Our Traditional Dances

Indigenous ceremonies in the 16th and 17th century incorporated  diplomatic customs of gift giving, tobacco and calumet (pipe) smoking for peaceful relations and celebration of many important events in their society (Johnston 1976). The Anishinaabe people have restored the Rain Dance as the central sacred ceremony (Gir-Mii-Waa-Nii-Mii in Anishinaabemowin ):

The Rain Dance comes from the culture of my people. We started dancing it again 15 to 16 years ago. It was brought back into this area. Before that it was some 100 years since it had been carried out. When it was banned, when it was against the law to have ceremonies, a number of people had taken it out west. It stayed out west. Before the coming of the white man, we had our sacred bundles with the pipes. In the olden days, the Rain Dance was known as the Thirst Dance, as when they blow that eagle bone whistle it dries you up. It opens one up to [love and goodness]. When it was against the law to hold this ceremony, my people would go off into the bush to do the ceremonies away from the eyes of the church and the government.

When the great drought happened in the 1920s and early 1930s, the farmers all got together and went to the sheriff that something had to be done about this drought. They asked permission to go to the holy people [of the Anishinaabe] to ask them to do whatever they could to make it rain. And the holy people, all they had to do was light up the pipe and pray.

They saw this as an opportunity to do the holiest of all ceremonies and that was the Thirst Dance. They said this is what we need in order to run this ceremony and make it rain. So, they [the government] gave them permission to get what they needed to carry out the Rain Dance. The [Anishinaabe] prepared and prepared for it. They put up the Lodge, and all the Indians came together because they wanted to dance. They wanted to suffer because of the poverty and the abuse that was going on, so a lot of dancers suffered the piercing to help their people.

The farmers decided that they did not want to have anything to do with that so they left. The Rain Dance took place and it was a four-day event. There was much celebration, much feasting, and much piercing of the skin, and much holiness with what was going on:  a lot of crying and a lot of laughter. It resulted in rain that lasted about a week and a half, so much rain that the farmers came back and asked: “Can you make it stop raining?”

From that moment on, the Thirst Dance was known as the Rain Dance. The holiness of the Rain Dance is paramount and the Sun Dance comes from the Thirst Dance. The Sun Dance went west, to the Lakota, the Assiniboine, the Cree. The fact is that they have their own creation stories about where their Sun Dance comes from. I just want to stress that it comes from my people, whether were buffalo-borne or not.

With regard to the songs that we have for the ceremony we ask the spirits to intercede the Creator on our behalf. The text often gives the sense of asking the spirits to come and help us or to heal us. We have healing songs. We have songs for the buffalo [bison], for the thunderbird, for the sun, for the earth, for the pipe, and for the people. The words are essentially asking the spirits to intercede to help the people, one way or another (Benson 2006).


Benson underlined how important the bison have always been for his people:

That is the beauty of buffalo [bison]. People have the image that the buffalo only roamed on the Plains, but the fact of the matter is that there were buffalo from the Atlantic Coast to the mountains, from the tree line to Florida. And the buffalo that roamed in the bush in this area were larger than those in the Plains.

They found a humongous skull in Connecticut and it is now in Manitoulin Island. It is massive. I was very fortunate. I dragged that skull on behalf of my people. Two women attached it to my back.  I dragged that skull for at least forty-five minutes. When I finished carrying that skull into the Lodge, quite a few of the women were crying. The women had inserted two pins into my back.  It was not easy.

So the buffalo is very important to the Rain Dance Lodge or the Sun Dance Lodge. The buffalo is essential.  When we are doctoring someone, we ask the buffalo to decide which animals can work on this person because the animals as medicine come to the buffalo.  For example, an eagle will say I have the medicine. Or an otter will say, I have the medicine. So the buffalo will appoint the proper animal to carry out the medicine.

Now moving deeper into our ceremonies, it is difficult to generalize because of the deeper meaning of what we do, and some I can reveal and some I cannot. But the buffalo is very important to our culture and it goes to show how many buffalo have died due to hunting. How many have been slaughtered!

I understand that in the west there are groups of buffalo now running free. We will see a comeback, perhaps not to the extent that they once were before they got slaughtered, but now that they have their freedom and are not penned up, we will see the population grow. You know there was a white buffalo born in New Mexico, another in Pine Ridge, . . . in Wisconsin, . . .  in Alberta, and one born in Quebec last fall. So what that tells us, is the sacredness of that buffalo because we have been praying and crying for that animal to come back to us; those white buffalo that have been born tell us that are prayers are being answered.

There is this one particular family that has adopted me and my wife. They have been running the Rain Dance for 16 years now. There have been over 2,000 dancers that have danced over the years. We now have four Rain Dance lodges – one in Quebec, two in Manitoulin Island, and one at Walpole Island (Benson 2006).


Musical Instruments

With regard to musical instruments used in this ceremony, Benson explained that a folded deer hide was used as a drum. Often, the only instrument to accompany the drum has been the shaker. Benson’s people have taught that the shaker has come from the sound of an advancing thunderstorm.  Generally, crafters have used bison hide to create shakers, because it would not lose its shape.  But, moose hides, caribou or elk have also worked well.  If a person received a dream that involved a shaker with deer hooves, then that individual would acquire such a shaker.

Frank G. Speck spent the summer of 1913 with the Timagami Band of Ojibwe, located on Bear Island in Lake Timagami, north and somewhat west of North Bay, Ontario.  He observed several dances: “[These] occasional performances . . . take place as an accompaniment to feasting, chief-making, welcoming strangers, and sometimes before or after the hunt” (Speck 1915: 27).

Among the dances Speck observed were the Feast Dance, Bear Dance, Duck Dance, Round Dance and Pipe Dance.


Feast Dance

Speck described this dance:

The Feast Dance (ma’guce uci’m·o) is a celebration in honour of someone who has provided a feast for the camp. . . . Tobacco is distributed after the feast. When evening came on, the chief performs the Feast Dance in honour of the donor. He wears some extra apparel and carries a drum in his hand to accompany his singing.

When I saw the dance the chief had a woven rabbit skin robe over his head and shoulders. While singing the Feast Song, inserting a few words at times in honour of the feast maker and drumming, he dances before the assembly. Soon he threads his way in and out amongst the people, continuing his song, and when he has gone through the ranks of the spectators he dances back to the feast ground and ends his dance (Speck 1915: 28).


Bear Dance

Also, Speck described the Bear Dance (mak·wə’cim־o)

[M]en and women, in no particular order, form a large circle, with the leader at their head. Several of the men carry rattles made of tin cans containing pebbles. The circle of dancers is led by the chief, who carries a drum and sings the Bear Dance song, then starts around counter-clockwise. The leader sometimes dances backwards, turns around, stoops, and in other ways imitates the bear. . . . The circling keeps up until the song is finished (Speck 1915: 28).


Duck Dance

The Timagami Ojibwe, Speck said, enjoyed the Duck Dance (Ci·ci’pci`m·o). European dances seemed to have influenced this dance:

The orchestra consists, generally, of a violin upon which some old reel or hornpipe or French jig is played. Formerly, they used the drum.

The dance begins with two files of partners, the men on one side and the women on the other, side by side. All facing the musician, they begin walking backward and forward together. After doing this three or four times, the men swerve to their right and the women to their left, circle around and meet again at the head of the line. Then the partners hold hands, forming a bridge, and the couple behind passes under the bridge, takes position in front of the first couple, also holding hands, while the next couple then has to pass under two hand bridges and fall in place before the preceding ones.

The whole company resumes its original position in this way by passing under the bridge and forming a new link in its lower end. This circling and bridging is done several times. The next figure changes altogether. From the parallel line formation side by side, the first couple faces right about and starts to thread in, first to the right and the left of each of the other couples as they in turn come to the head of the line and follow the first couple toward the rear.

The whole movement simply becomes a swerving chain figure in which each couple alternately passes to the right and to the left of the one coming toward it. Sometimes a modern waltz or two is introduced between the movements. On the whole, this is said to come from the native Duck Dance in which the object was to represent the movement of a flock of drakes and ducks.

At the end of the dance the performers all quack two or three times. This is purely a pleasure dance (Speck 1915: 28-29).


Round Dance


The Ojibwe, like other cultures, have also created a Round Dance. Speck described the Round Dances he saw outdoors:

One man sings any one of a set of tunes, which seem to be mostly improvisations in which humorous passages are often introduced, accompanying himself upon a drum which is suspended from the branches of a tree. The dancers form a circle, generally with the men at the head of the line, some carrying rattles. Then they begin trotting around to the left quite close together, in time to the music. . . . [W]omen and children join in for the sake of excitement. At irregular intervals the dancers may face right about and circle in the opposite direction a few turns (Speck 1915: 29).


Pipe Dance

Speck referred to the Pipe Dance (upwac΄·΄ganahwe`cim·o) that the people performed when they visited another community. The dance was very similar to the Round Dance except that the figure the movement outlined was a pipe.

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Indigenous Dance