'I was actually willing to go to jail over this': Sask. organizer wants to ensure no more Sask. Sun Dances interrupted
SASKATOON -- Members of a Saskatchewan First Nation are unhappy with the response by RCMP and First Nations to a sacred Indigenous ceremony over the weekend.
From Friday morning to Sunday evening, Beardy’s and Okemasis Cree Nation held a Sun Dance, a traditional sacred ceremony in Indigenous culture in which members gather to celebrate the renewal of life and good health.
It was held mainly to try and stop the spread of COVID-19, organizer Clay Sutherland said. People did not gather in groups of larger than 10 people, which would have violated public health restrictions, he said.
“This was basically to help bridge the gap in finding a cure,” Sutherland told CTV News. “Everyone who showed up came on their own and they knew COVID-19 was out there, they still came.”
Andre Bear attended the Sun Dance - his seventh at Beardy’s. He said the Sun Dance is comparable to hospitals in the city and the Sun Dance is the practice of Indigenous medicine and spirituality.
“Hospitals don’t close, why should Indigenous traditional health care close,” Bear said. “The entire lodge itself is for the health of the people and this lodge was a vision from an Indigenous medicine man to help stop COVID-19.”
Bear added Indigenous health care systems should be able to work in tandem with other health care systems, rather than be persecuted and challenged.
“Our Sun Dance can help hospitals in helping stop the spread of COVID-19,” he said.
Sutherland said Beardy’s and Okemasis Chief Edwin Ananas endorsed the Sun Dance, with the understanding the ceremony would limit the number of non-reserve people to 20. Sutherland said he had to turn people away because they had reached the limit set by the chief, and they were taking steps to ensure people participating in the Sun Dance were not infected with COVID-19.
“Our chief and council were taking temperatures at the borders and if anyone had a temperature they would be turned back. We made sure that was in place even before we invited people out to our land,” Sutherland said. “Nobody was allowed to go anywhere, they were to come straight to the grounds and then leave, and we did that in a peaceful manner.”
On Friday, Sutherland said Ananas called him informing him about an email from First Nations and Inuit Health board, threatening fines if they allowed the Sun Dance to go ahead. Sutherland said even though he had the support from the First Nation, he didn’t like to hear about others trying to stop the Sun Dance from taking place.
In the letter to Ananas the board said it received a complaint through the provincial COVID-19 reporting system. The letter references a large number of COVID-19 cases in northern Saskatchewan and warns that the event may bring people from outside the community and place locals at risk of the disease.
The Sun Dance still went on. RCMP officers arrived on Sunday afternoon, asking who was in charge and what was going on, Bear said. The officers wanted to enter the Sun Dance lodge and were told they could not enter the sacred area, Bear said.
“They had their hands on their guns as they approached the lodge and the lodge chief told them not to take another step forward,” Bear said. “They finally stopped after he raised his voice at them and they went back into the car and that was the last interaction.”
In a news release on Wednesday, Ananas expressed his frustration over the complaints that were made and handled without contacting the community leadership.
“We are are also frustrated with the simple fact that there are more people at a Walmart at any given time than there are at a Sun Dance, but you don’t see police going in to break up those mass gatherings, so why are First Nations’ spiritual and healing ceremonies being targeted?”
In a statement on Wednesday, RCMP said that on Sunday Rosthern RCMP received two reports of a large public gathering at the Beardy's & Okemasis Cree Nation.
RCMP officers responded to the first report around 11:15 a.m. and spoke with one of the organizers, obtaining information and then departing, RCMP say.
A second report was received around 6 p.m. and the officers attended a second time and departed following a brief discussion with one of the attendees, according to the statement.
“At no time did RCMP officers ask for the ceremony to stop. No charges were laid by the RCMP.”
Sutherland said he’s heard a fine is coming from the board and that he will challenge it in court. He said he was willing to do anything to allow the Sun Dance to go on.
“I was actually willing to go to jail over this,” Sutherland said. “I was willing to take a fine over this, actually go to court so this will never happen again to our traditional ceremonies across Canada. I was actually willing to do everything to protect the integrity of our lodge.”
Sutherland said an apology will not suffice. He said he wants to have a meeting with Ottawa and the RCMP to make sure Sun Dance lodges, which he believes will happen across Canada as spring turns into summer, will not be interrupted like his Sun Dance was.
“We seem to be targeted as Indigenous people,” he said. “For this to happen in Canada, this is wrong.”
In a news release, Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations (FSIN) Chief Bobby Cameron expressed his support of First Nation communities choosing to conduct traditional cultural ceremonies while following social distancing protocols.
“We will practice our traditional First Nations ceremonies as we see fit,” Cameron said in a news release. “We don’t need anyone telling us we won’t be allowed to conduct ceremonies.”