Q. What is Sundance? 

Answer. First of all, it is important to state at the outset what a Sundance is not. It is not a pow-wow or any similar social event. It’s a ceremony where people go for healing and self-empowerment to help them deal with difficult life challenges and situations they may be facing. One other important point to make is that it’s difficult and impossible to adequately describe the Sundance ceremony in words because, to have a good understanding of it, one must attend in person to experience its healing power. 

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 own Cree elders say that, long ago, there was a form of a dance that was identical in many ways to the Sundance and was called “Bahkudassimouwin” or Thirst Dance. 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.

A Sundancer makes a four-year commitment to dance for Life – to gain strength so that they can deal with difficult ilife challenges of all forms, bringing healing, balance and harmony to their families and community.

Q. What is involved in a Sundance

Answer: First, one must make a 4-year commitment to Sundance. Why 4 years? It takes that long for the mind to heal from trauma or grief. For some people, it does not take that long, but it’s best to complete your 4 years of Sundancing.

To dance 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 and it can be as powerful as having two hundred Sundancers! 

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

Answer: You need cloth (your colours), eagle whistle (if you don’t have one, one will be given to you), bedding (warm blanket, a pillow, a waterproof tarp, thin mattress and rainwear) warm clothing and sage bracelets and headband (sage is wrapped in red cloth). If you don’t have one, one will be prepared for you at the site. Men must wear a wrap (red cloth) worn around the waist and women must wear a long skirt.

Remember: Absolutely, no food or water is allowed in the Sundance Lodge (after the Ceremony begins). 

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

Answer: The Sundance involves a great deal of self-sacrifice for the benefit of your family and community and as a way of telling your Maker (the Great Spirit) that you’re doing it (piercings, fasting) to release the pain you’re carrying. This pain can be in the form of shame, guilt, trauma from abuse, a victim of incest, and others. Self-sacrifice is between you and the Great Spirit!

The only thing that we truly own is our body. Everything else such as our clothing and other material things that we may own all eventually goes to waste in time. The human body is sacred, it belongs to the Great Spirit. When we have been abused, been a victim of violence, incest, or suffer from diseases such as cancer, diabetes, or other, that’s when we may decide to pierce (small incisions through the skin through which small pegs are put. This is only done by gifted people.), hang or drag to tell the Great Spirit, “I have tried to release this pain and heal from it but it has not happened, so I do this to my own 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 this is said from the heart, the Sundancer who pierces, hangs or drags will receive the answer!

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 the Great Spirit and ask for whatever it is that you have chosen Sundance for.

Are these ceremonies compulsory for everyone in a Sundance? No. You have to have had a vision or 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 you 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 or not allow a person to such self-sacrifice. 

Q. Do women pierce, hang or drag? 

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 wife and the Elders to decide whether or not a woman should pierce.

Q. Can women on their Moon Time Sundance

Some Sundances do not allow women to dance during their Moon Time. However, the Cree Sundances do allow it. The Whapmagoostui Sundance does allow women on their Moon Time to Sundance. A special Moon Lodge is built outside of the perimeters of the main Sundance Lodge. They don’t go into the main Lodge.

This protocol has nothing to do with an impurity; only that a woman draws energy from others around them during their Moon Time. Historically, In our Eeyou culture, young women on their Moon Time 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 under the guidance of their grandmothers or other female Elders.  

Q. What is the purpose of the Sundance Tree?

Answer: In the belief system of our Ancestors (embedded in the Legends and Stories of Old) it is clear that they believed in the spiritual interconnectedness of all Creation. They believed that human interaction among ourselves and with everything else in Nature is possible through this one Spirit that connects us all. Everything in Nature has intelligence, as we say in Eeyou culture. In this sense, all Creation has a spirit, it is alive! Nothing is the same from moment to moment. How does this knowledge apply in the case of the Sundance tree?

When we harvest the Sundance Tree on Friday morning, we ask for its life so that we, in turn, can have a life! Its Spirit remains in its body throughout the course of the Sundance ceremony. Its spirit is still connected to its Creator, the Great Spirit.

In a Sundance Lodge, the Sundance Tree (which stands in the center of the Lodge) represent 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 (Heaven) where all prayers are answered. This does not mean that prayers are not answered spontaneously because, in a Sundance ceremony, there is a great deal of proof that prayers are answered. Many of those that come with great pain will walk out of the Sundance Lodge healed.

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

Here, we are only touching the surface of the iceberg in terms of generating a greater understanding of the purpose and power of the Sundance Tree. There is much more!

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), Thunder Beings, and the Buffalo.

With regard to the Sundance Tree, it’s purpose has already been explained. 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 would perish. The nest reminds us that the spirit of Thunder is… a servant of the Great Spirit!

Regarding the use of buffalo skull in the Sundance ceremony, where the Sundance is said to have originated, the buffalo is the king of all horned animals, including those that gave life to our 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 that sustained life since the beginning of time, so we can have life today.

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

To fully understand the teachings about these three Spirit Helpers, it’s important for those interested, to attend to a Sundance ceremony and listen to the Elder’s teachings.

Q. What is a Buffalo Dance?

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

If we know of someone who took their own life for one reason or other, 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.

The Buffalo Dance is a highly emotional part of the Sundance ceremony. Once done, we feel the lightness of the heart, and our grief over a lost loved 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 that are sung at a Sundance, do they bring healing energy to the Lodge?

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 by the drummers/singers resonate throughout the Universe and bring in the loving and healing energy of the Great Spirit

The sound of the Sundance Drum helps to open the doorway to greater knowledge or Heaven, where all prayers are answered.

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, will see unusual things in or around the Sundance Lodge. There is nothing to be afraid of. 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 or spiritual) while at a Sundance ceremony.

The smudge that 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 to get smudged.

The Sundance is where visions come, that’s why it is important to stay connected through prayer to the Great Spirit who is represented by the Sundance Tree. As simple as touching the Tree will take away your fear of anything and keep the door open for you to the path of health and well being.

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

Answer: Aftercare depends on where home is for Sundancers. Here in Whapmagoostui, we have four Sundance meetings within the cycle of 12 months (in between Sundances). It is a way to keep the Spirit of Sundance alive and strong. We also have ceremonies such as the Sweat Lodge, Pipe and other ceremonies. We also have circles (talking, healing, sharing, etc.). It keeps people strong and helps them grow intellectually and spiritually.

Each person has much knowledge to share about life based on their personal life experience, such as teachings they received from their parents, grandparents and others they grew up with. This knowledge when shared helps others to gain an understanding of their own personal issues and how to address them.

The Sundance ceremony brings people of many beliefs, cultures and faiths together. Their interaction helps to release shame, anger, guilt, and hatred that be carrying.

For us, It is important to establish a team of like-minded community members that will keep the spirit of healing alive, so that we can build a brighter future for children, grandchildren and generations yet to come!