The sun dance is the predominant tribal ceremony of Great Plains Indians, although it is practiced by numerous tribes today as a prayer for life, world renewal and thanksgiving. On a personal level, someone may dance to pray for a relative or friend, or to determine their place in the universe, while on a larger scale, the sun dance serves the tribe and the earth. Indigenous people believe that unless the sun dance is performed each year, the earth will lose touch with the creative power of the universe, thereby losing its ability to regenerate.
The sun dance was outlawed in the latter part of the nineteenth century, partly because certain tribes inflicted self-torture as part of the ceremony, which settlers found gruesome, and partially as part of a grand attempt to westernize Indians by forbidding them to engage in their ceremonies and speak their language. Sometimes the dance was performed when reservation agents were lax and chose to look the other way. But as a rule, younger generations were not being introduced to the sun dance and other sacred rituals, and a rich cultural heritage was becoming extinct.
Then, in the 1930's, the sun dance was relearned and practiced once again. Michael Fitzgerald, an adopted member of the Yellow Tail family of the Crow tribe, and author of Yellow Tail Crow Medicine Man and Sun Dance Chief related this amazing story to me. A man by the name of John Trojillo was walking in the mountains while on a vision quest when he was struck by lightning. At that moment, the Spirit of the mountain came to Trojillo and carefully explained to him different healing ceremonies and medicines.
Three days later, Trojillo noticed himself walking through a rock, and then saw himself lying on the floor of the cave. He laid down in his body and awoke, realizing that he had been in his Spirit all this time, not his physical body.
Trojillo was given explicit instructions to follow for a year's time. He was told to pray, to go on vision quests, and not to practice his medicine power. Afterwards, Trojillo was able to call upon the Spirits of the medicine fathers, whenever someone was in need of help, and was the vehicle for many miraculous healings. The first healing was especially dramatic, involving a man who had been shot twice, just above the heart. The doctors of this time were not skillful enough to perform such a delicate operation, but Trujillo prayed for the man, and sprinkled the wound with a sacred powder, called lightning root. The next day, the bullets worked themselves out and were lying beneath the man. The patient fully recovered and lived many more healthy years. While the herbs played a role, Trujillo credited the man's survival to the Spirits who had responded to his prayers.
Trujillo became prominent in his tribe as a result of this incident and was asked to reinstate the sun dance on the Shoshoni reservation. Then in 1941, he was invited to the Crow reservation to teach the sun dance, which had also been lost due to generations of U.S. government Indian policy. Since this new version differed from the original dance, the Crows called the ceremony the Crow Shoshoni sun dance.
The tribes learned that the sun dance consisted of various elements. There was the ritual of the sacred pipe, the purification ceremony, monthly prayer ceremonies, and a yearly ritual. The sun dance chief offers the prayers from the sacred pipe to the four directions, as well as the earth and sky, on a daily basis. The purification ceremony is performed before the sun dance and again afterwards. Monthly sun dance prayer ceremonies take place 12 times a year, at the time of the full moon. During this ceremony, two medicine bundles are opened, and ritual objects are taken out and placed on an elk's skin in the middle of the floor. Heated coals are brought into the lodge, incense is placed on the fire, and special songs are sung to help carry the prayers of the smoke to a subtler world.
At the end of the ceremony, people in the audience come forth to be healed. Animal instruments, such as eagle feathers and otter skins, are used. Fitzgerald notes that a great spiritual leader, Yellow Tail, used a hollowed out horn of a spiked horn elk as his primary method of healing. Blowing on a patient's back with the horn created a terribly shrill sound, but resulted in many miraculous cures and protection against danger. In one instance, a prominent American Indian was sent to Viet Nam and shot at close range by the Viet Cong. Although the bullet tore through his tee shirt, it did not penetrate him.
During the healings, the medicine man prays over the patient, touching him or her with the animal instrument. The bad spirits are taken into the prop, and then cast into the wind. Sometimes herbs are given to the patient to alleviate simple symptoms, but as mentioned earlier, the essential cure is through prayer. The medicine man calls forth spiritual entities to enter the physical world in order to cure the patient.
In addition to the 12 monthly ceremonies, there is a three to four day sun dance that takes place each summer, usually in July. The preparation is too detailed to describe here, but involves building a lodge from a large cottonwood tree, with a forked branch in the middle. Twelve upright poles are placed about 13 paces from the center pole in a circular fashion, with rafter poles connecting the outside of the circle to the inner pole. From an aerial view, this appears as a wagon wheel with a hub in its center. This symbolizes the tribe (on the outside of the circle) trying to find their way straight to the center.
Fitzgerald told me about the preparations for the Crow sun dance, where the dancers greet each sunrise with sacred songs. Then the medicine man prays on behalf of the tribe, the world, and all creation. Throughout the day, 100 or more tribe members may dance to a drum beat, which represents the heart of the universe. The dancers fast for the duration of the ceremony. All their time is spent praying to the Creator and dancing toward and away from the center pole. The ceremony is brutal and causes many dancers to collapse, what Indians call taking a fall. This is followed by a vision, similar to what happens on a vision quest, only here many people are given guidance for the good of the tribe. In a sense, this is a community vision quest to renew the people and the bioregion.
On the second day, spectators from the tribe enter the lodge to be healed, bearing gifts of tobacco and incense. This is exactly the same process that takes place during the monthly prayer sun dance ceremonies, where harmful spiritual and physical manifestations are taken into an animal instrument and cast off to the wind, while prayers are said to heal the person.
Sun dance ceremonies typically end with a purification ceremony so that tribe members can re-enter the world refreshed and regenerated. Fitzgerald notes that this ritual is as concrete as it is symbolic, and related to me a time when he was in a purification lodge with Yellow Tail. While praying, Yellow Tail suddenly threw a scoop of water onto the very hot volcanic rocks. The force of the 212 degree steam knocked Fitzgerald down. He equated the feeling to that of an egg that sizzles when dropped onto a skillet. Yellow Tail continued to pray, and then asked Fitzgerald if he was alright. Fitzgerald leaned up onto his elbow to assure Yellow Tail that he was fine, feeling too embarrassed to admit that he was thrown onto the ground. At that moment, Fitzgerald realized that this was more than a symbolic death; there was an element of pure suffering accompanying this ceremony of death and renewal.
The dual meaning of this ritual is also expressed by Yellow Tail, who says, "When water is thrown onto the rocks, the heat does not merely cleanse us from the outside. It also goes all the way into our hearts. We know that we must suffer the ordeal of the heat in order to purify ourselves. In that way, we re-emerge from the sweat lodge at the end of the ceremony as new men who have been shown the light of the wisdom of our spiritual heritage for the first time. This allows us to participate in all of our daily tasks with the fresh remembrance of our position on earth, and our continuous obligation to walk on this earth in accordance with the sacred ways."
Sandra Frazier - Healed Through the Sun Dance
Sandra Frazier, from the Cheyenne River Reservation attributes her recovery from cancer to the power of traditional ceremonies: "In 1990, the doctors told me that I had female cancer. By the time it was diagnosed, the doctors thought that it had spread, and they scheduled me for surgery.
"I have a good friend, named Dorothy, living at Standing Rock Reservation. She asked me if she could sponsor, a sweat lodge ceremony for me, and I said that she could. So, she had a sweat lodge ceremony and prayed for me.
"Right after that, there was to be a sun dance on the Standing Rock reservation. Dorothy asked the sun dance leader if I could be taken to the tree. He said that I could, since my bleeding was not from a regular menstrual period. So, I went to the sun dance, and they took me up to the tree, where I prayed for my health. I prayed that I would be able to raise my children, and not be taken from them. I prayed that I would be able to be with my grandchildren.
"Afterwards, I went through the surgery, and there were no problems at all, absolutely none. I really believe it was because I had gone to the sweat lodge and that I had gone to the sun dance where the sun dancers prayed with me.
"A year later, I went back to the sun dance and did what we call a wopela, a thanksgiving. What I did was feed the people with traditional food.
"The next year, my youngest daughter was pregnant. She had a normal pregnancy, and delivered a baby girl. But the next day she had terrible, terrible pain in her chest, and was taken to a hospital, where she was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer. The placenta cells traveled and grew in her body cavity, her female parts, and her lungs, but fortunately, they hadn't grown in her brain. She immediately started on chemotherapy.
"As soon as the cancer was diagnosed, I contacted my family, and they immediately went into ceremony. All the time that she had cancer, there were ceremonies for her. At the same time, there were prayers all around the world for my daughter. I sincerely believe that my daughter was cured of that cancer because of prayer and medicine. I sincerely believe in these ways. I know they work."
Legal names are given, but Native Americans names are earned. Gabriel Horn gives a personal account of why and how his Indian name was chosen: "By the time I graduated from college, I had already done my battles for the people. I had protested against stereotypes of Native Americans s, I had fought for a Native Americans literature course on campus, and I had asked for participation in the United Nations. My immediate family believed that I had earned a name. The name came to my uncle, a traditional Cherokee man, who had a vision of a white deer coming to him and singing my name. He knew it was to be White Deer.
"My godmother, my uncle, and some close friends attended the ceremony. A pipe was filled with tobacco, and offered to each direction, as they called out my name. They called it out to the east, the south, the west, and the north. They called it out to the sky and to the earth. They called it out to the plants. They called it out to the animals. In other words, I was introduced to the universe as White Deer. That was my rebirth. In a sense, I was a born again Indian at that point." Receiving a new name was a healing experience. I was now completely comfortable with my Indian identity, whereas before I felt fragmented, not totally in touch with who I was."
Name changes can be physically as well as psychologically healing. Some time later, White Deer became ill, and a longer name was the solution: "I had gotten very sick, and was near death. A very old Ojibwa medicine man from Canada came down to Minnesota. I believe he was over 100 years old, and he didn't speak any English. During the ceremony of healing for me, a manifestation appeared in the room. At that point, the medicine man said that the entity wanted me to also be called Autumn. I was now White Deer of Autumn. The ceremony ended, and my sickness was healed.
"The name, of course, bestows certain powers and responsibilities. The power of the deer is its awareness, its keenness, and its protective nature. The white is purity, purity of heart, mind, and words. Autumn, I was told, is a time when change is most visible. It's a time when change is at its most powerful. And so, I was named for that season."
Indian names can be passed down, as western names often are. The distinction is that you are not stuck with one name all your life. This represents different beliefs about human potential, says White Deer of Autumn: "Crazy Horse passed on his name to his son, who took the name Worm as he got older. So, we can pass on names, too. The idea is that you're not stuck with the name you were given at birth. In western society, it's almost as if you can't change; you can't evolve; you can't grow. From a native perspective, your name reflects who you are. White Deer of Autumn reflects what I've done. But as I go on in life, I may want to let go of that and take another name. I have that right. So, naming is the ability to evolve and change in your identity. I think this is healing, both physically and emotionally."
Smudging is a common practice among Native Americans for the cleansing of energy through the burning of sage, tobacco, and sweet grass. John Joseph says these substances emit certain smells that are pleasing to the Great Spirit: "Sweet grass grows high in the Rocky Mountains, and is known as the grass that never dies. It is a gift from the Creator, and one of the great smells for reminding us of the mountains and the open air. Sage is the cleanest smell of the desert, and is also given to us by the Creator. Tobacco is yet another gift. Our thoughts and prayers are carried on its smoke. It is a visual representation of our thoughts and prayers being carried, more so because it carries the two great smells of the mountain and desert."
The smudging itself is performed by mixing the sweet grass, sage, and tobacco in a bowl, usually an abalone shell, burning the ingredients, and then blowing or fanning the smoke over a person. Often, an eagle feather fan is used, as Native Americans s believe that the prayers and thoughts contained in the smoke are carried to the Creator on the wings of eagles, which fly the highest and are in direct communication with the Creator.
Smudging plays a central role in traditional healing ceremonies because it is believed that once negative energies are cleared out, a sense of peace and relaxation take over, putting spiritual difficulties to rest. Joseph explains why this aspect of healing is so important: "Western medicine primarily looks at physical causes, and often does not consider the spiritual well being of the individual. You have to understand that there's a big difference between healing and curing. Curing is a quick fix and will only be long-term if the spiritual site is fixed." Smudging is often combined with other modalities that get to the root of illness, such as talking to a Holy Person, taking long walks, fasting, praying, and engaging in purification ceremonies.
The winter dance is a ceremony for the renewal of the earth that is performed by the Salish people on the Colville Reservation, north of Spokane, Washington. John Grim, a religious historian, an adopted member of a Crow Indian family, and the author of The Holy Person Patterns of Religious Healing Among the Ojibway Indians, attends the winter dance each year, and explained the ritual to me. Grim states that the dance for renewal is not an abstract notion. Rather, it is performed to invoke heavy rains so that root crops will grow to provide sustenance for humans, and to keep animals alive for man to hunt.
The winter dance is performed for four days, from eight in the evening until nine the next morning. The first day of the winter dance is usually for family. Then intimate friends of the family are invited. It grows from there, and by the fourth day, there may be as many people as s 100 or 150 people in attendance. The location of the ceremony is chosen by a Holy Person. It is held in a single room; the windows are covered, and there is a pole made of pine in the middle of the room that extends from the floor to the ceiling. This pole is referred to as the old man, and is a symbol for our relationship with the Spirits that created and gave meaning to this world.
During the winter dance itself, Spirits call out in the form of songs. Those who can hear the songs will sing them. This exchange between the Spirits and human beings is called Samish in the Salish language, a word which implies that a special sound is being imparted to a person by the creative presence of the world. No one touches the pine pole except for the singers, who begin to sing very slowly, one at a time. There is no set order regarding who will sing when. The singers are believed to be in trance, although this word doesn't fully capture the experience of what actually takes place. A translator is usually present to give the English interpretation, or if the words are already in English, to project the message loud and clear for everyone in the room to hear. These are personal statements about ethical and moral life, about community, about Spirit presence, and about the origin of the song. The singer begins to sing at a much faster pace, and people get up to dance.
The four day ceremony attracts wet heavy snow, then a frost and a cold spell, followed by more snow to get moisture down into the root crops. Grim notes how each time he attends the winter dance, it snows.
George Amiotte, an Ogalala Lakota from Pine Ride, explains that the Rites of Passage ceremony is performed for young people, about 14 or 15 years of age, who are traveling from adolescence into young adulthood. The Indian word for this ritual is hablacia which means crying for a vision. During the ceremony, a young person will leave behind the mundane problems of life, and contemplate on his place in the universe. Similar to a vision quest, the individual will sit for four days and four nights, without food or water, and contemplate the whys of his existence. A person will ask, "Who am I?" "What am I doing here?" "What is my purpose?" Basically, this ceremony helps a person get in touch with their spiritual being. In other words, they ask the spiritual part of themselves to come to life, so that they may fulfill their part in the Divine Plan.
The Salmon Spirit Ceremony is performed by the Skokomish people in order to thank the earth for its supply of food. When salmon start to appear, the people hold a ceremony where they sing songs and offer the first salmon caught that year back to the river. This ceremony is similar to saying a prayer before eating.
This is a little known healing ceremony performed by only a few medicine people in South Dakota. During the uweepe ceremony, the leader will travel into a spiritual dimension where the past, present, and future are available to him or her. When working with a sick individual, this allows the medicine person to make a diagnosis, and to see what needs to be done.
Loneliness is one of the worst feelings we can experience, and, unfortunately, a common theme of modern times. Native Americans use the Making of Relations Ceremony to overcome alienation, and to create a sense of community and continuity among people. Ben First Eagle, a Watatome and Choctaw Indian from the Black Hills of South Dakota explains how and why the ceremony is performed: "This is a ritual that we have for making a new relation. To Native Americans s, the worst thing that you can call a person is an orphan. It means that the person is disconnected, that they have no relations, that they have no blood line. These things happened in the past. The mother and father would be killed or disease would take them. And they happen today.
"In this ceremony, another family or group takes in a young person who has been left alone. Or it can be a middle-aged person or someone older. Age doesn't matter. Anyone who loses their relatives can partake in this ritual. Another family will say, This one is pitiful. We need to help. So, let's make this one our aunt, our brother, our sister, nephew, niece, grandson, or granddaughter.' The Making of Relations Ceremony insures that no one is an orphan, no one is alone.
"In this ritual, we use the pipe, we use blankets, and, these days, we use a chair. They used to just sit people on sage and cover them with the blanket. Songs are sung. An eagle feather is tied in the person's hair, complete with a medicine wheel, that could be made of rawhide and painted, or made of porcupine quills. That's done to symbolize their connection to the four directions, and to the hoop of life. Hair represents the person's life because it grows. It contains a person's wisdom, and it contains their connection to the past."
Ben First Eagle says the Making of Relations Ceremony insures that no one is left to feel alone in the universe, and that this is vital as we are social beings who depend upon each other. "A person is taken in as a relative. That relative system is as strong as blood. It must be, because the welfare of the group can sometimes hinge upon one individual. And if that person is feeling disconnected, he or she may fail you."
Due to the rising numbers of death due to alcoholism among Native Americans, the Making of Relations ritual is being conducted more and more today.
This is a ceremony for giving away possessions of a loved one who has recently died. When a husband, wife, or other close family member passes on, the living relative gathers together the departed's belongings, and decides who can use what. This process takes approximately a year, and is done with the help of others. At the end of this time, friends and relatives gather together for the actual giving away of belongings. If a woman survives her husband, she may give away her husband's fishing pole or gun to a nephew or brother-in-law who always admired that possession, and who can use it. She will also give away items to the people who helped her gather these belongings together.
Eagle Man explains that giving is a natural part of an Indian's nature: "In the old, old days, Indians would always give things away. When we were out in the plains, hunting buffalo, we had everything we needed, and we considered ourselves wealthy. Of course, wealth is just a matter of how you see it. We thought you were quite wealthy if you were well fed and free, with a good horse underneath you. If you were able to provide for your offspring and mates, you were wealthy.
"In modern times, many Indians live in houses and accumulate certain things. They feel that they can give these things away when a person dies. When you learn to live with less, you don't have to worry about it. You learn to be unburdened with all the excess trinkets that are totally irrelevant to living in this world."
Eagle Man adds that the (sounds like Aduha) ceremony has important psychological benefits for the person in mourning, as gathering items occupies the person's mind, and gives the individual something to do. Then, on the day of the actual giving away, the person who died is brought to life in the sense that people get together and reminisce about the past. Usually, a hall is rented where close friends and family of the departed gather together. A picture of the couple in their earlier days may be there and people will comment on that. Then, when items are given away to loved ones, each person will recall a memory about it. Say a widow gives her husband's friend a fishing pole, he may remember a time he spent time with her husband's fishing in a stream. The woman hears good things about her husband and this is healing.
According to Eagle Man, the Sioux nation take Earth Day very seriously and performs a powerful ceremony in its honor. The ceremony is held outdoors, where the four directions are invoked, as well as the powers of the earth and sky, to let these energies know that the people are giving Mother Earth their full support and respect.
Acknowledging the directions is a common part of Native ceremonies, but here they are connected to environmental talk. Eagle Man explains: "We talk about life giving rains coming out of the west. We talk about clean waters. And we ask, How can we help make the water clean?' We talk about less wasting of water. Also, we talk about fighting for the non-pollution of water. Then we turned to the north and appreciate cleanliness and purity. We know that we have an uphill battle, as most environmentalists have. But we beseech upon the north power to fortify us and give us great strength to endure in our venture into environmentalism. We beseech the east power and talk about knowledge, about educating children. We see that more today. Kids are less apt to throw trash out of their cars windows. I just had three occupants in my car. One dumped his water out from his paper cut, but he wouldn't think of throwing that paper cup out there on the grass. Had he thrown out the paper cup, I would have stopped the car, turned around, admonished him, and made him pick up the paper cup. It doesn't sound like much, but it all adds up. So, we talk about knowledge. We go to the south power, and we beseech for bounty to be taken away from these people that are wasting. All business executives care about is making more and more money. They don't care about taking their bounty and applying it to Mother Earth's needs. We beseech for the bounty to be distributed to people who will make use of it for the Earth Mother, and for projects that will generate a myriad of environmental items that can cause less pollution."
Ultimately, addressing the directions leads to communion with the Creator. But Indians do not focus directly on the all-seeing Great Mystery. Rather, they speak to His Creation as manifested in nature, represented by each direction.
This sacred and secret ceremony is central to the (sounds Anishanobway) people of Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Michigan. Non-Native people have never participated in this ritual. It is a ceremony they preserve for themselves and it is integral to their identity as a people. In earlier times, the ceremony was practiced by other groups, such as the Ojibway and Chippewa, but due to oppression and persecution it became extinct in these cultures.
The purpose of the four or five day ceremony is to build institutional support and to bring different Holy Persons together to transmit the mythical understandings and symbol systems of the Anishanobway people. As outsiders to the religion, this is all we can know, and perhaps all we need to know.