Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Chapter 15 - The Sundance

Authors note - This is the first I have written about my experience at the Sundance. I share it now because I feel that people should know about the ceremony, but also should know of the sacredness involved in it.

Chapter 15 -

Jack and Erika followed Will and Lena out to the Sundance the next morning. Jack went with the expectation of being an "outside observer" sort of like when he had attended other religions ceremonies. When they first arrived, the dancers were just getting ready to go into the circle again. Will told them that when the dancers were dancing, it was respectful to stand with them, to encourage them and pray with them. So the two outsiders stood politely for the first dance, as a good Lutheran and a good Catholic should.

The dancers danced to the four directions singing and praying at each cardinal point, then moving on. Will pointed out his sons, and his grandson - who was participating in his first sun dance. His daughter was there too, she was one of the gatekeepers. There were about 25 sun dancers, around a half dozen 'red sash' wearers - kind of the officiants, and four women - one for each gate at the cardinal directions. The dance area was about 250 feet in diameter.  A circle of posts with coverings ringed the area at that distance, creating a sort of booth effect where spectators could be in the shade. This encircled the Sundance Tree, a special tree that had been ceremonially chopped down, brought to the circle and erected in the center at the beginning of the week. Inside that circle, about ten feet or so, was a cloth wrapped sage circle going all the way around, about as big as a wrist, wrapped in the appropriate colors for the directions. At each gate were two sticks marking the door, tied with ribbons of the appropriate color for the direction as well.

The dancers were dressed in "robes", essentially fabric wrapped around their middles running down to their ankles - long straight skirts. The colors and stripes on them were personally meaningful, but there was a lot of red - the color of honor. They all had red wrapped sage bundles making anklets, bracelets and crowns, some of which had eagle feathers sticking up from them. They all had eagle bone whistles on lanyards around their necks which they blew on in rhythm with the drums as they danced. Some danced barefoot, some wore moccasins. Again, personal preference.

The young cottonwood tree, about eight inches in diameter in the center of the circle, was draped with ribbons of the four colors, plus blue and green. There were also buffalo rawhide cutouts tied to the tree. One in the shape of a man, representing all of humanity, and one shaped like a buffalo, representing all of the gifts from that animal and all of our animal/insect/bird brothers and sisters. There were many coils of ropes attached to the tree. These were for the sun dancers when they pierced.

Jack was one of a few wasicu's in the crowd (white people) but he did notice a red headed white guy was in the circle as a sun dancer.

As the dancers rested between dances, they had the chance to talk and learn. Will and his wife Lena were excellent teachers. The first lesson was to listen and watch. Most questions, Will told them, could be answered by just doing that.

As the Sundancers prepared for the next dance, a buffalo robe was brought out and spread out under the tree. They took one of the coils of rope down and extended it out to where the sun dancer would be dancing. Then the one to be pierced came in with a medicine man and they made their way around the circle. When they reached the entrance again (the West) they stood to the side, and as each Sundancer entered, they shook hands. The rest of the dancers spaced themselves around the circle and the one to be pierced went to the buffalo robe, along with the medicine men and the one doing the piercing, in this case, one of Wills sons.

After prayers at the tree, the dancer lay down on the robe and was pierced. They used new surgical scalples, so the medic in Jack was OK with that.  Then they slid pegs through the holes and attached the rope to the pegs. The dancer rose and walked out to where the rope was taut. Then he danced. Four times he danced in to the tree and prayed against it, and four times he danced back out to where the rope was taut. On the last time out there would be calls of encouragement and women would make the tremelo. The dancer would lean back until the pegs tore free from his chest.

It was really powerful to see. Profoundly powerful. Jack was moved to tears the first time he saw it, and had a lump in his throat every other time.

The dancers also pierced for the buffalo skull drag. In this case the same procedure was followed, but the dancers back was pierced and attached to a train of six buffalo skulls. The dancer would then drag the skulls around the outside of the circle four times. At the end, the assistants (who were keeping the skulls upright and in line during the procession) would press down on the skulls, acting as gravity brakes for the train. The dancer would then pull until the pegs tore free from his back. It was also a very powerful thing to watch.

In either case after the pegs broke free, the dancer went back to the tree and the scraps of flesh left on the wound were trimmed away, placed on sage, and wrapped in red cloth. Then a sacred medicine was rubbed into the wound. It's a secret blend, but is a coagulant, and stopped the bleeding immediately.

Contrary to what the movies show, there really wasn't a lot of blood. Jack noticed a trickle or two, but was not worried about anyone bleeding out from their wounds.

Will explained the thought behind piercing very simply. In the Lakota culture, men have nothing in this world. Everything they "own" really belongs to their women. Mothers first, then wives. They just borrow their weapons or robes or whatever from the women in their lives. Women have menstruation and childbirth. In this they already suffer and bleed for the people, and from this comes life. Men have nothing physical to give, so the Sundance creates a ceremony whereby they can give the only thing they truly own, their flesh and blood, and bleed for the people, so that the people can live.

Jack listened as Will explained that the Lakota had no problems believing that Jesus bled and died for them. After all, their culture had seen men bleeding and dying for the people for many, many years before Christians got there.

For both Jack and Erika, it was hard to just stand there and watch. Physically hard, as Jack’s back was pretty messed up from the hospital drive on Sunday, and emotionally hard to feel like a pent up Lutheran when he wanted to be supporting the dancers. So he danced, too. So did Erika. Everybody else in the crowd danced as the Sundancers danced. Soon he found himself dancing and praying for them, supporting them with his prayers. He prayed for other things, too. Prayers for Mike and his leg and his doctors and nurses. Prayers for everyone at Re-Member that week and every week. Prayers for his family, especially his Mom and Dad. Interestingly, when he told his Mom all of this later, she told him that Wednesday was the first day that she had felt really good in years. She felt like her old self again, able to get up and do things. She was nearly giddy with the telling of it, and she had felt that way most every day since. Coincidence?

They had a 'doctoring dance' where the women made trails of sage leading from the North and South gates in to the tree, with the exit to the West. Will said that anybody with health problems, or spiritual problems or just prayers to send up could go out and pray with a medicine man at the tree.

Will knew about Jack’s PTSD from conversations they had had during the year, and he suggested that Jack go into the circle and pray. So he did. Barefoot at the gate, one of the dancers gave him some herbs to 'cleanse' himself with, wiping it all over his body to be pure enough to approach the tree. As he approached, he wasn't sure if he should pray for all hundred or so of 'his people' or what. But when his turn arrived, he placed his head against the tree, and as the medicine man covered his back with the eagle wing, he knew who to pray for.

One of his first calls as a medic was to a 3 month old SIDS case. He and his fellow medics had worked the baby hard, but to no avail. It was pretty rough. So Jack prayed for him. He prayed that whatever higher power there be would take that little boy and be sure he was happy.

Jack was a little teary as he left the circle, and near the exit - before the gate, the women were giving ladles of 'spirit drink' - a wild tea that grows along the rivers there. It tasted a little minty and sweet, and was very good. Then he rejoined the crowd on the outside. It was very powerful as well. Even more so since the Sundancers were helping others as they came into the circle. These guys had been dancing for two and a half days, yet they were there to serve others.

There was more piercing throughout the day, both skull dragging and chest piercing. Each time was moving, and brought a tear to Jack’s eye. How many in the Christian faith would bleed for their brothers and sisters? Their world? Bleed even for those that hate them? He couldn’t think of any, with the exception of the few who are "crucified" in the Phillipens (or was it Mexico). But even that is looked on with some disdain from western culture.

But as Jack watched these guys do it, most with family and friends gathering behind them to encourage them as they danced, it was obviously not done for 'show' or for emulating anyone else. Each dancer was piercing for the people. All people, and the world.

Jack thought the whole thing was thickly sacred. Heavily holy. If that makes any sense. Like the Sweat Lodge, it was interspersed with laughter and chatter and irreverence, and that was OK. Even the red sashes and Sundancers were goofing around a bit between dances.

Will went to the drum and sang with them a few times. It was all wonderfully, informally formal. jack felt very welcomed, and very much a part of it.

In between dances, there was a side alter set up, sort of a narthex, with a buffalo skull in front of a red blanket covered with sage. A pipe rested against the skull and a thick, foot long peg was pressed into the ground near the skull. This was a place where the crowd could come and give flesh offerings. They knelt on the blanket and sage and held the pipe. As they prayed, the piercer (Will's son again) used a small lance and a scalpel (all new, of course, and disposed of in a red hazardous waste bucket after) and lifted a piece of skin from the upper arm and sliced it away with the knife. No one did more than four. Some did less. It was, again, individual preference. The wound was about the size of a pea, not terribly large. The flesh removed was then placed on sage and wrapped in a red cloth. These flesh offerings were then tied together into a chain and wrapped around the stick. When the stick got full, it was replaced with a new stick.

Will explained that on the last day of the Sundance, all of the flesh offerings from the dancers and from the crowd would be ceremonially burned in the fire and all of those prayers would be turned to smoke and sent up to Wakan Tanka. It was a powerful image.

There were 'firemen' who tended the fire, and 'cedarmen' who danced with cans of smoldering, smokey cedar for people to cleanse themselves with. After each round, one of the red sashes would choose a dancer to move his pipe. There were two pipe racks near the West gate. One for all the pipes to rest on at the beginning of the day, and an empty one to receive the pipes after the rounds. Each dancer could choose to have the crowd smoke the pipe out. Not an easy task when the pipe comes to a non-smoker like Jack. But he had learned a little from the sweat, and didn't choke this time. They used the bark from the willow tree to smoke. It could only be collected between the time the trees start cracking and growing new bark to the first thunderstorm. Then it it’s sacred again until the next year.

After the last dance of the day, there were about 10 pipes left on the rack, so the remaining dancers went to collect their pipes and do the processional around the hoop, and the red sashes chose people from the crowd to assist. Erika and Jack were both chosen for the last one. They gave each a stick of sage and escorted them around the outside of the circle. Then they lined up across from the dancer and the dancer presented them with their pipe in a sacred way, offering it four times. On the fourth time they accepted the pipes, and were instructed to hold the pipe in their left hand and the stem on the right, and to hold them together at all costs. Then they were all taken to different parts of the crowd and helped others smoke the pipes out. Jack was glad for this job, as it involved no smoking for him. But he felt honored none the less for being chosen.

After the last dance, the oldest woman there was brought to the tree for a special prayer by the holy men for the elders. As she came out in her wheelchair, the dancers lined up to kiss her and hug her and thank her for her wisdom and years, and for blessing the circle with her presence. It was quite touching.

After all of this, there was supper to be had. Will was doing a sweat for kids, and any newbies like Jack. It ended up being about ten people, half kids. It wasn't nearly as hot as Larry's sweat had been, and Jack was able to concentrate more on the songs and prayers. When they finished the sweat, they joined in the feast. Good soup, fry bread, another kind of bread called ga boo boo bread. Jack asked them if they were just messing with the white guy by calling it that. But they laughed and assured him that it was indeed called ga boo boo bread.

It was really an amazing day. Before Erika and Jack left for the day, Will asked if they would like to come back in August and do some backup vocals for his second album. It was a no brainer for Jack. He knew he’d be back if at all possible.

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