I was just looking at the sky. Thunderheads are climbing off the Cascade Mountains, over to the west. The clouds are as white as fresh snow and the sky is that deep blue you see in Arizona Highways photo spreads. Gorgeous.
It got me thinking about the Sundances coming up. I haven’t been to one for several years. A Sundance is a ceremony from the Plains Indians. They are old ceremonies, but like all Indian ceremonies, were suppressed by the government for years, as being part of “tribalisim,” and thus suspect. They continued in secret. About thirty years ago, the American Indian Movement helped spread them as a revitalization movement among the Native people of North America.
The Sundance is done around a cottonwood tree that has been cut down and carried to a campground. A semi-circular arbor of poles and boughs is built with a diameter of maybe 100 feet, and about ten feet wide. The east part, the direction of the rising sun, is open. A larger sheltered area is on the west side. The tree is carried by hand to the center of the arbor and erected in a hole dug for that purpose. The tree is adorned with offerings: tobacco-wrapped offerings in the four colors of
the directions–black for the west, bright yellow for the east, white for the north, and red for the south.
The dance lasts four days. During that time, those who have committed to dancing stay in the arbor, fasting from food and water. They dance from sunrise until sunset. They go into the sweat lodge in the
morning and at night.
The tree represents the tree of life. It is an antenna between between the sky and the earth–between the Wakan-Tanka, the Great
Spirit or Great Mystery–the Father and the Mother, I’ve heard it described. Well, that’s the way I experienced it, I should say. Everything is focused on prayer.
I first went ten years ago. A Dakota Sioux friend of mine, helps play the drum and sing at the dance, invited me. My life was going in unforseen–but good–ways and I figured I should listen to his advice: he’d steered me straight before. “Got to take care of that other side of your family, bro, the N’din side,” he told me. I figured that was it.
Once I got to the camp, he gave me some guidance: go to a sweat lodge for purification. Be under the shade arbor during each section of the dance. Moccasins or bare feet, to connect with “the Mother.” Head uncovered. No smoking or eating during the rounds. Focus on what was happening, pray hard.
It was the most spiritual experience of my life. All four days I was at the arbor at sunrise, when the dance started. I stayed until the last round of the day. I could almost see the energy running between the sky, the tree, the dancers, and us, the supporters. Those who participate by being present are considered as important as any of it. We were all part of it.
I took daily sweat lodges. I ate in the communal kitchen with the other supporters. At the first dinner, I was standing in line with the other elders (elders and children eat first), when a little boy looked at me and said, “What happened to your back?” “I broke it a bunch of times,” I said, “Same with my legs.” “Wow! Do they hurt?” “Not much.” “Oh, that’s good!” he said, grinning. There wasn’t any pain; I’d been on my feet almost all day, moving my feet in time to the drumbeats and I didn’t hurt anywhere.
The dancers–and the supporters–are there to pray for the people, not for themselves. The people, of course, implies all of Creation, not just the “two-leggeds.” The prayers usually are for friends and family members, maybe people in prison, those sick with diabetes or drugs or alcohol, those off in the military. It is based on self-sacrifice: giving your pain to alleviate that of others. Sounds pretty familiar to someone raised in the Euro-American traditions, doesn’t it?
On the afternoon of the fourth day is a special “healing round.” This is for the supporters; they file into the arbor and stand and rank and file by the tree. The dancers, who, after the four days, are considered extremely close to the Spirit World, pray for the people standing there. They brush everyone down with their fans made from the wings of eagles and blow eagle-bone whistles. When I stood there,
eyes closed, listening, I heard the wings of eagles. The whistles reproduced the eagles’ cries. It was like having those great birds–the birds that fly the highest, carrying prayers to Wakan-Tanka–flying around me. A voice said, “It’s all right now, Pete, everything is all right.”
When the round was over, I walked back to the arbor. My knees buckled and I laid on the ground, sobbing, resting on the breast of Mother Earth. The voice kept comforting me, “It’s all right, Pete, you’re all right.” I felt utterly comforted and relieved.
Even today, sometimes I’ll smell burning sage or cedar. The sound of the drum–the “heart beat of the Mother,” a Lakota elder called it–will come back to me and I’m transported to a place where everything is just as it should be, and I’m right where I should be.
Here’s a translation of a prayer from Black Elk, a holy man of the Lakota Sioux:
“O Wakan-Tanka, be merciful to me, that the people may live! It is for this I am sacrificing myself.”
A good prayer for all of us, Christian, Jew, Muslim, Indian, pagan, to remember.