Back For The Dance
Slim Buttes, Pine Ridge Indian Reservation - Returned to the US for Sun Dance in 'The Canyon', the 'Holy Land', the Wild Horse Sanctuary south of Hot Springs, South Dakota. Hooked up with daughter Mia in Denver, Colorado and headed north, north to Slim Buttes, south of Oglala, Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, South Dakota, USA.
Right now, out here in the middle of nowhere, ten o'clock at night, coyotes are yelping down at the river. Otherwise it's quiet. Stone quiet.
We're right in the middle of Sun Dance season, with dances going on all around the reservation. People and their spiritual families coming together from all over for the once-a-year celebration and sacred ceremony that stands at the center of our lives and Native American spirituality.
Big dances with over a hundred dancers, small tiospaye (extended family) dances with only three; dances starting up and dances ending up. People out there today, no food, no water for four days of abstinence and fasting, dancing in 100 + degree heat, continuing to practice the ways of their ancestors. Tomorrow it'll be down to 96, they said.
Ours, the 9th annual Afraid-Of-Bear/American Horse Dance, went well, with four beautiful days of dancing and pitter patter rain on two nights to settle the dust. Couldn't have asked for more perfect weather. My prayer from the beach in Khuk Khak a month earlier got answered.
A few days before the dance, a bunch of us were hanging out, and someone, I think it was Bo or Misty, said, "I sure hope we get good weather...no rain, and not too hot."
"I've already put in the request," I said. "Last month. No problem. It's covered. I asked Him again last night in sweat (purification ceremony. a regular, twice-a-week function here at the 'base farm') and he told me, "What's the matter? Don't you have no faith?* I heard you the first time! Don't bother me again! ......I'm a busy man."
And that got me to thinking about prayer, in general, and asking for the same thing, over and over. You know? Seeut ahm sayin'? You're out there for four days, all day long, praying, and... gee, I'm usually done with all my prayers after about the second round on the first day!
Like Tom, our lead dancer once joked on Day Two, "I've made all my prayers. Whaddaya say you and me go to town for some breakfast?"
I shared with our sun dancing Catholic priest, Father Paul, and disclosed to a few others that I'm not praying all the time out there in the arbor. I mean, there's a LOT of choreography to pay attention to...and sometimes, much of the time in fact, I'm just being quiet and let my dance be my prayer, mostly just a prayer of thanksgiving. Besides, I told him, God knew.
Sitting under the the shade at the end of the day, Father Paul quoted me something from scripture, and said something to the effect of, "That's okay. We've got to be quiet to receive the Lord's message," and something about an empty vessel and meditative state.
I can't remember what all he actually said, because my mind wandered and I was more or less distilling down his affirmation of my approach, you know, being a priest 'n all. Wanted to know what a priest thought. Spent his whole life, practically, in the church.
I also asked him about Christ's virgin birth.
"If you believe what Matthew said," he replied. "Matthew said that Mary was conceived by Spirit."
And then I asked him if he believed Christ died on the cross for his sins.
"Mine and everybody's," he said. "Christ died for my sins, personally, and everybody's."
"Do you think what we're doing out there makes a difference?" I asked.
"All prayer makes a difference," he replied.
"Do we need to do this voluntary suffering? Does voluntary suffering make a difference in the strength of one's prayer?"
I can't remember exactly what he said, but essentially, he said yes, concentrated prayer through voluntary suffering makes a difference in the world. Apart from all the personal prayers that we all brought to the dance this year, our Main Prayer and focus was upon world peace. So far, given what's going on in the world, it seems not to have taken effect.
"Do you believe in reincarnation?" I asked.
"What are you trying to do?" he said, laughing. "Shake my faith? No. We believe in purgatory."
"I'm just trying to find out where you come down on these issues," I said. "Can a person get to heaven just by being a good person without going through Christ?"
"Yes," he replied. "But the spiritual body of Christ is big. It encompasses everything. You can't help but pass through his body."
That might not be the exact quote. Forgive me, Paul, but I think that's what he said. Same same Buddha, right? As Bro Tom likes to say when making up quotes for official use in official documents, "That's what he would've said if he would've said it."
It was last year, Father Paul dancing between Lou and me, red and sun burnt, stepping sluggishly, spittle on his lips from the eagle bone whistle, the drum a distant pounding in his ears, I could tell. Maybe he was having a vision.
"Keep an eye on him," Basil, our intercessor, the medicine man, had cautioned Lou and I as we entered the arbor to begin the round (round of dancing. several throughout the day, after sweat in the morning, after the singers show up from breakfast, and after they return from lunch, throughout the afternoon. a round can be short, around 40 minutes, or long, for more than a couple of hours if there are people piercing).
I looked over at Paul, and then at Lou. Lou felt my gaze and slowly turned his head, caught my eyes, glanced at Paul, looked back at me, and we both moved in unison, taking him by his sage wristlets, telling him we were going to lead him out of the arbor.
He looked up dazed, and thanked us.
And we thanked him, too, as we are thankful for all our elders. Uncle Vern American Horse, our intercessor this year, who jokingly told Tom, "You go ahead and do everything. I'm just going to sit here under the shade. If you want me to run things, I'd change everything all around."
That kind of good-natured humor around the dance kept everything light and lively, and not heavy, restrictive, and oppressive, as can sometimes be the case.
And Uncle Joe American Horse, Vern's younger brother, running around all over camp, can't sit down. Besides the elders and our young people, the rest of us are all worker bees. That's one of the things I like about the culture. Kids running around playing, and the old folks sitting in the shade.
We started out with about 35 dancers, and ended up on day four with 43. Probably about two hundred people in camp. 'Supporters,' we call 'em. Can't dance without 'em.
There were lots of young people out there the the arbor with us this year; Devon, who started dancing with us when he was eight, was finishing up a four-year commitment, getting good grades, he said, out there dancing with his father and grandfather.
And Cory, also finishing up four years of dancing, joining us as a twelve-year old couch potato, and now, at sixteen, stretched out into a fine young man any coach would like to get ahold of. Cory, peach fuzz for a moustache, out there dancing alongside his dad and Inchamuk, who at 87 years old, was advised not to dance all four days this year. Just a couple of rounds. He was thrilled to be dancing with his daughter, his son, his son-in-law, and his grandson.
"I couldn't be happier," he told Tom gratefully. "These are some of the best days of my life."
And for the round he danced, out there alongside his family, all painted red to protect him from the sun, the old man was obviously enjoying himself, high-stepping to the drum, arms up in the air like a marionette, dancing with irrepressible exuberance that picked us all up.
There was Raymondo, now in high school, dancing with us all nine years, since he was seven. And Ohitika Red Cloud, a big barrel-chested, commod bod (commodities-constructed body)teenager, dancing his first year, going around camp loudly squawking his 'eagle call', his 'warrior's call', he called it, that sounded more like...I don't know...a loud squawk.
His mother, Germaine, had asked me to keep an eye on him. Didn't need to. He was one of the strongest dancers out there. Every time I checked, Ohi was doing fine. Even under the scalpel, he didn't flinch. I was fortunate to assist his uncle Tim, who Ohi wanted to do his piercing, and halfway through the first cutting, which was going badly for Tim, like he didn't want to cut his nephew, he extracted the knife and held it out to me, saying, "Here. You do it."
I'd never pierced anyone before, but for a number of years I'd helped Tom, who has good technique. It wasn't a time for vacillation. The drum was going, he was laying there on the buffalo robe with the whole Red Cloud clan gathered around, everyone in, under, and around the arbor praying for him. A rather suspenseful moment that was all his. His and the Creator's.
Took the knife, asked God for guidance, and went ahead and did it. Inserted his pins and yanked him to his feet. Everybody hollered out big war whoops, we hooked him up to his rope, and he went out and made the offering for his family as a first-time sun dancer. A teenager. Out of all the teenagers in the world, out of all the teenage Indians on the rez, out of all the men in his family, he was out there, doing this. He made us all proud.
His parent's gave him that name, Ohitika (Oh-hee-tee-ka). It means 'brave'. Brave, indeed.
Giving us encouragement for the future, there were lots of father/son dancers. In addition to those mentioned above, there was Kakwira, in from Hawaii, dancing with his father and mother, Bro Tom and Sister Loretta. And Norman Afraid Of Bear, teen grandson of our late spiritual leader, Ernest Afraid Of Bear, dancing with his father, Poncho.
Father Paul, who had danced with us for three or four years, sat out this year at 85, also being advised not to stress himself out like that. But he was with us, nonetheless, sleeping in the men's 28 ft. tipi, hanging out under the arbor, and sitting right outside the lodge during sweat each morning and evening, drinking the water right along with us.
"Is it okay if I just call you 'Paul'? I had asked him a few years ago. "I only have two fathers - our heavenly father, and the man who raised me up. I'm not a Catholic."
In a reply that began as a stutter, then spilled out rapidly, he said, "I...I...I'd rather be known as a Sun Dance Brother, than as a priest."
And Beatrice, Loretta's mom and the family matriarch medicine woman who I probably should've mentioned at the top, at 87-years old, out there dancing with us all four days.
Remembering what Jose' had mentioned to the men in sweat one morning about our elderly not thinking five years on down the road, but rather, just the next year in front of them, I shook her hand at the end of the dance, thanked her for being out there with us, and told her I sure hoped she be out there next year, too.
"Thank you," she said sincerely. "I hope so, too."
* The Lakota God, Tunkashila, uses double negatives.
the following personal experience account of the dance was previously published as an emailing. Some readers may have already received it.
wow ! my hair is standing up and i was cringing when i read this...just took a deep breath.
-------------- Original message from victor glover
Like I said, the American Horse/Afraid Of Bear sun dance in the canyon went quite well, except for Day One when it appeared that everybody but me got the message to line up for entry. I didn't hear no eagle bird whistle, no drum, no 'Hoka Hey!', nuthin' until they started hitting the drum for entry.
Being about the fifth person back, behind Uncle Vern American Horse, who led us, then Kakwira with the buffalo skull, then Tom, then Lou, I had to race past all the women and almost all of the men to my position. Caught up with the procession by the time they were praying to the north.
Nice way to start the dance, huh? Late for the first round, first day. Nice way for a veteran dancer to show everyone that any one of us human beings can fuck up.
Well, there's both advantages and disadvantages to camping in a pup tent by yourself.
Mia informed me that maybe nature would preclude her being able to attend the last three days of the dance, so if I wanted her there with me in the arbor, I'd better pierce on Day One.
"That's cool, Honey," I told her. "It's Father's Day, and I want to relieve the logjam on the last day, anyway."
No problem. Lou, Roy, a few other old-timers and I had routinely pierced on day two every year for the same reason; a half dozen people piercing on the same round on the last day makes for some terribly long rounds, and that's a long time for Loretta to be kneeling at the tree.
But this was the first time I'd ever pierced on the first day, and the first time I'd been the very first dancer to pierce. "Good," someone said. "Set the pace, Bro."
It was Pure Bliss on the buffalo robe. Father's Day. Mia was there, squeezing my hand. Didn't feel a thing.
Didn't feel a thing until I went to break and hit the end of that rope. WHANGGGG! Didn't get free.
Returned to the tree, coiling up my rope and thinking, 'I'll have to hit it harder,' when Tom looked over, saw my look of discouragement, and said matter-of-factly and almost apologetically, 'I had to go deep, Bro. Your pins were thick.'
The day prior to the dance, Bo and I were in Sioux Nation getting last-minute things we'd need for the dance. "Let's add some color to the tree this year," he said, selecting a blue, green, and yellow plastic-coated climbing rope for himself, me, and David Watters, it turned out.
While at the tree, I saw a close-up of their faces in my mind, dancing out there, serious lines of concern etched across their foreheads. They were using the same type of rope, instead of the usual hemp or cheap, Wally World 1/4 inch sissal twine that every other Indian in the world uses.
Snapping me out of it, Tom asked, "You want some help, Bro?"
"Nah," I said, shaking my head. "I'll do it this time."
Went up to the tree and told God whatever it was he had planned for me was okay with me, but I'd really like to get free this time. Went flying back again, really gonna get free.
Hit the end of the rope and came to a sudden jarring stop, the tree bending toward me, then springing back, pulling me with it, up onto my tiptoes. Tell Laura it's like having meathooks in her tits and free-falling off a bridge on a rope that's ten feet shorter than the ground.
Lou and Roy, who I'd earlier asked to stand behind me, grabbed me under the armpits and yanked me backwards, asking, "You want us to rip you free, Bro?"
The free part sounded good, but as they began to do so, the skin on my chest stretched out to where I could no longer ignore it in my field of vision, and I think I said, "NO! NO! NO! PUTMEDOWN! PUTMEDOWN!"
Like at any time in our perceptual world, there are things within our field of awareness, and much more outside. The drum got muffled and quite. The people got quiet, and it seemed like everybody quit singing and praying. Couldn't see anything in my blurred tunnel vision except the tree and that blue rope connecting me to it.
Everything inside my head...all those voices...became muffled and quiet, too. I distinctly remember having an intimate, focused, one-on-one conversation with God, asking, "This ain't going to be another one of those forty-minute, seven-trips-to-the-tree afternoons, is it? How long you gonna keep me out here on the end of this rope?'
"I'm sorry," I said. "I know I shouldn't talk to you like that, but you know how I feel. You know I'm your impatient pitiful servant. You know I love you. Could you pllllease let me go this time? That last one HURT!"
Went flying back again, this time growling and gritting my teeth, fighting back tears, I think. Hit the end of the rope and vaguely remember hands clutching at me, pulling, Brother Tom throwing what they said was a body block into me, a ripping at my chest, a snapping, the rope, harness and pins slingshotting into the upper branches of the tree, leaves scattering, all of us in a tumble, being caught by more hands, Lou and Roy around front, quicking looking at my chest, joy on their faces, laughing, telling me I was free, Mia at my side, taking my wristlet, leading me in a joyous lap around the arbor, sailing. Floating.
Father's Day. Pure Bliss.
Of course, there was much, much more to the dance, but that was how it went for me, personally. Thanks for asking.