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Music and Dance

The Cree, Saulteaux, Nakoda and Chipewyan peoples of the Treaty 6 area have diverse cultural traditions that are reflected in their musical and dance styles. All of these groups regard music and dance as vital parts of their lives. For them, music has a strong presence in their lives; in ceremonies, rituals, prayer, and various other spiritual practices. Along with dance, it is a means to unite people with each other and with the Creator. “There were songs to greet the new day, and for curing, prayer, initiation, hunting, influencing nature, putting children to sleep, storytelling, performing magic, playing games, courting, public ceremonies, dances, and performing private affective magic.”1 Dancers follow the beat of the drum, which is interpreted as a continuation of the Earth’s heartbeat – the same heartbeat that unites all people and is first heard inside the mother’s womb.

Sun Dance Traditional music and dance play an integral part in a number of ceremonies and celebrations. The Sun Dance, for example, is a ceremony in which traditional dancing and drumming help participants reach higher levels of spiritual consciousness. This ceremony, which is considered one of the most sacred, has been practiced by the peoples of the plains for generations. In earlier times, the Sun Dance involved a large social gathering that saw the reunion of many tribes, usually for three to eight days, once a year in midsummer. By coming together to fast, dance, mourn, and pray, bands confirmed solidarity and peace with each other. During the Sun Dance, people celebrated successful battles or hunts and prayed for rain or protection from illness. Individuals participated in the ceremony to cleanse their spirits in times of personal suffering. To do this, they fasted and pierced their flesh, offering small pieces of it in sacrifice. In the years following colonization, the Sun Dance was banned by the government in the Indian Act. Aboriginal peoples continued to perform the ceremony in secrecy until the ban was lifted in 1951.

The Pow-wow, another traditional ceremony, continues to be popular today. Singing and drumming accompany fast-paced dancing and stomping in a dazzling mix of colour, rhythm, and energy. There are many different types of Pow-wow dances, each with its own specific meaning or tradition. The dances are practiced by men, women, and youth, often competitively, and incorporate both traditional and newer styles. Dancers wear intricately decorated traditional regalia. The Pow-wow itself is a time for feasting, socializing, reflecting on the past, and sharing cultural pride. Often, a Pow-wow is part of a summer-long Pow-wow Trail, where dancers and communities tour different host communities, reuniting with old friends and meeting new ones as they celebrate and compete together. Pow-wows are practiced across the Treaty 6 area and beyond, attracting audiences from near and far.

In almost all ceremonies, music plays an integral role. Singing and drumming help interpret the meaning behind the dance and are typically performed by men, who pound out rhythms with their hands or with specially-crafted drumsticks. The drum beats, often accompanied by rattles, flutes, or whistles, set the rhythm for the dancers. Music and dance are an important way of connecting with others and with the Creator. Some songs and dances are passed down by Elders through generations, while others originate in visions or dreams.

Today, music and dance continue to play a vital role in the spiritual and cultural lives of the Treaty 6 peoples. Modern musical genres, such as rock, classical, folk, and hip hop, have emerged alongside more traditional musical styles. Some artists incorporate both modern and traditional styles into their music as a way of reflecting their own roots, experiences and understandings. For example, Edmonton singer Wendy Walker (also known as Oti), is known for her beautiful and unique rendering of the Canadian anthem, which she sings by combining English words and Aboriginal intonations. Other Treaty 6 artists, such as Ed Peekeekoot, Tom Jackson, and the Hobbema-based rap group War Party, look to their roots and life experiences for inspiration and guidance.

1 DeMallie, Raymond J. Handbook of North American Indians, Volume 13, Part 2. (Washington: Smithsonian Institution, 2001), 1026.

Paget, Amelia M. People of the Plains. Intro. Sarah Carter. Regina: Canadian Plains Research Centre, 2004.

Carlton University. Native Drums: http://nativedrums.ca/ (accessed July 2006).

Archambault, JoAllyn. “Sun Dance,” in DeMallie, Raymond J. Handbook of North American Indians. Volume 13, part 2 of 2. Washington: Smithsonian Institution, 2001.

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