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The Cree Nation – Spiritual Life

Cree Sun Dance Cree spiritual belief centred on the concept that all living beings possessed a life force or spirit, called ahtca-k. Connection with, and respect for, the spirit world played a vital role in their everyday lives. A Great Spirit, named the kice manito or Great Manito by the Cree, was believed to be the creator of the universe, and the governor of all things. Prayers to the kice manito were never made directly, but rather were delivered through intermediary spiritual powers known as atayohkanak, who would guide human beings through their visions. When a spirit power appeared to someone in a vision, the atayohkanak would become the person’s pawakan, or spirit helper.

Cree spiritual and religious practice was expressed in ceremonial rituals. For the Plains Cree, the most important religious ceremony was the nipakwesimowin, the Thirst or Sun Dance. It was so named because participants did not drink during the ceremony. Bands of Cree would gather together at a chosen location and poles were erected at the centre of the camping area where the people would participate in four days of sacred dancing, singing, offering, and praying. Some participants also took part in a painful ritual involving the piercing of flesh with sharp bone or wood which was attached to a centre pole by a hide thong. The dancers would then dance around the pole until they tore themselves free, offering their flesh to kici manito in thanks or in exchange for a blessing, vision, or success in a future endeavour. Even those who did not engage in the self-sacrificial rituals of the Sun Dance participated in four days of dancing without food or water, demonstrating their endurance in exchange for blessings from the spirit world.

Another important spiritual ceremony of the Cree was the pihtwowikamik, or Shaking Tent Ceremony. A special barrel-shaped lodge was built; and at dusk the shaman of the band was bound and placed inside it. The rest of the ceremony participants would sit in a circle around the lodge; the campfire was extinguished and drums were beaten to summon the spirits. Spirits would descend, and the tent would begin to shake and emit strange sounds. Throughout the night, by singing, fasting and praying, the shaman would converse with the spirits. When the shaman’s last question had been answered, the fire was relit and the shaman would leave the tent. The lodge was then dismantled and the tent’s wooden poles were discarded for fear they would bring misfortune.

Sweat Lodge Ceremonies were rituals of purification. A dome shaped lodge was built with hot stones at its centre. Water would then be poured on the stones, creating steam, while prayers and songs were recited.

The Cree employed many sacred objects in their rituals: the pipe being one of the most important. The pipe was smoked at the beginning of important undertakings, and its sanctity dictated that those who smoked it could only speak the truth, giving the pipe great importance in oral discourse. Sweetgrass was another very important sacred object; its smoke was thought to purify all that it came in contact with. The eagle was said to be the favoured bird of the Great Spirit and so eagle feathers and wings were often held by participants during certain rituals.

Darnell, Regna. “Plains Cree.” Handbook of North American Indians Volume 13, part 1 of 2. Washington: Smithsonian Institution, 2001.

Malinowski, Sharon and Anna Sheets, eds., “Cree.” The Gale Encyclopedia of North American Tribes, Volume III. Detroit: Gale Research Inc., 1998.

Mandelbaum, David G. The Plains Cree: A Historical and Ethnographic Study. Regina: Canadian Plains Research Centre, 1979.

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