Mystery of the Shaking Tent
IN 1920, AN ENGLISH adventurer named Michael H. Mason explored much of Northern Canada by dogsled. Four years later, he published an account of his experience in a book entitled The Arctic Forests.
Mason’s book is formatted like an encyclopedia, outlining the natural history of Northern Canada and the ethnology of its human inhabitants. On the subject of the spiritual beliefs of the Gwich’in Indians he encountered during his travels, Mason wrote:
“It is no easy task to write on the habits and philosophy of these most interesting and attractive people, for their most outstanding characteristic is general inconsistency.”
Mason’s observation could be applied more broadly to the spiritual beliefs held by all Canadian First Nations prior to their introduction to Christianity. There are about as many native Canadian religions as there are First Nations, each with its own collection of deities, legends, rituals, and superstitions. The Blackfoot of the western prairies, for example, had their Sun Dances- brutal ceremonies revolving around pain, sacrifice, and physical endurance. The Ojibwa of the Great Lakes had nuanced beliefs regarding the consumption of human flesh, considering the practice justifiable in times of war and horribly dangerous in times of famine. And the Haida of the Queen Charlotte Islands had their carved cedar masks representing the various spiritual entities that populate their mythology, wearing them in their dances and shamanic ceremonies.
In spite of their fundamental differences, many of Canada’s pre-Columbian religions share a number of curious similarities. Be it a raven, a coyote, a hare, or some legendary ancestor, the mythology of nearly every Canadian indigenous group includes the escapades of a Trickster figure, perhaps due to a shared belief that laughter, like smoking and fasting, facilitates communion with the divine. Certain legendary monsters- including hairy giants, massive thunder-making eagles, and huge horned water serpents- feature in native folklore across the country, from the misty jungles of the Pacific to the sunny forests of the Atlantic to the barren tundra of the Arctic. And nearly every Canadian Indian tribe had its shamans, or medicine men, to whom band members turned for healing and advice.
One of the strangest and most widely-held rituals shared by Canadian First Nations involves a structure called a “Shaking Tent”. This ceremonial dwelling consists of a pole frame and a skin covering, similar to the teepee of the prairies and the northern forests, and can be either conical or cylindrical in shape. From the woods of British Columbia to the rocky highlands of Labrador, native medicine men conducted séances in these Shaking Tents, hoping to commune with spirits for the purpose of clairvoyance. During this ritual, the shaman elected to preside over the ceremony fell into a trance, the tent began to shake as if buffeted by unearthly winds, and weird lights flickered in the structure’s upper aperture, where the medicine man’s spirit-body was said to be in counsel with spirits he summoned.
Samuel de Champlain’s Account
The earliest written reference to the ritual of the Shaking Tent appears in French explorer Samuel de Champlain’s 1613 book Les Voyages du Sieur de Champlain, or “The Voyages of Sir Champlain”. A former soldier and spy for King Henry IV of France, Samuel de Champlain, prior to penning his memoirs, had made three voyages to what is now Eastern Canada in the early 1600s for the purpose of establishing a French colony in the Americas and opening up trade with the natives. During the first of these voyages, he explored the lower Laurentian Valley and some of its tributaries. During his second New World expedition, Champlain established a short-lived colony on the shores of what is now Maine, and explored and mapped the Atlantic Coast from what is now Nova Scotia to New England. During his third expedition, launched in 1608, he founded a fur trading fort at the site of what is now Quebec City and established a trading relationship with the local Algonquin Indians. As a condition of their alliance, the natives demanded that Champlain, with his sword, armour, and firearm, help them fight against their hereditary enemy, the powerful Iroquois Confederacy, whose warriors haunted the forests south of the St. Lawrence River. Accordingly, the French explorer joined an Algonquin war party and ventured into enemy territory in the summer of 1609.
While on the war path with his Algonquin allies, Champlain witnessed a Shaking Tent ceremony in which an Algonquin “Pilotois”, or medicine man, attempted to ascertain the size of the Iroquois war party his tribesmen would soon engage in battle.
“One of these [Pilotois] builds a cabin,” Champlain wrote, “surrounds it with small pieces of wood, and covers it with his robe: after it is built, he places himself inside, so as not to be seen at all, when he seizes and shakes one of the posts of his cabin, muttering some words between his teeth, by which he says he invokes the devil… This Pilotois lies prostrate on the ground, motionless, only speaking with the devil: on a sudden, he rises to his feet, talking, and tormenting himself in such a manner that, although naked, he is all of a perspiration.”
Although Champlain’s Algonquin friends told him that the tent’s movement was the work of spirits, the explorer claimed that he had witnessed the shaman grab one of the tent poles and shake the structure himself.
“They told me also that I should see fire come out from the top,” Champlain continued, “which I did not see at all. These rogues counterfeit also their voice, so that it is heavy and clear, and speak in a language unknown to the other savages… the savages think that the devil is speaking…”
Following the ceremony, Champlain and his companions continued up the Richelieu River to what is now Lake Champlain and proceeded south to the site of what would become either Fort Ticonderoga or Crown Point, New York, where they encountered a much larger Iroquois war party. During the battle that ensued, Champlain and one of his French companions shot two Iroquois war chiefs to death with their arquebuses- long matchlock firearms with which these Iroquois were probably unacquainted. Disheartened by the sudden and spectacular deaths of their leaders, the Iroquois broke off the attack and retreated into the woods.
Father Paul Le Jeune’s Account
Although Samuel de Champlain made no attempt to hide his skepticism of the ritual of the Shaking Tent, claiming that Indian medicine men routinely pulled such stunts in order to retain the respect of their fellow tribesmen, many Jesuit missionaries who witnessed the phenomenon in the wake of Champlain’s explorations were less quick to dismiss it as a shamanic hoax.
One of the first Jesuits to pry into the secret of the Shaking Tent was Father Paul Le Jeune, a former Huguenot, or French Protestant, who converted to Catholicism, joined the Society of Jesus, and rose through its ranks to become the Superior of the Jesuit Mission in New France. During the winter of 1633/34, Le Jeune travelled with a band of Montagnais (Innu) Indians through the northern Appalachian Mountains south of the St. Lawrence River, breaking trails with them on snowshoe and sharing their smoky wigwams at night. He documented his experience in the 1634 issue, or Volume VI, of the Jesuit Relations, the Relations being reports written by 17th Century Jesuit missionaries for their superiors describing their attempts to convert the natives of New France to Catholicism.
“Towards nightfall,” Le Jeune wrote, “two or three young men erected a tent in the middle of our Cabin; they stuck six poles deep into the ground in the form of a circle, and to hold them in place they fastened to the tops of these poles a large ring, which completely encircled them; this done, they enclosed this Edifice with [Blankets], leaving the top of the tent open; it is all that a tall man can to do reach the top of this round tower, capable of holding 5 or 6 men standing upright.”
Once the Shaking Tent was erected, the natives extinguished all the fires in their wigwam and threw the embers outside so as to not frighten the spirits that were to enter the tent. After sealing the entrance, the band’s shaman began to moan and rock the tent. “Then,” wrote Le Jeune, “becoming animated little by little, he commenced to whistle in a hollow tone, and as if it came from afar; then to talk as if in a bottle; to cry like the owls of these countries, which it seems to me have stronger voices than those of France; then to howl and sing, constantly varying the tones; ending by these syllables, ho ho, hi hi, guigui, nioue, and other similar sounds, disguising his voice so that it seemed to me I heard those puppets which the showmen exhibit in France.”
As the ceremony progressed, the tent began to shake with increasing violence until Le Jeune was sure that the structure would disintegrate. “I was astonished at a man having so much strength,” wrote the Jesuit of the medicine man, whom he credited with the shaking, “for, after he had once begun to shake [the tent], he did not stop until the consultation was over, which lasted about three hours”.
Of course, since all light had been extinguished from the tent at the beginning of the ritual, Le Jeune could not be certain of the shaman’s actions. The natives who also took part in the ceremony assured him that their medicine man was lying on the ground throughout the whole ordeal, his soul having left his body to commune with the newly-arrived spirit visitors at the top of the tent. “Look up!” they urged him. The Frenchman did, and sure enough he saw fiery sparks issuing from tent opening.
When the voice of the shaman announced that the spirits had indeed arrived, the natives in the tent began asking the entities questions about the weather and the location of big game. Each of their inquiries was answered by a strange voice, which Le Jeune accredited to the shaman.
Father Paul Le Jeune wrote on the subject of the Shaking Tent again three years later, in his 1637 Relations. In this discourse, he admitted that he now doubted that the phenomenon was simply the product of shamanic trickery, and had come to suspect that it might constitute the work of demons.
The Jesuit’s change of heart was attributable in part to the obstinacy with which natives defended the legitimacy of their ritual, and in part to his own experiences in the camp of the Montagnais. Members of his congregation “protested… that it was not the Sorcerer who moved this edifice,” Le Jeune wrote, “but a strong wind which suddenly and violently rushed in. And, as proof of this, they told me that the Tent is sometimes so firm that a man can hardly move it, ‘Yet thou wilt see it, if thou pleasest to be present there, shake and bend from one side to the other, with such violence and for so long a time, that thou wilt be compelled to confess that there is no human strength that could cause this movement’.
“While passing the winter with the Savages,” the missionary continued, “I saw them perform this devilry; I saw strong young men sweat in erecting this Tent; I saw it shake, not with the violence they say it does, but forcibly enough, and for so long a time that I was surprised that a man had strength enough to endure such exertion…
“Furthermore, those whom I have just named, and others, have stoutly asserted to me that the top of this Tent, seven feet high or thereabout, is sometimes bent even to the ground, so powerfully is it agitated. Also, that the arms and legs of the Sorcerer, who was stretched upon the ground, were sometimes seen to emerge at the bottom of the Tent, while the top was shaking violently. They say that the Demon or the wind which enters this little house rushes in with such force, and so disturbs the sorcerer, making him think he is going to fall into an abyss, the earth appearing to open under him, that he emerges in terror from his Tent, which goes on shaking for some time after he has left it.”
Le Jeune went on to describe a tale, told to him by a young Indian, which contended that a medicine man who performed the ritual the previous autumn levitated to the top of the tent during the ceremony. This extraordinary event was purportedly witnessed by curious onlookers who lifted the tent’s covering and peered inside while the procedure was underway. The medicine man “was heard to fall down,” Le Jeune wrote, “uttering a plaintive cry like a man who feels the shock of a fall. Having emerged from these enchantments, he said that he did not know where he had been or what had taken place.
The Experience of Alexander Henry the Elder
In the year 1760, Great Britain emerged victorious from the Seven Years’ War, the last of the four great global conflicts to spill into North America throughout the 17th and 18th Centuries. In the ensuing Treaty of Paris, France, for the first time in history, ceded its most important North American holdings to the British Crown.
In the wake of this historic development, an ambitious young Englishman named Alexander Henry purchased an outfit of trading goods and travelled by canoe to the Pays d’en Haut, or “Upper Country”- the sparsely populated region surrounding the Great Lakes, which had hitherto been the exclusive domain of Jesuit missionaries, French-Canadian fur traders, and various First Nations. Henry optimistically hoped to inaugurate a trading relationship with Ojibwa and Ottawa Nations who had, only several years prior, fought alongside their French allies against the English in the Seven Years War. Following Henry’s perilous voyage into the heart of the Upper Country, British troops began to occupy old French-Canadian fur trading forts throughout the region in an effort to solidify British sovereignty in the area. These British newcomers, who knew far less about the region’s natives than the Frenchmen they displaced, infuriated the Indians of the Great Lakes with their haughty demeanours, their lack of gift-giving, and the trading restrictions they imposed, prompting a coalition of First Nations to launch a series of attacks on British forts in what would become known as Pontiac’s Rebellion.
At the outbreak of this conflict, Alexander Henry was trading at Fort Michilimackinac, an old French fur trading fort located at the northern tip of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula. The local Ojibwa, who had secretly decided to participate in Pontiac’s Rebellion, concocted a brilliant plan to capture the fort by surprise. First, they lured most of the British soldiers outside the fort by inviting them to watch a lacrosse game that they held in an adjacent field on the pretext of celebrating King George III’s birthday. While the soldiers were distracted by the Indian athletics, a handful of Ojibwa women inconspicuously made their way towards the fort’s open gates, concealing bundles of knives and tomahawks beneath blankets that they wore around their shoulders. When the women were in place, one of the athletes lobbed the lacrosse ball over the fort’s walls, prompting the entire Ojibwa team to stampede through the fort’s gate. As they entered the fort, the warriors seized the weapons that their women had smuggled inside and proceeded to slaughter or capture every Englishman they found therein. Henry survived the massacre by hiding in the attic of a French-Canadian fur trader’s house. He was discovered several days later by Ojibwa warriors and made prisoner.
Henry spent the better part of 1763 living among the Ojibwa, spared from the more harrowing experiences suffered by his fellow prisoners, many of whom were murdered and cannibalized, due to his adoption by an Ojibwa chief whom he had befriended prior to the massacre. In early 1764, Henry escaped from his captors and travelled with a trio of French-Canadian voyageurs to the fur trading post at Sault Ste. Marie. There, he fell in with another band of Ojibwa who had just received a summons from British military commander Sir William Johnson. The general, desirous of bringing an end to Pontiac’s Rebellion, had invited the representatives of all the Great Lakes tribes to attend a great peace conference on the shores of the Niagara River. In order to determine whether or not they ought to attend this council, the Ojibwa attempted to commune with a deity they called the ‘Great Turtle’. And thus, a hundred and thirty years after father Le Jeune’s adventure, Alexander Henry bore witness to the phenomenon of the Shaking Tent.
“For invoking and consulting the Great Turtle,” Henry wrote, “the first thing to be done was the building of a large house or wigwam, within which was placed a species of tent for the use of the priest and reception of the spirit. The tent was formed of moose-skins, hung over a framework of wood. Five poles, or rather pillars, of five different species of timber, about ten feet in height and eight inches in diameter were set in a circle of about four feet in diameter. The holes made to receive them were about two feet deep; and the pillars being set, the holes were filled up again, with the earth which had been dug out. At top the pillars were bound together by a circular hoop, or girder. Over the whole of this edifice were spread the moose-skins, covering it at top and round the sides, and made fast with thongs of the same; except that on one side a part was left unfastened, to admit the entrance of the priest.”
At nightfall, while the whole band stood by in anticipation, the medicine man chosen to preside over the ceremony emerged half-naked from his wigwam. The shaman walked over to the tent and crawled through the entrance. “His head was scarcely within side when the edifice,” wrote Henry, “massy as it has been described, began to shake; and the skins were no sooner let fall than the sounds of numerous voices were heard beneath them, some yelling, some barking as dogs, some howling like wolves; and in this horrible concert were mingled screams and sobs, as of despair, anguish, and the sharpest pain. Articulate speech was also uttered, as if from human lips; but in a tongue unknown to the audience. After some time these confused and frightful noises were succeeded by a perfect silence; and now a voice not heard before seemed to manifest the arrival of a new character in the tent. This was a low and feeble voice, resembling the cry of a young puppy. The sound was no sooner distinguished, than all the Indians clapped their hands for joy, exclaiming that this was the Chief Spirit, the Turtle, the spirit that never lied. Other voices which they had discriminated from time to time they had previously hissed, as recognizing them to belong to evil and lying spirits, which deceive mankind.”
Throughout the half hour that followed, a variety of songs issued from the tent, each of them sung by a different voice. Finally, once the last song died out, the medicine man called out from inside the tent that the Great Turtle was ready to answer any questions the Indians might have for him.
The band’s chief asked whether the English planned to attack them, and whether there were many English troops assembled at Fort Niagara, the site of the scheduled rendezvous. “These questions having been put by the priest,” Henry wrote, “the tent instantly shook; and for some seconds after it continued to rock so violently that I expected to see it levelled with the ground. All this was a prelude, as I supposed, to the answers to be given; but a terrific cry announced, with sufficient intelligibility, the departure of the Turtle.”
All of a sudden, the tent fell silent. The Ojibwa spectators waited with bated breath for the spirit’s reply. About fifteen minutes later, the tent shook again, and the tremulous voice of the Great Turtle began babbling in a language which none of the onlookers could understand. Once the spirit had delivered its incompressible report, the medicine man, who apparently understood every word, informed those assembled that the Great Turtle had flown across Lake Huron and over the easterly forest to Fort Niagara, where he found few Englishmen. He proceeded down the length of Lake Ontario and further down the St. Lawrence River to Montreal, where he found a huge fleet of ships filled with British soldiers.
The chief then asked the Great Turtle whether Sir William Johnson would receive them as friends. “Sir William Johnson,” the medicine man replied, interpreting the words of the spirit, “will fill their canoes with presents; with blankets, kettles, guns, gunpowder and shot, and large barrels of rum such as the stoutest of the Indians will not be able to lift; and every man will return in safety to his family.” At this, the assemblage cheered, and many warriors declared their intention to attend the meeting at Fort Niagara.
The natives proceeded to ask the spirit questions about distant friends and the fate of sick family members. Henry himself, despite his skepticism, presented the Great Turtle with the customary gift of tobacco before asking whether he would ever see his native country again. The spirit replied that he would. Indeed, Henry would go on to survive Pontiac’s rebellion and make three voyages to his native England.
Paul Kane’s Account
Alexander Henry the Elder was the first of the so-called ‘pedlars’- independent Montreal-based English and Scottish fur traders who took over the old trading grounds of the French in the wake of the British conquest of Canada. In 1789, a handful of these pedlars established the North West Company, a fur trading enterprise which, from its inception, found itself locked in fierce competition with the powerful Hudson’s Bay Company which dominated the watershed of great northerly bay for which it was named. In the tradition of the coureurs des bois who first brought the fur trade to the territories they inherited, the men of the North West Company began making long canoe trips deep into the wilderness to seek out new native trading partners, leaving the Hudson’s Bay Company to conduct its own business, as one disgruntled HBC employee put it, “asleep by the frozen sea”. These inland voyages sparked an age of discovery in which both the North West Company and the Hudson’s Bay Company launched major exploratory expeditions west and north for the purpose of extending the reach of their respective enterprises. During these operations, explorers found that the Shaking Tent ceremony was practiced in even the most remote corners of the interior. In January 1793, for example, HBC explorer Peter Fidler witnessed a Shaking Tent ceremony in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains in which a Blackfoot medicine man correctly ascertained the fate of two braves who had travelled south on a diplomatic mission to the Shoshone tribe, accurately predicting the date of their return.
By the time the two great Canadian fur trading associations amalgamated in 1821 under the umbrella of the HBC, their industry had expanded into the heart of the Canadian interior. From the Atlantic to the Pacific, most of the Hudson’s Bay Company’s southerly trading posts were connected by a great trans-continental trail stretching from York Factory- the HBC’s New World headquarters on Hudson Bay- and Fort William- the North West Company’s field headquarters on Lake Superior- across the Canadian prairies and over the Canadian Rockies to the Columbia River and the Pacific Coast beyond. Twice a year, a fur brigade called the Columbia Express followed this trail west, bearing trade goods, letters, equipment, and provisions for the forts of the interior. Another brigade, called the York Factory Express, made similar biannual journeys east over the same trail, carrying furs for the European market.
Undoubtedly, the most vivid picture of this trans-continental fur route was that painted, both literally and literarily, by a 19th Century Irish-Canadian artist named Paul Kane. While on his Grand Tour of Europe- an essential element of any serious 19th Century painter’s education- 34-year-old Kane met George Catlin, an American artist who had spent the past decade travelling up and down the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers, painting portraits of the Native Americans he met along the way. Many of the subjects of Catlin’s paintings had only recently been introduced to Euro-American society, and practiced ancient ways of life which Catlin suspected were fast-disappearing.
Kane was deeply impressed by Catlin and his work, and adopted his philosophy that it was the artist’s duty to illustrate these dying cultures for the sake of posterity. Inspired by the American artist, Kane decided to undertake a similar project in Canada. From 1846 to 1848, he explored the Canadian West by way of the trans-continental fur trail, sketching the scenes and characters he encountered along the way. He participated in Metis buffalo hunts on the Canadian prairies, crossed the continental divide twice on snowshoe, shot the rapids of the Columbia River, and canoed the Salish Sea with the natives of Vancouver Island, becoming a sideline witness to several historic battles and massacres along the way.
Following his epic journey across the continent and back, Kane was commissioned to render over a hundred and twenty of the field sketches he produced into oil paintings. In 1859, he included some of his masterpieces in his book ‘Wanderings of an Artist Among the Indians of North America’, a travel memoir based on his adventures in the Canadian wilds.
Of all of Kane’s many colourful experiences on the Canadian frontier, perhaps the strangest took place near the end of his return journey, when the Cree and Saulteaux Indians with whom the artist travelled performed the ritual of the Shaking Tent.
Kane described the event in his memoirs, recording that it took place on the night of July 24th, 1848, while he and his travelling companions were waiting out a storm on the shores of Lake Winnipeg.
“In the evening,” he wrote, “our Indians constructed a jonglerie, or medicine lodge, the main object of which was to procure a fair wind for next day. For this purpose they first drive ten or twelve poles, nine or ten feet long, into the ground, enclosing a circular area of about three feet in diameter, with a boat sail open at the top. The medicine-man, one of whom is generally found in every brigade, gets inside and commences shaking the poles violently, rattling his medicinal rattle, and singing hoarse incantations to the Great Spirit for a fair wind. Being unable to sleep on account of the discordant noises, I wrapped a blanket round me, and went out into the woods… and lay down amongst those on the outside of the medicine lodge, to witness the proceedings. I had no sooner done so than the incantations at once ceased, and the performer exclaimed that a white man was present. How he ascertained this fact I am at a loss to surmise, as it was pitch dark at the time, and he was enclosed in the narrow tent, without any apparent opening through which he could espy me, even had it been light enough to distinguish one person from another…
“After about two hours’ shaking and singing, the medicine-man cried out that he saw five boats with the sails set running before the wind, which communication was greeted by the whole party with their usual grunt of satisfaction and assent.
“After this, many questions were asked him by the Indians, some inquiring after the health of their families at home, whom they had not seen for many months. Upon putting the question, the inquirer threw a small piece of tobacco over the covering of the tent, upon which the medicine-man agitated the tent, and shook his rattle violently, and then replied that he saw one family enjoying themselves over a fat sturgeon, another engaged in some pleasing employment, &c. &c. I then put a question to him myself, accompanying it with a double portion of tobacco, for which I got a double portion of noise.” Kane asked about the fate of the souvenirs he had acquired throughout the course of his journey- artifacts like the trophy head of a buffalo bull he had shot, a bears’ claw necklace given to him by an Assiniboine chief, and a Flathead Indian skull he had stolen from a burial ground- which he had been obliged to entrust to a coureur. “The medicine man told me,” Kane wrote, “that he saw the party with my baggage encamped on a sandy point, which we had ourselves passed two days before.
“However singular the coincidence may appear, it is a fact, that on the next day we had a fair wind, for which the medicine-man of course took all the credit; and it is no less true, that the canoes with my baggage were on the sandy point on the day stated, for I inquired particularly of them when they came up to us.”
One of Kane’s companions on the last leg of his journey was an old Hudson’s Bay Company trader and Napoleonic War veteran named Major Donald McKenzie. The old engage, as HBC employees were sometimes called, had seen many strange things in the camps of the Indians throughout the course of his long service for the Company. He had attended many a Shaking Tent ceremony, and had heard some disturbing tales about the ritual from the French-Canadian voyageurs with whom he rubbed shoulders.
“The Major,” Kane wrote, “who, with many other intelligent persons, is a firm believer in [the Indians’] medicine, told me that a Canadian once had the temerity to peep under the covering which enclosed the jonglerie, but that he got such a fright that he never fairly recovered from it, nor could he ever be prevailed upon to tell what it was that had so appalled him.”
Bishop Mountain’s Story
Another description of the Shaking Tent ritual, which is roughly contemporaneous with Kane’s, is that which appears in the writings of George J. Mountain, the third Anglican Bishop of Quebec. Two years before the commencement of Kane’s journey west, Bishop Mountain, under the auspices of a British Protestant evangelical organization called the Church Mission Society, travelled from Montreal to the Red River Valley in what is now southern Manitoba. The Valley was an important Hudson’s Bay Company district, home to Orcadian and Scottish settlers, Cree and Saulteaux Indians, and a large population of Metis- the people born of country marriages between French-Canadian voyageurs and native women.
On the way to the Valley, Bishop Mountain came across the skeletal frames of old derelict Shaking Tents, which he described as being “formed of young saplings, or single branches stripped of the leaves and twigs, the whole encircled at intervals by bands or hoops of the same material, and covered with dressed kins, of considerable height; but only of a size to admit one man…”
During his stay in the Red River Valley, Bishop Mountain wrote three letters to the Church Mission Society in which he described the route to the region, the spiritual state of the Valley’s inhabitants, and the headway made by Anglican missionaries in their efforts to draw local natives into the fold of the Church of England. These letters were later compiled and published in London, England, under the title The Journal of the Bishop of Montreal During a Visit to the Church Missionary Society’s North-West America Mission.
Although Bishop Mountain never had the opportunity of personally witnessing the Shaking Tent ceremony during his sojourn, he was informed of its particulars by two former Cree medicine men who had since converted to Anglicanism. In his third letter to the Church Mission Society, Mountain wrote that, according to his informants, the shamans who perform the ritual lie prostrate at the bottom of the tent with “their hands and feet tied by hard knots, which they contrive, by some trick, to disengage. While they are lying in the tent, it becomes violently agitated, the top swinging rapidly backward and forward in the view of the spectators on the outside, who also hear a variety of ‘strange sounds and voices, unlike the voice of man’”. With the help of the “aerial visitants” to whom these voices are attributed, the shaman is able to “learn news respecting persons and affairs at a great distance”, and to inflict “disease and death upon persons some hundred miles off, whether his own enemies or those of his neighbours who have recourse to his magical skill”. Although the medicine man will never dare to look directly at the roof of the tent during the ceremony, he can sometimes, out of the corner of his eye, glimpse tiny starlike orbs of light floating near the tent’s uppermost hoop.
J.G. Kohl’s Story
In 1855, a German travel writer named Johann Georg Kohl spent time among the Ojibwa of Lake Superior, exploring the Indian camps and villages scattered throughout the Apostle Islands in the lake’s southwestern corner and traversing the Keweenaw Peninsula from its tip to the innermost heart of Keweenaw Bay, the site of a remote Indian Mission. In 1859, an English-language account of his adventure was published in London, England, under the title Kitchi-gami: Wanderings Around Lake Superior.
In his book, Kohl explained the ritual of the Shaking Tent as it was described to him by a French-Canadian voyageur who had lived among the Ojibwa, and who was married to an Ojibwa woman.
“The lodge which their jossakids, or prophets, or, as the Canadians term them, ‘jongleurs,’ erect for their incantations,” Kohl wrote, “is composed of stout posts, connected with basket-work, and covered with birch bark. It is tall and narrow, and resembles a chimney. It is very firmly built, and two men, even if exerting their utmost strength, would be unable to move, shake, or bend it. It is so narrow that a man who crawls in has but scanty space to move about in it.”
“Thirty years ago,” Kohl’s informant claimed, “I was present at the incantation and performance of a jossakid in one of these lodges. I saw the man creep into the hut, which was about ten feet high, after swallowing a mysterious potion made from a root. He immediately began singing and beating a drum in his basket-work chimney. The entire case began gradually trembling and shaking, and oscillating slowly amid great noise. The more the necromancer sang and drummed, the more violent the oscillations of the long case became. It bent back and forwards, up and down, like the mast of a vessel caught in a storm and tossed on the waves. I could not understand how these movements could be produced by a man inside, as we could not have caused them from the exterior.
“The drum ceased, and the jossakid yelled that ‘the spirits were coming over him.’ We then heard through the noise, and cracking, and oscillations of the hut, two voices speaking inside, one above, the other below. The lower one asked questions, which the upper one answered.
“Both voices seemed entirely different, and I believed I could explain them by very clever ventriloquism Some spiritualists among us, however, explained it through modern spiritualism…”
Roughly thirty years after the incident, not long before Kohl’s trip to Lake Superior, the voyageur found the jossakid on his deathbed. In his old age, the medicine man had renounced the pagan rites of his ancestors and resolved to die a Christian. Hoping to take advantage of this singular situation, Kohl’s informant asked the old Indian how he had managed to make the tent shake and produce the unearthly voices on that strange night thirty years prior. “Now is the time to confess all truthfully,” he said. “Tell me, then, how and through what means thou didst decieve us?”
“I know it,” the old Indian replied. “I have become a Christian, I am old, I am sick, I cannot live much longer, and I can do no other than speak the truth. Believe me, I did not decieve you at that time. I did not move the lodge. It was shaken by the power of the spirits. Nor did I speak with a double tongue. I only repeated to you what the spirits told me. I heard their voices. The top of the lodge was full of them, and before me the sky and wide lands lay expanded. I could see a great distance around me, and believeed I could recognize the most distant objects.”
“The old dying jossakid said this with such an expression of simple truth and firm conviction,” the voyageur told Kohl, “that it seemed, to me, at least, that he did not consider himself a deceiver, and believed in the efficacy of his magic arts and the reality of his visions.”
Cecil Denny’s Account
On July 1st, 1867, the British colones of Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and the Province of Canada (i.e. Ontario and Quebec) were united into a single federation, the Dominion of Canada. The Dominion’s first prime minister, Sir John A. Macdonald, hoped to combine his fledgling country with the westerly Colony of British Columbia, forming an immense continental Dominion stretching from the Atlantic to the Pacific. In order to accomplish this end, he would have to connect Canada with British Columbia by means of a trans-continental railroad, and in order to build that iron thoroughfare, he would first have to bring British law and order to the territory that lay in between- a vast and wild domain known as Rupert’s Land.
Although the Hudson’s Bay Company nominally held sway over Rupert’s Land- a territory named after its first benefactor, Prince Rupert of the Rhine- the prairies, badlands, and sandhills between the North Saskatchewan River and the American border were, in reality, dominated by two rival Indian alliances: the Blackfoot Confederacy and the Iron Confederacy.
The Blackfoot, whom several 19th Century writers designated the most warlike tribe on the northern half of the continent, were composed of four nations united by blood ties and a common language: the Siksika, the Blood, the Northern Peigan, and the Southern Piegan. The Iron Confederacy, on the other hand, was an alliance composed of the unrelated Plains Cree, Assiniboine, Saulteaux, and Stoney- long-time trading partners of the Hudson’s Bay Company who served as middlemen in the fur trade.
Macdonald knew that the Dominion of Canada had neither the men nor the resources to tame Rupert’s Land by force, as the U.S. Army was attempting to do in the American West. If it hoped to put an end to the roving, thievery, and violence that characterized life on the Canadian plains and produce in them an environment hospitable to the construction of a railroad, it would need to foster law and order on the plains in a firm yet tactful manner, through the use of a mounted police force.
Ever conscious of his meagre budget, Prime Minister Macdonald delayed the formation of such a police force throughout his entire first term. In early 1870, he began receiving disturbing reports from Hudson’s Bay Company officers and his own federal agents that American traders were beginning to establish heavily-fortified trading posts on Canadian soil, in the region through which he hoped to build his railroad. Having taken advantage of a loophole in American law, these businessmen were selling rotgut whisky to the Canadian Indians in exchange for buffalo robes, rapidly depressing the once-powerful Blackfoot and Iron Confederacies into nations of starvelings and alcoholics. Macdonald realized that he would need to act quickly to establish Canadian sovereignty in the region if he hoped to keep it from being annexed by the land-hungry United States, which was constantly expanding its frontiers in accordance with the concept of Manifest Destiny. Still, he prolonged the inevitable.
In 1873, after learning of the whisky-fuelled Cypress Hills Massacre, Macdonald knew that he could delay no longer. With the help of Canadian Parliament, he approved the formation of a 300-man force of mounted policemen that year. After a winter of relentless drilling, this force, styled the North-West Mounted Police, made a gruelling trek from Manitoba across the Canadian prairies to what is now southwest Alberta. From Fort Macleod, their first permanent headquarters on the banks of the Oldman River, these Mounties brought a peaceful end to the whisky trade, engratiated themselves with the local Blackfoot, and successfully established law and order on the Canadian plains.
Among the first officers of the North-West Mounted Police was an Englishman named Cecil Edward Denny. Born into a family of old aristocratic stock, Denny had immigrated to the United States at the age of 19 in search of adventure. He relocated to Canada in 1874, joined the North-West Mounted Police as a constable, and quickly climbed the rungs of the para-martial ladder until he obtained the rank of Sub-Inspector. He participated in the Long March west across the prairies, assisted in the establishment of Fort Macleod, and oversaw the construction of what would become Fort Calgary. In 1877, he attended the Treaty 7 negotiations at Blackfoot Crossing, and played a key role in settling the various Blackfoot nations onto reserves in the aftermath of that conference.
In his writings, Denny reported having several extraordinary experiences during his years on the Canadian plains, claiming to have seen the ghostly apparition of a Cree village whose inhabitants were massacred by the Blackfoot long ago, and to have witnessed many inexplicable feats performed by Blackfoot medicine men.
One of the strangest of Denny’s experiences took place on a moonlit night in the summer of 1879, on the banks of the Red Deer River in what is now central Alberta. That evening, the Mountie pitched his tent near a Blackfoot Indian camp and decided to pay a visit to the band’s medicine man. Accompanied by his interpreter, Billy Gladstone- an American carpenter who had worked for the Hudson’s Bay Company, American whisky traders, and the North-West Mounted Police- Denny walked along the riverbank to the medicine man’s teepee, which was pitched a short distance from the main camp. He described what happened next in his article Blackfoot Magic, which was published posthumously in the September 1944 issue of the magazine The Beaver, writing the following:
“We entered the lodge, which had only a small fire burning in the centre. The medicine man was sitting wrapped in his buffalo robe at the head of the teepee, smoking one of their long medicine pipes. He paid no attention to us whatever. I therefore sat down near him, lighting my own pipe and, placing a present of two plugs of tobacco near him, proceeded to smoke quietly, without a sign of recognition being made by the Indian.
“Everything was very still in the lodge, while outside in the main camp drums could be heard beating in different parts, wherever dances were being held. We had sat this way for quite a time, when I was startled by the sound of a bell ringing above me, over the top of the lodge. I could see nothing, and the Indian made no move. Presently the teepee itself began to rock, even lifting off the ground a foot or more behind me. When it is remembered that a large Indian tent consists of dozens of long poles crossed at the top, wide apart at the bottom, and covered with buffalo hides, it will seem that it is nearly impossible to lift one side, for no wind can blow them over.
“The rocking motion ceased after a while, and I went outside the lodge to see if anyone had been playing tricks; but not a human being was in sight near us, the moon was clear, and you could see a long distance. On returning and resuming my seat after a short interval, the tent again began to rock, and so violently that it would sometimes lift several feet on one side, so that you could plainly see outside. My interpreter was thoroughly frightened by this time, and I was not much better, but the Indian never stirred. However we had seen enough and left, returning to our camp thoroughly mystified.”
A.G. Black’s Story
In 1881, the first ties of the great trans-continental railroad envisioned by Sir John A. Macdonald were laid at the town of Bonfield, Ontario. Four years later, the last spike of the Canadian Pacific Railway was hammered home at Craigellachie, British Columbia, ushering in a new era of settlement in Western Canada. Following the subsequent influx of homesteaders into the so-called ‘Last Best West’, the Canadian government banned many traditional First Nations ceremonies, from the Sun Dance of the Blackfoot to the Potlatch of the Coast Salish, in an effort to assimilate the country’s indigenous peoples into the Euro-Canadian culture that was sweeping across the continent, rapidly displacing that of their ancestors.
Despite the best efforts of the Canadian government, the Shaking Tent ceremony continued to be practiced on the fringes of settler society, in the wilder reaches of the Canadian frontier, well into the 20th Century. In July 1929, for example, this necromantic rite was performed by an Ojibwa shaman near the Whitesands First Nations Reserve just northwest of Ontario’s Lake Nipigon. A.G. Black, the manager of the Hudson’s Bay Company’s proximate trading post, Nipigon House, described the event in an article for the December 1934 issue of the magazine The Beaver, entitled ‘Shaking the Wigwam’.
That day, Black and his fellow traders set up camp near the Whitesands Reserve and unpacked their wares. They had timed their visit so that it coincided with that of the band’s Indian agent, knowing that the local Ojibwa would be eager to spend their newly-delivered treaty money on ammunition, groceries, calico, and other HBC goods.
After a busy day of trading, the traders decided to pay a visit to the band’s medicine man, a shriveled old shaman named August, and see if he would perform the old Shaking Tent ceremony for them. In lieu of the traditional payment of tobacco, the traders presented the conjuror with $15, equivalent to about $220 Canadian ($160 USD) today. The fee was sufficient, and the band members, at August’s request, eagerly set about collecting the requisite materials for the ancient ritual.
“Before dusk,” Black wrote, “two Indian lads went to the bush to get the necessary willow poles, which were driven fast into the ground and fastened with two willow hoops, one in the centre and the other tapering the poles at the top. The poles were tested by nearly all present, and were found immovable. A can of shot was tired to the top of the poles, and the birch bark was then fastened on to the outside to complete the construction.
“As it darkened and the moon came up, the Indians squatted in a circle around the wigwam at a distance of four or six feet from it. A small opening was made in the wigwam for the Indian to crawl in, and closed immediately on his entrance. The wigwam commenced to shake as soon as the Indian disappeared, and the can of shot began to rattle.”
The old medicine man broke into eerie tune which sent shivers through the onlookers. Immediately, as if prompted by the music, the structure began to shake. The shaking and singing continued for nearly half an hour, when suddenly, a strange voice was heard at the top of the wigwam. The medicine man replied to the unintelligible utterance, his voice sounding from the base of the tent. “The voices,” Black wrote, “were decidedly different.”
After conversing with the strange voice for some time, August told the native onlookers that they were welcome to ask any questions they pleased. The old medicine man was subsequently bombarded with all sorts of queries, most of them pertaining to fishing and trapping, which he answered one by one, always first consulting with the strange voice.
“When the natives’ questions become fewer,” Black wrote, “August said he would be glad to answer any questions asked by the white onlookers. At the suggestions of the others, I asked ‘May we hold the wigwam while it is shaking?’ A rapid talk by August commenced in the wigwam and I could feel an unpleasantness among the Indians about me. Although I could not understand their language at the time, I sensed something was wrong, and I was told that August had said that if the white people interfered with the motion of the wigwam he would make such a big wind it would blow people and houses into the lake.” In order to avoid trouble with the medicine man, Black recanted his question.
August then announced that he would summon the spirit of a bear into the structure, and fight it. “The fight began,” Black wrote, “and this is where I received my greatest surprise. The Indians seated around yelled to August ‘an-ahuck’ (get stronger). The top of the wigwam bent until it nearly touched the ground during the fight.” Eventually, the shaman killed the spirit bear, and repeated a similar performance with the spirit of a lynx.
At dawn, the shaking stopped, and August emerged from the structure. The medicine man’s face was covered with beads of sweat, which seemed to Black more accordant with the sort of perspiration one would exude as a result of being enclosed in a birch bark wigwam all night long than the product of several hours of intense physical exertion. “The bark was immediately removed from the wigwam,” he wrote, “and we examined the poles and were surprised to find them as solid as they had been at first.”
Black finished his article by stating, “I have been informed, although I have not witnessed it, that August can make a teepee shake by merely throwing his hat into it. I hope some day to see him to this!”
Like the vocation of the Indian medicine man, the ritual of the Shaking Tent seems to have died out sometime in the 20th Century, necromancy and divination being at odds with the doctrines of the various Christian denominations to which the members of many First Nations have converted. The extinction of this practice has ensured that modern students of the subject, equipped though they may be with the luxury of hindsight, are no better prepared to tackle the mystery of the Shaking Tent than the 17th, 18th, 19th, and 20th Century witnesses who preserved their memories of the ritual in their writings.
Perhaps, like Samuel de Champlain maintained, the uncanny oscillations of the conjurer’s tent, the mysterious lights that flickered at its upper aperture, and the unearthly voices heard therein, constitute little more than clever acts of shamanic deception. Maybe, like Father Le Jeune believed, these unsettling spectacles are the work of unholy demons conjured by Indian sorcerers in league with Satan, wittingly or otherwise. Or perhaps, as generations of Canadian Indians contended, these phenomena are truly the manifestations of benevolent spirits or the souls of the dead. As is true of other marvels effected by the Indian medicine men of yesteryear- such as those which can perhaps best be classified as the frontier versions of firewalking, voodoo dolls, and Houdini’s straitjacket escape, of which this author hopes to treat in future articles- the riddle of the Shaking Tent remains one of the many great unsolved mysteries of Canada.
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