Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Sundance Excerpt

Below you will find a passage from Walter McClintock’s book The Old North Trail.  It describes a portion of the ceremony performed on the first day of the Sundance.  Note how it honors many of the other animals that inhabited the ecosystem.  The ceremony was born in an era prior to the settler’s war on wildlife, and before the arrival of the cult of human supremacy.

The relationship of the Blackfeet to the other animals was one of profound reverence, respect, and adoration.  McClintock presents us with a magnificent example of a culture that was nearly the opposite of ours.  It was not insanely self-destructive, surviving at the cost of unborn generations.  It was a way of life that could have continued for a very long time.  All of us have ancestors who once lived in a similar manner.  We carry their blood and genes.  Here is McClintock:

Ceremonial Transferring the Medicine Pipe

The ceremonial transferring the Medicine Pipe from Lone Chief to Mu-koi-sa-po began just as the sun rose from the plains.  Its bright rays streaming into the open lodge, fell upon the priests chanting the seven Thunder songs, beating on their medicine drums, and burning sweet pine as incense.  After the Thunder songs, Lone Chief, as the giver up of the Pipe held it in his arms singing:

“I am now moving around.”  The Pipe was laid down during the tenth song, all chanting in unison: “I will sit down.”  In the eleventh, or buffalo song, all chanted: “I will take away the Chief’s (Pipe’s) robe,” and made the sign of the buffalo with their curved forefingers, while Mu-koi-sa-po and his wife opened the outside cover of the medicine bundle.

They chanted the Antelope song and imitated with their hands the motions of an antelope walking, while the strings of antelope rawhide were being loosened.  It was explained that the antelope is supposed to be opening the bundle with his hoofs.  While loosening an inner wrapper, bound by strings of elk hide, they chanted an Elk song and made the Elk sign, holding their hands open on either side of the head with fingers extended to represent antlers.  They imitated the actions of an elk as if loosening the wrapper with his hoofs. 

The time had now come for the dances to be held over the skins representing the spirits of the birds and animals included in the medicine bundle.  Only members of the society danced with the Pipe, although it was customary for anyone, who made a vow, to fulfil that vow by dancing with a skin provided for that purpose.  Whenever a prominent chief arose to take part, or an Indian who had performed some unusual feat, he was applauded by the spectators.  Mu-koi-sa-po, as the recipient of the Pipe, did not rise to dance, but remained seated beside the medicine bundle, receiving the skins as they were turned over to him by those taking part in the ceremonial.

For the Grizzly Bear dance, the drummers chanted “I begin to grow restless in the spring,” representing a bear making ready to come from his winter den.  Lone Chief drew his robe around him and arose to dance, imitating the bear going from his den and chanting: “I take my robe.  My robe is sacred.  I wander in the summer.”

Placing both hands upon the Pipe, he chanted, “Sacred Chief, (Pipe)!  Every one, men, women, and children will now behold you.”  Slowly raising the Pipe, he sang, “The Great Mystery beholds our Chief arise.  The Chief is sacred.”  He shook the Pipe in imitation of a bear, but was careful not to handle it roughly, lest a storm should come, nor to make a misstep in his dance, nor allow a skin, or feather to fall, lest some misfortune would befall him.  He again laid the Pipe down, with the chant, “This lodge is sacred; the ground, also, where the Chief lies is sacred.”

While Lone Chief danced with the Pipe, the drummers beat time and chanted Bear songs.  He imitated with his hands a bear holding up its paws, and, placing his feet together, moved backward and forward, with short jumps, making the lumbering movements of a bear running, breathing heavily and imitating his digging and turning over stones for insects.  Then he blew shrilly upon his medicine whistle, representing the sounds made by the wings of the Thunder Bird, which comes forth in the spring at the same time that the bear leaves his winter den.  He held the Pipe in his right hand, spreading out the fingers of his left in imitation of the wings of the flying Thunder Bird.

During the Swan song, Bear Child danced alone, representing the chief Swan, the leader of the flock.  He made the Swan sign, with both hands held before him, palms out and fingers spread in imitation of a swan sailing through the air with extended wings.

In the Antelope dance, Red Fox made motions with his hands, in imitation of an antelope walking, moving the Pipe in the same manner and looking keenly alert, as if watching for an enemy.

During the singing of the Crane song, the dancers imitated the motions of flying Cranes and gave the crane call.  There were no dances for water birds, but the people remained seated, while songs were sung for the ducks and geese.  Mu-koi-sa-po and his wife were painted, during the four Horse songs, sometimes called Resting songs.  It was necessary to sing all the words and notes of these four songs accurately, because, if anyone made a mistake, misfortune would surely come to his horses.

After a short rest, during which a pipe was passed around for a smoke, seven Owl songs were sung.  They were followed by seven Buffalo songs, in honor of the power that went with the band of sacred white buffalo skin, which was to be worn around the head of the Pipe owner.  Seven songs were also sung to a water bird called Good Rusher, because it runs so fast along the surface of the water and is believed to possess great power.  It is said to drown people by dragging them beneath the water.  The muskrat skin was used by its owner to wipe the paint from his face accompanied with the song, “All the water birds and little water animals are my friends.”

The Bee songs are sung by the owner of the Pipe as a warning, when he is angered, because anyone that angers a bee will be stung.  The Bee songs are also believed to possess, not only power for making the owner proof against any spell, or evil charm, but also to cause the evil power to react upon the enemy that is trying to injure him.  The woman’s pipe, which goes with the Medicine Pipe, has a plain flat stem and is not decorated.  During the ceremonial, it was unrolled by Etomo-waki and was smoked only by the women.

The Medicine Pipe is decorated with feathers and weasel tails.  The owner begins smoking it by blowing a whiff first towards the sky and another towards the ground.  The closing song of the ceremonial was the Good Luck song, which should bring good fortune to Mu-koi-sa-po.  Whenever he might wish for anything, as owner of the Medicine Pipe, it would only be necessary for him to sing this song to have his desire fulfilled.

At sunset, Lone Chief led Mu-koi-sa-po and his wife, Etomo-waki, from the lodge and, facing in turn the four directions, chanted first towards the West, “Over there are the mountains.  May you see them as long as you live, for from them you must receive your sweet pine as incense.”

Then towards the North, “Strength will come from the North.  May you look for many years upon the star that never moves (North Star).”

Then towards the East, “Old age will come from below (East) where lies the light of the sun.”

Then towards the South, “May the warm winds of the South bring you success in securing food.”


My review of The Old North Trail is HERE.  A free download of McClintock’s book is HERE.  Over 1,400 of his photos are HERE (click on “View all images”).

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