Reflections on an emotional Sundance experience

(left to right): Helen Chiu, Helen Robinson-Settee, Cathy Woods

This spring, Can-SOLVE CKD announced the creation of a new learning pathway, Wabishki Bizhiko Skaanj, which will help researchers and patients build respectful partnerships with Indigenous peoples.

The name Wabishki Bizhiko Skaanj means “White Horse” in Anishinaabemowin and was given by Elder Dan Thomas at a pipe ceremony in March 2018. Along with the name, Elder Dan gave four colours for the learning pathway (white, blue, red, and yellow) along with instructions that the name should be cared for with an offering of blankets, cloths, and ribbons at the Horse Ceremony during Sundance each year.

At the end of August, Can-SOLVE CKD staff members Mila Tang and Helen Chiu along with Indigenous Peoples’ Engagement and Research Council (IPERC) Co-Chairs Helen Robinson-Settee and Cathy Woods attended a Sundance in Keeseekoowenin, Manitoba on behalf of the network. The experience was moving and meaningful for all, and the attendees shared their reflections on the significance of the ceremony both personally and for the larger mission of Wabishki Bizhiko Skaanj and Can-SOLVE CKD.

Helen Robinson-Settee

Sundance is a very emotional experience because we are praying for our life. People go there with open hearts asking for a good life not only for ourselves but also for our families and members of our community. Sundance is comprised of numerous ceremonies that make up the ceremony as a whole.

Sundance is held over four days but it is year round. Sundance is about your life, 365 days of the year. Over the course of the year, usually starting in January, there are four Sundance Sings or Meetings where we sing songs, dance, pray, share food, receive teachings. The last Sundance Sing is at the Sundance site, this is also the last food and water for the Sundancers before Tree Day.

Tree Day is when the Sundancers go get a tree from the bush and place it at the center of the Sundance Lodge. This is where people will offer their tobacco and cloth, prayers, flesh offerings to the Tree for their healing. In the Sundance Lodge, men sit/stand on the left hand side and women on the right hand side. There is a cedar smudge at the doorway of the Lodge, where we smudge before we go in.

The Horse Ceremony takes place on the last day of Sundance. Ribbons, cloth and blankets are offered to the horse. People share stories of their name, clan or a teaching they have about the horse. This is when we can share about our ceremony with Dan and the name we received.

Elder Dan was very pleased to hear that the cloth and the ribbons that were being offered to the horse had been touched by all the network members at the annual meeting. Many of us, especially the patient partners, are either recipients, donors, or caregivers – we really believe that this work that we’re doing will help educate others so that in future generations there won’t be such a high number of Indigenous people affected by kidney disease and diabetes.

Cathy Woods

The Sundance ceremony was an honour and a humbling experience. The sense of community, love, and support I felt at that time was incredible. I have a sense of calm and understanding about the work we are doing at Can-SOLVE CKD and IPERC and in my life in general. During the horse ceremony the horses stood so still with the “White Horse” occasionally pawing the ground. We are not done yet, there is more work to be done. The people we spoke to at the Sundance talked to us about the importance of kidney research to them and their families. To participate in this ceremony and spend time with everyone is something I will carry with me forever. We truly carried all of Can-SOLVE CKD with us.

Mila Tang

I was moved and filled with wonder on the songs of old, and words of wisdom passed down from generation to generation. There is a sense of revival where many young adults participated, a desire to go back to their roots. Many asked the Elder to present their spirit name and colours, which was given but the young person struggled to pronounce and remember the name given in Ojibwe. The Elder encourages the older generation around the lodge to greet them by their given name – a way of preserving the language and the culture in action.

While Elder Dan was providing a community member their clan name, he spoke of having this young person think about leaving “good tracks” during their limited time here on earth for those after him to follow. Reflecting on this drop of wisdom, Wabishki Bizhiko Skaanj is the opportunity for Can-SOLVE CKD to leave a legacy in a pathway to Truth and Reconciliation.

(left to right): Mila Tang, Helen Robinson-Settee, Cathy Woods

Helen Chiu

In observing all that was happening and praying along with the participants in my heart, I came to appreciate how the Sundance is an intense prayer ceremony of life and with life. It was not an event that one could simply learn from reading/ watching what is on the internet or hearing about it from someone. It was an eye-opening experience with lots of emotions. In particular, I was deeply moved by the love of those who prayed so intensely with fasting and piercing for their loved ones—acts of giving of oneself for the others, acts of love.

Through the whole time we were there, I felt very much welcomed by the community. For example, I was gently prompted of the protocol with rationale on multiple occasions. One of the participants gave us a blanket to sit on the ground. And there were many others who greeted us with smiles and thanked us for being there. I was very much touched by the kindness, generosity and hospitality of the community.

It was truly an honour and privilege to be able to take part in this Sundance. The experience offered much food for thought. It deepened my understanding for what it takes to carry out the mission of Wabishki Bizhiko Skaanj: time, healing, prayers, giving of life, renewal and passing on with love. It also inspired me personally as a daughter, sister and friend for others. All in all, I was humbled by this experience as a settler learning to be a true ally in the spirit of Reconciliation.

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