Going For the Gatorade
Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, SD - I don’t want to say too much about the sun dance, other than it’s four days of prayer, sacrifice and exertion, with people making extreme personal offerings. Even if you aren’t doing anything extraordinary beyond the four-day food and water fast, and dancing in the sun for four days, that’s enough.
Many sun dances are strict and disciplined (‘Uncle Rick [Two Dogs] don’t give us no water or NOTHING,’ said Misty, her face all sun burnt and happy after four days), whereas others are more sympathetic toward the dancers, like, after a particularly hot and hard day, they might give you some juice at night…or overlook the cooler of sport drink those guys had over there in their tipi. On ice.
We laughed about running an extension cord to the back of the tipi, off of a generator, so we could hook up a fridge, a fan, maybe a television set, a sofa. Roll out a nice carpet.
But technically, you’re not supposed to have water during the day, or at all. THEY SAY. But, it’s up to you, you and your god (here, ‘Tunkashila’), and whatever discipline one follows is self-imposed.
We observe general propriety in respect to our elders, along with many traditional formalities, but we don’t have a lot of shoulds and shouldn’ts at our dance. A ‘kinder, gentler’ dance, they say.
If it’s the third day and 105 degrees in the middle of the afternoon, and there’s a bottle of warm Gatorade going around, usually people won’t refuse a swallow or two. And after listening to those Mohawks relate their legendary stories about the sacredness and restorative power of the water, the strawberry, and the maple syrup, you don’t feel bad at all about having a cup full of that mixture at the end of the day.
It’s all good, man. Talk about bringing people Back To Life! We joke around about, “I don’t know about you guys, but I’m in it for the strawberry water.” You can refuse it if you like, but nobody does. Gotta love those Mohawks.
As chief medical officer, I give out lemon drops on the afternoon of day three, maybe day two, and nobody has ever refused those, either. Head honcho said, ‘Gimmie two.’
Despite all the hardship and seriousness attendant with the dance, there’s a lot of humor floating around, too, both intentional and inadvertent, like a few years ago when one of the ‘first timers’, there on a vision he’d gotten earlier in the year, was laying at the tree on the buffalo robe, and when he saw the scalpel in Tom’s hands, his eyes got big and he said, “I’ve changed my mind!” and tried to raise up.
Loretta, on her knees at the tree, praying with the sun dance pipe throughout the entirety of the piercing rounds, budged from her sphinx-like pose and turned her head slightly, looking down at the young man, a full-blood Indian. I’m not sure if one of her eyebrows lifted slightly or not, but the look on her face said, ‘Oh? That’s a first.’
We pushed his shoulders back down on the robe, and Tom told him, “It’s too late.”
The kid was twisting and squirming and kicking his legs when he got stuck, and Tom had to tell him, ‘Hey, hey now. Be still.’
Tom pierced him, we stood him up, and hooked him up to his rope, with him pale in the face, weak at the knees, and foam at the corners of his mouth...good to go. Just like in Vietnam, I lied and said to him, ‘Everything’s going to be okay. Blow your whistle.’
I don’t know how it is for others. Seems like, what the boss man say in ‘Cool Hand Luke’?...‘You got to get your mind right.’…if you can remember that it’s an offering, and you don’t want to give a gift grudgingly, now do you?
And you’re giving it in exchange for all those prayers you’ve been making, then, Holy Smokes, hey, if you want it to hurt, that’s gotta be okay, and if it don’t then, that’s okay too, and…Hereiyam…I’m yours, and I’m smilin’.
Yeah, maybe. Until they stand you up, hook you up, and you find yourself out there on the end of that rope trying to get loose three, four, five, six, seven, eight times. Well, that’s a different story.
Flip on your face, flip on your ass, break your pins, break your rigging, break your rope, break everything but your flesh...hook back up again…make your best prayer, make your best magic, make your best plea…make you feel like some kinda puppet.
Well, there are easy years, and there are hard years.
In our first dance together at Devil’s Tower, my bro, the late Mike Afraid Of Bear, asked our sun dance leader there, the late Gerald Clifford, whaddaya do when you’re getting pierced?
Gerald said, ‘Don’t fight it.’
Just about any kind of surrender can be a very difficult thing.
One of the veterans, been dancing about ten years, along with his father and his son, came to the tree to be pierced…I won’t say his name, but his initials begin with Robb Reddeman. He wanted to be pierced standing, with his back to the tree. I looked down at the scars on his chest and asked him, “Do you know what the judge said?”
“What’s that?” he asked.
“Haven’t I seen you up here before?”
It’s not a comedy show, for sure, but sometimes the humor helps take the edge off the suffering, and brings us back to human. Life, death, hunger, disease, cripples, refugees, and orphans…that’s serious. The rest is a walk in the park.
Jesus was hanging on the cross and asked Peter to come closer. Peter approached and said, “Yes. What is it, Master?”
Jesus said, “I can see your house from here.”
See what I mean? The old Buddhist monks and the old Indian men are the same way. Nobody’s taking themselves or what they’re carrying around in their heads too seriously. It’s the young guys who seem to be the over-zealous. You ever hear of an old man strapping on a suicide vest?
He (Jesus) stopped by here a few weeks after the dance to thank everybody, and I told that joke right in His presence while a bunch of the bros were sitting around the table having coffee.
Everybody laughed but Jesus, but his lips curled at the corners there just for a second, like, maybe he’d already heard it, but it was still a pretty good one. Then, he looked over at me and gave me this look that said, ‘I feel so sorry for you, you pathetic maggot.’
I sloughed off his telepathic comment and said straight-faced, ‘You probably know…over in Africa, they paint you black.’
Everyone laughed out loud except Jesus, and he opened his mouth to say something, thought otherwise, then gave me that same look.
“Little black baby Jesus…black Jesus on a donkey…black Jesus on the cross.”
Before he could say anything, I said, “Just kidding, man. Everybody knows you’re white.”
Everybody was laughing until they looked over at Jesus, then they all chilled like you do when you see the boss ain’t laughing. He just stared at me like he didn’t think it was funny, but we’re okay.
He knows. He knows how we are around here, how we'll tell a joke on someone with 'em sitting right there, and how we only tease the ones we love.
He was dressed like a 'Big Indian', with black wide-brimmed hat, hair pulled back into a pony tail, red neckerchief, black cowboy shirt with white mother-of-pearl buttons, hot-looking tight-ass blue jeans, and pointy cowboy boots. 'Why you dressed like that?' I asked.
'Only way I can get a ride up here,' he said.
We were laying around the ‘spill-over’ tipi between rounds, seven of us in there; Bo D., Sonny Bass, Dave Frankel, Ted Ebert, Steve Hall, and a new guy to our dance, Terry Richards. All veteran dancers, having danced at least five years. Many had danced a decade. It was good.
Our tipi was a gift from dancer Mike Albin, a very nice gift. People do stuff like that at dance, preparing all year long for giveaway and getting ready, working on their stuff. I gave away two squadron of aircraft this year, till I ran out. John had T-shirts made. People give Pendletons, star quilts, flesh, blood, all kinds of things.
The big 30 ft. tipi was full, as it has been since about the third year in ‘The Canyon’, when our numbers went from seven dancers that first year, to a dozen, then twenty, then twenty-seven, and finally leveling off at about 40 dancers, a full arbor.
That’s why we need a ‘spill-over’ tipi to accommodate all the extra dancers. Up top this year, we had two big 30-footers for the men and women, and a couple extra smaller tipis for the women, and two or three extras for the men.
Anyway, just to give you a picture. Our tipi was 24 feet at the base, and tied at 20 ft., a nice solid stack against the wind. Some of the guys have staffs, a long shepherd’s kind of instrument bent into a medicine wheel circle at the top, and usually adorned with eagle feathers, otter or rabbit, and maybe bells or ermine.
Steve gave one to David this year, a very nice gift, and both he and Terry had one, all of which they planted in holes in the middle of our tipi, just off the foot of my cot. Terry also had a cool owl and hawk bonnet covered with feathers that had belonged to his father, and he placed it atop the middle staff. I think he only wore it one or two rounds. “It’s too hot,” he said.
So anyway, we’re all laying there resting in between rounds, and I sat up on my cot and said, ‘Eeeeeeee, you guys. I woke up early this morning and saw those staffs first thing when I opened my eyes, and it looked like three…BEINGS…standing over me.”
“There was three of ‘em, you guys,” I continued, like I was relating a story of the phenomenal. “The guy in the middle was wearing a bonnet full of feathers.”
They all laughed, because in dim light, it sort of looked like three thin figures…like, spirit beings…standing there, and Terry started wildly swinging his fists and shouted, “GET BACK, YOU FUCKERS!”
Everybody exploded in laughter, and Terry continued, “Feathers all over the place…staffs all broken up and scattered around…fur all over the place…You guys was lucky I was awake.”
Everybody was laughing so hard our sides hurt, and Terry was relentless, saying, “You guys was lucky I was awake…they was going for our Gatorade!”