“Mitakuye oyasin,” (Lakota for – all my relations) recognizes two relationships, our identity and blood kinship with one another as well as our spiritual kinship with the Great Mystery
There is an inherent need in all of us to feel connected: to others, to self, to life. We have the need to belong, to be accepted, to feel desired and loved, if even only from ourselves. The world has changed drastically in the last couple of decades and although we have become more connected through digital media, we have in many ways become intimately disconnected from each other, from ourselves, and even from the earth. We are busier than ever, we communicate with more people across longer distances, we multitask, we become bolder and braver with a computer screen and a keyboard in front of us, yet we lose the personal connection with the ones that are closest to us, and the ones that matter the most. We are no longer present: present in the moment, present with our loved ones, present with our children…we lose sight of the details. Our reality becomes virtual, and ultimately we lose ourselves.
There are those among us whom are seekers–those who seek the deeper connections and meanings in life
They are always looking, searching, and inevitably finding. I like to consider myself a seeker of sorts, though I have often let myself get caught up in the digital world and the day-to-day prescribed corporate life, sometimes finding that I become disconnected and stagnant. Fortunately for me, there are seekers around me that keep me in check, that reach out to me, and pull me back out of the “matrix”, if you will.
Through a series of unsolicited events and subsequent conversations with one of my favorite seekers and dearest friends, I found myself turning off highway 97 in northern California and onto a forest service road. It was late morning. The sun was high in the sky and the air was warm and inviting. I was surrounded by large pine and fir trees, with a mix of manzanita bushes, native grasses, and wildflowers to fill in the spaces in between the trees. As I made my way through this magnificent forest, I rounded a corner and found a great peak rising high above the trees in front of me, barren of any vegetation and streaked with large patches of snow. Billowing white clouds collected themselves near the summit of the mountain giving it the appearance of smoke spewing from a volcano. It was breath taking. I was looking at Mount Shasta.
I was on my way to a Native American Indian Sun-dance. I was fortunate enough to be invited to this ceremony and was on my way to experience something that I knew nothing about. I went not knowing what to expect and with an open mind except for my preconceived notion that I would be viewed as an outsider… which I was completely wrong about I might add. I was greeted with open arms from the moment I arrived.
The Sun-dance ceremony is an annual tradition among many native American tribes especially the Lakota and other plains Indians. It is a ceremony of renewal, healing, and thanksgiving.
After traveling a long distance on dirt fire roads, watching for strips of white or red cloth tied to road side bushes as my only clue that I was headed in the right direction, I crested a hill and spotted a large clearing with tents and vehicles scattered about. In the road ahead of me, a man with a red bandanna tied over his head, was walking along. As he turned towards me, I realized this was the friend that invited me here. With great relief, and a long drive behind me, I had arrived. Eric greeted me and as soon as I had parked, he gave me a tour of the site and ceremony grounds.
First impressions:The arena and the Tree of Life
As this is my first time experiencing anything like this, and since I still know virtually nothing about this ceremony, I will share with you my feelings, impressions, and what I saw although I will try not to speculate on any of the symbolism and meaning of the ceremony.
An arena was erected in the form of a double ringed arbor built with logs, standing 8′ tall and covered on the outside wall and roof with fresh pine and fir branches, creating shade and a protected area for spectators. It nearly formed a complete circle, except for an opening facing the east. The arena is about 100 feet across, and in the center is a large tree standing 30 to 35 feet above the ground. The tree, as in this case, is traditionally a cottonwood tree selected specifically with a fork in the branches at the top. The tree is harvested on a day designated as tree day (the day before Sun Dance begins) and is decorated with long colorful bands of cloth streaming down from the branches.
Where the cloth is tied to the tree, there is small satchel formed by wrapping the cloth around something (medicine or plant herbs I suspect), and then tying it up with string. Where the tree forks at the top of the trunk, there are branches of another plant, (what type, I do not know) wedged into the crook of the fork. Many strings with dozens of small cloth satchels tied on them, are wrapped around the trunk of the tree. Ropes are also tied to the tree. The ropes are where the Eagle Dancers pierced are connected to the tree for the duration of the ceremony. (I wont go into details of the Eagle dancer in this post as they did not have any this year, so I did not experience this. If you follow the links, you can read more about them here) Sage is arranged carefully around the base of the tree. There is symbolism involved with the type of tree, the forked top, the satchels and cloth, all of which I know very little about at this point.
There was a secondary circle with in the arbor. This was made of narrow sticks, each with a red cloth satchel tied to the top, and protruding from the ground about 24″, placed about 6″ apart. This ring was broken in four places by gates pointing to the four directions; north, south, east, and west. Each gate contained a tall stick flanking each side of the gate and draped with a long piece of cloth. The west gate had black cloth, the north was red, the east was yellow, and the south was white.
Wakan Tanka: “The Great Spirit” or “The Great Mystery”
The arbor and tree of life were a sight to behold. It was beautiful and mysterious all at once. From my limited understanding, it is a way to honor Wakan Tanka, “The Great Spirit” or “The Great Unknown”. A drum circle containing one large drum and 8 to 10 drummers, was positioned next to the south gate. We had found a spot near the east gate and took a seat under the arbor. After talking for a while, I heard and eagle bone whistle call out from the far side of the arena. This was followed by the drum. Rhythmically the drum beats fell. We climbed to our feet and began to move in time with the drum in almost a stationary march. A few of the elders in and around the drum circle begin to sing in a native tongue.
The dancers entered the Arena through the west gate lead by the chiefs son, followed first by the men, and lastly by the women. The men had no shirts on. Most of them bore many scars on their chest and upper backs as a result of piercings they had received being an eagle dancer or pulling buffalo skulls, some of them repeating these rituals many times over many years. Their heads were adorned with head bands of various types with feathers hanging from them. They wore long skirts, each with one predominate color and a couple accent bands in different colors. All the men carried an eagle wing bone whistle in their mouths, and blew on them simultaneously with each step they took, in time with the drum beat.
The women all wore long colorful skirts or dresses. Each dancer carried a “wing” of eagle feathers in one hand. The dancers were made up of helpers and participants. The participants were fasting for four days with no food and water, and were sequestered from the rest of the ceremony goers, while the helpers were there to help and guide them through the ceremonies. These participants each wore red head bands with branches of sage protruding from the front. They wore red bands adorned with sage as well, around their ankles.
The dancers made their way around the arena, stopping to acknowledge each gate by gesturing their arms toward the gate, then back to the tree of life. As an outside observer, the amount of respect they showed to the ancestors and The Great Spirit, was humbling.
Without going into too much detail about the dancing, I will point out two observations that I made; everything is done in a clockwise manner, and everything is deliberately done in sets of four. I can only assume this is to pay homage to the four directions or the four winds.
C’anunpa: The sacred pipe
At the conclusion of each round of dancing, a C’anunpa was brought from an alter at the west gate, touched to the tree of life, and then brought to the south gate where one of the spectators whom had been selected from the crowd and given a branch of sage, was standing at the edge of the arena waiting for the pipe. An exchange of four passes is made before the c’anunpa is handed off to the sage bearer. This concludes the round, and the person holding the c’anunpa is free to take it back to the arbor and share it with whom he chooses. For this first round, my friend Eric was selected, and he returned carrying the c’anunpa to share with me and the others in our area of the arbor.
I had never really looked at a c’anunpa up close before now. This one had a black carved stone on the end with a cylindrical bowl protruding out from it, and next to the bowl, the head of a bear was carved. The stone connected to a wood pipe that was wrapped all the way to the mouth piece in red cloth.
We were joined by an elderly, partially native american looking man named Carl, whose long dark, silver streaked hair was divided into two braids, one on each side of his head. Eric handed the c’anunpa off to Carl to lead the prayer ritual, in a show of respect. We were joined by another man from our group, a middle aged lady, and also three young girls aged 9 to 12. This surprised me at first, however, I loved that they wanted to be part of this ritual and showed great respect for it. The c’anunpa is always held in the left hand as this places it close to your heart. Carl lit the bowl and puffed on it until he had a mouth full of white smoke. He blew the smoke along the length of the c’anunpa then into his hand and pulled the smoke up over his head, then down to his heart. After a few moments, the mouth piece was touched to each shoulder, then passed clockwise to the next person. The c’anunpa made its way around the circle until all the medicine was gone, at which point, the ash is dumped into the hand of the last person to partake, buried in the dirt and a prayer is offered.
I do not yet understand the significance of this ritual, but I do understand that it was an honor and a privilege to be a part of. The care and respect shown by all, including the young girls, was commendable. It was a bonding moment for me, and a moment of welcome and acceptance into the community. Nobody questioned my being there, and I was guided through each step of the ceremonies. I used the word spectator previously, but understand that the spectators are part of the ceremony.
I am not one who has ever been big on ceremony, but I am big on culture, and indigenous people. I was surprised by the fact that this community was made up of Hispanics, Native Americans, and Caucasians alike. There were people there with accents from all around the world. It was at the end of the c’anunpa ritual that I realized we are all natives of this earth, and this gathering brought many of us together to be one in purpose and as one community.
There is no better teacher than experience. To experience is to understand. To understand is to accept. To accept is to respect.
My adventure continues on part 2.