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Q. What is a Sundance?

ANSWER: The Sundance is a ceremony of purification, spiritual rebirth and healing of the mind, body, emotions and spirit. Some people say that the Sundance ceremony has its origins in the West; however, our Cree Elders say that, long ago, there was a form of a dance identical to the Sundance, and it was called “Bahkudassimouwin” or Thirst Dance. So this is proof that the Sundance existed in our society long ago.

The Sundance is a way of life (as opposed to religious activity). It’s the highest form of sacred ceremonies among many indigenous tribes in North America, including the Cree. It is not a pow-wow or any other traditional social event. It’s a Sacred Ceremony where people go for self-empowerment to help them deal with physical, psychological, emotional, and spiritual health issues and difficult life challenges or situations they may face.

A Sundancer makes a four-year commitment to dance – to gain strength to deal with life’s difficult challenges of all forms, bringing healing, balance and harmony in their lives and that of their families, relatives, and community.

It is not possible to adequately describe the Sundance in words because to have a good understanding of it; one must attend in person and experience its healing power.

Q. What does the Sacred Sundance Tree represent?

ANSWER: In the belief system of our Ancestors (embedded in the Legends and stories of old), they believed in the spiritual interconnectedness of all Creation. They believed that interaction among ourselves as humans and with everything else in Nature is possible through this one Spirit or Energy that connects us all. Everything in Nature has intelligence and purpose. In this sense, all individual forms of Creation has a spirit, it has life! 

In the natural World, nothing is the same from moment to moment because the Great Spirit that interconnects us all, moves everything in the natural World and in the Universe! How does this knowledge apply in the case of the Sundance Tree?

On Friday morning, the Sundance Chief, his male helpers and the male Sundancers – harvest the Sundance Tree, a male tree. When he presents himself to the men, they ask for his life so that we, in turn, can have a life! If he’s asked with humility and sincerity, the men will know in their hearts that permission is granted when it does. They become extremely emotional because they feel and sense the grief in the Tree’s relatives, for it is this day that he will leave them forever (in physical form). 

In a Sundance, the Spirit of the Tree remains throughout the Ceremony, and because its spirit is connected to the Great Spirit, it serves as a channel through which our prayers are heard in the Spirit World (Heaven).

In a Sundance Lodge, the Sundance Tree (which stands in the center of the Lodge) represents all life and the Great Spirit. It becomes a doorway to greater knowledge or Heaven, where all prayers are answered. When the Ceremony is over, the spirit of the Tree leaves and goes to the Place where all prayers are answered; there, it speaks to the Great Spirit on behalf of those who prayed.  Prayers made with sincerity and from the heart are always answered (immediately or in time). Many of those with great pain will walk out of the Sundance Lodge with lightness of the heart and begin to heal.

When we Sundance, we focus on the Tree and communicate with its spirit, asking it to channel our prayers to the Great Spirit.

Here, we are only touching the tip of the iceberg, so to speak, to generate a greater understanding of the purpose and power of the Sundance. To gain greater knowledge and understanding of it, one must come in person to experience it.

Q. Why is a buffalo skull placed at the Alter of the Sundance, and what other sacred items are used in a Sundance?

ANSWER: There are three main Spirit Helpers in a Sundance ceremony, Mistukhnaabaau (the Sundance Tree), the Spirit of the Thunder Beings, and the Spirit of the Buffalo.

The nest we place on the Sundance Tree represents the nest of the Thunder Beings, beings that bring rain so that all things in Nature may grow and give life. Without rain, all life in Nature would perish. The nest reminds us that the spirit of Thunder is a servant of the Great Spirit!

Regarding the use of buffalo skulls, where the Sundance is said to have originated, the buffalo is the king of all horned animals, including those that gave life to our Cree Ancestors, like the caribou and moose. The buffalo spirit is there to remind us that, in our culture, we have animals that are highly revered, such as the moose, caribou, bear, and others. It also reminds us of all the animals, fish, and birds that sustained our Ancestors since the beginning of time so that we may have life today.

Contrary to what some people think, we do not pray to the buffalo; we ask its spirit to help us in our life’s journey and also to help us always remember that all life is Sacred and that it must be treated with great respect.

To fully understand the teachings of these three Spirit Helpers (servants of the Great Spirit), one must attend a Sundance ceremony and listen to the Elders’ teachings.

Q. What is a Buffalo Dance?

ANSWER: The Buffalo Dance is a ceremony within the Sundance. The Buffalo Spirit is said to be among the few who can go into the dark place where human souls get stuck, such as those who committed suicide. It is a highly emotional ceremony and is led by spiritually gifted men and women.

If we know of someone who took their own life for one reason or another, we make an offering of blue and white ribbons (through the Buffalo dancers) for the Buffalo spirit to fetch the soul in distress and guide it to the Great Spirit’s Light, so that it can continue its journey in the Spirit World in the way it was meant to.

The Buffalo Dance is a very emotional part of the Sundance ceremony. Once done, we feel the lightness of the heart, and our grief over a lost loved one through suicide starts to wane – an assurance that the Buffalo Dance has served its purpose.

If you have a relative or someone close to you who has committed suicide, this is the time to come and pray for their release into God’s Light.

Q. What about the songs sung at a Sundance, do they bring healing energy to the Lodge?

ANSWER: Like the Eagle whistles used in a Sundance (which tells the Great Spirit that we have come to the Sundance to ask for life), the Sundance Drum serves the same purpose. The songs sung in a Sundance Loge by the drummers/singers resonate throughout the Universe and bring in the loving and healing energy of the Great Spirit to the Sundance.

The sound of the Sundance Drum and the singing helps to open the doorway to the Source of all Knowledge or Heaven, where all prayers are answered.

Q. What's involved in a Sundance?

ANSWER: One must make a four-year commitment to Sundance. Why four years? Elder says it takes that long for the mind to heal from trauma or grief. 

To dance at a Sundance is your personal decision, no one should try to persuade you to do it. If you have the will to heal, answers will come your way in time.

There are many variations of the ceremony among various tribes of Indigenous peoples on Turtle Island. The Cree Sundance has its own. The number of dancers involved in a Sundance is not an issue. A Sundance only needs one dancer for it to proceed. It’s the number of people attending and healing that is important.

The Sundance is a powerful ceremony because of the interaction and prayers of Elders, Sundancers, and participants. You can have two dancers in a Sundance, which can be as powerful as having two hundred Sundancers!

Q. If I decide to Sundance, what do I need to bring?

ANSWER: If you wish to dance for the first time, you will need the following items:

  • One square meter of broadcloth (with your colours). You don’t have colours yet, use white and blue.
  • An eagle whistle (if you do not have one, one will be given to you).
  • Sage bracelets and headband (if you do not know how to make them, you will get guidance from our helpers)
  • your bedding (foam mattress, warm blanket, pillow, mosquito net and waterproof tarp)
  • Clothing: warm outerwear, red wrap for men, traditional skirt for women, warm headwear.

Women must wear long skirts, and men must wear a wrap (red cloth worn around the waist).

Q. What about piercings, hanging and dragging, is it compulsory for everyone in a Sundance?

ANSWER: The Sundance involves a great deal of self-sacrifice. For one, you abstain from food and water during the Sundance. This suppresses the power of the conscious mind (your greatest enemy) and raises the power of your spirit. Your body, the Elders say, is the only thing that you truly own. Everything else, the material belongings, will go in time. As a Sundancer, you offer the only thing that you own (your body) to the Great Spirit to receive what you’re asking for (the reason that you’re dancing). You pierce, drag, or hang to show the Great Spirit the dedication:

  • For your healing
  • That of your family, your friends, your acquaintances, your community, and Mother Earth
  • To release pain (from abuse, incest, other), guilt, shame, and other
  • To ask for forgiveness for the wrongs that you have done to others
  • To forgive those who have wronged you so that you can move on in life without the pain
  • To seek knowledge of your relations with all beings and the Great Spirit

The self-sacrifice that you make is between you and your Maker, the Great Spirit and no one else!

The human body is sacred; it belongs to its Maker, the Great Spirit. When we have been abused, been a victim of violence, incest, or suffer from diseases such as cancer, diabetes, or others, that’s when we may decide to pierce (small incisions through the skin through which small pegs are put. The skin cutting is done by gifted people such chosen to perform the cutting ceremony.). When you pierce, hang or drag, you may tell the Great Spirit in prayer, “I have tried to release this pain and heal from it, but it has not happened, so I do this to my body (which belongs to you) to show you that I need to release this pain and heal from it, physically, emotionally, mentally and spiritually.” If you pierce, hang, or drag Buffalo skulls with sincerity and from the heart (not to show off), you will receive the answer (instantly or in time, but it will come).

The piercing, hanging and dragging ceremonies do not last long, and yes, they are painful, but one must remember that in times of hardship, the Great Spirit is closest to you. It’s the time to open your heart and talk to Him and ask Him to help you deal with whatever it is that you have chosen Sundance for.

Are these ceremonies compulsory for everyone in a Sundance? The answer is no. You have to have had a vision or a dream either to pierce, hang or drag. You should have a good reason for doing them (and you don’t have to do them all. Only one is enough for you to get what you need).

The Sundance Chief and the Elders will decide if a person is strong or healthy enough to undergo such sacrifice. Many people who come to the Sundance are not healthy, and it’s the responsibility of the Sundance Chief, his spouse, and the Sundance Elders to allow a person to make such self-sacrifice. You will learn more about it when you witness it in person. A Sundance cannot be explained fully in words; it must be experienced!

Q. Do women piece, hang or drag?

ANSWER: Long ago, women did not pierce, but because of the hardships they go through in today’s world, they have recently been allowed to pierce and only to pierce (not hang or drag).

As with the men, women must have had a vision or dream to pierce. Again, it’s the responsibility of the Sundance Chief, his spouse and the Elders to decide on whether a woman should pierce.

Q. Are there specific rules for the two-spirited or non-binary?

ANSWER: Our Sundance honours two-spirited or non-binary persons. They are human beings and are highly gifted. They have a role within the family, community and tribe. In the Sundance Lodge, the two-spirited or non-binary people have the choice of which side of the Sundance Lodge they wish to serve as Sundancers, helpers, volunteers, healers and elders – the men’s side or the women’s side. As a gesture of respect and honour, they must inform the Sundance Chief and his spouse of their choice. Once they choose which side to serve, they remain there and must not go to the opposite side of the Lodge.

Q. Can Women on their Moon Time dance?

ANSWER: Some Sundances in America do not allow women in their MoonTime to Sundance. However, the Sundances that are branches of the Spruce Woods Sundance do allow it, as does the Mother Lodge. Women in their Moon Time dance in a Moon Lodge built for them. The Lodge is located outside the perimeters of the main Sundance Lodge. These sisters do not go into the Main Lodge.

The protocols regarding Moon Time have nothing to do with impurity, only that a woman in her Moon Time draws a lot of energy from others around them. Since Sundancers fast during the Sundance, they become very weak. This is one of the reasons women dancers in their Moon Time are placed in the Moon Lodge, which also protects them. 

Historically, In our Eeyou culture, young women on their MoonTime were placed in a small lodge away from their main lodge. It was a time for them to meditate in solitude and seek direction in life from their Ancestors and the Powers of the Universe under the guidance of their grandmothers or other female Elders. 

Q. Some people claim to have visions of dark spirits around the Sundance site and sometimes inside the Lodge. How do we deal with these matters?

ANSWER: It’s important that the Sundance Chief, his spouse and other Elders are notified of any unfamiliar sightings, experiences or occurrences in a Sundance. The Sundance is a place we release pain or any emotional or spiritual sickness that we may be carrying, so it is normal that people, especially spiritually gifted people, may see unusual things in or around the Sundance Lodge. Also, when we have visions of seemingly dark matters, it often comes within. It’s the cause of the pain, anger, anger and fear that we might be carrying. There is nothing to be afraid of concerning visions of any form. Each has a specific reason. Sometimes such experiences are a form of a calling to let you know that you have a gifted to be cultivated for the benefit of the people. That’s why it’s important to let the Elders know without delay if you have a vision or experience (physical, emotional, mental, spiritual) while at a Sundance ceremony. The smudge we use in a Sundance takes care of dark energies, releasing them to the Light. It prevents them from coming close to the people. That’s why it’s important for anyone attending the Ceremony to accept getting smudged.

The Sundance is where visions come. It’s, therefore, important to focus on the Sundance Tree and stay connected through prayer to the Great Spirit. As simple as touching the Tree will remove your fear of anything and keep the doorway open to the path of good health and well-being.

Q. What is there in terms of aftercare for dancers who may need support on their healing journey?

ANSWER: The Sundance Way empowers individuals in dealing with health issues and other difficult challenges. If they need help throughout the year, the best option (if you follow the Sundance Way) is to connect with traditional or professional healers. You also go to Sundance meetings/gatherings. Here in Whapmagoostui, we have four Sundance meetings within the twelve months between Sundances to keep the Sundance spirit strong. We also have ceremonies such as the Sweat Lodge, Pipe, and other ceremonies, as well as circles (talking, healing, sharing, etc.). It keeps individuals strong and helps them grow intellectually and spiritually. We encourage Sundancers from other communities to seek support when they need it from local traditional healers and Elders.

In circles, each person has much knowledge to share based on their personal life experience, such as teachings from their parents, grandparents and others with whom they grew up. You can also share how to death with or deal with certain health issues or situations. This knowledge, when shared, helps others to gain an understanding of their own personal issues and how to address them.

Wherever you come from, it is important to establish a team of like-minded community members to keep the spirit of healing alive to build a brighter future for children, grandchildren and generations yet to come. The goal of healing is to become independent, resilient and have a strong language, culture, spirituality, and way of life! Because we are committed and resilient, the Sundance Spirit helps us achieve our goal!

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