Over the last 15 or 16 years, I’ve been around Indian ceremonies more than any other kind. I’m not sure why; I never made a conscious choice to follow the Red Road. Mostly, I feel like I’ve been led. My experiences kept me coming back, at least until people I respected said, Okay, why not take the next step? There is some guidance system at work: it’s inside me but greater than me. On the third day of the dance, it was announced there would be a “round”—a section of the ceremony—for the elders, grandfathers, and vets. I walked over to Les, the old Wasco intercessor and medicine person. “Les, do I qualify?” His wife said, “You qualify as much as anyone here!” “You want to pierce?” he asked. He nodded toward the eagle dancers, the guys who had chosen to spend the entire time with skewers though their chest skin, connected to the tree by thirty-foot ropes. “I want to drag the buffalo skulls.” “Hoka!” Les pointed his eagle wing fan. “Go talk to Two Crow and round up a rope harness and some piercing pins. Someone volunteered a “skirt” (Sun Dancers wear a kilt) and whistle. In twenty minutes I had everything I needed. I wasn’t on automatic pilot, but I wasn’t thinking about anything except getting ready. No doubts. One of the helpers (someone who’s finished at least one four-year commitment), Frank, loaned me some pins—”I just made these; haven’t used them yet.” Two Crow handed me a harness of nylon rope. “Now I know why I made this.” Because my hips are so far from where they should be and I don’t have any butt, I used suspenders to hold up the skirt; maybe a first for Sun Dancing. Frank led me and others who had stepped up to dance into the arbor, past the cedar and sage smudge, out to the cottonwood tree. I leaned against it, trying to pray, only able to ask for help. Other helpers unrolled a buffalo robe on the ground and opened the medical kit. After a few minutes, Two Crow led me to the robe. “Would you be more comfortable standing up?” “No, on the robe.” I wanted the contact with the buffalo. The lead woman dancer asked if I’d like to smell some lavender or sage while they pierced me. I chose sage. The drummers began singing a Nez Perce song for the piercing. “Way-ay-yah’ah-waaay-hay-yah.” I felt them pinch the skin over one shoulder blade, then two parallel vertical cuts and the pin being slid through the cuts.
I’ve had dental work that hurt a lot worse. Then the other shoulder. They helped me up. The drumming and singing was really loud and men were shouting while women made the u-lu-lu-ing sound. They led me to the skulls, one two three tied behind each other. I was hooked up, a loop of rope over each protruding end of the pins. Frank said, “OK, my brother, when you’re ready.” I leaned forward and took two steps. It felt like two big band-aids being pulled off my skin. There was a roaring lot of noise behind me; I found out later it was almost the entire camp cheering me—at least according to my friends. I know I saw people snuffling and wiping their eyes. It didn’t quite register that I’d done it. Frank handed me the pins and said, “You earned them brother: they’re yours.” Two Crow gave me the harness, “Keep it, you might need it again sometime!” he said, grinning, as we shook hands. I shook hands with a lot of people. My friend Becky said, “I had no idea! People were saying, ‘What’s that cripple guy going out there for?’ and I said ‘Because Peter knows what he has to do: he’s on a mission.’” I’m always startled that people perceive me as a “cripple.” I guess it’s denial, but so what? I’m a lot more than my body. On the fourth and last day, I took a package of tobacco to Les. Again, that guidance system was working. He looked at it, at me, and smiled. “Pete, you want to dance next year?” “I don’t know if I can keep it up. I can’t do four days, I know that.” Once again, my mind was clear: no chatter. “Peter, you’ve wanted to dance for years. You’ve done the ceremonies. You’re ready. You only have to dance one day; we’ll take care of you. We know how it is for you. All you have to do is round up an outfit. Don’t worry.” We shook hands. People had been watching. I got hugged and people held my hand. I cried. I hugged and kissed Les and his wife. I cried some more. Next August. Next August. On that last day they did a “missing warrior” memorial for my son, for a friend who just walked on, and for a woman who recently died of breast cancer: there was crying that went from grief to joy. I was in church for four days and nights without being in church. That’s what it’s all about. Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org , tell us what you think about Peter’s audacious actions.