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Aboriginal Culture in Canada

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Like all representatives of indigenous culture, the aboriginal peoples in Canada shared the same shamanic outlook, which marked the integrity of the spiritual and the material, the ceremonial and the mundane. For centuries, aboriginal culture was ousted and marginalized, whereas in recent years a trend of revival can be observed. Moreover, from being outcast it transforms into the mainstream and melts with the adopted European values. So, much of the cultural heritage is still preserved in rituals and traditions, and give food for understanding how all spheres of life are closely related according to aboriginal perception. This holistic vision of a human and the Universe is revealed in aboriginal traditions and rituals, such as Sun Dance and Sweat Lodge.

The ceremony of Sweat Lodge is a type of ritual sauna, which exists in one form or another in different Northern American Indian tribes. It might have different names and some specific details, like, for instance, in case of Inipi for Lakota people. However, it has general characteristics, which are typical for all tribes. The main idea of Sweat Lodge is some kind of purification ceremony, which is done by placing people into a cramped space of the lodge. The lodge itself, as well as the ritual activities, are full of symbolism. First of all, the lodge symbolizes mother’s womb, from which each of the ceremony’s participants are symbolically born at the end. Secondly, the lodge symbolizes the Universe with all its elements, to which the participants address by singing, shouting and playing ethnic instruments. The construction of the lodge is based on the pattern of shamanic wheel, which is a circle with four directions: the North, the South, the East, and the West. In the middle, there is a hole which is dug out for placing hot stones and creating sauna effect. In terms of symbolism, this hole stands for a center of the Universe.  In the course of the ceremony, participants also address the four elements, which are assigned to each of the side of the world: water, fire, earth and air.

There is usually a master of ceremony who directs it and the person who attends to the huge fire outside the tipi (the lodge). In most aboriginal traditions, the fire is set up just opposite the entrance into the lodge (which is also an exit). So, there is a necessity for fire keeper who should keep an eye out for the fire; it should not go out. This person may or may not be inside the lodge, but in many cases this role is played by the one who sits next to the door. Besides, when the hot stones get cooler, new ones kept in the fire should be added to keep the temperature inside stably hot or even increasingly hotter.  When staying inside, participants usually wear simple loose clothes that prevent them from getting overheated.

Returning to the ceremony’s symbolism, it is worth saying that each of the world’s sides has its counterpart among elements, though there might be slight differences in correlation between different tribes. The south is usually associated with an element of water, which has its precious characteristics. The participants thank Water for keeping people alive; they admire its flexibility and ability to take any form. Simultaneously, they thank the South for being the place where life reaches its peak, for being the place of wealth and abundance. The South is related to the material world, so that is why it is important to stay linked to this force according to shamanic traditions. The participants address the South their request of sharing its best qualities with them. In the same way, the West is side of the world, which is related to stability, death, finishing the deeds and getting results of the efforts. It is associated with the element of the Earth, which is able to share its qualities with the participants of the sweat lodge. They ask the West and the Earth for sharing these features with them and accompany their words by songs, shouts and playing the instruments. The North is associated with the Air, with wisdom, intuition and silence. In its turn, the East is related to the Fire and embodies joy, creativity, new ideas and is actually linked with the idea of impregnation. In case participants feel not well, they can leave the lodge between the rounds, but join for a new one.  It is important to leave the lodge with one’s head’s forward; to demonstrate the way a child is born. In case a person leaves the lodge for a while in the middle, he or she should return with one’s back forward.

However, it is noteworthy that the above described ceremony is just one of the possible variants because there are significant differences between traditions. For instance, while the mentioned ritual singing is an essential element of sweat lodge in some traditions, it is not the case with the others, where complete science is a demand. In the same way, some traditions require wearing clothes because both men and women are present. Nevertheless, other traditions have a custom of being nude inside, because they believe that this can help establish a close connection with Nature and with the process of being reborn. Therefore, everyone is born nude. Nudity, in this case, is one of the attributes of purifications, which can be treated in a symbolic way, as well. To undress means eliminating all masks and social layers, which are not naturally inherent in a human soul. Thus, the ceremony of sweat lodge is returning to the basic, to the wild person who is free of influences that civilization has. Recently, attempts have been made by non-native people to adopt this ceremony and make it part of their religious practices, positioned as being shamanic. These kind of New Age rituals are not approved by aboriginal leaders because of several cases of deaths caused by incorrect construction of a lodge and other details that break safety rules. They believe that such attempts are harmful, because they discredit the culture of the aboriginal people. Besides, it is well known, only the chosen people after thorough preparation and trials are allowed to lead this ceremony among the natives.

Another remarkable ceremony, which is practiced by aboriginal people in Canada, is the so-called Sun Dance. It is a religious fest that is common for many First Nation tribes. As it is forbidden to take pictures or film this event, it is mostly known from the stories told by the witnesses who were allowed to participate. Irrespective of the tradition, the ceremony includes sacred shants and dances, communication with natural forces and spirits, smoking a ritual pipe, drum circles, etc.  In some traditions, one can pierce his or her skin as a kind of sacrificial ritual devoted to the deities. This reveals the fact that a human realizes the vanity of the material world and their body in particular, yet at the same time they place importance on the material objects as being sacred and natural. So, when piercing an arm (usually females do so) or chest (relevant for males), they give a piece of their bodies to Mother Nature. The aboriginal people realize that their bodies are not separated, that they are part of one larger body of the Universe, which includes all people.  

At the end of the nineteenth century, the Canadian government announced that such bodily rituals should be illegal as being barbaric. However, no one knows whether this ban worked or not because no one could witness what the actual ceremony was like. Most experts agree that the rituals still were practiced secretly, because indigenous people would not obey the official laws of the state but pursued their own rules instead.

Thomas Yellowtale, a Medicine Man, describes the main stages of Sun Dance ceremony in his book Native Spirit: The Sun Dance Way (2007). He claims that, although in many cases Sun Dance is understood as a general word that stands for the whole religion, it is primarily an essential ritual. It is true that Sun Dance can be treated as a code of everyday rituals including Sweat Lodge, Vision Quest, daily praying with the help of tobacco spirit. Nevertheless, Sun Dance is also a separate grandiose ceremony, which unites the major elements of the tribe’s life and can also be a bridge between different tribes. When Sun Dance ceremony begins, a pole is established that symbolizes a tree of life.  Thus, the Universe has a center, which is stable, like a center of the wheel. At the same time, the rest of the wheel is mobile, which reveals the essence of living at all levels. It is remarkable that many of the aboriginal shamanic and mundane rituals are based on the same principle of a circle, which reminds a stable core and moving periphery. Thus, as was mentioned above, the ritual of Sweat Lodge is based on the same pattern. Changing of seasons reveal the cycles of nature, where the center symbolizes the eternal soul which is not affected by the death.

Before people erect a Center Pole, they need to find it. That means to find a suitable tree that will play the role of the Tree of Life. It is a duty of Medicine Man to help choosing the right tree and to organize a preliminary ritual addressed to the tree. In shamanic cultures, plants are treated as living beings having their own spirits, so this is why it is important to request the tree’s permission for taking it as a pole. Ritual words are addressed to the tree, such as: “Now we are going to use you; at our Sun Dance we are going to use you…You will be the staff of this dance that is coming up; it is you who will join us to all of the powers of the Universe, to Acbadadea. People will come to you; markings will be put on you indicating the number of days that we will spend with you. The power will be placed on you” (Yellowtail, 2007, p.5). Before a tree is erected as a Center Pole, a special ritual song should be sung by the participants. In fact, in many cases the tree is up to ten meters long, so it is quite heavy. Thus, the efforts taken by men in order to establish it are meaningful, because they mark the hardships, which a person can face on the way to perfection.

After the pole is established, a lodge is built around it, which contains twelve poles. The round shape of the lodge symbolizes the earth, while the twelve poles stand for twelve months of a year. The Sun Dance religion presupposes that the tribe should gather on a monthly basis for a joint prayer, so this is why the symbolism of twelve is so important. Not every member of the tribe takes part in the dancing itself; however, everyone can be a spectator. So, guests can organize a camp and place their tents in the area, except the Eastern direction. The point about this restriction is to avoid being in the way of the sun, which rises in the East, so follows the eastern road.

There are certain rules that are applied to clothes, which should be worn inside the circle. Before going inside, both men and women cover themselves with the blankets. Underneath, men will wear long skirts that are held by belts, while women should put on simple handmade dresses. One should avoid wearing shoes inside a circle, as it is considered to be a violation of the sacred space. Other attributes are eagle feathers, which all participants hold in their hands and eagle bone whistles hanging on their necks ( Yellowtail, p. 14). During the ritual, they blow whistles, so that their breathing would symbolize permanent prayer. In the evening, just before twilight, the participants enter the circle from the east to stay there for three or four days.  After that, various rituals start including the Four Morning songs, which mark the beginning of the main ceremony, including dancing, singing, praying and drumming.

Thus, the ceremonies of Sweat Lodge and Sun Dance are illustrative examples of the indigenous culture that the aboriginal peoples of Canada share. Their main focus is on the intimate connection between a human and the Universe, which erases the difference between the self and the rest of the world. Every plant, stone and animal is treated the same as humans – equally, and it is equally sacred and appreciated. The rituals that are part of a larger religion reveal the idea of immortality which is gained from this honest belonging of people to nature. Because people do not separate themselves from the nature, they are able to drink from the limitless source of energy of glory and happiness. This helps the people respect death as part of life, but not to be afraid of it, realizing that life consists of natural cycles and that death is just a return to the nature, from which one originally comes.

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