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Arts & Culture ᐊᔨᐦᑐᐧᐃᓐ

Whapmagoostui Sundance ceremony channels healing energy

BY Matthew Mukash Jul 19, 2019

In a Sundance, we learn to face life’s greatest challenges that hinder our personal growth, emotionally, mentally and spiritually

The Sundance does not belong to us, we carry it for the people, those who follow this way of life.

Indigenous spirituality dictates that the loving energy of the Great Spirit – the higher power, the all-knowing, all-loving God, is present in all things in the Universe. Because of this reality, the Elders say, everything in Nature knows you. The Great Spirit has His eyes on you through all Creation. In harvesting the Sundance Tree, it is believed that its spirit only leaves its body four days after its harvested. It is placed in the centre of the Sundance Lodge, where it represents the Great Spirit, the Source of all Knowledge and the Healing Energy of the Universe.

The Whapmagoostui Sundance is a branch of the Spruce Woods Sundance in Manitoba that takes place each summer during the first week of July. This year was our ninth Sundance Gathering, but the Mukash family has carried the ceremony for 16 years now. We did three years in Matheson, Ontario, and four years in Chisasibi before we brought it home to Whapmagoostui in 2011.

The Spruce Woods Sundance was where my wife and I danced for four years, two decades ago. This particular Sundance was (and still is) run by Wisdom Keeper David Blacksmith and his partner Cheryl Blacksmith under the guidance of late Elder Joseph Esquash from Sagkeeng First Nation. Elder Esquash, who passed away four years ago at the age of 87, had participated in Sundances since the age of eight. He was our main teacher. Since his passing, Mr. Blacksmith and his spouse have been our advisors.

The Sundance was passed on to the Mukash family to carry for the people with the blessing of Elder Esquash. Since then, I have had the honour of having the title “Sundance Chief” and my wife and I run the Sundance each year.

We have four Sundance meetings throughout the year to plan for each annual event and to keep the Spirit of the Sundance alive and strong. The last Sundance meeting takes place the Thursday before the actual Ceremony begins. Friday morning, we harvest the main Tree that will stand in the centre of the Sundance Lodge. This part of the Ceremony is very emotional because we are taking the life of the Tree. The Ceremony begins in the evening once the Lodge is complete.

There are a number of ceremonies that take place within the Sundance ceremony itself. Some require self-sacrifice as a way of asking the Great Spirit to give you what you came to the Sundance for.

Saturday morning, we do the piercings, hangings and dragging. Why? Our bodies are the only thing that we truly own, everything else gets used and is discarded. Your body belongs to the Great Spirit. When you pierce, hang or drag, you’re showing the Great Spirit your determination to get what you need, which could be your own healing, forgiveness, life direction, or it may be for someone in your family or friend who is sick or needs healing. It’s a form of self-sacrifice, an offering to the Great Spirit, so that you and those that you love can have life, balance, self-love and happiness.

We also have the Buffalo Dance. The spirit of the buffalo is one of the main helpers in a Sundance. It is the only one that scan go into the Darkness where lost souls get stuck. The Buffalo spirit can help release them into the Creator’s Light so that they can continue their journey in the Spirit World. It’s a very powerful ceremony and highly emotional. This part of the Sundance helps us to release the loved ones we may have lost through suicide. It brings closure so that we may continue with our life’s journey in peace.

We then do the Children’s ceremony in which children dress up as Sundancers and dance into the Lodge. We honour them because they are the future leaders who will make the trail to help those yet to come follow the ways of their ancestors.

We finish the Ceremony with the Windigokans, or sacred clowns. Because the Sundance Ceremony is difficult and energy intensive, when the clowns come into the Lodge, they make us laugh and few forget all the high emotions of the Sundance. We come back to our normal selves.

The Sundance is primarily for people in need of healing or direction in their lives. You may come to a Sundance to dance, support a dancer, help out or observe. Elders and helpers are invited by the Sundance Chief and his family. Our Sundance does not discriminate against people because of their race, colour, creed, character or gender. Everyone is welcome!

It’s primarily a ceremony of purification, spiritual rebirth and healing of the mind, body, emotions and spirit. It is also where traditional marriages or blessing of marriages take place, as well as adoptions, strengthening of relationships and many others. The Sundance helps to establish and maintain balance and harmony within the individual, the family and the community. It is a place where we honour Mother Earth, all Creation and the Universe.

In a Sundance, we learn to face life’s greatest challenges that hinder our personal growth, emotionally, mentally and spiritually. We all know what the social challenges we face in our society such as violence, hatred, incest, suicide, alcohol, drug and substance abuse, family breakups and may other social issues – cause complex trauma. Victims, particularly of sexual abuse and incest, are told by the perpetrators to keep silent or they could face dire consequences. If incest occurs within the family, the parents or relatives often tell the victims not to talk about it. Many other unspeakable acts of abuse affect children, youth, even adults. The Sundance helps to deal with these kinds of situations and help victims build inner strength and move forward toward a brighter future.

The Sundance Ceremony has its own course of direction. Our Elders tell us that whatever needs to happen in a Sundance will happen, and for a reason. A case in point: a woman from the Abenaki First Nation came to our Sundance here in Whapmagoostui. In the Sundance Lodge, she shared her loss of her life partner who had passed away about a month earlier. After she spoke to the people, she was adopted into the Mukash family as my wife’s sister in spirit. It was what she needed to help her grieve over her loss.

Of course, we receive many teachings from the Elders about life during the course of the Sundance and how to walk on the Path of Life in balance to the best of one’s ability. Although, the Sundance involves a great deal of self-sacrifice, it’s all about life.

In the summer of 1996, I was diagnosed with cancer, and there’s nothing more fearful and devastating to hear your doctor say, “You have a tumour.” I had to deal with the fear, not so much of death, but fear of the pain of carrying this disease. I expected to get sick, really sick, and that I would eventually die. It was not until a few years later that I decided to Sundance to deal with the trauma that resulted from this.

The Sundance put me back on track, and after the first one, my fear of cancer left me and never returned. New doors opened for me then. That’s when I started climbing the ladder of leadership and eventually held the highest position within our great nation for which I was honoured and grateful to our people.

The Sundance also helped my family. We’re all Sundancers – my partner-in-life, children and grandchildren. The wonderful thing is that most of my grandchildren do not touch alcohol or drugs and are determined to walk the Good Red Road of Life throughout their lives.

Many people come to Sundance to achieve success in life and then retire to serve the people and help them out on their life’s journey. This is a way of a Sundancer.

In the 20 years I’ve participated in the Sundance, I’ve witnessed many miracles and seen victims of violence, alcohol, drugs, family breakups and so on walk away from the effects of complex trauma.

The first miracle I witnessed involves a woman who couldn’t walk, who was brought into the Sundance Lodge in a wheelchair. The Healers worked on her and we prayed for her healing. Within less than hour, she walked out of the Lodge. The following summer, she came back to the Sundance to give thanks to the Elders and the healers. She told us that the last time she used her wheelchair was when she brought into the Lodge a year before.

These are the kind of miracles we witness in a Sundance. I have seen many people recover from cancer, diabetes and addictions of all forms. It also helps bereaved people deal with the loss of loved ones.

I have never seen anyone get injured. Of course, Sundancers pierce, hang or drag but gifted healers are always present to minimize the pain and help heal the wounds. By the way, these forms of self-sacrifice are not compulsory for everyone. You must have had a vision or dream which must be interpreted by gifted people to see if it means that you have to pierce, hang or drag. Often, people will come forward to undergo such sacrifices for specific reasons, either for personal healing, asking for forgiveness, among other reasons.

Yes, indeed, the Sundance is highly intense. As the Elders often remind us, you will get some kind of calling, a vision or a dream that will tell you that the Spirit of Sundance is for you. Sometimes, people come as observers and, in no time, they participate as helpers in various aspects of the Sundance. This is what happened to me the first time I attended a Sundance ceremony.

I had gone with one of my cousins to the Spruce Woods Sundance to support our peers who were dancing there. Right away, we were assigned to help out with the Ceremony. In no time, we decided to dance the following summer, which we did. One will know if the Sundance is not for them as soon as they see it or get close to it.

It’s not for everyone. There are people who see the Sundance in a negative light. I was one of them many years ago.

I had promised myself never to go to a Sundance ceremony after learning about the form of self-sacrifice involved, until my need for recovery from fear of cancer won over. For me, this was the calling. The hanging part was what scared me the most, but in the end, I did them all – piercing, hanging and dragging! I had been told by my Elders that whatever I fear the most, I must face it head on to take care of it – which is what I did! I don’t regret it.

The Sundance opens many doors to knowledge, new insights into life, and presents many opportunities to attain success in life, and a new level of consciousness. It is about finding one’s purpose, the reason one was sent here to help create balance and harmony within the family, community, nation and the world. Who knows? One day, the Sundance may become a rite of passage for all young men and women – for boys to become real men and for girls to become women. Wouldn’t that be an honourable thing for those who follow this way to have!

Ultimately, the Sundance is about strengthening one’s understanding and relationship with the Great Spirit so that one can serve his or her purpose in life for the good of the people, the Earth and the whole Universe. It builds the trail for the Soul’s Ultimate Destiny!

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Matthew Mukash is a former Grand Chief of the Grand Council of the Crees and keeper of many traditional Indigenous spiritual ceremonies.