According to Lakota [Sioux] lore, a long time ago, during a time of famine, a woman appeared, wearing white buffalo skin, and carrying a sacred pipe. She explained that the wooden stem was for the trees, and everything growing on earth, the red bowl symbolized the flesh and blood of all people, and the smoke was the breath of their prayers going to Wakan Tanka, the Creator. The woman showed the people the pipe ceremony, where offerings were made to the four directions, while drums were played, and sacred songs were sung. The people learned of the connection between the sky and the earth and the unity of all life. They learned that offering thanks to Wakan Tanka with the pipe would yield many blessings here on earth. Before leaving, the woman said that she would return when the time was ripe. Then she turned into a buffalo, changing colors several times. Finally, she changed into a white buffalo calf, and disappeared into the distance. The people followed her teachings and were hungry no more.
In the summer of 1994, her promise of return was fulfilled with the birth of a white buffalo in Jamesville, Wisconsin. White buffalos are rare, but this one is unique because, as prophesied, the white buffalo has changed its colors since birth, going from white to black to red to yellow and back to white. Since each color represents one of the four directions--north being white, black representing west, red symbolizing south, and yellow depicting east--this buffalo has great symbolic significance to Native Americans tribes, who respond to it as a Christian would respond to the second coming of Christ. It signifies a time of profound change upon the planet and a new level of responsibility for mankind. One Native visionary interpreted the birth of the white buffalo calf to mean that the four energies--the black, white, yellow, and red--will realize that there is only one race, the human race, and join together in peace.
Not many people outside of Native Americans culture understand the significance of the white buffalo. In fact, very few people know much about Native Americans. their customs and traditions. Historically, theirs has been an oral heritage, causing white historians to mistakenly imply that Native Americans have nothing to say. Today, most people still have stereotypical images of Indians, the result of movies, television programs and history texts. A further lack of understanding stems from a different view of the world. Native Americans believe nature is divine; they are only a part of nature, and not here to dominate it. Their ceremonies are for the regeneration of Mother Earth, a direct contrast to western beliefs and policies. What knowledge Native Americans have to offer is therefore disregarded or silenced through government segregation and control. In fact, Native Americans ceremonies were prohibited by law before the passage of the Indian Freedom Act in 1978. In addition, many Americanized Indians have long forgotten the traditions of their past, and the few who still remember tend to be secretive about their customs, which they have been forced to hide so long from the dominant culture.
Never before has the world been in such dire need of these understandings. As the twenty-first century approaches, our natural resources dwindle, and diseases brought on by technology rise. Many are beginning to realize that another way of life is essential for survival and well-being on a personal and global level. As one Lakota medicine man, George Amiotte, notes, "The general population are starting to wake up to that fact that we, as human beings, have a responsibility, not only to our own societies, but also to the earth."
We look to the continent's first inhabitants, as they have been able to live harmoniously with nature for thousands of years. As an alternative to self-destruction, we offer an insight into Native Americans
sacred practices, and the visions they offer.
Speak Out on Sacred Healing and Transformational Rituals
Native Americans Ceremonies
The ghost dance is a ceremony for the regeneration of the earth, and, subsequently, the restoration of the earth's caretakers to their former life of bliss. Not surprisingly, the religion experienced its height of popularity during the late 19th century, when devastation to the buffalo, the land, and its Native Americans guardians was at its peak. Between 1888 and 1990, various tribes sent emissaries to a man named Wovoka, who claimed to be a visionary, and who was hailed as a Messiah by many desperate Indian nations. Wovoka maintained that Spirits had shown him certain movements and songs after he had died for a short period of time. In a manner reminiscent of Christ, Wovoka preached non-violence, and most tribes abandoned their war-like ways in preparation for future happiness.
The dance quickly spread to various American Indian nations, and as it spread, it took on additional meanings. While performing the ghost dance, it was believed that you could visit relatives who had left their bodies. As so many Native Americans had lost friends and relatives, this aspect of the ceremony was particularly healing. The Lakota, Cheyenne and Arapaho expanded its meaning further after being told in dreams that wearing certain designs on clothing would protect them in battle. These beliefs served to ward off fears of imminent danger from suspicious and sometimes hostile white onlookers, but proved futile in the end.
The ghost dance unified Indian people, even tribes with a tradition of conflict. The solidarity of these groups frightened government officials, whose worst fears were realized years earlier when the Arapahoes, Cheyennes and Sioux came together to defeat Custer. As mentioned earlier, most ghost dancers did not embrace warlike behavior. Yet, the government reacted to this outburst of Indian behavior by gunning down ghost dancers at Wounded Knee during a peaceful ceremony. Even women and children were shot in the back as they were trying to escape. Many say this was in retaliation for the massacre at Little Big Horn, since the seventh cavalry was again involved.
Perhaps the government was also frightened of the dance's spiritual power. According to a historian of that time, James Mooney, during one investigation of the ghost dance, U.S. troops reported seeing approximately 125 people at the beginning of the dance, and twice that number at the end, with no one new coming into the circle.
The ghost dance is indeed magical, according to Gabriel Horn, author of Native Heart: An American Indian Odyssey. Horn, also known as White Deer of Autumn, says the spirits of ghost dancers are ever present: "The Minneapolis Institute of Art put on the first and only exhibit of ghost dance shirts and dresses worn by men, women, and children. The room was black and the clothes were suspended in two circles. You could even see the bullet holes and the blood stains on the shirts from the slaughter of ghost dancers at Wounded Knee under the orders of the government.
"Several Native Americans went to the exhibit, elders as well as young people. The museum would keep it open at night, just for us. We would sit in a circle, surrounded by these ghost dance shirts and dresses, and pass a sacred pipe. We were listening to hear what we could hear, and watching to see what we could see. We wanted to get in touch with those people, those spirits, those ghosts of the past, to reconnect, and to show them that we still carry this love for the earth.
"I will never forget the night that an elderly Ojibwa, Old Man Bill, said to me, There were only 14 of us when we went in to sit among the ghost dance shirts and dresses. Look at all the people now.' I looked up and saw what he meant. An hour later, we were sitting down at a table, looking at each other. Who were all those other people? It became very crowded.
"Another time a student of mine came to the exhibit. She was crying by a ghost dance shirt. I looked in the shirt to tell her its story because each one told a story. The shirt wearer's last name was there, and it turned out to be the shirt of her grandfather. There was no way she could have known that when she went in."
The ghost dance is practiced today, but privately. "It is performed for the same reasons," White Deer of Autumn says, "because we are losing a lot of our relatives to cancer and alcohol, and the earth is in dire need of healing."
The pipe ceremony is a sacred ritual for connecting physical and spiritual worlds. "The pipe is a link between the earth and the sky," explains White Deer of Autumn. "Nothing is more sacred. The pipe is our prayers in physical form. Smoke becomes our words; it goes out, touches everything, and becomes a part of all there is. The fire in the pipe is the same fire in the sun, which is the source of life." The reason why tobacco is used to connect the worlds is that the plant's roots go deep into the earth, and its smoke rises high into the heavens.
There are different kinds of pipes and different uses for them. There are personal pipes and family pipes as well as pipes for large ceremonies. The particular stone used depends upon the tribe's location, and various symbols are added to attract certain spiritual energies. Also, the type of tobacco used depends on tribal custom. But despite these differences, there are certain important similarities: The ceremony invokes a relationship with the energies of the universe, and ultimately the Creator, and the bond made between earthly and spiritual realms is not to be broken.
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Ed McGaa (Eagle Man), an Ogalala Sioux, and author of Mother Earth Spirituality: Native Americans Paths to Healing Ourselves and Our World, says that most pipe ceremonies have the same intention: to call upon and thank the six energies: "All of our Sioux ceremonies beseech to the four directions, the earth and sky, and ultimately the Great Spirit. We see our Creator through nature, and we try to emulate what the Creator has made. This has worked out well, as you can see from the track record of Native Americans people. The old time Indians were honest, ethical people, and they had an unblemished environmental record. When the Pilgrims first landed, they kept them alive, and they took in black slaves. They were extremely humanistic. That's one of the main reasons that I believe in the natural way."
Eagle Man begins a ceremony by beseeching the West power, while thinking about the life giving rains and the ever present spirit world. Next, he beseeches the north power, the source of endurance, strength, truthfulness, and honesty, which are qualities needed to walk down a good path in life. Then, he will look to the east power. The east is where the sun rises, and the sun brings us knowledge, the essence of spirituality. Without knowledge, we become ignorant and cause harm to ourselves and others. The fourth energy is the south power, which brings us bounty, medicine, and growth. Next to be acknowledged is the earth spirit. Eagle Man touches the pipe to the ground, and says, "Mother Earth, I seek to protect you." Since Mother Earth depends on the sun's life giving energy, the pipe is then held up towards the sky. Lastly, the pipe is held straight up to the Great Spirit, the Great Mystery, the unexplainable source of all life. These words are then spoken: "Oh Great Spirit, I thank you for the six powers of the universe." Unlike many westerners, Eagle Man explains that the person reaching out to the spirit world has no fear: "Most of us are not afraid of the Great Spirit. We don't fear something that has given us our life."
It is unimaginable for an Indian to break his word after smoking the pipe. In the past, the signing of treaties was always accompanied by pipe ceremonies because Indians believed that smoking the pipe would secure the arrangement. No one would be foolish enough to lie or go back on their word once the pipe was smoked because the pipe was the vehicle for carrying their word up to the Creator. And in return, a blessing would descend from the Creator to the individuals smoking it.
Of course, we all know that the United States government did not share in these understandings, and sent representatives to the Indians to use the pipe as a means of deception. As White Deer of Autumn explains: "You've heard of the peace pipe. There is no such thing, in a sense, because that came about when the government sent emissaries to the Native Americans s. At that time, we were still the lords of the land; we still held the power. The U.S. government had to deal with that. They understood that the pipe would allow peaceful transactions because no Indian would ever lie once spoken on the pipe."
By dishonoring the meaning of this sacred practice, treaties were broken and land was taken but the benefits were short-lived, as White Deer of Autumn explains, "When the Europeans started to use tobacco, they saw it as a market, and thus corrupted its function. Now it is being misused, and you see what happens when a gift that has been given is misused."
Yet, to those who understand its true significance, the pipe ceremony holds great power, White Deer of Autumn continues, "When a stem and bowl are disconnected, you have two sacred objects. When a stem and bowl are connected, you have a living being. And the pipe is addressed as a living, breathing being. A Catholic priest traveling down the Mississippi observed men laying down their arms in conflict before the pipe. They would not fight in its presence. He said that by carrying the pipe you could pass from one end of this land to the other, without being harmed. A great holy man, named Lame Deer, said that as long as one Indian holds the pipe and prays to the Great Mystery, we will live. That's how powerful it is."
The purification ceremony is commonly referred to as the sweat lodge, but this is a misnomer, says William J. Walk Sacred, a Cree medicine man: "When you come out of a purification lodge, you don't feel the same as when you come out of a sauna. The ceremony is a rebirthing process. There's something that happens in a spiritual sense that is powerful and uplifting."
The Indian word for the purification ceremony is oenikika, which means the breath of life. It is a process of renewal through the integration of the spiritual and physical. Walk Sacred explains, "Just think of this as a marriage ceremony that takes place within yourself. The ceremonial leader is the medicine man. He is a representative of the spirits, who works within the invisible realm, in order for you to become aware of the healing process within yourself."
The lodge itself is made of branches, usually willow saplings, but varying according to what's available in the region. Blankets or tarps are used as coverings to hold in heat. The circular shape of the lodge is often described as being like a womb or a protective bubble.
The nature of the ceremony differs from tribe to tribe; Walk Sacred explains the many facets of preparing for a Cree ceremony: "When you want to begin, you find a medicine man, and you offer a pouch of tobacco. Tobacco represents a person's Spirit. Offering tobacco is how you ask the medicine man to work on your behalf in the spiritual world. It's not like a payment of money; this is his obligation. Once you have taken upon yourself the role of medicine man, it is incumbent upon you to do this healing work when someone comes to you with this offering. So, you bring tobacco to the medicine man. You also come to him with your specific desire. You tell him if it's a broken leg you want worked on, or if it's an alcohol or drug problem, or something in the non-physical world. You bring your request to the medicine man.
"At this point, he will give you your responsibilities; he will tell you how to set up the ceremony and what you need to do. You might have to prepare food. Once you ask for a ceremony, anyone who knows about it can come and request a specific healing within the ceremonial function. You never know how many people are going to be there, so you have to prepare food for 30 or 40 people, depending upon the size of the medicine man's lodge. You might be asked to prepare a specific type of food, like buffalo soup. The people who work in the spiritual world tell the medicine man what they need. This is an offering, and it represents the humbling of our spirit.
"Then the medicine man will give you specific amounts and colors of what we call tobacco ties. These are little pieces of cloth representing the six directions, white being north, yellow being south, red being east, black being west, above being blue, and the earth mother being green. He may tell you that you need 75 yellow ties and 50 blue ones. The colors represent who he is working with in the nonphysical world, and the number of ties represent a specific amount of prayers that are requested by the spirits in order for them to come in and work with you. You prepare a pouch with tobacco, and you direct your prayers into each one before closing them with a tie. Your prayers carry the gift of your heart to the spirits so they know what you're looking for and they can see the sincerity of the heart. That's where they look because they know the truth is there."
The beginning of the ceremony is a time of prayer and contemplation. Walk Sacred explains, "The medicine man begins by setting up an alter. Usually, the alter has some type of antler to hold his pipe. Then he sends up sacred herbs in the four directions. There are four sacred herbs in the Native culture. One is sage, which purifies a room of negative energies. Another is sweet grass.
A medicine man told me, This is what brings in the heavy guys.' Sweet grass brings in big, powerful beings from the other side to heal you. The third is cedar. Cedar is for purification. It sets up an atmosphere for the spirits to work. It's a sweetness they like and it's attractive to the energies of the invisible world. The fourth is tobacco, which has always been sacred to Native culture. It is used in ceremonies of smoking the pipe. It is used to bless the earth. Whenever we harvest herbs or cut barks off of trees, we always offer tobacco to the four directions and to the sky father and earth mother. And we plant tobacco as an honoring of that plant, tree, or substance that is giving its life, or part of its life, to help our life."
Specific types of rocks, called grandfather rocks, are gathered and placed in a pile. Primarily lava stones from volcanos are used, because ordinary river rocks could explode. A fire is built, and the stones are heated. When the stones are white hot, they are brought into the lodge.
"We honor our relations as we enter the womb' and again as we leave," Walk Sacred continues. "We crawl around until we form a circle around the center. The center of the center is where a little pit is dug for the grandfather rocks. These are brought in, one at a time, and the first four are placed in the north, south, east, and west directions. They they're sprinkled with a little sage and sweet grass and whatever the medicine man might be using. The medicine man offers prayers to each of the four directions, to honor his ancestors, and to honor those in the nonphysical as well as the physical worlds. This is a sacred time. It is a time of prayer, introspection, and healing.
"When the water hits the rock, it goes up in steam, fills the air, and unifies everyone within the womb.' Everything is united, as we say, all of my relations. At that moment we are connecting ourselves to the basic elements of life, and that brings out the greatest good in people. We are connecting to the movement that is all around us, that we are part of, and never separate from.
"As we sit in the circle, we each go around, one at a time, and we offer prayers of thanksgiving and praise for the Almighty, the great spirits, the great mystery, the sky father, and the earth mother. The medicine man sits by the entrance, and is the first to offer his prayers. Each person then takes a turn. Eventually you come to the end and the medicine man blends all the prayers. It's kind of like weaving a tapestry. It's a mystical, magical process, an altered state that goes beyond the physical form. It takes you into the reality of the nonphysical world, where the real healing takes place."
After the purification ceremony is the wopela, which, broadly interpreted, means giving thanks: "Now, we bring in the soup and foods and the gifts for the medicine man," continues Walk Sacred. "It might be a blanket, whatever your spirit leads you to bring the medicine man or to offer directly to the mystery. People sit around the medicine man in a circle. Once everyone is in, the windows are closed up. The medicine man's blanket is laid out on the floor, in the center of the lodge. On top of that is a mat of freshly cut, beautiful sage. The medicine man covers himself with a blanket, and goes into a prayerful state. He takes the prayer ties and sets them up in the north end of the center in a specific fashion. They are laid down on a special type of earth, on top of the sage, which carries the great aroma energy up to the Great Spirit. The prayers are carried up in a good way, so that the Great Spirit will receive them and hear the pitiful cries of his children. After the prayers, the candles are blown out, and it is pitch dark.
"There are specific songs that are sung for bringing in spirits, for talking to spirits, for constantly giving praise and gratitude, for constantly giving acknowledgment to the great mystery for all the gifts of life. This includes the pain and suffering as well as the good times, recognizing that all things flow from the one source, and all things return back to that one source. It's an acknowledgment. Very holy and sacred songs might be sung for an hour. It depends. It's all under the direction of the medicine man, although he might not speak a word. A lot of it is done telepathically, through the communication of energy waves.
"We go around to each individual, just like we did in the purification ceremony, and we give prayers and thanks and ask for specific healing. Now is the time to verbalize our requests. After everyone has given their prayers, the medicine man calls the spirits in. The medicine man is in the center. This isn't just the center of the lodge; it is the center of the universe. It represents the center of life. And that center exists within each of us. Honoring that center brings the nonphysical world into the physical one. So, the medicine man represents the spirit of the God source, and by so doing, he creates an energy that allows the nonphysical world to interact with the physical world.
"Amazing things happen. I went for healing because I was struck by lightning. While I was standing there, all of a sudden, this rattle came out of the air and started pounding me on the chest, hitting me all over the chest and head. Then eagle feathers were all over my face. There was stomping on the floor that sounded as if it came from beings 20 feet high. And you could see lights and colors."
While these experiences are phenomenal in that they shift our perception of reality, Walk Sacred reminds us that the essence of healing is in the work of each participant: "The medicine man helps us remove the veils that prevent us from seeing life as it really is: unified and sacred. His approach is to help individuals resolve problems by the work they do themselves. They prepare food, make prayer ties, sing, chant, and drum. These remove blocks within the physical structure so that the person is receptive to impulses from the non-physical world."
Working with spiritual energies is a sacred and powerful process when performed for the right reasons by an experienced person. Unfortunately, the purification lodge has become trendy in recent years, and the right atmosphere is not always present. Native Americans, therefore, warn people to take certain precautions before entering into a purification ceremony: First, if a person is charging money, people need to think about the type of energy this will attract and the effects it will have on the people in the lodge. This is a Gift from the spiritual world that cannot be compensated for by material gifts. Someone who charges for the purification ceremony is not working in the traditional way of the pipe. Second, one must look into the character of the person leading the rite. White Deer of Autumn suggests, "Look into a medicine man's background the way you would approach finding any new doctor. Find out the person's track record. Who are they? What are their experiences? And understand your responsibilities of going into the ceremonial process. Then the blessings received will be beyond your wildest imagination."
Today an increasing number of Indians are victims of cancer and other diseases of the modern world. Native Americans tend not to rely solely on western medicine for help. However, White Deer of Autumn notes that since traditional medicine is best at curing diseases brought on by nature, and since new sicknesses are brought on by technology, some technological medicine may be required. Here White Deer of Autumn talks about his wife's quest for healing through a combination of old and new medicine:
White Deer of Autumn on Spiritual Healing through Purification
"When my wife found out that she had breast cancer, and a doctor, without any sensitivity, told her that she needed to have her breasts cut off, she immediately rejected this approach. She knew it was unnatural for her body to deal with radiation. Instead, my wife went through a process of cleansing through sweat lodges and meditation. She returned her body to a more natural form that brought her closer to the earth, and that healed her spirit, which had been hurt as a child through molestation, boarding school, and racism.
"My wife took chemotherapy at the end, and it did prolong her life for a few months. But she reacted horribly to the chemotherapy. Of course she would. She's a native woman, a natural woman. Putting something so unnatural into her body is going to cause her to react in that way.
"While taking chemotherapy, my wife continued to attend our ceremonies where she would sit in the center surrounded by loved ones. We would offer the pipe, and use rattles and drums and sing for her, trying to create peace and healing.
"She died just after Mother's Day. I will never forget how she invited the children onto her bed and asked for the pipe. The last act on this earth that she wanted to do was to smoke the pipe with her children. Even though the cancer destroyed her physical body, the healing of her Spirit allowed my wife to make a remarkable, wondrous transition into the next world."
Those of us on a spiritual path believe that we are put on this earth for a special reason, but that reason is not always clear to us. We want to know what we need to accomplish in life for our highest benefit, and, in turn, the benefit of the world. The vision quest can reveal our life's purpose, but it is an arduous journey into the core of our being that we should only embark upon with sincerity. William Walk Sacred cautions, "It's very important for people to realize that this is not fun and games. Going into the spiritual world is very serious. If the intent isn't clear, the spirits will not give the vision. The most important thing is being clear in your heart as to what you are seeking for yourself and the people of the world."
How to embark on a vision quest varies greatly from tribe to tribe. Walk Sacred's experience, as a Cree Indian, involved a long period of preparation, which he says is designed, in part, to weed out all but the most committed. Walk Sacred describes this procedure in great detail:
"The first thing a person must do is to pray. Sometimes we do this for months or a year. I prayed for a year and a half before my vision quest to make peace with the beings who had touched me with lightning. One of the most powerful prayers we say is, The most important thing is my relationship and my dependence upon the Creator and the spirits. Everything they show me is for my spiritual growth and the peoples' welfare. I know that with the help of the spirits I can do and I will do. Oh, Grandfather, I am so weak and pitiful. Help me for the sake of your people.'
"There are certain items a person needs in order to present themselves to the medicine man properly. The most important is the pipe. If you think of a pipe stem, it is hollow. It's a representation of us being hollow, to allow that breath of God, that vibration, that force, to move through us without any restrictions. Our prayers through the pipe are carried on the wings of the spirit directly to the source, the Great Mystery, to be heard properly. This isn't a pipe you can buy in a pipe store. It is something that you are given or that you make yourself. It is holy and sacred.
"Once you have your pipe, you find a medicine man, the person who is to be connected to you spiritually. This person is responsible for you. Though not in your presence physically, the medicine man will be with you when you are up on the hill. You take your pipe to the medicine man, and you offer it to the four directions. You point it to the north, south, east, and west. Then you direct it to the sky father above and the earth mother below. If the medicine man is willing to accept it, he will extend his hands. Normally, the pipe is presented four times. You present it once, touch his hands, and then bring it back prayerfully. If he accepts it the fourth time, he is accepting the responsibility for your going in to talk to these spiritual beings.
"After he accepts the pipe, he will give you specific directions on what needs to be done. Normally a person needs prayer flags, and a piece of flannel cloth for making the altar. Then you have to cut choke cherry. If choke cherry is unavailable, any fruit tree will do. But normally we use choke cherries because they represent the bittersweet nature of life. They are the blood of life, the blood that ties us together and unifies the world family. The cherry itself actually represents the pituitary gland, which allows us to go from the physical into the spiritual world, and back to the physical world, so that we can walk in a good way, so that we can help bring peace into our heart, and help everyone on this planet.
"You also have to prepare tobacco ties on a continuous string using specific colors in a special order. Exact instructions are given to you by the medicine man after the spirits tell him exactly what they want. A lot of people want things, but they don't want to do what they need to do in order to get them. So, it's a very strong commitment. I was asked to make 405 ties, and it took me eight hours to do this.
"You also need an eagle feather, a peace of a conch shell that is cut in a specific fashion, and a blanket. In Native culture, the eagle is the one who carries our prayers and soars to the highest heaven, who can see great distances, and who can communicate between the physical and spiritual worlds. The conch shell represents the ocean, which is the salt of life, our beginnings. The blanket is for your protection. When you go to the hill, all you have is your nakedness and the blanket to protect you. You are presenting yourself before the Great Spirit and saying, Here I am. I am pitiful. I am naked.' It's just like when you were born. You are saying, Everything I have is yours. I am nothing without you. Without you I have no breath; I don't even exist. Without you, I am nothing but the mere dust of the earth. Now I am coming back to you in a good way, in a humble way. I am not perfect. I am not the best. But I am coming in the best way that I know how. And I am asking for these blessings today.'
"Once you gather all these things that you will need, you go back to the medicine man. Before sunset, they put seven stones in a fire. You gather seven large stones and on each one you make a circle with a special type of clay paint. The circle represents the hoop of life; it has no beginning or end. The circle is the beginning of cellular consciousness. It represents the light that enters into that cell. There are many meanings to the circle. Those stones are placed in the fire, and the fire burns the whole time you're on the hill. It represents all the elements: the earth, fire, water and air.
"When the stones are heated, you go into the purification lodge. This is the beginning of the quest. Once inside, you smoke with the medicine man, and everything is good. You go out and come back with your pipe again, but now it is empty, except for a little sage. You always keep a little sage in your pipe so that nothing gets into it, physically or spiritually. The medicine man has the lodge ready, and he has helpers that are going to sit in the lodge with you. Everyone is tied together, moving in one direction. The person going on the quest always sits on the west end of the lodge, opposite the medicine man. The west represents the spirits, the thunder beings who control the wind, the rain, the lightning, the thunder. These are being of great power, and especially important in my case because of being hit by lightning. Prayers are said in the lodge. You are there in complete darkness, with the fire, the water, the rocks and the air. All the elements are there so that all the spirits can enter.
"When you come out of the lodge, you do not speak or look at people. The medicine man takes you to the position of power that he is seeking for you so that you can have the quest you are looking for. Medicine men have many different sacred spots. He is directly connected to the Great Spirit and he knows what people can handle. Some people can handle 12 volts, others can handle 24. He puts you in a specific area that is strong enough for you as you face the spirits and go naked before God.
"Then you get to the hill. He takes out the prayer flags that you prepared ahead of time, and puts one in each direction. Then he takes the tobacco ties and puts you in the center of these four flags. He starts unwinding these along the ground. It's a protected area. We know that once we are in the center, nothing can come into the center in a bad way. Only good things can come in there. You might see all kinds of horrific things dancing around you, but nothing can come into the center except the good things from the Great Spirit.
"Once you are in the center, he finishes the ties, sets up your alter with the choke cherry branch and the red flannel, the conch shell and the eagle feather. The medicine man tells you to remain in the center for one, two, or three days, and sometimes longer, whatever is necessary. In my case, I was told to pray hard for my life on the first night, and to pray for my direction on the second. So, I was up there two days and two nights. This is all done as the sun is starting to set. You are holding your pipe the whole time with all your might because this represents the Great Mystery. You never let it down, never let it come apart. You pray and pray and pray. You pray until it hurts.
"During this period of time, you have no food or water. You have nothing but your nakedness, your blanket, your pipe, and your prayers. You're down to the nitty gritty of who you are.
"At this time, you will get direction in your life. The spirits will come and talk to you. In my case, they taught me dances, and they taught me ways of communicating with the thunder beings for helping with lightning, for helping with rain, for helping with specific directions. They taught me ghost medicine and gave me specific knowledge because as a doctor, medicine man, sun dancer, pipe carrier, my direction is in healing.
"You cannot go off the path at that point because you are now owned by the spirits. They watch you continuously. There is no hiding. Someone once said to me that people live their lives as if God can't see around corners. God can see around corners. We don't get away with anything, especially once we've made a commitment in our hearts. That's why before going on a quest, it's important to pray for months, sometimes a year or longer, to make sure that you're clear in your heart about the direction you're seeking.
"I sat there and I prayed all night and all day. I stood there, and faced the eagle feather and the conch shell on the alter, and I prayed and prayed and prayed, and asked for direction. The spirits came as sparks of light, and they came as beings that I have known before. My father, who had died, came to me at one point. There is no way to know they are coming. But if you pray in a good way, they will come and give you direction. They will tell you what it is you are seeking, and what you need to do to become an active participant in your own life. It is up to you to be able to do that.
"Once the helpers and the medicine man leave the hill, they go back to where the sacred fire is burning, and they pray for you, continually. They are up on the hill with you, so to speak, experiencing everything that you are experiencing. The fire is kept burning the whole time you are up there. Even if your quest is for four days, the fire is keep going 24 hours a day. It represents the fire of life that carries your prayers up to heaven.
"After you have been up there for a specific amount of time, the medicine man and the helpers come for you. This is rough. When you are standing there for two, three, or four days, your joints are stiff, and you are feeling pain, hunger, and thirst. You have endured 100 degree weather during the day and freezing cold at night. The experience takes you beyond the physical. It isn't trying to see how much torture you can endure. It takes you to the point of realizing your potential, of seeing what you can do, what you can go through, and still come out in a good way, with your heart and mind clear, and your body still able to function. The power of the experience is difficult to communicate in words.
"As they gather up the tobacco ties, the prayer flags, and the alter, your head remains downcast and you continue to pray because you are still in ceremony. Then you come down the hill and go back to the sacred fire. You re-enter the lodge, where you pray and sing sacred songs. Again, you are sitting opposite the medicine man on the west side with your back to the center. You share the vision that has been revealed to you, and what you share is not allowed to leave the lodge. In my case, I was given gifts of vision for each person there.
"To conclude, you participate in the wopela, which is a way of saying thank you. This is an honoring time. It is a time of giving things away. You give a gift to the medicine man and to the helpers. You give gifts to the children. There's always play and laughter. Usually, the blanket you've worn is given away to someone who has been a great helper to you. This is a time of great celebration as the Great Spirit has allowed you to come back into this world. There's a big feast where a traditional buffalo soup is made. Unfortunately, the person who has been on the hill can't eat to much. The body is kind of stiff and you have to get used to it. It's like birthing again. You're learning how to reuse the body, and how to assimilate food into your system. It's good to take gentle things into the system, maybe some broth and fluid with a little lemon.
"For a period of time after that, you begin to integrate all this wonderful knowledge that has been given to you. This is a time to be prayerful, to allow all the information to come in, to integrate it, in order to help you on your path. This is also a time to readjust. You are getting used to a whole different vibratory rate, so to speak. You've been in this spiritual way, and all of a sudden you're coming back into the physical world. The medicine man will talk with you and say, As you come back into this world, you will see hate and jealousy in people's eyes, and all sorts of things. Remember your commitment. Remember what you have done in your heart. Your mind can trick you into saying anything. But your heart knows the truth. You cannot lie when you go into your heart of hearts. When you're in that center, you will know what is truth. You will look at these people and know that we are all pitiful creature. Just pray for them. When somebody comes at you with anger, hatred, prejudice, and all these things, look at it and say that everything is in control of the spirits. Just as when you were in that center, and nothing of a negative nature could hurt you, you can enter that center again. Know that you are walking in a good way. Whatever the Great Spirit brings you is coming in a good way."
Sometimes going on a vision quest is not as elaborate or detailed in terms of preparation. Still the experience can be a powerful one when the intention for a vision is strong. Eagle Man, an Ogalala Sioux, shares what his immersion into nature taught him, although he says the experience is too powerful to fully express in words:
"One time, I had a medicine person put me up on the hill. Another time, I had two very powerful medicine people as my mentors. They simply said, Go up on this place, and vision quest.' They never accompanied me, nor did they have a sweat lodge waiting for me. They just took me up on the hill and placed me. They told me to do it and I just did it.
"I went to the mountain, and I parked my car down below. I took my peace pipe, and I simply walked up to the top of the mountain. In those days, believe it or not, when you went to Bear View Mountain, there was nobody there. Now it's quite crowded because Native spirituality has become so popular. But when I used to go there, I would be the only one on the whole mountain. So, I'd walk way up there and I'd fast. I'd drink no water. I'd simply take four little flags--red, white, black, and yellow--and place them around me, in a square. I'd stay in the square. If I had to go to the bathroom, I'd go away, of course, and then come back. But that's it. I'd sit in my square, and watch the sun come up in the morning, and set at night. I'd see the moon come up, and I'd see all the phases of the earth. When you're fasting, your mind becomes more alert. You simply contemplate your life. And when you fall asleep, your dreams become more vivid.
"As each day goes by, the phases of life go through their cycles. At night, the stars come out. Pilades will actually dance for you if you're a vision quester. They light up, almost like a neon sign. I know people find that hard to believe, but that's just the mystery of the ceremony. An eagle will hover right over you knowing that you're in ceremony. Thunder and lightning come by, and you just endure it. It's no problem. Lightning can be flashing all around you, and you'll laugh. The Great Spirit is not going to take your life up there while you are vision questing. And if it does, who cares? You're in a good state. But you don't fear nature or God. The Great Spirit made you. Why should you fear it? You become more confident once you follow this natural road.
"So, this is a vision quest. It's performed by you and it's for yourself. You don't have to go through anybody. You can communicate to the Great Spirit through observation. Of course, it's nice to have a medicine person there to help you interpret the experience. When I came down from the mountain, the medicine man asked me,
What did you see?' I said that I didn't see too much.
This eagle just came and hovered over me, and lightning cracked close to me.'
Were you afraid?' he asked?
No, I wasn't afraid. In fact, I laughed. And I saw four horses before I went up the mountain. But they were real, live horses.'
What color were they?' he wanted to know. He was even interested in these pre-vision quest scenes, as well as my dreams."
Eagle Man suggests that most people attempting a vision quest go into the mountains for one or two days at most, as the majority aren't stronger to go up for long periods of time. Also people should take their medication, and drink water, if this is a necessity.
Oliver Pahdopony was the last medicine man of the Comanches. Between 1980 and 1985, a graduate anthropology student, by the name of Robert Vetter, was doing his field work in the southern plains, and had the good fortune of being taken into Pahdopony's family, where he developed a close relationship with his adopted grandfather. Vetter was interested in religion, spirituality, and healing, and learned much from a Native Americans
perspective, which he shared with me.
Ten years before their meeting, Pahdopony was very ill and hospitalized. The doctors exhausted all their tests and treatments, and finally told their patient that they could do nothing more for him but ease his pain. Pahdopony had terminal cancer.
Pahdopony discussed his situation with his wife and son, and they decided that since the doctors could do nothing, he would heal himself in the tradition of his elders. He would fast and go into the hills on a vision quest. Pahdopony went into the Wichita mountains on the night of a new moon, and brought along an eagle feather, a blanket, and some tobacco. This was the fall when it was just starting to get cold.
Pahdopony reached his spot, a rise facing Mount Scott, one of the taller peaks in the Wichita mountains, he sat down and waited. For a long time, nothing happened. Then, near morning, he could hear the rustling of leaves from out in the distance. Looking up, he saw something that appeared to be a flame. Whatever it was started getting closer and closer. Then he realized that this was a creature spitting fire out of his mouth, and it was getting closer to him. Pahdopony, who referred to this creature as a visitor, soon realized that it was coming after him. Pahdopony sat frozen, unable to move, and the visitor, directly in his path, shot a flame at him. Now Pahdopony couldn't move, talk, or breathe. His heart completely stopped and he was totally helpless.
Then the visitor spoke, and Pahdopony returned to normal. He could move, breathe, and talk again. The visitor said in Comanche, "Son, what are you doing here?" And Pahdopony replied that he was sick. "There's nothing the matter with you," the visitor replied. "You're going to be alright. But they sent me to take care of a man who's real bad off." With that, this visitor started to take off to the west. But just before disappearing, he turned around to Pahdopony and said, "Son, did you know that this whole world that we live in comes to a complete standstill for a short time, just before morning? That's the time when things like me can enter into this world."
With that, the visitor disappeared into the west, which is often considered to be the direction of death.
Some time later, his son came back for him. Running up to his father, he asked, "How did you make it through the cold night? Pahdopony replied, "What do you mean? Where I was, it was like springtime." Leaving the rise, everywhere had frost on the ground, everywhere but where Pahdopony had been.
Pahdopony returned home, his cancer now gone. He never had problems with that again. But he knew something else had happened as well, and he really didn't know what to do about it until sometime later. In a nearby town, an old Comanche lady walked up to him and asked, "Son, what happened to you?" Pahdopony asked the old lady what she meant and she told him that something changed about him. He explained the story of his vision quest, and she said, "Something like that doesn't happen to you without your receiving a gift. You've got a gift, and you don't yet know what it is, but some time soon, you're going to find out. Whatever healed you is going to give you the power to heal other people."
Pahdopony started to think about what had happened to him on the hill. Putting it all together, he began to remember the traditional medicine people of his childhood. And he had remembered some of the ways they had doctored people.
Word about what had happened to Pahdopony got out in the Indian communities of Oklahoma. And people from the different tribes started coming to him for help. Pahdopony began to realize what he was supposed to be doing and how he was supposed to do it.
Since fire had healed him, Pahdopony used this element to treat other people. He would build a fire, and let it burn until the coals in it were red hot. Then he would take a piece of the hot coal out of the fire with his fingers, and place it into his mouth. This would activate the power to heal others. Pahdopony saw sickness as fire, and would say that you have to fight fire with fire. But you have to understand what that fire is, or else it will burn you.
Different medicine men and women specialize in treating different illnesses. Pahdopony's specialty was Bell's palsy, a facial paralysis where one half of the face become paralyzed. He had the ability to take the person's face in his hands, and reshape it the way that it was supposed to be. Pahdopony would explain that it was like taking wet cement. You could move it around any way you wanted. But once it was dry, it would stay in one position.