Traditional Dances

by Stan Louttit

In Eeyou Istchee and in the western Hudson and James Bay, some men practiced conjuring and the shaking tent ceremony as a way of contacting animals and spirit helpers to help them ‘see’ the location of the animals and to predict future events (Preston 2002: 78-115). It is not known whether dancing was associated with conjuring or the shaking tent, as men mainly performed these rituals alone. However, James Isham, an early explorer in Hudson and James Bay between 1739-41 describes Eeyou people conjuring and dancing:

“I think I never was so full of mirth, then once in Seeing their Conjuring & Dancing… they’ll Dance hand in hand round a fire when presently one comes up side way’s, & blow’s another Downe with his breath, who falls Like a Dead man, so by them all, he then Blow’s in their Ear’s, and other parts which brings them to Life againe”. (HBC Record Society 1949: 98)

While this particular dance ritual is not detailed and seems offensive to Isham, it is likely that what Isham observed (and didn’t understand) was perhaps a collective dance ritual involving the re-enactments of a life and death story. Or perhaps it was simply a celebration of the presence of the European strangers, who seemed to have many goods (blankets, pots), food (flour, tea, sugar), and technology (guns, steel traps) that could help the Eeyou.

In addition, Isham misunderstands “blowing” in the dance ritual, for it is associated with a person’s power, perhaps a miteo (shaman) as in the Eeyou story “Ayashao”, where an old Eeyou hunter has the power to “blow” islands farther and farther out into James Bay (Louttit 2005: personal communication). Moreover, conjuring and the shaking tent in Eeyou Istchee were individualistic rituals in the sense that they involved one person in an enclosed wooden frame covered with canvas or animal hide (Preston 2002: 78-115). Other members of the group, as far as we know, did not dance around the conjuring or shaking tent or fire-pit during the performance.

In another scene, Isham describes a celebration that may have occurred in late summer before the departure of Eeyou hunters and families to the inland country or inland hunting territories for the long winter months of trapping. Isham observed:

“they us’d before they went up in the Country, Geather to geather in a heap men women and Children, having two old men that Drum’d and sing’d to them, sitting downe while the Rest Danc’d hand in hand round them for some hour’s”. (HBC Record Society 1949: 112)

In early times and recently in the 1960s, Eeyou peoples performed the traditional shaking tent ceremony (Preston 2002: 78-173). Older Eeyou hunters practised the shaking tent ceremony by entering a small, tree-framed structure covered with canvas or animal hide. The top of the structure was open to allow the hunter’s spirit helpers to enter; these spirits could number as many as six or more. Once a mistapew (hunter’s spirit helper) entered the tent, the hunter inside or the audience outside could ask questions and engage in dialogue about future events (such as weather conditions) or whether hunters would be successful in locating animals (Ibid; Smallboy in Flannery 1995: 19). If one or more spirit helpers entered the top of the tent, it soon began to “shake” because of the power of the spirits whirling around inside the tent (ibid).

From oral history and documented sources, it is not clear whether any type of dancing was associated with the shaking tent ceremony. However, as time progresses and changes occur to culture and tradition, it is possible that in previous centuries the shaking tent ceremony could have included dance and been performed quite differently than the one we know today.

©2019 This project was made possible with the support of the Department of Canadian Heritage through Canadian Culture Online
Native Dance