The iniskim or “buffalo stone” played an important role in the spiritual life of Plains People. They used stones that often contained fossils with a spiral shell for thousands of years. According to legend, a woman was trying to find food for her family and her band during a time of famine when an iniskim talked to her about how to use prayers and ceremonies to find buffalo and bring them to the people to hunt. As a result Blackfoot children, whose tribe lived on the Plains of North America, wore iniskim necklaces, while warriors wore them woven into their hair, and shamans carried them in bundles. Often the dead were buried with them to provide sustenance after death.
Another important spiritual instrument was the medicine wheel. I have seen at least one in Saskatchewan. I believe it was at Wanuskewin Heritage Park, an internationally-acclaimed historic site just north of Saskatoon where my sister and brother-in-law took me a few years ago. For millennia medicine wheels have been a part of Indigenous spiritual life among people of the plains. These stone structures were usually centred on a pile of rocks (cairn) often located on a prominent hill. Spokes of the wheel radiated outwards.
For the Indigenous People of the plains the circle and the number 4 had spiritual significance. The circle had no beginning and no end. They also said that people hunt the buffalo for survival and then return it to the earth to nourish the grass, which then fed the new buffalo. This made the circle complete. As I said about the Anishinabe, the number 4 is also sacred to the Indigenous People of the plains.
At the visitor centre in Wanuskewin Heritage Park the number 4 is prominently on display in the four-pointed roof of the visitor centre, which can be seen from a distance. The roof represents four directions, four peoples, four seasons and four times of life.
A famous medicine wheel was built at Majorville about 5,000 years ago. 40 tonnes of rock were used to bu ild it. The medicine wheel was frequently utilized when Europeans first made contact with the Indigenous People on the plains. At the centre of that wheel was soil 9 metres in diameter and 1.6 metres high surrounded by an oval ring of stones about 29 metres by 26 metres. It contained 26 to 28 spokes.
The main spiritual ceremony of Plains people was the Sun Dance. I found it interesting that it was usually led by a woman. Women were allowed to be leaders on the Plains at a time when the Christian religion by and large, relegated women to a secondary role. Who thinks the Europeans were the civilized ones? A woman usually decides when the dance was to be held. Often it was held in order to allow a woman who had a male relative or husband in danger. She vowed publicly that if this person were spared she would sponsor a Sun Dance.
The Sun Dance was later outlawed by Canadians who did not appreciate any competition from native spirituality for the religion they wanted to impose. That of course was Christianity.
Peter Nabokov in his book Native American Testimony: A Chronicle of Indian-White Relations from Prophecy to the Present 1492-1992,reported an anonymous Blackfoot response:
“We know that there is nothing injurious to our people in the Sun-dance…It has been our custom, during many years, to assemble once every summer for this festival…We fast and pray, that we may be able to lead good lives and to act more kindly to each other.
I do not understand why the white men desire to put an end to our religious ceremonials. What harm can they do to our people? If they deprive us of our religion, we will have nothing left, for we know of no other that can take its place.”
The abolition the Sun Dance was finally removed from the Indian Act in 1951 when I was 3 years old. It took Canada that long to become civilized!