Since I participated in a Blanket Exercise about one month ago, I have given much time to contemplating how I can be a better psychiatrist to indigenous youth. It happened that around the same time that I participated in the Blanket Exercise, I was also reading a book, Little Yellow House, by Carissa Halton. One chapter in that book, We Are All in This Together, has given me new insights and much to contemplate about my relationship as a Canadian to indigenous people. Having written about the Blanket Exercise two weeks ago and about being a “Treaty Person” last week, this week I want to share with you Cheryl Whiskeyjack’s beautiful vision of the Sundancer. This vision has helped me to consider all my indigenous patients in a new way – and they love this vision so far.

Here is the description of the Sundancer in Whiskeyjack’s own words. I have taken it from Carissa Halton’s book, Little Yellow House, but it has also appeared in the Essay Lost Fires Still Burn, again by Halton, in In This Together: Fifteen Stories of Truth and Reconciliation, which was edited by D.Metcalfe-Chenail and published in 2016.

“The Sundancer puts themselves in a position of sacrifice for four days and four nights. No drinking. No eating. They do sweats, and they dance from sun up to sun down. They pray all the time, focusing entirely on the colourful flags that hang on the Tree of Life at the centre of the circle. The pieces of fabric represent hundreds of different prayers of the people. The sundancer is dancing for each person; that he will get his answer. They are dancing for you, for me, for her, for my grandma, for my son, for our son. They are doing it for everyone but themselves.” (Page 117 in Little Yellow House)

Whiskeyjack tells us that the sundancer is held in honour because of the sacrifice they are making. She suggests that families “putting themselves in a place of change”, as sundancers should be held in honour. The young indigenous youth and families I have been working with lately did not know this ceremony. But they were intrigued by the idea that they were making a sacrifice for their community and for those people in my community actively trying to learn how to provide them with the best possible mental health care.

Whiskeyjack observed that when people are treated as if they were in a place of honour, it changes how we work with them. I do my best work when I put myself in the place of being my patient’s servant, assisting them in the great task of getting better. This image of indigenous youth in my care making a sacrifice for their community allows me to appreciate the courage that it takes for them to travel far from home to get mental health care. I am grateful to Carissa Halton and Cheryl Whiskeyjack for this reminder.

“Not I, not I but the wind that blows through me.” D.H. Lawrence

(I love this powerful image. This is an Indigenous Mural recently unveiled at the University of Calgary.)

4 thoughts on “The Sundancer

  1. Cheryl Whiskeyjack says:

    Stumbled on this by chance and I’m so glad to hear it resonates! This just made my day. This knowledge is ancient and still entirely relevant to us all today. Thanks for sharing.

    1. drgailbeck says:

      Thank you so much for your comment. As a settler, I am on a journey to learn more about those who lived here before me. Your story help me, as did my 2 experiences with the Blanket exercise:

  2. Audrey Lawrence says:

    Having lived in Alberta, I am very familiar with the Sun Dance and the arduous nature of the preparations made by the Sundancers as well as the actual ceremony. I was with Donald B. Smith, an Historian, back in the late 1970s when he interviewed an Elder on the Blood (Kainai) Reserve about the ceremony. It is good to hear how this prairie tradition can be inspiring to other Indigenous peoples as they go on their journeys through life.

  3. lefebf lefebf says:

    This is lovely.


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