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Horse Dance Of The Plains Cree

Martha Ironstar

SASKATCHEWAN INDIAN      JANUARY 1993      v22 n01 p05  
The Plains Cree believe that nearly everything has a spirit essence. All living things, plants, animals, people, storms, and some inanimate objects have souls. This belief demands a deep respect for the natural world.

This fundamental belief is reflected in the religious ceremonies of the plains Cree. Besides the thirst dances, known also as sun dance or rain dance, there are society dances. One of these dances are called the Horse Dance. This dance is very old.

The plains Cree performed the horse Dance after the arrival of the horse on the plains. Prior to the arrival of the horse, their main source of moving was by dogs and travois.

In the Horse Dance, there are two spirit powers, weasel and horse, they are connected with this ceremony and it was made for them. A man named little paul said of this dance: "It is not very hard to give the misatimucimuwin, the Horse Dance, but only a few men are able to do it. On this reserve (Little Pine) only two can make it. Only certain people are able to host a Horse Dance. Night Traveller was taught how to do it by his father. William Sap was given the power in a dream. I myself couldn't give the dance. But if I had vowed it, I would give the necessary things to Night Traveller and ask him to make a Horse Dance. I would send him two offering cloths, sweetgrass and berries. He wouldn't take anything for himself, but he would always be willing to do it. The food is provided by the women. Those who come to the dance bring as much food as they can spare."

The Horse Dance summons spiritual energy. It began with rituals conducted in a long lodge. Guests reclined in concentric circles sitting according to rank, men on one side, women on the other. The fire burning smelling sweet, pipes were offered, servers came around and offered berries, and can be heard like a heartbeat as songs were sung. In front of the pledger was placed a stake to which bells were attached. He shook this in time with the song. Men, like the earth that bears them, have two faces: one in sun and one in shadow. Each may chose for himself the face he turns to his brother. The bright side is beautiful, but the dark has its purpose, as do night and winter and death. At the Horse Dance everyone believes in harmony.

A young man who is chosen by the pledger to be leader of the ceremony dances carrying a weasel hide. He finally dances out of the lodge and ties the hide around the neck of his horse. The other young men file out of the lodge and start to paint and decorate their best horses. When the riders are assembled, the pledgers and the singers come out of the lodge and stand near an upright pole The pole is laden with many cloth offerings.

The bright day brings whirlwinds and the dust and sound of horse hoofs as the horsemen ride around the group, rearing and prancing their horses. At intervals they dismount and join in the dance, this continues for a day.

Horses and the warriors that rode them, the participants at the Horse Dance all experienced that supernatural energy from echoes of the past. Horse of grey or white, pinto, black, brown, bay, buckskin, shaggy haired, roan and dappled, can be seen rearing and neighing prancing around at the Horse Dance. This was part of living for the plains Cree after the arrival of the horse on the plains.