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The Mask Dance

SASKATCHEWAN INDIAN      FEBRUARY 1976      v05 n02 p45  
The Mask Dance This dance was known by the Cree as the "Wihtikokansimoowin" or the Wintigo-like dance. The Wintigo, cannibalistic character of Cree stories, was portrayed in satire by the dancers.

The dance was to have originated with a dream of a young Assiniboine man. It was to be performed, whenever there was a camp for the enjoyment of the people.

The Crees, who later attained it, frequently held the dance on the last day of their Sundance ceremonies. The man who led the dance had to obtain the right to hold it through a vision or the right could be inherited.

Often healing powers were also transferred to the individual. With the help of other dancers, they were called to a sick person's lodge to scare away the evil demons. Women could be given the right to heal, but could not give the dance. Their dress consisted of old clothing and a mask characterized by small eyes and long mouth. The Battleford area had one man called the "Sapochikan" who wore a calf robe. Beneath the robe, he stuffed old clothes that formed a hump, on his back. He always stood and danced apart from the other dancers.

The leader of the dance carried a staff ornamented with deer hooves. He chose his dancers by shaking the staff over the heads of the men he wished to join him. Refusal to join the dance could result in bad luck, unless the dance was excused by the leader. His action and speech were always opposite to their meanings. When he asked a person to dance with him, he would say, "I don't want you".

The entire ceremony was practised in a similar fashion. The dress was old instead of their best, their speech opposite to its meaning and the pipe was passed counter-clockwise instead of the usual clockwise.

They danced throughout the camp to their leader's songs. As he did not use a drum, the staff furnished the accompaniment. Muffled sounds were composed for the songs.

Mimicking hunters, the dancers would stalk food hung throughout the camp. The "Humped Dancer" had his own humorous routine. Although he never lost the beat, he often continued dancing after the song, then looking up in confusion and seeing the others had finished the dance leaving him as the lone dancer.

The spectators that crowded about these dancers enjoyed watching their acts and teased them.

Following the dancing, the leader prepared a feast for the others, from the food collected in the camp. Frequently a tent was erected for them. After gathering their food, the leader would place his staff on the top of the lodge. The food gathered would be thrown in the tent through the smoke holes.

The Crees of southern Saskatchewan varied in their ceremonies. The leader-of the dance would be responsible for' the preparation of a lodge and feast. The food gathered from the camp was, never used in the feast.

As they shot the meat hanging in the camp, they would pass it to each of the dancers to smell. When the last one received the meat, he would smell it and throw it in any random direction. It was considered a blessing if someone was hit by the meat.