The winter dance is a ceremony for the renewal of the earth that is performed by the Salish people on the Colville Reservation, north of Spokane, Washington. John Grim, a religious historian, an adopted member of a Crow Indian family, and the author of The Shaman Patterns of Religious Healing Among the Ojibway Indians, attends the winter dance each year, and explained the ritual to me. Grim states that the dance for renewal is not an abstract notion.
Rather, it is performed to invoke heavy rains so that root crops will grow to provide sustenance for humans, and to keep animals alive for man to hunt.
The winter dance is performed for four days, from eight in the evening until nine the next morning. The first day of the winter dance is usually for family. Then intimate friends of the family are invited.
It grows from there, and by the fourth day, there may be as many people as s 100 or 150 people in attendance. The location of the ceremony is chosen by a Shaman. It is held in a single room; the windows are covered, and there is a pole made of pine in the middle of the room that extends from the floor to the ceiling.
This pole is referred to as the old man, and is a symbol for our relationship with the Spirits that created and gave meaning to this world.
During the winter dance itself, Spirits call out in the form of songs. Those who can hear the songs will sing them. This exchange between the Spirits and human beings is called Samish in the Salish language, a word which implies that a special sound is being imparted to a person by the creative presence of the world.
No one touches the pine pole except for the singers, who begin to sing very slowly, one at a time. There is no set order regarding who will sing when.
The singers are believed to be in trance, although this word doesn’t fully capture the experience of what actually takes place.
A translator is usually present to give the English interpretation, or if the words are already in English, to project the message loud and clear for everyone in the room to hear.
These are personal statements about ethical and moral life, about community, about Spirit presence, and about the origin of the song. The singer begins to sing at a much faster pace, and people get up to dance.
The four day ceremony attracts wet heavy snow, then a frost and a cold spell, followed by more snow to get moisture down into the root crops. Grim notes how each time he attends the winter dance, it snows.