Ritual of the Shaking Tent
In my book Mysteries of Canada: Volume II, I described an ancient necromantic rite traditionally practiced by the Innu, Cree, Ojibwa, and other First Nations across Canada, in which a medicine man attempts to contact both human and inhuman spirits for the purpose of acquiring hidden or occult knowledge. In preparation for this ritual, a tall sturdy cylindrical tent is erected either outside or within a larger dwelling. The tent’s frame typically consists of a number of stout poles driven into the ground in a circular formation, bound together by circular hoops. Once completed, the entire structure, save for a small area at the top, is covered with skins, blankets, bark, or heavy cloth.
Although the finer details of the Shaking Tent ritual vary from nation to nation, the procedure typically unfolds as follows. After sunset, the shaman elected to preside over the ceremony crawls into the tent, usually bearing a calumet, or tobacco pipe, and a rattle or drum. Once inside, the medicine man sings and makes noise with his instrument, inviting any spirits present in the area to join him inside the tent. After some time, the tent shakes with impossible violence, as if pummeled by powerful gusts of wind rushing in through the opening in its top and swirling throughout its interior. This agitation is supposed to be occasioned by the arrival of the spirits.
After the shaking dies away, the medicine man invites members of the assemblage outside the tent to ask the spirits any questions they might have, such as the fate of sick loved ones, or the whereabouts of enemies, game, or travelling friends. The standard payment for this service is traditionally a small piece of tobacco, which the supplicant often tosses into the tent through the opening in the top. Once the fee is paid, the medicine man relays the question to the spirits in a language which none of the onlookers understand. He receives equally incomprehensible reply, uttered in an unearthly voice which often emanates from the top of the tent. The medicine man then translates the answer for the benefit of the supplicant before asking other members of the congregation to field their own questions. Eerily, the spirits’ replies and predictions are almost always later found to be true.
Nicole’s Shaking Tent Experience
During my research into the mystery of the Shaking Tent, I was unable to find any accounts of the ritual taking place in the recent past, and assumed that the practice had probably died out sometime in the 20th Century. Shortly after the publication of my piece, however, several of my readers informed me that the rite was still performed from time to time on Indian reserves and reservations across Canada and the United States. One of these readers was my friend, Bexx Korol, who put me in touch with her own friend, a fascinating lady from Oshawa, Ontario, named Nicole, who participated in a Shaking Tent ceremony years ago. Nicole is of Ojibwa heritage, and was adopted by another family at infancy. She attended the Shaking Tent ceremony in the hope that she might learn the location of her birth mother. Nicole agreed to give me permission to publish excerpts of my video chat with her on the condition that she approve the final draft. When the video was finished, she objected to my use of the words ‘necromancy’ and ‘ritual’ in connection with the Shaking Tent ceremony, asserting that those words unfairly place the ceremony in the camp of witchcraft and black magic, and so I’ve decided to publish a summary of her testimony instead.
Nicole was adopted at birth, and grew up without knowing the identity of her biological parents. In about 1995, when she was about 22 years old, she and a group of fellow adoptees attended a Shaking Tent ceremony in the basement of the Anishnawbe Health building in Toronto, Ontario, hoping that the ceremony might give them some insight into the location of their birth parents.
The tent used in the ceremony she attended was a 5 or 6-foot-tall structure composed of a stick frame and a bark and cedar branch covering, with a diameter wide enough for a man to sit inside comfortably.
At the beginning of the ceremony, after all the participants had given the medicine man their gift of tobacco, the lights were turned off, pitching the basement into total darkness. Nicole recalls it being so dark that she was unable to see her hand in front of her face. The medicine man began to sing and beat his drum. Soon the tent began to shake, as evidenced by the rustling of the branches that covered it, heralding the arrival of the spirits. At one point during the ceremony, Nicole heard a wolf howling. “It was pretty intense,” she said.
One by one, each of the attendees asked the medicine man to relay their question to the spirits inside the tent. After a period of what Nicole estimated to be about five minutes, the spirits delivered a reply, which the medicine man translated for the adoptees. When the time came for Nicole to field her own question, she asked the spirits to tell her the location of her birth mother. The spirits replied that her mother was at Mount McKay, a flat-topped mountain which stands along the banks of the Kaministiquia River south of Thunder Bay, Ontario, near the western shores of Lake Superior.
Several days after the ceremony, Nicole called the band office of the Fort William First Nation, an Ojibwa community which lies at the base of Mount McKay, and told the secretary about her Shaking Tent experience, asking her if she knew anyone in the community who had given her daughter up for adoption 22 years earlier. Consulting her adoption papers, she gave the secretary as much identificatory information as she could, but to no avail; the woman did not know anyone in the band who matched the description of Nicole’s mother. Disappointed, Nicole left her contact information with the secretary and hung up the phone.
A few months later, Nicole received a phone call at her work. The woman on the other line was her biological mother. Overwhelmed by emotion, Nicole, with her boss’s permission, took the rest of the day off work and spent the afternoon chatting with her mother. During their conversation, she learned that, although her mother did not live on the Fort William Reserve, she had attended a powwow there on the exact day on which Nicole had participated in the Shaking Tent ceremony.
Nicole has told me that she objects to the words ‘necromancy’ and ‘ritual’ being used in association with the Shaking Tent ceremony. “The word necromancy,” she wrote, “is often considered to be black magic, witchcraft, sorcery. There are those who do practice these things, we as aboriginal people do not. Our people call our communication even in a traditional smudge a ceremony. Shaking Tent, other ceremonies our people have participated in like powwows are not rituals nor necromantic practices. For example, a powwow is a celebration of giving thanks to the Creator. It’s a connection to the Creator. Our ceremonies are all positive. For everyone’s good. Like a Shaking Tent, when done is a powerful connection with the Creator. It is not black magic or witchcraft. It’s talking and giving thanks to our Creator, your Creator, everyone’s Creator of all things on Turtle Island.”
Spirit Lights in the Shaking Tent
Many white fur traders, travellers, and missionaries of centuries past who witnessed the Shaking Tent ceremony and wrote about it in their letters and memoirs described seeing strange lights flickering around or near the top of the tent while the séance was in session. One such frontiersman was George Nelson, a fur trader who headed a succession of Hudson’s Bay Company posts around Lake Winnipeg and Lac la Ronge in the early 1800s. In various letters to his father, written throughout the spring and summer of 1823, he described the mysterious lights he witnessed during Cree Shaking Tent ceremonies. In one of these letters, he described seeing “a vast number of small lights resting on the hoops that hold the poles together” during one of the rituals. In that same letter, he described the alleged experience of a Metis teenager, who is said to have crawled into a Shaking Tent in the middle of a ceremony and paid for his curiosity. “There was a dreadful fluttering within,” Nelson wrote, “but especially about his head, his hair flying about his face as if in a tempest and frequent appearances of small lights before his eyes [whichever] way he turned.” Nelson attempted the same bold maneuver during a Shaking Tent ceremony held outside his post at La Ronge and described his astonishing experience in another letter. “At midnight,” he wrote, “the Conjuror addressed me and asked if I wished to see any of [the Spirits]. I accepted the offer and thrust my head underneath, and being upon my back I looked up and near the top observed a light as of a Star in a Cloudy night about 1 ½ in. long and 1 broad; tho’ dim, yet perfectly distinct… A little after one [a.m.] one of my men looked in, with several [Indians], and saw several small lights about as large as the Thumb nail. A few minutes before 2 [a.m.], they gave another shaking to the frame and made their exit.”
Another description of the mysterious lights often seen during Shaking Tent ceremonies appears in the 1846 book, The Journal of the Bishop of Montreal During a Visit to the Church Missionary Society’s North-West America Mission, written by Anglican Bishop George J. Mountain. In his journal, Bishop Mountain outlined the ritual as it was explained to him by two former Cree medicine men who had long since been baptized into the Church of England. “During the process going on in the conjuring lodge,” he wrote, “without boldly looking up, [the conjuror] catches glimpses, in the same plane with the topmost hoop of the lodge, of a number of objects like tiny stars.”
A similar picture is evoked by a depiction of the ceremony which appears in German travel writer Johan Georg Kohl’s 1859 travel memoir, Kitchi-gami: Wanderings Round Lake Superior. Back in 1855, Kohl met a French-Canadian voyageur on the southern shores of Lake Superior who claimed to have interrogated an Ojibwa ex-shaman on his deathbed. Knowing that the dying man had long since converted to Christianity, and would not dare tell a lie so near to his impending appointment with his Maker, he hoped to extract from him the secrets of the Shaking Tent. The elder assured him that the ritual was genuine, and that spirits truly entered the tent during the ceremony. “I heard their voices,” he said. “The top of the lodge was full of them, and before me the sky and wide lands lay expanded.”
I asked Nicole if she witnessed anything similar during the Shaking Tent ceremony she attended. This is what she told me:
“Yeah, yeah. They were actually outside the tent, and I saw lights going in front of me. So, I guess people would call them ‘orbs’. A speck of light… and it wasn’t like dust. You could not see in front of your face downstairs. You cannot see. You can’t see your hand, you can’t see a shadow. Nothing… So, we could not see anything, but I certainly saw things that [flew] in front [of me]. It was quite… there’s nothing else to kind of describe that, really.”
The term ‘orb’, or ‘spirit orbs’, as they are often called, may be familiar to viewers who enjoy watching documentaries and TV shows on paranormal phenomena. Most publically broadcasted programs represent ‘spirit orbs’ as small globes of white, gray, or blue light which are not typically visible to the naked eye, but which appear on digital and film photographs and video recordings taken at supposedly haunted locations. Some paranormal investigators believe these anomalies to be visual manifestations of souls of the deceased, bound to our early plane. Others have made convincing cases that they are nothing more than particles of dust or tiny insects interposed between the camera lens and the object on which the camera is focused, apparently surrounded by a halo of light on account of technological limitations, or perhaps optical illusions produced by interactions between light sources and camera lenses.
Whatever the nature of these photographic and videographic anomalies, the popular conception of the spirit orb appears to be related to a truly baffling phenomenon for which no rational explanations readily present themselves. Every once in a while, visitors to supposedly haunted locations, witnesses of out-of-body experiences, those present at the deathbeds of their loved ones, and participants in necromantic rituals like the Shaking Tent ceremony report seeing small floating balls of light which do not appear to derive from any external light sources. The behavior of these lights and the circumstances in which they appear have led some to suspect that they are disembodied souls manifest in a form perceptible to the human eye.
One interesting description of what is perhaps best described as a ‘spirit light’ appeared in the February 1953 issue of the magazine Fate, in an article written by Karee F. Fugitt of Le Grande, Oregon. “Thirteen years ago,” Fugitt began, “I witnessed an occurrence so fantastic, so puzzling, that it has haunted me ever since. If I alone had seen that eerie phenomenon, I might have doubted my own eyes and attributed it to a hallucination, but two of my sisters saw it with me.
“The incident took place at about 4:00 p.m. as my mother lay dying. She called to us during one of her intervals of consciousness and said it was growing dark. One of my sisters turned on the light, a single bulb almost directly over my mother’s bed, and when she had quieted again we turned it off and intended going out to let her rest.
“As the bulb went dark, three small balls of light appeared in the room. They were colored like bubbles, and they hovered over mother for a few seconds, then vanished through the open window. These little lights made a very faint sound, like the pop of a bubble bursting. Except for a grasp from my second sister, we all stood frozen and speechless, awed by what we had seen.”
Fugitt went on to explain that neither she nor any of her family members were spiritualists, and that no one in the room at that time had expected to see anything unusual.
Another Fate article echoing the concept of spirit lights appeared in the August 1961 issue of that publication. The author, Mr. Camille Bissonnette of Montebello, California, was a French-Canadian by birth, whose father, Pierre, spent his entire life farming near the small rural community of St. Pierre Baptist in Megantic County, Quebec. Pierre never received any formal education, and remained illiterate all his life.
When he was about twenty years old, Pierre went to help a neighbouring farmer with his harvesting. During this operation, he worked side by side with a drifter whom the farmer had hired. After each long day of work, Pierre and the drifter retired to the farmer’s barn and bunked down in the hayloft.
One especially warm night, Pierre heard the drifter arise from the hay, climb down the ladder, and head outside. When he failed to return after some time, Pierre became worried and went to look for him.
“It was a starry night,” he told his son. “Having looked around, here and there, I finally saw a dark form lying flat on the ground. I advanced cautiously. It was the drifter. He seemed asleep but when I bent over him I noticed that if his breathing was regular it was hardly audible. I did not get alarmed as some people sleep that lightly. As I was staying still, above him, undecided what I should do, waking him up or going back to the loft alone, I saw a tiny light, a kind of firefly light, hovering over his head, then coming down on his forehead into which it seemed to disappear.
“At that moment, the drifter opened his eyes and saw me. I explained the cause of my presence by his side but when I mentioned the firefly which had waked him up, he jumped on his feet and gripped my shoulder.
“‘Please, Pierre, promise me that you will never reveal to [anyone] what you saw to-night. Most of all never talk about what you called a firefly.’
“‘Why?’ I asked.
“‘Because nobody will believe you. They’ll think you’re crazy.’
“‘I cannot understand,’ I said.
“‘I cannot explain, Pierre, the words will be too deep for you. You would think I am insane. I am only a passer-by in this country. I came from a very long distance, in fact, from all around the world, where I have seen and learnt of strange things. What you have witnessed to-night is one of them. Before I leave for other parts, if ever I lay down again under the stars and if you happened to see me, please do not touch me and do not talk to me. Rest assured that I will not be dead.’
“I could not get an explanation at all out of this strange man who left two days later and I never saw him again.”
Considering the testimonies of Nicole Barker, Karee Fugitt, and historical witnesses of the Shaking Tent ceremony, it is tempting to suppose that the firefly Pierre saw on that warm summer night was the drifter’s soul floating outside his body, affording the temporary labourer some sort of out-of-body experience.
Are disembodied human souls really visible to the naked eye, appearing to us as tiny lights, mysterious bubbles, or floating orbs? Have you ever seen a spirit orb? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below.
- Correspondence between Nicole Barker and Hammerson Peters, May 13, 2022
- The Journal of the Bishop of Montreal During a Visit to the Church Missionary Society’s North-West America Mission (1846), by Bishop George J. Mountain
- Kitchi-gami: Wanderings Round Lake Superior (1859), by Johan Georg Kohl
- “The Little Lights,” by Karee F. Fuvgit in the February 1953 issue of Fate
- “The Orders of the Dreamed: George Nelson on Cree and Northern Ojibwa Religion and Myth, 1823 (1988), by Jennifer S.H. Brown and Robert Brightman
- “The Firefly,” by Camille Bissonnette in the August 1961 issue of Fate