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The Nakoda Nation – Spiritual Life

To the Nakoda, everything in the world — people, plants, animals, and all natural occurrences — embodied spirits that were considered part of wakan, or holiness. The world was a creation shaped by the Great Holiness or Wakan Tanka, but Wakan Tanka was a more primal force of being than a personal god. Through rituals of prayer, supplication, sacrifice, pipe offerings, or the burning of sacred sweetgrass, the spirits were called upon by the Nakoda for aid in their lives.

The Sun Dance was the most important religious observance of the Nakoda, and one of the few times of the year that all the Nakoda bands would gather together in one place. Usually held in late spring or early summer, around the month of June, the Sun Dance was a four-day event in which participants would dance around a pole erected in the middle of the camp. Men would pierce their chests with skewers tied to the centre pole and dance until their flesh tore free, offering their flesh as a sacrifice. Women would dance and offer small bits of flesh cut from their arms and legs. Other objects to be sacrificed, such as cloths or other items, were hung from the centre pole. All offerings were made to the spirit world in exchange for success in war or other great endeavors.

Second to the Sun Dance in sacred importance to the Nakoda, were rituals held by the Horse Society. The Horse Society was a group attended by both men and women, and the members of the Society were skilled in healing the ailments of horses and people. Every two to three years, the Society would initiate new members, and would pray that the people would be blessed with many horses and that the children of the band would be healthy. Horse Societies illustrated the importance of horses to plains peoples. Other Societies based around particular animals were also formed by the Nakoda, and each Society would have a unique ritual based around obtaining the aid of that animal’s spirit.

Sweat Lodge Ceremonies also took place within Nakoda spiritual practice. These ceremonies were rituals of purification, with attendants gathering in special dome-shaped lodges with hot rocks placed at their centre. Water was poured upon the rocks to create steam, and sacred songs and prayers were made to draw the participants closer to Wakan Tanka, the Great Holiness.

DeMallie, Raymond J. and David Reed Miller. “Assiniboine,” in DeMallie, Raymond J. Handbook of North American Indians, Volume 13, part 1 of 2. Washington: Smithsonian Institution, 2001.

Denig, Edwin Thompson. The Assiniboine: Forty Sixth Annual Report of the Bureau of American Ethnology to the Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution 1928-1929. Regina: Canadian Plains Research Center, 2000.

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

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