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The Tsuu T'ina Nation - Spiritual Life

Tsuu T’ina Sun Dance one-hundred willow Sweat Lodge with buffalo skull altar piece

In a report dating to 1887, the Catholic Missionaries lament that they have “not yet made much progress” inspiring the Tsuu T’ina to adopt Christianity. Indeed, like their Blackfoot Confederacy allies, the Tsuu T’ina was faced with the missionaries’ assimilation initiatives. Yet the Tsuu T’ina was resilient and continued to engage in traditional Native practices such as Potlatch ceremonies, Sun Dances and Powwows, as well as sweats in sweat lodges.

In regards to spirituality, the Tsuu T’ina practiced a cosmotheistic way of thinking. This philosophy explains that all natural elements of the universe, both human and non-human, are animated by a spirit. Just as humans are spirited by their soul, all elements of the natural world – including plants, rocks, minerals, or animals – contain a soul as well. For this reason the Native cultures respect the natural world.

Many of the Tsuu T’ina’s ceremonial endeavors and spiritual beliefs revolve around the natural environment. Take for example a vision quest. This is a private visionary experience in which an individual communes with spirits and accesses spiritual powers. In order to prepare for a vision quest, the person goes to a sweat. Afterwards the one on the quest will travel to a secluded place, such as a mountain top, waterfall, or isolated prairie land, and pray and fast for four days and nights. During this time a spiritual being will appear and transfer power to the dreamer. The act of transferring power is a way of confirming the spiritual relationship between the spirit and the dreamer. Often the spirits are animals, such as bears which are central to the Tsuu T’ina, or appear as supernatural beings encased in a human form. The spirit gives the dreamer medicines, such as Sweet Pine (also known as Alpine Fir) that are used in medicine bundles, but most importantly, the spirit confers to the dreamer a sacred power. Elders explain that this sacred power can be transferred to other humans by means of meditation or by reproducing the original ritual as experienced by the dreamer.

While vision quests are personal endeavors, other ceremonial activities such as transferring medicine bundles or painting tipis are communal events. Such events occur in the summertime when all of the Tsuu T’ina bands emerge from the boundaries of the forest and congregate in large camps in the prairies. One of the ceremonies is the opening of the medicine bundle. These bundles contain animal parts, like eagle and hawk feathers, bird or animal claws, as well as other natural materials that may have been given to them during a vision quest. The rituals are complex and are opened during special ceremonies.

The summer meetings are significant to the Tsuu T’ina culture because it enabled them to engage in their culture’s spiritual and ceremonial practices, as well as retell stories, myths and legends that are imperative to the Tsuu T’ina. Yet despite the importance of these ceremonies, the Canadian government and churches suppressed these activities in an effort to “civilize” the Natives. While not all Indian agents supported the government’s actions, the federal government constituted the Indian Act which legally banned the ceremonial practices, especially the Sun Dance. The stringent Act was changed in 1951 when Parliament finally made the practices legal. Despite the legal bans, oral history explains that the Tsuu T’ina continued to practice their ceremonies “underground” from the late 19th to the early 20th centuries.

Indeed while some Natives adopted Christianity, many others remained steadfast in their spiritual beliefs. In the book Portrait of the Prairies, Grant MacEwan explains that Chief Bull Head epitomizes the Tsuu T’ina Peoples, as he refused to change his spiritual philosophy because “he saw no reason for changing.”

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