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Thirst Dance of the Cree Indians

by W. J. McLean

Manitoba Pageant, Autumn 1973, Volume 19, Number 1

This article was published originally in Manitoba Pageant by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make it available here as a free, public service.

Please direct inquiries to webmaster@mhs.mb.ca.

Excerpt from the memoirs of W. J. McLean, Chief Factor of the Hudson’s Bay Company at Fort Pitt on the North Saskatchewan River, during the North West Rebellion of 1885.

... After Goulet left on his trip, which was supposed to take eight or ten days, the “Half Black Foot” chief proposed to start the ceremony of the Thirst Dance, which they were wont to perform annually, especially before going on the warpath.

The ceremonies pertaining to the Thirst Dance were regarded by them as a very momentous event, as it had two very significant points to the young men of their tribe. First, it was at those ceremonies that the aspiring young man of the tribe would ascend a large tree, and among the boughs contrive a very uncomfortable sort of litter, in which he was to remain without eating or drinking until his mind began to wander and some spectre appeared to him in his dreams, all of which he accepted as his sacred charm for his protection against danger and misfortune.

Next, after he descended from his period of privation in the tree (it being then marked out as his) he went through a course of indescribable torture, such as having a long, sharp wooden pin passed through the muscles over the spine. To that pin a lazy, hungry horse would be tied by a long line and the tortured young man, who was being made a “brave,” had to walk around the camp, leading and sometimes pulling the horse behind him by the line that was attached to the skewer-like pin, and which line he must not handle. Some took in preference to the horse a dried skull of a buffalo with the horns on it, and dragged that around with like appliance and in the same mode as the horse was. Others, with similar pins, would pierce the fleshy parts of each side of the chest, and with some ghastly thing such as the skull of a bear suspended from these torturing pins, would enter the dancing ring and dance around with his torture-producing appendages. After passing through these ordeals, the participants were respected as “braves” among their own race.

Page revised: 20 July 2009

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