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Aboriginal Dancers

For the First Peoples, nature provided everything that was necessary for daily life. Long before the days of electricity, running water or modern medicine, they relied directly on the sky, land and water to nurture them and provide them with physical sustenance. However, the Aboriginal Peoples’ relationship with the land was not limited to what nature could provide physically – it was also a form of emotional sustenance; an endless source of spiritual nourishment. From early on, the Aboriginals fostered a deep respect and reverence for Nature, for they believed it was infused with an all-embracing and ever-present spirit.

This spirit did not exist separately, but was inherently present across all aspects of life. The belief in an all-present spirit continues today. There is no distinction between the spiritual and cultural – all forms of life and all parts of nature are interconnected and come together as one under the Creator. Ceremonies are the primary means of expressing this innate spirituality.1 There are a number of different ceremonies that Aboriginal Peoples take part in to connect more intimately with the Spiritual. Elders hold deep reverence for the sacred customs that take place during these ceremonies and recognize the importance of sharing them with the younger generations. They often serve as ceremonial leaders, conducting the ceremonies to ensure that the authenticity and integrity of the spiritual practices is observed.

Smudgings are special purification ceremonies that take place before prayers are offered or spiritual matters are discussed. Different sacred herbs such as tree fungus, sweetpine, sage or braided sweetgrass are tied into bundles and dried. The bundle is placed onto hot coals or burned to release a sacred smoke which cleanses the environment of negative energy and restores harmony. The people gather in a circle and guide the fragrant incense towards them to let it carry their prayers upwards to the Creator.2

The Sacred Pipe ceremony is another important practice that helps the Peoples to communicate with the Creator. The pipe, a shared possession belonging to the community, is filled with tobacco by an Elder. It is lit and pointed in the four cardinal directions to invite the spirits to assist with the prayer. The pipe is then passed along from person to person in a clockwise direction, offered in the name of creation or to the Spirits who take part in the ceremony along with the participants. The Sacred Pipe ceremony is a revered ritual and special rules must be observed. Men and women, for example, are not allowed to share the same pipe.

Another important ritual is the Sweat Lodge ceremony. The lodge is a place of healing and refuge. A sacred piece of land is chosen by an Elder as the site of the lodge, which is constructed out of bent willow branches and covered with blankets or animal hide to keep out light. Inside, a sacred fire heats special stones, waking the spirits living inside them. The stones are placed into a shallow pit at the centre of the lodge, often called the bellybutton of Mother Earth. The Elder residing over the ceremony then pours water over the stones, sending messages upwards to the Creator along with the rising steam. The steam cleanses the body of toxins, and heals the damage done to the soul. The ceremony is presided over by an Elder, who receives and deciphers sacred messages.

The acts of fasting or feasting can also help Aboriginal Peoples connect more directly to the Spiritual. Oftentimes, they are part of the Sun Dance Ceremonies celebrated by Alberta’s Cree and Blackfoot Peoples. For the Cree Peoples, the ceremony is a way to celebrate the harmony between people and nature. It takes months of dedicated mental preparation. This means that the people who take part in the ceremony must try to live as peacefully as possible and should avoid negative influences such as alcohol. As the ceremony approaches, a special lodge is built in which celebrants feast by singing special songs, dancing and praying. The Sun Dance of the Blackfoot Peoples is a yearly event that takes place in summertime, in the tradition of the First Peoples who gathered to celebrate a communal buffalo hunt while feasting and praying together. It is deeply rooted in traditional stories about legendary figures. These stories are retold and celebrated and people take part in dancing, fasting, and praying. The Sun Dance ceremony may also give rise to the Powwow, which showcases dazzling traditional and competitive dancing, drumming, and singing, and often attracts visitors from across the world.

Another way of connecting with the Spiritual world is through quests or visions. These encounters may occur in a number of different ways, but often involve Spiritual beings appearing in human, animal or supernatural form to relay a message or impart sacred information to the bearer. These visions have been integral to Aboriginal spirituality over the years. Many of the sacred rituals, songs or stories that are handed down today were passed on through sacred encounters. Sometimes, the information is secret and not meant to be shared with others. Other times, it may be passed down by way of an official transfer ceremony. Often, personal bundles or amulets, which are associated with a person’s spiritual helper, also come attached with special stories and songs which can be passed down in a transfer ceremony.

Today, about 50 per cent of Aboriginal people in Canada describe themselves as adherents to Roman Catholic practice and tradition. For many, taking an active part in their spiritual lives means incorporating aspects of both Christian and traditional Aboriginal rituals. For example, the yearly pilgrimage that takes place in Lac Ste. Anne, Alberta is a religious retreat in which Peoples of both religions take part to celebrate their spirituality together. In the same way, traditional Aboriginal articles or objects might be incorporated into Christian services. For example, at the Sacred Heart Church of the First Peoples in Edmonton, sweetgrass is burned in place of incense, and holy water is sprinkled with the use of a sacred eagle feather.

Over the years, Canada’s Aboriginal peoples have suffered through the pressures and struggles brought on by outside influences, which at times have threatened to completely destroy their unique cultures. Yet, through thick and thin, spiritual traditions that began many generations ago have managed to stay alive. Elders, who hold deep reverence for the sacred customs of their Peoples, recognize the importance of passing on their spiritual knowledge and share the traditions with the younger generations.


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