RCMP 'had no understanding' of sun dance ceremony that was interrupted, dancer says

Members of the Beardy's and Okemasis Cree Nation aren't happy with what they're calling interference from police and the federal government.

Organizers say they limited number of people at event, practised physical distancing

Andre Bear, pictured, is a dancer in the ceremony and a law student. He says he acted as a legal observer when RCMP arrived at the sun dance on Sunday. (Liam Richards/The Canadian Press)

Members of the Beardy's and Okemasis Cree Nation aren't happy with what they're calling interference from police and the federal government.

On Friday, organizers held a traditional sun dance at the reserve, located about 170 kilometres north of Saskatoon, to pray for a cure for COVID-19.

During the event, RCMP showed up in a police cruiser and talked to officials, organizers say. Several hours later, at a sweat lodge ceremony, officers returned and said they intended to break up the ceremony.

A public health order in Saskatchewan limits gatherings to a maximum of 10 people.

Andre Bear, a dancer in the ceremony, said "extreme restrictions on us by the Beardy's and Okemasis chief and council" were immediately put in place in order for the ceremony to continue.

"There was a 20 person non-band member limit, they were taking everybody's temperatures, [physical] distancing was being enforced," said Bear, a law student who said he acted as a legal observer when RCMP arrived at the sun dance on Sunday.

"The security was very strict but they were very respectful in the ceremony."

According to Bear, 20 non-band members attended the ceremony, which ran from Friday through Sunday. Fifteen band members attended, he said.

The Beardy's and Okemasis Cree Nation gave the OK to the ceremony once the conditions had been met, Bear said, so it went ahead.

'Took us back to 150 years ago'

Clay Sutherland, the man in charge of the ceremony, said police had no right to interfere.

"This is not going to be tolerated anymore," said Sutherland, the event's sun dance chief.

"This took us back to 150 years ago when all of our people had to go underground. They had to hide. They had to hide who they were."

Bear said the officers who approached the lodge had their weapons with them. Although the guns were holstered, he described that as "one of the greatest sins you could ever commit," because the ceremony is about creation, life and protecting life.

'Stay off our lands'

Chief Bobby Cameron of the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations, which represents 74 First Nations in Saskatchewan, said the RCMP should stay off reserve land.

"These are First Nations lands. This is Indian land. Stay off our lands unless you are invited," Chief Cameron told the Canadian Press.

Public health orders do not supersede First Nations law and treaties, Cameron asserted, adding that maintaining tradition and ceremony is even more important during the COVID-19 pandemic.

"Our ceremonies, our sun dances, our sweat lodges, our pipe ceremonies will continue and no matter what any government or what the RCMP may try to say or do, those ways are going to continue."

While powwows across the country have been cancelled, traditional ceremonies cannot be delayed, Cameron said. They cannot move online, like many church services, because they are inherently connected to the land.

Bear repeated that he was disappointed and disheartened by the police response. He said the ceremony dates back thousands of years and sacred ceremony like the sun dance needs legal protection.

He drew a connection between the traditional sun dance and modern hospitals, saying traditional health-care could work in tandem with the modern day health-care system.

"They can only work together, and they will not harm one another," Bear said.

"If the concern is that our ceremonies do not have the same equipment that is held by the hospitals in modern day health-care systems, then we need to look at putting an end to the detrimental underfunding of Indigenous communities in every sector of government and provide our community with those resources in order to keep us safe."

Bear said the public health order limiting gatherings to 10 people also infringes on protected cultural practices. He said RCMP asked people for their names, and asked when they would be leaving.

"They had no understanding of the most powerful ceremony that has ever been on these lands," Bear said.

People turned away

Sutherland said everyone present kept their distance from each other and did their best to abide by pandemic rules.

"We were actually telling people they could not attend, because we were past our quota," he said. "We were following the rules and regulations our chief and council told us."

Sutherland said he stopped officers from approaching the sun dance grounds with their weapons, as this breaks cultural protocol. He said one woman jumped in front of a patrol vehicle as it drove near a part of the site that is not supposed to be approached.

"Nothing was going to stop," Sutherland said. "I was really willing to go to jail over this."

Health officials sent organizers an email warning that there were a high number of COVID-19 cases in northern Saskatchewan and that people from the outside might bring the virus into the community. The email also noted that a public health order limited gatherings to 10 people.

Ultimately, Sutherland said he hopes lessons are learned from this.

"There needs to be more conversations between our two groups," he said. "We can't go on like this. This is just not right. They tried to intervene on something that is sacred to us."

In a written response, Saskatchewan RCMP acknowledged officers went out to the site twice but said they never asked for the ceremony to stop. No charges were laid.

"As the province continues to have a public health order in place, the Saskatchewan RCMP remains committed to following-up on reports of public gatherings and other activities that may contravene the public health order," read the statement. 

"Our focus continues to be on educating members of the public of the potential health and enforcement consequences that can result from non-compliance with the public health order."

Requests for comment from First Nations and Inuit Health have not received a response.

-with files from Kelly Geraldine Malone with The Canadian Press