Traditional Dances

By Elaine Keillor

One of the Algonquins’ most important ceremonies has been the naming ceremony of children. White Caribou Woman witnessed such an event around 1865 at Piskatang in the Upper Gatineau Valley:


“With hands uplifted to the full moon, the [medicine man] invoked the Spirit of the Dead Bear, asking for the protection of the. . . children to be named. The very young children the Medicine Man held in his arms, as he sang and danced around the bonfires:

‘Don’t cry, Little White Bird-Child. T’is your Grampa who holds you by the hand. Dance, up and down, to the sound of the tewigan. The feast of the naming, and the big black bear will help you all through life.’

“The little girls received very pretty names, mostly those of the Sky-world, such as:

The Dawn of Morning – Wa-Ba-No-Kwe
The Cloud-Woman – An-Na Kwat
The Rainbow-Woman – Agwa-Bi-Ni-San
The Star-Woman – An-A-Gosh-Kwe
The River-Woman – Si-Bi-Kwe

“The boys got much more powerful names:

The Eagle-Man – Mi-Ki-Si-Na-Bi
The Bear-Man – Mak-Wa-Na-Bi
The Beaver-Man –Amik-Na-Bi
The Moose-Man – Mos-Na-Bi

“For the feast, a bear would be hunted. They would lash the bear on two large bark canoes, and when they had reached the opposite shore of Piskatang Lake, my great-grandmother, the Sun Woman, would come down to the shore to meet the hunters accompanied by all the women. . . She would sing a song of thanksgiving; then, she would thank the Sun for the food the hunters brought, and would shake hands with the dead animal, each paw in turn as she continued to sing and dance in a circle around the Bear, gesticulating as if she were speaking to it.

“While the men skinned and prepared the bear-meat for the feast, the woman sat in a circle on the ground with the children to be named. The women kept the fire burning. The glow of the mountainous spruce-bough fire could be seen all along the lakeshore front.

“After the men divided the meat of the bear into seven different parts the women smoked the meat over the smudge. Then they cooked it in seven different ways, either over the bonfires or close by the sand-mound fires. The distribution of the bear-meat occurred to all who were present. Only the head of the bear was left intact. On seven small twigs placed on the head they would fasten a tiny piece of the seven different kinds of the bear-meat. The women then gave the Bear-head to the medicine man.

“The preparation of the bear’s tripes (innards) included turning them inside out, cooked and measured. Mothers served the length of the little finger to the children. If children ate more than the finger length of the guts, they would have turned black in colour, just like the guts of the bear.  After the children had grown up, it did not matter how much they ate. . .

“After the feast of bear-meat several played on the drums tewigan in a very low and soft beat. As the dance continued the drum beat grew faster. The Algonquin would dance in a circle around the fire; it represents the Moon or Sun, both of which are considered good omens.

Hear Gaultier

“White Caribou Woman then sung a lullaby, which had been sung at the feast of the naming by the Eagle-Woman. The first verse was sung while the second at a half-tone higher was whistled” (Gaultier de la Vérendrye, Juliette Coll. 1-A-160M; B326 F.4).

You can listen here to Gaultier singing this song in a recording made in 1945.

The Algonquin nation has inherited a wealth of traditional songs and dances. Some performances have always been part of special ceremonies. More frequently, these songs and dances have told stories about how to hunt or to celebrate a hunt’s success.

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Indigenous Dance