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Natives painted and in ceremonial dressBox 14-099 THE SUN DANCE OF THE BLACKFEET by [Rev.] Calvin McQuesten
Jun 30 1904 [estimated date]1
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The Sun Dance gatherings of the Blackfeet are the last surviving remnants of the tribal life of a people who once ranged supreme and untrammelled over a stretch of territory as large as the whole of England. To-day [sic] their numbers are more than decimated by war and disease. Crowded to the wall by a foreign invader whose civilisation they seem utterly unable to assimilate, they drag out a miserable existence cooped up within the narrow limits of their reservations, and huddled together round the distributing offices of the Government which feeds them.

But at these annual gatherings are to be seen the last broken outlines of their unique social organisation, the last spiritless performance of their weird and frenzied religious rites, and the last faint gleam of the wild, fierce and almost heroic spirit which has made these and other red men of North America appeal to the imagination of the world.

Here the Ikunuhkatsi (comrades-in-arms), the ancient warrior bands bound together by oaths as solemn as those which held the knightly orders of mediaeval chivalry, once more sit in social circle and pass the memory-stirring pipe from lip to lip as the talk of battle and of buffalo hunt, of scalping and of pony raiding, until the old fierce flame lights up their faces and flashes from their eyes, and the crop-haired school-boys slink away to hide their shameful store-clothes, or cover them with the blanket toga of their race. Here are performed the fragments of the mystic ritual by which the worshippers of the ancient Sun-God seek to win his favour. And here are seen in all their barbaric splendour of nakedness, paint and feathers those weird, uncouth dances, a blending of the social, the martial and the religious, which are so common to primitive peoples and so incomprehensible at first to the minds of modern civilisation.

The Blackfoot nation proper is really composed of three tribes--Bloods, Peigans and Blackfeet, all speaking the same language, and recognising one another as kinsmen. Their hunting grounds formerly lay just to the east of the more northerly chains of the Rocky Mountains, where the level stretches of the prairie rolled up into the foot-hills and were tempered by the warm winds of the Pacific coast, so that ponies and buffaloes grazed in the open all winter long.

Of the three branches, the Bloods, who now occupy a reservation on the Canadian side of the international boundary line, cling the closest their old life and customs. Their Sun Dance celebration usually lasts for three or four weeks and it is this now almost obsolete spectacle that the writer proposes to describe.

The gather of the tribe commenced about the beginning of June, and for days the winding trails which led through wooded river bottom and over rolling prairie were alive with rumbling waggons [sic], trotting ponies, and scraping travois poles. The spot selected for the camp was a southern slope of prairie. Each day the number of tepees grew, until finally nearly the whole tribe of some 1,200 souls was collected there.

When completed, the camp formed a huge circle, with an irregular circumference of tepees surrounding the open space, which served as the arena for the various performances. Along the inner edge of the circle of ordinary tepees stood the somewhat larger assembly lodges of the various bands of Ikunuhkahtsi [sic] referred to before. There, as has been already suggested appear to resemble in a crude way the knightly orders of mediaeval Europe. Like them their functions were originally of a military nature, but are now of a purely social character. As a matter of fact, they seem to have no longer any actual existence apart from these annual gatherings; and a number of them have become altogether defunct. the "Crazy Dogs," "the Pigeons," the "Horns," the "Prairie Chickens" still survive, but there are several others, such as the "Bulls," the "Mosquitoes," the "Little birds," which appear to have passed out of existence; and those which still remain are perpetuated by younger men buying out the older ones, as they in turn retire or purchase membership in a more distinguished order.

The "Horns" are considered to be the most ancient and honourable order of all, and membership in them costs many ponies and blankets. A part of the initiation ceremony of the "Horns" is public. The novices, accompanied by their squaws, carrying the blankets and leading the ponies, which constitute the purchase price of membership, approach in procession the place where the rest of the members are seated in solemn assembly, and after the master of ceremonies has made certain mystic passes over their heads and bodies, they are formally received into the number of the elect, and the transfer of property takes place. But it is also understood that there is quite an extensive secret ritual involved, including a severe and shocking test of virtue and self-control, in which if the candidate fails, he is believed to die within a year.2 The lesser orders also have somewhat similar ceremonies, but the most interesting feature in them all, from a spectacular point of view, is that each has a special form of dance peculiar to itself, to depict the patron animal, after which that particular order is named.

These dances, together with squaw dances, buffalo dances, and war dances, form part of the regular daily programme of the camp, preliminary to the great climactic event, the Sun Dance itself.

One of the most picturesque of the is probably the Pigeon Dance.

The dress of the "Pigeons" is charmingly simple, and would make a Parisian belle in evening dress feel like a colourless prude. It consists simply of a breech cloth and moccasins, with a single feather stuck in the flowing hair, and a full coat of paint covering the body from head to foot. The colour worn by the officers is a brilliant yellow, while that of the rank and file is brick red.

The dance, in order to be properly performed, appeared to occupy the time of the devotees for the greater part of the day and night. The "Pigeons" begin to assemble in their lodge early in the forenoon. Each one as he arrived proceeded to disrobe and adorn himself, mixing the dry paint in a cup or saucer, and applying it with his fingers. Evidently, several coats were required to produce the required tint, and it was two or three o'clock in the afternoon before the plumage of all was finally preened to their satisfaction.

About this time it was discovered that there was not a sufficient number present, and deputations were despatched [sic] to bring in members, who from laziness or other cause had failed to appear. If verbal inducements proved insufficient, a convenient blanket was brought into use to convey the dissenting gentleman to the post of duty. When the number was finally completed and all were duly arrayed, the lithe-limbed dancers gathered their blankets about them, and made a tour of the camp in a body, soliciting contributions of fuel and eatables for the all-night seance.

It was about 6 o'clock in the evening before a sufficiency of supplies was secured, and the "Pigeons" at last seated themselves in the open space in the centre of the camp, while the tom-tom beaters struck up their monotonous music. Suddenly throwing off their blankets, the dancers leaped to their feet as one man, the red fellows standing in one long line, with their backs to the setting sun, while two or three canary-hued officers half-faced them, [sic] at either end. For a minute all tripped it where they stood [sic], with a sort of "balance-all" movement. Then in a flash the red line faced about, and with bows extended and arrows strung, and their black hair flowing about their necks and faces they seemed almost to fly with winged feet toward the setting sun. At about thirty yards they stopped and turned, and in a moment were once more beside the yellow fellows, keeping time to the tom-toms. In another minute all were seated on the ground with their blankets about them, and the first number on the programme was over.

While they rested, three other naked braves performed a Bear Dance. Squatted on the ground, but with bodies erect, the trio paused for a moment, each with both hands to his ears as if to listen. Then, with a quick movement, they drew up their blankets over back and head and threw themselves prostrate on their faces, while all the small boys around them pelted them with chunks of mud. for a moment the pelting ceased and once more the "Bears" raised their heads to listen, only to throw themselves down again, with blankets drawn over to protect them from the shower of missiles.

This was repeated some half-dozen times. And then the "Crazy Dogs," who had during the day been going through preliminary preparations very similar to the "Pigeons," took a hand, and, whirling round in eddying circles, most suggestive of a dog trying to catch his tail, gave vent to sharp, delighted yaps and barks. Once more the "Pigeons" made their birdlike flight. Again the "Bears" performed their little part, and so the evening passed, until as it grew dark and chilly, "Pigeons" and "Crazy Dogs" withdrew to their respective lodges, to pass the night relating deeds of adventure and smoking the friendly pipe.

Other danced filled in other days. In the women's lodge, squaws stepped in solemn circle round the altar pole which bore their votive offerings. Men and women, their heads half hidden with huge horns and shaggy hair, went through the grotesque Buffalo Dance. And in the War Dance one-time warriors acted out their mighty deeds in vivid pantomime.

These preliminaries lasted for the better part of three weeks. And then, as the Sun-God reached the zenith of his power, the serious preparations for the great event began. The feast of Sacred Tongues was eaten, and in the might of this "big medicine," the construction of the Sun Lodge was commenced.

First the great centre pole was cut and dragged in by ropes tied to the saddle horns of a dozen riders, while a hundred other horsemen circled about it, and riddled it with rifle bullets. As soon as it was set in position, devout worshippers proceeded to cover it right to the top with offerings consisted largely of wearing apparel, shirts, leggings, dresses, hats, belts, and moccasins, with an occasional pot or kettle thrown in for variety. For the most part, they were things of little or no value, and suggested a decided decline in religious fervour since the days, [sic] when before the intervention of the white law, these red-skinned stoics would, in the fulfillment of their vows, hang their own bodies on the sacred pole by thongs tied to wooden skewers thrust through the flesh or breast or shoulders and would throw themselves back until the tearing of the flesh set them free.

Around the centre pole, and at a distance of some twenty-five feet from it, were set shorter posts about seven feet high, on top of which a circle of logs was laid, while others sloping upward from them were lashed to the central pillar like the rafters of a dome. Against the outside of this circular framework, which was some fifty feet in diameter, were laid one upon another until they formed an opaque covering, long, leafy bows of cottonwood, with their heavy ends resting on the ground, and their feathery tips waving within a few feet of the centre pole. The bringing in of these boughs by calvalcades [sic] of horsemen from a coulee about half a mile away from the camp was one of the prettiest scenes of the whole gathering, and occupied the afternoon of the first day and the forenoon of the second. The branches were carried on the backs of ponies.

By noon of the second day the work was pretty well completed. An opening had been left on the east side; and within, facing it, had been built against the opposite wall a little inner booth for the accommodation and comfort of the presiding "medicine man."

This eminent personage was specially imported for the occasion from the Blackfoot reserve many miles away, and his chief duty was to prevent the festivities from being spoiled by rain. To accomplish this purpose it was necessary for him to remain for the entire three days and nights in his little airy bower, about six feet square, not once leaving it, but sleeping on the ground at night and having his meals brought to him during the day.

About five o'clock in the afternoon, the building of the lodge having been completed, the preliminaries to the dance commenced. The tune of the tom-toms, which had been droning at intervals all afternoon, suddenly quickened, and at the signal the various bands of Ikunuhkatsi poured out of their assembly lodges, and, drawing up in rude companies, made their way toward the Sun Lodge, merging into one motley procession as they approached its portals.

The variety and ingenuity of the costumes in this curious dress parade beggar description. The classic simplicity of the "Pigeons," with their lithe bodies and shapely limbs reflecting the sun's rays like living bronzes, and the single feather fluttering from their flowing hair, contrasted strangely with the huge head-dresses of bristling eagle feathers and dangling ermine tails mingling with long plaits of stiff, black hair; the loosely-fitting, heavily-beaded buckskin shirts, and the fringed and flapping leggings of the "Crazy Dogs" and other dancers and still more strangely with the cropped heads, shabby felt hats, and commonplace coats and trousers of the crowds of tribesmen, who were content to play the part of spectators in this sacred rite.

In that procession there were aged chiefs, who wore their blankets with the stately dignity of Roman Senators, robed in the classic toga, and carried in their faces an expression of stoical serenity, which marked a noble spirit. Side by side with them were men of middle age, whose faces showed them old enough to have known the old free life of the buffalo days, young enough to have a cordial hatred of the race which made that life impossible and wise enough to see the hopelessness of ever knowing it again. But out-numbering both of these were the young men who look upon the present performance as no more than an enjoyable entertainment.

Arrived at the Sun Lodge, the participators in the procession squatted themselves in groups within the leafy tabernacle, and listened in stolid silence while the aged chiefs, in impassioned, if somewhat quavering, accents, urged the members of the tribe to perform the worship of the Sun-God faithfully and carefully. It was the neglect of this that had wrought their downfall in the past; and it was only the careful observance of sacred rites that could save them from further calamity in the future. The harangues concluded, the tom-toms sounded once more, the squaws took up a droning chant, and the braves, leaping to their feet with whoops and yells, discharged their rifles in the air to purge the place of evil spirits. For several minutes pandemonium reigned supreme, while the horses of the spectators reared in terror, and children shrieked with delight. Then for a moment there was a lull in this bombardment of the powers of the air, and the worshippers, issuing forth, formed a square about the entrance and fired another prolonged volley, with similar accompaniments. This put the wavering forces of evil completely to rout, and the ceremony of dedication, having been declared complete, there was a brief intermission for refreshments [sic].

Just as the Golden God was disappearing behind the mountain peaks to the west, the Sun Dance proper began. At first the performance was somewhat perfunctory. An elderly devotee would rise from the squatting circle, which lined the sacred lodge, and, swaying his body solemnly, would lift first one foot and then the other slowly and ponderously, with all the air of a man performing a religious duty. A younger brave would throw back his blanket from his naked shoulders, and, leaping to his feet, would trip it lightly, lifting his knees high in front of him and giving each foot a little shake as it touched the ground, with all the zest of a man who is thoroughly enjoying himself. Others would join on the floor until it was well crowded, and then, one by one, they would slip back to their places, and resume their blankets. This went on until with the fall of darkness, a fire was lighted in the middle of the earthen floor.

With this the pace grew faster, and the scene waxed weirder. To one coming suddenly upon it, it was a spectacle sufficiently startling to satisfy the most lurid imagination. The din was deafening. The glare of the fire and the whirl of figures dazed the eyes. The paint on the faces of the dancers made them positively diabolical in the hideousness of their expression, while the flickering firelight added to the gliding figures a grotesqueness which was almost unreal in its weirdness. Over the fire there posed itself for a moment a naked red figure and a leering face crowned with a pair of nodding horns in the very image of the Mephistophlean [sic] master of ceremonies himself; and as the shadowy forms emerged from the blackness of the background, hovered for a moment in the firelight, and disappeared once more into the night, they seemed to constitute themselves from the very darkness itself, only to be dissolved into it again. Now crouching, now creeping, now gliding, the dancers swayed like men intoxicated, and sprang into the air with the gleaming tomahawks, or brandished rifles, while the head of the onlooker whirled with the weird chanting of the squaws and the wild war whoops of the frenzied braves.

When one dancer sank exhausted into the circle of spectators, who sat like dim spectres beyond the radius of the firelight, another sprang into the dizzy whirl. and so the wild dance when on until far into the morning, when the excitement finally wore itself out, the weary dancers retired to rest.

The dance was renewed after a similar fashion on the following evening, and this concluded the festival. Next day there was much bustling about, catching of ponies and taking down of lodges, when the camp melted away as quickly as it had gathered.

In regard to the accompanying illustrations, it may be explained that most of the "Bloods" are decidedly superstitious about the camera. Many of the older ones believe that if they are photographed they will die within a year. So that it was only with the greatest difficulty and after being several times hustled out of camp by angry redskins that even these were secured.3


1 This article was published with Calvin's photographs in The Canadian Magazine, Vol. XXXVII, No. 5, September 1911, (403-412). Calvin had lived in Alberta for several years between 1903 when he took a missionary position in the developing prairies and February 1911 when he moved back to Ontario and in June took up position as a minister at Staney Brae in Muskoka (see Rev. Calvin's biography on the Family page). Although it is not entirely clear when the article was actually written, it was very likely in 1904. In W-MCP2-3b.053, written in June of that year, Calvin writes to his brother Thomas about the camp of Blackfoot peoples preparing for the Sun Dance and in subsequent letters mentions the photographs he took of the rituals. See also, Box 14-040, Box 14-018, W-MCP2-3b.055, W-MCP2-3b.053, W-MCP2-3b.054, W5261.


2 Calvin describes this ritual in a letter to his brother, see W-MCP2-3b.053. Calvin, who was working as a missionary in Alberta at this time and who was ordained as a minister in 1909, in fact at that time he harboured strongly racist feelings towards the native peoples, and was threatened by them with his camera, see W-MCP2-3b.054.


3 Calvin's article was published with photographs, including an image of a Blackfoot man charging the camera to drive Calvin away. These images are available on this site, see IMG030 and others in the series. This site also has several photographs of native Canadians that had been taken by Calvin, including IMG030, IMG081, IMG082, IMG141, IMG175 and the image at the top of this article, IMG188.

This experience was mentioned as having been related to a friend in a letter W7526.




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