Our Dance Stories

by Stan Louttit

Elders of Eeyou Istchee tell us that Eeyou peoples made beautifully decorated hunting drums from cedar trees and stretched caribou hide in order to drum, sing and dance as a way of expressing their love, gratefulness and happiness to the land and animals that provided life for the Eeyou. Today, a few Elders in some Eeyou communities still continue to make hunting drums, but the drum’s spiritual and religious meanings are largely absent for modern Eeyou hunters.

From Eeyou oral tradition, what we know today about traditional Eeyou dancing has been passed down to us from the memories of Eeyou Elders who heard stories while still in their youth. These stories were usually told by parents, grandparents or great-grandparents. One such story passed down through many generations, and related by an elderly Eeyou woman from Chisasibi, Quebec, concerns a young hunter in a teepee who stood up and began to sing with his small drum, likely before or after a feast (Bearskin, Cash 2006: personal communication). He sang about the women in the camp, of his respect and recognition of the women who performed many difficult and important duties in the camp.  For it was the women who kept the camp clean and supplied with water, wood and other forest materials while the hunters were out hunting. The women cut wood, collected spruce boughs for the flooring of the teepee, skinned and prepared the hides of animals while cooking the meat for all the families to eat. The young hunter knew this and sang his song to respect his mother-in-law’s role as a woman, mother and provider.

Eeyou – Eastern Cree : Our Dance Stories

by Stan Louttit

Elders of Eeyou Istchee tell us that Eeyou peoples made beautifully decorated hunting drums from cedar trees and stretched caribou hide in order to drum, sing and dance as a way of expressing their love, gratefulness and happiness to the land and animals that provided life for the Eeyou. Today, a few Elders in some Eeyou communities still continue to make hunting drums, but the drum’s spiritual and religious meanings are largely absent for modern Eeyou hunters.

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From Eeyou oral tradition, what we know today about traditional Eeyou dancing has been passed down to us from the memories of Eeyou Elders who heard stories while still in their youth. These stories were usually told by parents, grandparents or great-grandparents. One such story passed down through many generations, and related by an elderly Eeyou woman from Chisasibi, Quebec, concerns a young hunter in a teepee who stood up and began to sing with his small drum, likely before or after a feast (Bearskin, Cash 2006: personal communication). He sang about the women in the camp, of his respect and recognition of the women who performed many difficult and important duties in the camp.  For it was the women who kept the camp clean and supplied with water, wood and other forest materials while the hunters were out hunting. The women cut wood, collected spruce boughs for the flooring of the teepee, skinned and prepared the hides of animals while cooking the meat for all the families to eat. The young hunter knew this and sang his song to respect his mother-in-law’s role as a woman, mother and provider.

The mother-in-law of the young hunter stood up and began to dance in one spot either holding the teepee pole or simply standing alone. The mother-in-law began to dance by bending her knees up and down to the beat and rhythm of the drum and began to sing. In this way, she was happy to acknowledge her son-in-law’s respect for her and her importance in the hunting way of life. The mother-in-law was the first woman to dance to her son-in-law’s hunting song, but soon afterwards more women began to rise, stand and dance to the song. A similar story from Eastmain, Quebec, tells of several women gathered in a circle dancing, with each holding the poles of the teepee, bending their knees up and down in one spot (Louttit 2005: personal communication). To read about Jason Coonishish’s memory of a woman’s dance.

The Eeyou Elders of James Bay tell us that the hunter’s drum and hunting songs had a number of functions. One was for the hunters to communicate or express a desire for the animals they hunted such as the moose, caribou or geese to acknowledge and reveal themselves to the hunters. Hunters sang of this so that they would be successful in finding game once the hunt began. The hunter created his own songs, which belonged to him and which no other hunters could sing. For the content of the songs spoke of the hunter’s love, respect and mindfulness towards the animals that were an integral part of each hunter’s food resources. Hunting songs could also be performed after a hunt or after a feast to show respect in remembering the animals that had given themselves to the Eeyou during the season. If you wish to read about this tradition as experienced by the Etapps.

This project was made possible with the support of the Department of Canadian Heritage through Canadian Culture Online
Native Dance