In anthropology, animism is considered as the most ancient human belief system on earth since it dates back to the origins of the human kind. Although it is characteristic of aboriginal and native cultures, animism can be practiced by anyone believing in spirituality.

In the view of biologists and psychologists, animism refers to the view that the human mind is a non-material entity that nevertheless interacts with the body via the brain and nervous system. As a philosophical theory, animism is the belief that all objects in the world have an inner being. The concept of animism was first coined by the British anthropologist Sir Edward Burnett Tylor who described the origin of religion and primitive beliefs in terms of animism.

In Primitive Culture (1871), Tylor defined animism as 'the general belief in spiritual beings' and considered it “a minimum definition of religion.” He believed that all kinds of religions involved some form of animism. He said that “primitive” peoples believed that souls and spirits promoted life in human beings. Without them, human beings would not exist or would simply be inanimate bodies. Basically, they saw souls as a kind of shadow or phantom going from person to person, from dead objects to living ones, from lifeless objects into plants, animals, or any other objects. By arguing this theory, Tylor was able to explain the existence of sleep, dreams, trances and death.

Another philosophy has been introduced by Tylor’s successor at Oxford. Instead of giving credit to animism only, Robert Ranulph Marett (1866-1943) added to it and introduced the belief of an animated spirit that gives force in nature and culture. This belief is known as animatism. The best example given for this doctrine is the example of a tree growing from a seed: what makes it grow if not an animated spirit? On the other hand, loss of such force results in death.

Animism is quite similar to the doctrine of shamanism as they both share the beliefs of the existence of holy men and women who experience visions, trances, dances (see video below), sacred items, and sacred spaces for worship, and the connection felt to the spirits of ancestors. In these two doctrines, holy men are known as shamans who play a priest-like role in the society and who can communicate with the spiritual world. On the other hand, holy women are called potters and influence the shaman’s conceptual system through symbol revelation. In other words, when the shaman sees or hears a spirit coming to him, the potter is able to clarify his vision and to give a name to the actual spirit.

The transmigration of souls from body to body is essential to the belief in animism. Any animist community makes sure that when a member of the community is dying, the soul goes out of his or her body to transmigrate to another one, so that it can still live. To ensure the transmigration process, Native Americans follow the Roman custom of receiving the breath of a dying man. Other rituals may be described as offering food, lighting fires at the grave or shedding blood as sacrifice.

Because animism is not a religion, but a religious belief, many religions in the world are animist. For instance, the African traditional religion, the Shinto and the Hindu religions based their beliefs in animism. 

Still today, animism is considered as the oldest form of religious belief on Earth.













    By Christelle Deba


Sun dance: The Ritual


    Aboriginal People have a strong system of belief. For thousands of years, they have been celebrating nature and including its elements in most of their rituals. Westerners call one of these rituals the sun dance. The Lakota call it: “wiwanyag” which can be translated as: dance looking at the sun. The Blackfoot call it “Okàn” which means “the sacred sleep”. The sun dance was the most important religious ceremony that was practiced among North American native bison hunting tribes, so those found in the plains.  Tribes like: The Arapaho, Arikara, Asbinboine, Cheyenne, Crow, Gros Ventre, Hidutsa, Sioux, Plains Cree, Plains Ojibway, Sarasi, Omaha, Ponca, Ute, Shoshone, Kiowa, and Blackfoot tribes were annually holding this ritual, but noticeable differences are found from one tribe to another. The ceremony was held around the summer solstice (end of June) and lasted approximately four to eight days depending on the tribe. This research is divided in 2 parts. In the first part, the idea behind this ceremony and the purpose of the ritual will be discussed. The second part describes some components of this great ritual. 

The idea behind this ceremony

The fundamental idea behind this ritual is to praise the Sun god, called by the Blackfoot “Nàtos” and by the Sioux “Wakan-Tanka”. Natives confer a lot of power to the elements and the ritual of the sun dance underlines this ideology because the ceremony also praises the power of the earth. In the prairies, around the summer solstice the life comes back, the flowers are out, the birds sing, and the weather is nice. In a way, the ritual of the sun dance represents this phenomenon, because it symbolically represents the continuity between life and death and the capacity of the planet to generate life, death and rebirth. In other words, and based on a document used for my research: “It shows that there is no true end to life [and also that] all of nature is intertwined and dependent on one another. This gives an equal ground to everything on the Earth.’’ The ceremony also gives the chance to the tribe Shaman to cure the ills. Often, the Shaman uses eagle feathers to gather the generative and curative power of the sun to heal the ills. Another idea behind this ceremony is to praise buffaloes because Natives were once in history very connected with this animal. The reason is quite simple and easy to understand because the presence of this animal was assuring a good quality of life. In fact, “plain indians” were highly dependent on the big buffalo herds for: food, shelter, clothing, tools, and toys. The sun dance celebrates this relationship; therefore, the buffalo is omnipresent in the ceremony. In the ritual, the Cheyenne used exclusively objects and symbols related to the buffalo, for instance, they stuffed buffalo skulls with grass to ask the sun god for abundance, because for them it meant healthy buffalo meat. The Lakota placed a huge dried buffalo phallus against the sun-pole to give virility to the dancers.

The sun dance also represents the duality between the buffaloes and the indians. According to Native, the buffaloes have a lot of power on their life, are wise, and are god-like. The problem is that plain natives killed this animal. In the ceremony of the sun dance, they symbolically give a new life to the sacred animal by simply by treating it with respect and reverence. These attentions act as reconciliation between the animals and the humans.

The sun dance was also the time of the year when the young and brave men were steeping in the manhood and becoming new warriors by doing, in some tribes, a self-toture session, which will be explained later in the text.

Description of the ritual (In the Sioux tribe)

From one tribe to another, the ceremony of the sun dance was done differently, but most in most tribe dancing, singing and drumming, the experience of visions, fasting, were part of the ceremony. In most Sioux tribes, a sun lodge was built.  Outside, a long tree, the sun pole, with a fork at its top was placed in the middle of a designated area. Depending on the tribe, different offerings were attached to the top of the pole. For instance, the Sioux bundled up brushes, tobacco, a buffalo skull facing the setting sun and other religious offerings. The erection of this sun pole metaphorically represented the center of the world and the strong connection between heavens and earth. The pole was raised very high in the sky to close to the sun and to itself with its power.

During the four day ceremony, native tribes were burning sage to purify their environment, chanting legends and stories, dancing for the upcoming hunting season, playing drum, purifying themselves with sweat lodge and giving offerings to the sun god to ensure a good relationship with the buffaloes. Some tribes were also practicing self-torture for the new warriors entering in the manhood and as a sign of gratitude toward the buffaloes.

Warriors were standing in front of the sun pole with buffalo flesh on their body. Two incisions on the chest were made and then two hooks fixed on a rope, that was attached to the top of the sun pole, were passed through the cuts on the chest of the warrior and tightened to create a great stress on the warrior’s chests. This self-inflection was part of the ceremony because Natives believe that the buffaloes sacrificed there soul to provide food for the entire tribe, so the only respectful way of giving it back was to offer a part of themselves in return.

The meaning of this practice was symbolizing rebirth.  According to the native that was practicing these self-torture sessions, the pain created by the hooks is representing death and being directly connected to the sun pole is representing the resurrection. The fundamental idea of the whole ceremony relates the intrinsic idea of the cycle of life within nature, which is highly respected among Native cultures. Furthermore, by doing that, the sun dancers were reborn, mentally, physically and spiritually along with the renewal of the buffalo and the universe.

After a few days, the dancers stopped dancing and continued their fasting laying on bed of sage. They also shared their visions with the shaman for interpretation and also to create new songs and stories.

The sun dance was a very important ritual practiced by the North American plain tribes. Due to the controversy of some parts of the ritual, the U.Sian government abolished the ritual in 1904. However, some native tribes still practice the ceremony, but of course modified some part of it.

    By Dany Dassylva



Sweat lodges are an old tradition in Native history.  Sometimes referred to as the medicine lodge, it served many purposes.  Other than cleaning the body, it also provided a cure for illness, revitalization for aching muscles and a sense of racial identity (Aaland).

A sweat lodge is usually built outside.  Many traditions have to be observed before building it.  The door of the lodge must face an outside fire.  This forms a duality, sometimes seen as the duality between man and woman or earth and heaven.  The placement of the lodge has also some significance.  Some say that if it is near a lake, it is to connect with the spirit of this lake. This is done to facilitate the connection with the spirits.  Others say the lodge experience represents the link between humans and mother earth. Inside the lodge you should feel as in a “belly” and reconnect with our mother earth. 

“Properly used, it [the sweat lodge] is an efficient remedy in colds, but when the patient exposes himself to the cold air, there is great danger for his enfeebled frame.” (Maclean)  If the “patient” is too weak, a friend may go inside with him.  Most of the time, in ancient tradition at least, there was a medicine man inside to help heal the Native in need. 

The construction materials are environmentally safe.  They take into consideration the spirit of the earth.  Here some differ on how the lodge is constructed. A part of the natives built their lodge in complete silence, others with drums.  Also, some put tobacco in the holes they dig in earth and pray before each pole is placed.  The fire is always located outside the lodge where rocks are heated, then placed inside the lodge to warm it up.  These rocks are called “grandfathers”. 

Sometimes, a tunnel is dug from the exterior father to the inside of the lodge, representing the umbilical cord.  This method is for those who believe the sweat lodge’s purpose is to reconnect with the mother.  Sweat lodges are built from small trees fastened to the ground in a circular form in some kind of igloo shape.  Most of the time, it is high enough to let the participants kneel inside.  The frame is covered with layers of sheets and blankets until no air can pass.    

Another tradition that differs depending on the loge is the clothing.  First, some lodges are single gender and only accept either women or men.  Others are mixed.  Depending on this as well as on other factors, some sweat lodge organisations accept nudity.  In others, simple clothing is required and necessary.  It should be loose clothes or even in some cases a towel wrapped around the person. 

There are some offerings done during the ceremony.  Most of the time, sweet grass, red cedar, white cedar and tobacco will be used for prayers, smoked, or put on the hot rocks in the lodge.  In some ceremonies, people will stand outside the lodge in order to protect it and offer support to participants.  They are called “dog soldiers”.

The process may change form one lodge to another.  Some are done in complete silence, others with chanting, prayers and drums.  The participants must respect the progress of it.  It is quite important.  Most of the time, before entering the lodge, participants will be purified with the smoke of cedar or sweet grass.  After this they enter and either chant or stay silent while the ceremony goes on. 

This was for the description of the known sweat lodges.  The next part will be more historic.  Lodges were chronicled early in time, actually, as early as when the settlers arrived.  However, they have been “running” for much more time than that.  Nevertheless, when the white men arrived they saw sweat lodges as a threat and did not really understand them. There is some information saying that sweat lodges were where Natives would get their native-name, secret from the others. 

Nowadays sweat lodges are still used by natives and are sometimes offered to anyone wanting to experience them.  They are often used as an opening ceremony to sun dances.  Some have experienced the lodge and found the experience to be most enriching and would do it again anytime. Many tribes have their own way to do their sweat lodges and it may differ from one to another.  However, the basics are all the same.  To heal and purify are always part of any sweat lodge. 

    By Cybel Castonguay Drouin



Many aspects can define a culture: its language, its clothing style and, in the case of the Native culture, its rituals. For over thousands of years, the Native community has been celebrating through many kinds of cultural elements.  Singing, storytelling and dancing are some of these elements that have been part of these rituals. For my web contribution, I have the chance to present you to two of these rituals: the Potlatch and the Grass Dance. I will make an overview of their history, their meaning and their particularities.

First, you have to understand that the Potlatch ceremony is still one of the most celebrated ceremonies nowadays. This ceremony is celebrated by the tribes of the Northwest Pacific such as the Haida, the Tsimshian and the Tlingit. The meaning of the word “potlatch” comes from the Chinook language, which was the trade language of the Northwest Pacific, it means “to give away” and it has been a part of Native culture for many generations.

An important concept you should understand in certain Native communities is that giving is the traditional way to act, because the accumulation of wealth was not perceived well in many communities.

These ceremonies were made for the host to give away some of his wealth to all his guests. The number of guests and the value of the gifts were proportioned to the wealth the family possessed. For example, a lower status family would only invite their family and their relatives from their tribe to their ceremony as opposed to the so called “elite” where they could invite many guests from many tribes all across the American territory. The variety of gifts would include canoes, blankets, food or an item representing the family.

Many occasions would give an opportunity to organize a potlatch and the bigger the event, the longer it was taking for its organization. For the larger events, it could take up to one year for its preparation. The occasions were the celebrating of a birth, a rite of passage, the erection of a totem pole, a wedding or the simple completion of a house.

These ceremonies would include a feast, some theatrical performances which show cased the performers in action with their carved masks and different spiritual events. The clothing style includes a carved mask designed to represent a face picture and a chilkat ( which is a blanket woven from goat wool and cedar bark that the Tlinglit tribe was making as its speciality) or a raven’s (a type of weaving which also originated from the Tlinglit tribe) tailrobes.

The ceremony of Potlatch was not always welcomed by the occidental society, mostly because of its non-capitalist purpose of giving away to others without getting anything in return. This type of ceremony was made illegal by the missionaries both in the United States and in Canada, in 1885, because of the problem of a non-capitalist activity and as presented to the public, because it was considered a ceremony described as satanic and demonic. The native communities concerned by this new decree ignored this occidental law and performed many potlatches during the banning, and they did so away from non-native eyes. Both countries would eventually decriminalize the Potlatch ceremony, in 1934 for the United Stated and 1951 for Canada.

The second ritual I have decided to present to you is the Grass Dance, one of the many dancing rituals in the Native culture.  Grass dancing has been part of at least three known tribes in Native culture and was originally used by the Native hunters to give them to opportunity to perform their everyday life actions. For example, every step of a story could represent a different action by the way the hunter would move and by the fluidity of his body movements.

 Grass dancing is one of the oldest dancing styles and one the most widely used in Native culture. Its origin has three versions that may or may not be exact.  First, it can come from the findings of early scouts who were looking for a new site. After locating a part of land, the scouts would perform a style of dance in a special way to flatten the grass and therefore, give the opportunity to establish a new camp site or meeting site. Second, the dance movements would represent the movement of the grass in the windy air itself and considered as a gift from the Creator to celebrate joy. Third, for some tribes, the reflection of warrior movements such as stalking the enemy or the game was represented to celebrate a victory.

The clothing components included a headdress called roach (which has two feathers that moves according to the rhythm of the beat), long strands of yarn attached to the arms or back of the performer’s costume that would represent the grass or for the victory celebrations, the scalp of the enemy. The strains have to be moving in time and accordance to the movement of the performer to recreate the picture of grass blowing into the wind breezes. The dancer has to be moving all along with the drum tempo and has to end with both feet on the ground on the final rhythm.

 The grass dance also represents a connection with Earth, Nature and the Creator and it is the expression of harmony with the Universe and Mother Earth.

    By Marc-André Desrochers



A totem pole is a form of Native art. The Natives carved animals or humans on the wooden pole to pay respect to their guardian spirits with carvings of powerful symbols.  This form of art can convey many secrets and tell many stories.  However, since many forms are carved into the pole, people can interpret the meaning of it depending on their perspective. It seems that the totem pole building tradition was unique to West Coast tribes (Wall).

A totem pole is the name given by Europeans to this wooden construction. Before contact, Natives used a completely different way to demonstrate their membership to their tribes and their identities. The totems essentially unite the tribe in representing their guardian spirit ancestors. Totem poles also served as emblems for clans and families. The totems were composed of different figures and animals that corresponded to the ancestor or to tell a story (Halpin 18).

Totem poles were usually built during potlatches, an important celebration where Natives dance, share food and give gifts, sometimes sharing all of what they own. The more someone could give, the more he becomes prestigious. In this ceremony, the carver will present his totem and ask the family to invoke their sprits that will now live within the totem. The stories related to this totem will also be displayed through the potlatch. Moreover, many totems were erected in honour of famous chiefs. Usually, totems were raised for three main reasons: to show the status of someone who had passed away, to iconize an ancestor and to symbolize the generosity of an important potlatch’s sponsor (Kramer).

A totem conveys a lot of magic. Many stories are told by totems. Natives believe that once upon a time, special magic animals were living among humans and ordinary animals. These animals were powerful they could transform themselves from animal to human. They usually preferred to be human. The spirits always tried to educate people and sometimes performed a trick to bring them into the spirit world. These animals such as the beaver, the deer, the whale or the frog were then carved into the wood in remembrance of the story.

There are many different kinds of totem poles. The more common ones are: House Posts a carved post that is supporting a house (Halpin 18); House Frontal Poles that are standing in front of the house and that usually contained the entrance (Halpin 20); Memorial Poles erected in honour of a deathly person by his heir (Halpin 20); Mortuary Poles that contain remains of the dead in a box included in the pole and Welcome Figures placed near water to greet newcomers (Halpin 23).

To be authentic, a totem needs to be sanctioned by the tribe. First, it needs to be carved by an initiated carver of the North West tribe and second, it needs to be blessed by elders who are part of the totem tradition (Kramer). Totem poles were usually carved with wood tools and it took long time to finish one. Today, carvers use chainsaws to facilitate their work.

Totem poles existed since a long time ago. They were produced since the 1700’s with the Natives’ acquisition of new metal tools given to them by the Europeans. Before that first contact, the totems existed but they were much smaller. They were approximately the size of a walking cane. It seems that totem poles as we know them today are quite a recent art; before contact Natives were carving boxes, masks and sticks. Furthermore, the totem art improved in size and in design trough all these years (Kramer). Totems look like a representation of the native world view. They understand the world as being circular and all beings are in relation, none is more important, than the others. By carving animals and humans all relating together, it symbolizes a certain harmony with the spirit world and with nature.

A totem is composed of many different kinds of spirits. Thunderbird, the king of the sky, can become invisible and turn into the wind. It is often seen with its block- headed brother Kolus, who sometimes pretends to be Thunderbird. They are usually accompanied by thunder and lightning and followed by Eagles.

 The Raven is a powerful trickster. It is always eager. Seen as unusual, obsessive and dishonest, it is feared by everyone. It can transform itself into a terrifying cannibal creature called Hok Hok who can pull your eyes out.

The Whale, also known as Blackfish, lives with Copper Woman and Komogwa, the underwater sea kings. Whales hate Thunderbird because Thunderbird can pull them out of the water and eat them. Some Whales who tire of ocean life turn themselves into Wolves and go to live on earth. A Sea Wolf is an incomplete transformation of a Whale.

The Octopus is an Alaskan totem. It is usually called a Devilfish. It could capture a man and drown him. Red was an attractive colour for them.

Other tribes from other countries make certain kinds of totem poles. However, they are usually a representation of their gods or of certain taboos and none of this has ever been part of North West coast tribe traditions. There are few of the original totems that have been preserved; most of them, however have rotted or fallen. On the other hand, the preserved ones are conserved in a museum in British Colombia. Also, some totems remain in some villages of the West Coast preserved by the tribes (Halpin 25).

In conclusion, even if it is sometimes considered an old form of art by some people, totem pole carving is a very complex form of art. Totems are also mystic in that they convey a power too difficult to understand by Non-Natives. All of these animals carved in the wood allow for Natives to be in contact with all the nature spirits.

By Stephanie Roy