MY TIME WITH THE SUN DANCE – A SACRED, NATIVE AMERICAN CEREMONY
Three weeks ago I had the distinct privilege of participating in a nearly week-long ritual of healing and sacrifice unlike any spiritual gathering I’ve experienced before. Known as the Sun Dance, a ceremony of Native American origin, the event took place from Wednesday till the following Sunday, wherein the participants offer a variety of personal sacrifices to the Spirit for the sake of drawing down healing energy…be it for personal, familial or global/multiversal need.
Actually, I was only there for the last two days of this ceremony, but the profundity of what I experienced in that time convinced me that I need to be present for the whole event in the future.
The reverent nature of this tradition distinguishes it from those customs that are otherwise open to the general public—to attend, one has to be invited. I was fortunate to receive such an invitation from a dear friend of mine who had been initiated into this ceremony the year before, so on an early Saturday morning I took off toward the Mt. Pleasant area, arriving around noon at the wide open field where the dance was being performed.
I was quickly welcomed by those who were there—roughly 25-30 people, consisting primarily of several families and a handful of individuals. Initially I knew only my friend, Mari, and the person who had originally invited her, but by the end of that first night I had become part of this large, extended family.
The simplest comment I can make about the experience is that it was the first time I can recall having been surrounded by spirits who are collectively conscious of the sacredness of all things. I’ve been blessed in my life to have many friends and family who seek toward the Divine and commune with the Spirit…yet the ritual, prolonged nature of the Sun Dance served to hone everyone’s consciousness into a singular, conscientious purpose, which is something that until now I’d never personally experienced first hand.
I was paired up with a man named Bill, who helped acclimate me by explaining certain details about the ceremony to me throughout my stay. Mari had informed me of the basics, but until I was there it was difficult to get a sense for how everything would unfold and what my involvement would be—I was aware of simply the basic purpose of the dance, the fact that it lasted as long as it did, that various personal sacrifices—such as fasting—were made and that at certain times individuals that were moved to do so would make personal flesh offerings—a very intense ordeal I will get back to in a moment.
To give you a quick picture of the setup, off to one corner of the field were numerous cars and tents, housing the bulk of the party, with a larger tent off to one side serving as a sort of kitchen for those still eating. Removed from these tents was a larger, circular enclave constructed as part of the ceremony, where the dance was performed. Known as the arbor, it was about 20 feet in diameter, constructed from small trees, forming a walled in area about 10-12 feet high. The dance would take place within at various intervals. Next to the arbor was a similar—though more weather resistant—structure, covered in tarps, where the dance would move to in the case of a storm.
Farther away from all of this was a small sweat lodge where groups of men or women would gather for the sweat, and it was there that I had my first opportunity to truly bond with the men in the camp.
Bill led me to a small, domed wigwam around which the other men had already gathered, stripping down in preparation for the sweat. Near the entrance was a ceremonial fire within which baked sacred stones that would soon serve to transfer the archetypal heat to the interior of the lodge.
I had a brief moment while I stripped down to my shorts to meet these other men, several of whom were the elder members of this group. Once we were all ready we filed in, one after another, until the lodge was packed with all seven of us. One man remained outside to serve as an aide, gathering the stones for us and transferring them into the shallow hole that was dug in the center of the lodge, which we were all now gathered around.
Part of the idea of the sweat is that all of your ancestors and all the other life-giving, elemental spirits go in with you, and once the sweat begins everyone takes a turn to pray and give thanks, communing with these spirits and the spirits of the others with whom you have there gathered. We did this, and as we prayed we followed by pouring water over the glowing-hot stones, releasing an intense, thick cloud of steam which coated our already sweat-slicked hides, drenching us in a wet-heat.
As you can guess, the sweat—and the rest of the ceremony, of course—is truly a consciousness altering experience. In essence, it’s representative of a personal rebirth—the lodge actually serving as a sort of womb in which you are gestating with your new brothers or sisters, re-emerging from the intense sweat with a renewed clarity and vitality.
One-by-one, individuals would grasp whatever insight they were there to receive and would exit the sweat—that, or they would stay until the physical discomfort was more than they could bear. Eventually I sensed that I had received the experience I was meant to and crawled out into the now-cool-by-contrast summer air, refreshed, with a clear mind, appreciating the blessing I’d just been given and the beauty of the scene and the characters I was surrounded by.
Soon afterwards the dance resumed, and everyone gathered back into the arbor, giving me my first glimpse of what lay within. Mari had explained it to me the year before, but I’d long since forgotten the arrangement inside.
There is one entrance facing the south, and as I walked in I was instructed by Bill to smudge, which goes something like this: there is a ritual fire right beyond the entrance that is kept lit for the entire five-day ceremony, and coals from this fire are occasionally collected in a cast-iron pot then covered with small, fresh-cut cedar branches; as the branches burn in the coals it releases a pleasant, aromatic smoke, and as one enters he or she is fanned by this smoke, which is meant to cleans you of any negative energies, keeping the enclosure pure.
After I smudged I was instructed to take a pinch of sacred tobacco from a dish resting in front of the fire, making an offering to the Spirit and then scattering the tobacco into the fire.
Once inside I gathered with the other men in the western hemisphere of the arbor, while the women gathered on the east. At the north end was a large drum around which some of the men were gathered, preparing to drum and sing. In the very center of the arbor, serving as the focal point for the ceremony, was the Tree of Life.
As many of you I’m sure are aware, The Tree of Life is central to many major, spiritual paradigms, so it was little surprise for me to discover that it was a key component of this ritual. The way it works for the Sun Dance is that each year, when the arbor for the dance is erected, a special tree is selected to represent The Tree of Life. What I found particularly interesting about this is that the tree is actually uprooted and replanted in such a way that it is not intended to survive the ceremony. From what I could gather it signifies the ultimate sacrifice along the cycle of birth, life, death and rebirth which this ceremony is all about, seeking healing and renewal through such potent sacrifice.
During the dance anyone with a particular prayer or offering will actually approach and embrace the tree, taking with them a strip of colored cloth, often with a knot of sacred tobacco tied into it as an additional offering, and tie the strip around the tree. By the time I’d arrived dozens of these strips of cloth decorated the tree. The trees from previous years’ ceremonies still dotted the landscape, as colorful, skeletal reminders of all the prayers, offerings and sacrifices that had come before.
It was around this time—after having been smudged and having made my initial offering—when I began to understand what it truly meant to be a dancer in this ritual. While anyone, of course, may move to the rhythms of the ritual, the true ‘dancers’ are not only separated from the rest of the group by a small, waist-high barrier forming a concentric ring about 2-3 feet in from the outer perimeter of the arbor, these dancers have also opted to fast…and by fast I mean neither food nor drink for the entire four-to-five days of the ceremony. These people are exerting themselves heavily, dancing for a couple of hours at a time, receiving no nourishment, and also sleeping at night in the arbor itself, more-or-less exposed to the elements. As I later heard it said by Two Dogs—one of the elders—it is truly the most valued sacrifice made during the entire ceremony.
Those who do not dance/fast help to support and aid those who do. One distinct way this is accomplished is by consciously redirecting their intake of nourishment—be it food or water—towards those who are fasting, with the intent that it might numinously quench their thirst and sate their hunger. Of course such help manifests in other more mundane, physical ways as well, which I’m sure you can imagine.
After the last of the day’s dancing I had time to speak with everyone more, building on our new relationships, and was even asked if I would be willing to take a shift tending the fire in the arbor overnight, an honor which I immediately accepted.
Around 3am I was woken up to fulfill this responsibility, and crawling out of my tent I was greeted with the most glorious sight—the clearest, brightest view I’ve ever had of the Milky Way. The combination of being in such a wide open field at the right time of night with almost zero light-pollution showed me how much of the majesty I’d been missing of this wondrous sight all my life. Finally I understood how influential such a sight must have been to our pre-industrial ancestors, and it was shear joy.
For the next few hours I tended the fire, meditating and occasionally going around with the smudge pot to smudge the arbor and the sleeping dancers, as I was shown by the previous watchman. Around 5am the sun started promising its arrival and the dancers began to slowly awake, giving us a chance to interact more directly than we’d been able to the night before.
Between 6-7am most of the rest of the camp had awoken and people were preparing for the closing day of the dance, which finally got moving around 8am.
Being the last day of the dance emotions and nerves were heightened—those who were still fasting/dancing were pushing the limits of human endurance for the sake of the Spirit, and the most physically brutal rituals of the ceremony were yet to take place—the flesh offerings.
At the beginning of the day’s dance the leader of the ceremony and one of the elders came forth to say some words—as they had the night before, and during the other dances, I presume—reiterating the spirit in which we were all gathered there, thanking the dancers for their sacrifices, thanking the Spirits for their involvement and their gifts, and generally blessing the proceedings. After that there was a brief pause before the actual singing and dancing began where Two-Dogs motioned to me to come over and join in the drum circle—another unexpected honor.
Around the drum were enough seats for six of us to drum at any one time, and given that many of the men were preoccupied with conducting other parts of the ceremony—and I was otherwise left alone with nothing specifically to do—I helped work the drum for nearly the rest of the ceremony.
For the next several hours we performed in intervals, drumming and chanting traditional native songs while the dancers danced…leading up to the flesh offerings.
There are really two main types of flesh offerings. The first one is traditionally only done by men, though women—including my friend Mari—have been known to do it on extremely rare occasions. It goes something like this: four small incisions are made in the skin of the dancer’s chest, just below the collar bone—two on the right and two on the left—resulting in two separate piercings. A wooden dowel about 3-4 inches long and about ¼ inch thick is then inserted beneath the skin of each piercing—so that each side has a dowel of its own—with the ends of each dowel protruding out from the incisions of each piercing. Get the picture?
If this doesn’t sound excruciating enough, just wait—it gets better.
To each of the wooden dowels is tied a length of rope, the other end of which is tied to the tree, about 3-4ft away…and the dancer then sways around the tree for a set number of songs which he/she decided to commit to…pulling back as hard as they can, straining the skin, actually attempting to break the skin, if they can.
I was witness to two men performing this ritual, and merely watching was taxing. After fasting for nearly a week, to endure such a painful experience seems incomprehensible…making it all the more profound.
Following this piercing was the other type of flesh offering, which involves either making small incisions into the skin or actually carving out small, circular chunks of skin. The person making the offering decides how many times to have this done and where to have the skin etched. When the time came for this offering to be made, I felt called to give my own.
During the morning’s drumming—and the night before—I let my sense of self melt into the collective spirit of the group and the land…connecting with the primal vibration of cosmic consciousness which was expressing itself through us for the purpose of greater healing. I carried this sense with me as I knelt on a mat in front of the tree, concentrating on my prayer offering, as the man who was performing the incisions, Tom, sterilized my skin in preparation for the scalpel.
There was a good many things I could have prayed for in that moment, but the one thing that felt paramount was praying for the growth and expansion of the Sun Dance ceremony and other rituals like it, taking place elsewhere—people gathering together with a singular focus, devoted to the cause of healing, joining in a spirit that is open minded/hearted…non-judgmental, familial…sacred and ancestral…connected to the land and to the natural rhythms, of which we are inherently a part. This prayer is what I held in my heart as I concentrated toward the crest of the tree, where everyone focuses their prayers.
The blade began to cut…and it felt somewhat like a cross between being tattooed and being injected with a syringe, only a little more painful—unpleasant, but bearable. I brought the full weight of my spirit into the moment as well as I know how, grateful for having been guided to this instant and appreciating the gift I was giving/receiving to the fullest. I envisioned the weight of the pain and suffering throughout the world—the hunger…the abuse…the war and the prejudice…the greed and the heartache…
…I sought to connect with those who suffered…to address it…and through my prayer and my offering do my part to help lighten the burden of others, that they might find hope…nourishment…aid…a change of heart…peace.
In my left hand I held a strip of the cloth I mentioned earlier, with a knot of tobacco tied in the center. The knot was partially undone, exposing the tobacco; it was into the tobacco that Tom deposited the three tiny chunks of skin offered up from my shoulder. When he was done I pulled taught the knot, rose and went to the tree, where I completed my prayer as I tied the offering round the tree, giving thanks as I left it.
As I stepped back from the tree I felt something shift in me…
…for a long time now I’ve sensed that whatever point I’m at along my journey, I’m here to work on opening/resolving issues with my heart chakra. If you know what to look for you can see hints of this in my existing work, and it definitely plays a large role in my works-in-progress…
…as I stepped back from the tree the shift I felt was an emotional wave through my heart chakra…heightening my empathy and my compassion in that moment…and beyond. I was deeply moved by the stirrings in my breast, which briefly brought me tears that were part joy, part anguish. I felt it within, in general, but as the ceremony drew to a close and others revealed some of the losses and traumas they’d recently lived through, the empathic, emotional stirrings swelled.
I don’t know the full extent of what happened in that moment or the repercussions it will have from here on in, but I do know it was deeply personal and profound, that it was critical to the quest for personal wholeness I am on as an individual and vital to the messages that I am called to spread as a servant of Creation…so take that as you will.
By this point the ceremony as a whole began wrapping up. After my flesh offering I resumed my place beside the drummers and the remaining flesh offerings were made. Next the various families present took turns gathering around the tree, submitting their collective prayers and offerings for their specific family members.
Lastly, everyone gathered around the tree as one, large family for a final group blessing.
With the ceremony now officially ended, the dancers prolonged fasting was now over, too, and everyone prepared for the traditional follow-up feast. Food that had been stored in the kitchen area and/or prepared by the caretaker of the land and brought in earlier that morning was now transported in waves to the interior of the arbor and laid on the ground around the tree. The fasters consumed small portions of fruit, water and juices, mostly, while everyone else had proportionally full meals.
Those first bites and drinks for the dancers must have been as ambrosia, I’m sure…reinforcing the awareness of how critical it is to remain appreciative of what we have and to learn to share it rather than squander it, waste it and/or take it for granted.
Anyway, the feast was joyous and full of pleasant conversation and exchanges, as you might imagine.
Afterwards was a tradition where the main families offered gifts to the dancers and to the group as a whole…
…and then…it was basically over…
…everyone said their goodbyes and began to pack up and depart…
…looking forward to when we can all meet again.
This experience left a major impression on me.
I strive to remain conscious of the spirit at all times, and of late, many factors in my life have served to increase this sense within me…so to be included in such a sacred event and to be surrounded by others who have a long tradition of such awareness is truly a blessed thing.
I have a renewed vigor for addressing the work I’m here to perform, but also for reminding myself to embrace it with an innocent heart and to not get caught up in my own ego-dogma…
…to not take things so damn seriously that I lose sight of the Spirit in which I am doing them in the first place.
Anyway, if you’ve read all this to the end, I thank you, and hope that in some way you found it personally rewarding, as well as entertaining.
Until next time…
…be excellent to each other…and…
…PARTY ON, DUDES!!!