What is Sundance?


The Sundance or Bahkudassimouwin (Thirst Dance ) is a ceremony of purification, spiritual rebirth and healing of the mind, body, emotions, and spirit.   Dancers make a four-year commitment to dance to gain strength that they need to deal with difficult life challenges of all forms. It helps participants bring healing, balance, and harmony to their individual lives, their families, and their community.

The Sundance Gathering in Whapmagoostui takes place in July and lasts for four (4) days, starting on a Thursday and ending on Sunday. Throughout the year, four (4) Sundance meetings are held with the purpose of providing support and keeping the moment up for dancers and their families to receive the guidance and support they need to sustain their well-being and live a healthy and balanced lifestyle.

The Sundance Lodge is constructed in a circular form with the Head Tree in the center and rafters that connect all components of the structure. Stalls made for the Dancers inside the Lodge’s perimeter and ample space is available for supporters and participants. The Sundance Chief and his partner-in-life are head elders in the Lodge. Elders, healers, singers/drummers, and helpers are all part of the team responsible for running the ceremony. Family members of dancers, visitors, and other supporters also attend the Gathering.

Bahkudassimouwin is a way of life (as opposed to religious practice). It helps those (regardless of their religious faith or background) who believe in its healing power to live a healthy, happy and balanced lifestyle.

Background and history 

Bahkudassimouwin gatherings began in the early 1700s as a fulfillment of a Native American prophecy that dictated the ceremony would one day come to the people. Its use spread among many tribes throughout North America in the 1800s. In the early 1900s governments banned these type of gatherings because they thought they interfered with the implementation of their assimilation policy, during which time they did all they could to eradicate North American indigenous cultural and spiritual traditions. Then in the mid-1900s, Bahkudassimouwin had a new beginning. In 1978, a new Bill, the American Indian Religious Freedom Act was enacted, which allowed for First Nations peoples to practice again their religious traditions. Since then many tribes across North America, including the Cree, have openly practiced Bahkudassimouwin ceremony, and its spirit and healing power continues to grow.

Over the years, human rights laws have been enacted by governments, Including the United Nations, to protect the rights, title, and freedoms of Indigenous peoples, opening doors for First Nations to openly practice their spiritual and religious traditions. For example, Article 12 of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, reads:

“Indigenous peoples have the right to manifest, practice, develop and teach their spiritual and religious traditions, customs and ceremonies; the right to maintain, protect, and have access in privacy to their religious and cultural sites; the right to use and control their ceremonial objects…”

Origins of Bahkudassimouwin in Eeyou Istchee

Some people say that the Sundance ceremony has its origins in the West. However, our own Cree elders in Eeyou Istchee say that, long ago, there was a form of a dance that was identical in many ways to the Sundance; it was called “Bahkudassimouwin” or Thirst Dance. It is then safe to say that the Eeyouch did carry and practice Bahkudassimouwin, historically.

In the summer of 1999, several Cree people from different Cree communities in Eeyou Istchee participated in a Sundance gathering in Spruce Woods, Manitoba. Sundance Chief David Blacksmith and his wife Sherryl Daniels-Blacksmith hosted this Sundance under the guidance of late elder Joseph Esquash, who had participated in the Sundance ceremony since he was 8 years old.

In the summer of 2004, the Sundance ceremony was passed down by elder Joe Esquash to Matthew Mukash of Whapmagoostui, QC, who became the first Cree from Eeyou Istchee to be honoured as Sundance Chief along with his partner-in-life, Danielle O’Bomsawin-Mukash. Since then, the Mukash family has brought home the Sundance ceremony to Eeyou Istchee. Bahkudassimouwin now takes place annually in the month of July in the Cree communities of Whapmagoostui, Chisasibi (Sundance Chief Larry House), Eastmain (Sundance Chief Norman Cheezo), Oujébougoumou (Sundance Chief Abraham Bearskin and near Waswanipi (Sundance Chief Jimmy George). This summer the 5th Sundance run by Cree Sundance Chiefs will be held in near Lac Simon, Qc (Sundance Chief Harry Snowboy).

From our hearts, we would like to express our most sincere gratitude to late elder Joseph Equash, Sundance Chief David Blacksmith and his lovely wife, Sherryl Daniels-Blacksmith, for helping us bring home our long-lost ceremony that was once practiced by our Ancestors.

The Journey to a brighter future for all continues!