Canada's First Nations observe the start of National Aboriginal Day On June 21st with a sunrise ceremony, one of the most ancient and revered rituals practiced today.

It is a deeply spiritual and personal ceremony performed to mark and welcome the beginning of a new day, as well as express appreciation and thanks for life and nature.

Sunrise ceremonies often include participants expressing what they are grateful for and why, and smudging themselves and their ceremonial instruments with burnt herbs as a way to purify oneself of negativity.

The ceremony is of great importance to Aboriginals, but many Canadians are unaware of its true meaning. Elder Raymond Ballantyne of the Cree and his helper Madonna O'Nabigon spoke to CBC News about how they perform their own ceremony. Here are excerpts from the discussion:

What is the significance of the sunrise ceremony?

Elder Raymond Ballantyne: That's when everything's strong; that's the time when you ask for things. You pray for things, you pray for life… you're dealing with life and death, that's why we do the Sunrise ceremonies. It's a communication with the Creator.

That's important … all nations are different, but that's how we do ours.

Madonna O'Nabigon: A Sunrise ceremony is to watch the sun come up, to see if that sun will acknowledge us, to give us energy we need for the day. If a person is true and honest to himself or herself, if their prayers are strong that morning, they can see the sun dance. Sometimes the sun will pounce; I've seen it happen twice.

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Cree Elder Raymond Ballantyne and his helper Madonna O'Nabigon are planning to perform their own Sunrise Ceremony on National Aboriginal Day on June 21st. (Kumik/The Canadian Press)

Could you describe the sunrise ceremony?

O'Nabigon: First, understand that we're from Saskatchewan and this is the way we were taught to do our sunrise ceremonies.

We can only speak for our own people. Raymond is Cree and we can only speak for our northern area where we do our ceremonies. It would be disrespectful to say all should be doing this. Everyone does his or hers differently. This is the way we do our ceremonies.

Ballantyne: For us in the northern site … I can't speak for the rest, [but] in our sunrise ceremonies, we do them as soon as the sun comes up. We just wait for it, and as soon as it starts peeking that's when we do our ceremony.

We always say that when we do our ceremony you have a chance to see the sun dance. That's why we do these ceremonies in the morning; by the time the sun is full, everything is over.

What are the steps you take in your ceremony?

O'Nabigon: Everyone sits in a circle around a fire. A lot of people smudge their instruments, meaning their pipes, before they smoke them.

Smudging is part of the sunrise ceremony. A lot of the pipe carriers smudge when they bring their pipes.

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The smudging ceremony is often a part of the sunrise ceremony to cleanse oneself of negative emotions. (J.P. Moczulski/The Canadian Press)

Ballantyne: We use sweet grass. Not everyone uses sweet grass, they can use sage — that smudges — and they can use cedar.

O'Nabigon: We sit down on the ground in a circle in front of a fire and bring out our smudge bowls. We smudge our instruments and then usually someone will go around with another smudge bowl and smudge people if they want, if they don't have their own.

Ballantyne: We smoke our pipe — that's all we do for our ceremonies — we just smoke our pipe. We turn it around in all directions. We start in the east, then we go around as it [the sun] is coming up, then we go south.

You've got to see how it comes up… we go south, then we go west, then we go north. By that time we've finished those four directions, the sun is up from where it peeks [over the horizon]. By then we've finished smoking our pipes and it's over.

How often is it performed?

O'Nabigon: As a pipe carrier, I could do a ceremony every day, if I wanted to. Another example is if we're fasting, and we fast for four nights, we're allowed to have our pipes with us. All fasters who carry a pipe can fast with their pipes. Our tobacco is very important to us. It's one of our No. 1 medicines.

When we do workshops, four-day workshops, we'll get up and do a sunrise ceremony regardless what kind of workshop it is. It could be physical, mental, spiritual, emotional, sexual, it could be on suicide — it could be anything.

Who can participate in a sunrise ceremony?

O'Nabigon: Anyone can participate  — men, women, babies — everybody is at the sunrise ceremony at 4 a.m., 4:30, 5:30, depending on when it's daybreak. All are welcome. If someone gets up from their tents and wanders over, the more the merrier.

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Anyone can join and participate in a Sunrise Ceremony. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

It's for all races, not just one. This is what we were taught. The Creator put all four races of people here, you know, all the Orientals, all the black people, different nationalities of white, of aboriginal. He put us all here for a reason: to work together, to be able to work together to understand each other. That's why our ceremonies are open. Why do just our people?

How ancient is the ceremony?

O'Nabigon: The ceremony [has gone]

on since the beginning of time…. It is the oldest ceremony that aboriginal people have.

In the majority of our sunrise ceremonies there's always children participating in there; we always want our children and youth to learn right.

This is how they learn, by participating in the ceremonies. We never shut them out. They're always there first. Children come first, because they're the ones who are going to lead our people later on when we're not around.

They're our next generation of hope for aboriginal people.