Medicine Dance Or Thirst Dance: Assiniboine Initiation To Warrior Status

Samuel Steele of the North-West Mounted Police, after settling in at Fort Walsh in 1875, recounted his attendance at the Assiniboine Medicine Dance on the north side of the Cypress Hills. He had witnessed other Sun Dances by different tribes, but none matched this particular dance of the Assiniboine.

Initiation of a Warrior

Steele witnessed the ceremony with several other members of the NWMP which is an initiation of a young brave becoming a warrior. He described the dance occurring in the centre of the Medicine Lodge where a large post supported the fabric of the teepee with a railing of rough saplings around three-quarters of the inside. Behind the railing near the door or entrance stood a single rank of braves, each with a whistle in their mouth secured by a string tied around his neck. During the ceremony the braves neither ate nor drank until it was over. The whistles were blown in time to the beat of the tom-toms.

Each participant came forward naked to the waist and painted in turns, accompanied by their female relations to the centre of the tent where the Medicine Man stood ready to administer the rites. The Medicine Man, with the aid of the women, drove sharp skewers of hard wood through the thick muscles of the breast, secured them to the end of a rawhide lariat which was attached to the upper part of the centre post. When this was completed, the young brave would through his full weight back upon the lariat until the skewers were torn from the flesh, accompanied by the low, deep chanting of the warriors, the whistling and drumming of the musicians, and the shrieks of the women in the lodge. By enduring this ordeal the brave was made a warrior, and the next participant came forward. There were variations of heavy buffalo skulls attached to the skewers which would pass through the muscles of the back and chest while the candidate danced until the weight of the skulls tore the skewers out of the flesh.

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These severe endurance tests were borne by the young braves with the greatest fortitude, with no cry or moan escaping while beads of sweat appeared on their foreheads. There was no appearance to indicate that they were in pain.

While the initiation rite was in progress, large numbers of braves in the tribe were dressed in feathers and war paint watching anxiously that the initiates should pass their trial. If a young brave failed in the test, it meant they would have to remain in camp with the women and children when the warriors went on the warpath.

Federal Government Bans Medicine and Thirst Dances

In 1884 amendments were made to the Indian Act by Canada’s federal government to ban the medicine, sun and thirst dances, although the aboriginals continued on in secret with them as part of their political and religious life.