by Little Paws
When you step away from the confinement of mainstream religion, you never know where you are going to end up. I certainly didn’t suspect how twisted the road would be when I declared myself a pantheist at the age of 20. Less than six years later, I was initiated into an Eclectic-Gardenarian tradition and became officially a priestess of the Goddess. I am of Scottish extraction, and so I followed my natural inclination to use Scottish mythology as the basis for my worship after my initiation.
Very shortly thereafter, my husband and priest came to me to interpret a recurring dream he had. This dream concerned his participation in a ceremony called the Sun Dance, which many Central Plains tribes do. He believed that he was being called to participate in this ceremony, but that white people were “not allowed” to do this. I reminded him of something that he always said to me, “The gods never give us anything we can’t handle.”
In the way of all good things, the right person appeared in our lives in the form of a Lakota Sun Dancer who was willing to teach us what we needed to know and take us to a Sun Dance in South Dakota that was open to non-Lakota people. In support of my husband, I attended many sweat lodge ceremonies and pipe ceremonies leading up to the Sun Dance. I supported him at the Sun Dance and basically did my own thing for the rest of the year. I have no Native American ancestry that I know of, and I wasn’t really interested in Native American spirituality, but my wishes turned out not to be relevant. While attending my second Sun Dance, I had a vision to dance in gratitude for every year that one of my friends survived with HIV. This set my feet squarely on the Red Road, as it is commonly known, and I have not looked back.
When I stepped onto the Red Road, I was really entering alien territory. Although I thought at the time that Native American spirituality and the Craft shared many concepts, I soon discovered that on a deeper level the surface similarities dissolved and I was left to contemplate a “religion” that was so closely tied to a language and culture that the borders were indistinguishable. My cultural experience was that of a middle-class Caucasian American of the late twentieth century. I really had no frame of reference for understanding the rituals that I was participating in. My experience with paganism was firmly grounded in Europe, and I had little real understanding of the profound differences between a priest and a medicine person. It also became very quickly apparent to me that many Lakota elders had grave doubts about allowing whites to participate in their ceremonies. Because of some experiences of my own, I respect the concerns of Lakota elders over the distortion of their religious practice by people, both Indian and white, who are exploiting it for their own gain.
With all this in mind, I trod softly at all the ceremonies I attended, and I made an effort to learn the history and mythology of the Lakota in depth. I also studied the language. Although I know that my experience of the sacred ceremonies will never be the same as those of a Lakota woman raised in that culture, I have done as much as I can to integrate the spirituality and philosophy of this extraordinary people into my own life. The Red Road is wide enough for everyone, provided that proper respect is paid to the traditions and history of the people who originated it.
The Sun Dance is the only Lakota ceremony that is done by a large group of people on a regular schedule. It must be remembered that the Lakota were a nomadic people and so it was only at the fattest time of the year that they could afford to get together to worship and pray; thus, this ceremony is done at or around the summer solstice. The Lakota Sun Dance is basically a group prayer in which the dancers dance around a sacred tree for four days. The dancers observe a strict food and water fast during this time. Some male dancers pierce their chests with pins made of hardwood or buffalo bone. These pins are tied to ropes that are attached to the high crotch of the sacred tree. At the most dramatic part of the ceremonial day, each pierced dancer will run or preferably walk backward away from the tree and pull the pins out of his chest.
Many changes have been introduced to the Sun Dance ceremony over the last hundred years. Changes have come because the Lakota are a pragmatic people who have always adjusted their spiritual practice to the demands of their environment. In prereservation days, the only women who participated in the Lakota Sun Dance were those who were postmenopausal. Many Lakota believed then and now that it is after menopause that a woman receives any significant medicine power. In the past, women of childbearing years were so concerned with raising their families and making a living that it was rare that they would have time to engage in the fasting and prayer necessary for the spirits to speak with them. In the seventies, a spiritual and cultural revival occurred on the Lakota reservations, and many younger women were moved to dance the Sun Dance with their brothers. Some of them have even pierced, although this is commonly done in a woman’s forearm rather than the chest or back as is common with men. Women’s joining the dance is just one of many changes adapting the Sun Dance to the changing life ways of the Lakota.
When attending the Sun Dance, my husband and I arrive at the grounds at least two or three days before the four days of purification that precede the dance. Usually the campgrounds are very primitive, and we never know what changes the previous winter may have wrought on the land. Arriving early also allows time for us to help assemble the pine bough arbor that encircles most of the Sun Dance field. During purification days, we prepare our prayer ties and brightly colored flags that will be attached to the sacred tree. We also use this time to purify in the sweat lodge and get reacquainted with people we may only see once a year. Once the dancing starts, there is no time nor is it appropriate for us to chat with friends.
On the fourth day of purification, the Sun Dance Intercessor, one or more medicine people and usually all the dancers and supporters trek to the base of a cottonwood tree that was previously scouted out for this honor. It is usually a tall tree with its main crotch about 20 feet off the ground. The presiding medicine man will make a prayer thanking the tree for giving its life for us. A young girl usually makes the first cut, or sometimes an especially honored old grandmother, and each of the male dancers also makes a cut. The dancers and supporters catch the tree before it hits the ground, and they carry it to the Sun Dance field, stopping four times to honor the four directions.
The group carries the tree onto the field through the eastern gate, and each dancer who plans to pierce during the ceremony ties a rope to the crotch of the tree. Next, dancers and supporters tie prayer flags into the high branches of the tree and other sacred objects just at or below the tree’s main crotch. Then the group sets the base of the tree into a hole prepared for this purpose, and the dancers use their ropes to haul the tree upright. At a certain point in this process, the ropes spray away from the tree forming rays or butterfly wings. Last year, the tree-raising happened just at sunset, and I was standing on the eastern side of the circle. When the tree went up, it looked as if those butterfly wings would carry that tree into the setting sun.
When the tree is up, the men wind up their ropes so that they don’t touch the ground and everyone fills the hole with dirt to stabilize the tree. This day, tree day, is the last day that the dancers will eat or drink until the dance is over four days later.
Each day of the Sun Dance follows pretty much the same pattern. The dancers get up before the sun rises, and everyone goes in to sweat before they go onto the field that day. Men and women sweat separately, and they dance on opposite sides of the circle. Usually all the women are dressed and ready at least 30 minutes before the men are, so we stand around in the cold morning air trying to keep our bare feet warm on the wet grass. The singers and the drummers drag themselves out of bed and into a place set aside for them in the arbor. When they are ready, we hear a few taps on the drum. As the sun comes up, the Drum sings an entering song. The Drum here is the entire drum circle, with one or more drummers and singers. To the entering song, the women dance into the circle behind the men. Once we find our place on the field, we dance in the same place most of the day. We dance in rounds of two or three hours and then come off the field for rest periods of up to 20 or 30 minutes. A place under the arbor is set aside for dancers, and men and women sit separate from each other there.
For me, that first day is to honor the east, and it is my day to thank the spirits for all the wonderful things that have happened in the previous year. I find giving thanks then makes it easier for me to endure on the third and fourth days, which are much harder than the first. On the first day, I also focus on Mother Earth and all she gives us every day. I stay absolutely focused throughout on the sun and on the Sacred Tree. The sound of the drumbeat enters my bones, and I let that carry me through any actions required during the day. I know other people are there, their energy connected with mine to the tree, but I really don’t see them. The second day, following, is perhaps the most joyous because I feel like I have come home at last. I am dancing strong and the lack of food and water has not yet become a pressing presence in my consciousness.
Other pagans have asked me, “Why do you choose to suffer like that?” There is no simple answer to that question, except to say that I benefit more than I suffer. Each dancer comes to the dance for different reasons, and they all go away with different experiences.
I have never had a vision to pierce, so I have not done that. I think this is because I am a mother, and I have already given a lot of my flesh to the prosperity of the tribe, metaphorically speaking. However, my husband does pierce every year, and when he breaks from the tree he usually does no more than step back and pull a little. This is a more impressive sight than the telling of it, because some men literally have to run backwards, and they sometimes have to pull very hard to break free. I have heard it said that if a man is truly right with the spirits, he can just step back and the pins will pull free. My husband does the dance every year so that the suffering in the world will be that much less. My husband and myself both dance for other people, so that “the people may live” and to alleviate suffering in the world.
The Sun Dance is performed to give thanks, to enrich and to heal. Most of the people who attend a Sun Dance are not dancers; they are supporters and people who come for healing and to pray. The Sun Dance Intercessor will bring sick people onto the field to the tree to pray for their healing. Usually the only person who has the power to heal is a medicine person; medicine people are given a gift from the spirits, and they have a responsibility to serve the people for the rest of their lives. However, on the third day of the Sun Dance, many dancers are said to be temporarily gifted with this same power to heal. On that day, one dance round is set aside so that people can be touched and healed. Veterans who still carry the emotional scars of past wars have red tears painted on their faces and are brought to the tree. People who are sick in their bodies or minds come to be touched by a dancer and receive some form of healing. This day is usually the most difficult day for me, because
there are so many needy people and they need so much. I usually cry through the healing rounds.
Then the day continues. Dust rises around my knees. I keep looking up at the tree. The sky is the cruel blue of summer in the high desert. The sound of the drum pushes my feet up off the ground and then draws them down again in what has become the unending rhythm of my day. I try to pray and stay focused, but I am tired, and thirsty, and I am distracted by the smell of moisture on the wind. Water has become my best friend and the worst enemy of my prayers.
Then I might feel a tug, as if someone has pulled on my left sleeve. I don’t look around, and I try not to wonder what is happening across the circle from me, but I know. One of the dancers has gone down. Maybe he pushed himself too hard the first two days; maybe his concentration was broken. The circle is broken and we all can feel it, but we must not break the tenuous tie that binds the circle together.
I feel another tug, harder this time, and my own thirst threatens to push me to the ground. Another dancer tried to help the first and was drawn down with him. Sun Dance leaders move to help, take their places in the circle. A medicine person is brought onto the field to help. People cross my field of view, and I ignore them; I stare up at the tree, but I know that my strength is being pushed to the breaking point. The circle of dancers sustains us; we are one here; if one of us is sick, we all are.
My eyes are so dry I cannot cry.
Grandfathers, please just get me through this round. I am reduced to pleading.
The drum pounds out four honor beats, four harder taps on the drum, and I raise my hands up to honor the tree. The little bouquets of sage in my hands feel like lead weights.
Just then I see the first eagle gliding in from the south. The bird wings his way above us around the circle. Another eagle and another join this eagle, until there are four of them riding the air currents just above our heads.
The whole circle takes a deep breath. My thirst backs off to become just another background annoyance, like my aching feet. I realize I have been tensing my shoulders and neck, and I straighten my posture a little, relax.
The energy starts to flow again. The dancers are all on their feet.
My prayer is answered.
By the fourth day of the dance, I have forged a special bond with my Sun Dance sisters. We have suffered a little together, and we have supported each other through to the last day. Although I am terribly tired and hungry and really, really thirsty, I am always reluctant to see it end. What we forged in that four days will never be repeated in exactly the same way again. We are measurably different because of this ceremony. I can see the action of that difference in subtle ways throughout my life. Happy as I am to finish on that fourth day and hear the dance leaders shout “hoka hay” for the last time, it is sad to say good bye.
Over the years, I have been deeply honored to carry the Canunpa (sacred pipe) and to pour water for many sweat lodges. I have been presented with wonderful opportunities to learn Lakota language and songs and to find a well of gratitude and humility inside myself that has sustained me through some of the worst times of my life. I have delved deep into the way things used to be done, and I have participated in the ways as they are practiced today. The deeper that I immerse myself in the history and culture of the Lakota people, the richer my experience of the Sun Dance grows. It is good to respect and remember the ways of our grandmothers and grandfathers, as long as we can allow those ways to evolve into ceremonies that are relevant to the spiritual lives of modern people.
Not everyone who walks the Red Road in the Lakota way is, or should be, a Sun Dancer. Many notable warriors in history were not Sun Dancers; Crazy Horse comes to mind. Dancing a Sun Dance is not done to prove your manhood, or womanhood, as the case may be; it is danced according to the vision of the dancer, in service “for all my relations.” This is the point of it all. We are all related, not just humans but all of creation. This is why those who follow the Lakota way say “Mitokuye oyasin (for all my relations)” at the end of every prayer.