life-ways and world view of many of the prairie people. I also have made friends with Blackfoot people during the years. Historically, the Sun Dance (and west coast Potlatch) was outlawed to the best of my understanding in 1921. The US and Canada apparently outlawed these ceremonies in the late 1800’s, so I don’t know why my understanding is 1921. Regardless of when the ceremonies were outlawed many of the related objects to these ceremonies were taken and stored in museums. In 1960 (Diefenbaker Government) these rituals were reinstated as a legal activity and the struggle for the return of the ritual related objects continue to be debated and negotiated for return to local communities. Ironically, pow wow (social dancing) was a means of keeping the language about Sun Dance alive but underground.
As a memory jogger, I reviewed the you tube video the Sun Dance Ceremony. The material presented in this video is relatively consistent with my memory and understanding. The Sioux Valley Reserve in Sioux Valley, Manitoba (some 35 miles west of Brandon on the Trans Canada Highway) was the place that the Creator chose for me to learn these things about the Sun Dance. In Brandon University, the Native Support Worker was an elderly woman in her 60s by the name of Mary Hall. Mary’s husband was a medicine person and was the first to conduct a Sun Dance ceremony with the support of Lakota Sioux (North and South Dakota) as well as other knowledgeable elders, and professors. Art Amiotte was key among the advisors to this Sun Dance and my Native Art teacher! I learned from him how to fashion my own pipe with red stone and a stem (of which I forgot what kind of wood I used), but it was a meaningful activity to me. We also learned from Art Amiotte and from Arthur Blue (a Dene psychologist) who taught us about dreaming (about disrupting your dream by visualizing your hand in front of your face before going to bed and then seeing that image in your dream, you get a sign to participate in the dreams). I had two significant dreams that I remember to this day. One involved the vision of a plant and I knew that I needed to learn what that plant was for, so I was advised to offer tobacco to a tree and then wait for the next part of the dream; still don’t know the significance of that plant or its medicine. In a second dream, I met an old elder guy in what seemed to be the Quebec woods and he led me into this small wigwam kind of construction that came up to my waist, the old man directed me to follow him into the tent and every time I put my head into the tent I would wake up, still not knowing the significance of this dream. I expect to understand the dream before I die and move on to the spirit world.
Dreaming, visions and the understandings provided to us human beings by the gift of the Sun Dance is central to the experience of the Sun Dance; the actual dancers receive their visions, and they have the satisfaction of giving to the community’s health via their participation in the dance but all of us are blessed with new insight, new healing or energy and new determination moving forward from the Dance.
My theological understanding of the Sun Dance is the thanking of the Creator (Wakan Tanka – Lakota for God) or Kitche Manitou (our language for “God”) through focus on the Sun. The sun gives us the energy to keep warm to survive, it provides the plants life and through the plants the rest of us our nourished. The Sun is a representation of God and I think that the Sun is a male power in partnership with the earth as bearer of plants, animals and the physical environment. I am not sure if people stared directly at the sun as that would perhaps cause blindness, contemporary dancers look towards the sun but not directly at it for obvious reasons. The piercing of the chest is not as dramatic as portrayed in the “A Man Called Horse” (Richard Harris, 1970) but rather a small piercing enough to hurt but not enough to render emergency hospital visits! This was the sacrifice made by the dancers for the health and productivity of the people.
We prepared a good year prior to the Sun Dance. Planning included several pre-ceremony meetings where the logistics of the ceremony was discussed, tasks assigned to certain people, and gradually as we came closer to the ceremonial days (3 days) we then began to prepare the actual grounds. My job was to work with Saul’s (Mary’s husband) son who was my age, and our job was to cut down willows by the Assiniboine River. I made a mistake as I was from BC and didn’t know the difference between a prairie tree on the river bank and a willow, so apparently, I brought about six small trees back with a couple of willows. The elders were amused at me. My other job with Frankie (Saul’s son) was to dig the outhouse holes for the dancers (a sacred job indeed), however, what I learned about is the subtle wisdom of the elders! Frankie and I had gone out drinking the night before in town and while the elders didn’t say a word, they assigned me and Frankie the job of digging outhouse holes in the June prairie heat, we soon got the message! Drinking and Christianity were two powers that should not be mixed up with the Sun Dance powers.
I also helped in creating the sweat lodge grounds and keeping the stones warm for the sweat lodge which was a prior requirement for the dancers to do the Sun Dance itself. I didn’t much like the sweat lodge (it was too hot for me), and in my early 20s I was much more into the local bars than spending all my day in traditional activities, but I managed to do both. At 60 years old now, I see things totally different and understand how the Sun Dance (a focus on our Creator regardless of tradition) is central to survival. The treatment of the Sun Dance, that included the loss of language, residential school, the four direction teachings and so forth, the video “The Sundance Ceremony” places the ceremony at the central of life itself.