Part 2 of 2. See part 1 for the rest of the story.
My short time at Sun Dance, left me much to ponder. The camp was very secluded and primitive, yet I admit that we were well fed. I camp quite often with my family, and I have to say that we can make some pretty amazing camp meals, especially my wife, who is the queen of the dutch oven, but the kitchen staff at this camp was simply incredible. I have to say that the two lunches I had in this camp were some of the best Mexican/South American meals that I have ever had.
This camp doubles as a rehab center for Hispanics, and from what I understand, the kitchen and the cooking that they do, is part of that rehab. They proudly displayed the Mexican flag over the makeshift kitchen. These people were so kind and generous and treated us as if we were in a fancy restaurant…their own fancy restaurant. They did not use paper or plastic plates or cups. Everything was served on regular dishes and metal silverware, and washed by hand after each meal.
My first meal was empanadas, with mole’ and some other side dishes…delicious! Did I mention that we were served an endless supply of fresh, ice cold watermelon water at every meal? It was ridiculous! ( I mean that in a good way)
I would have settled for beans and a hunk of corn bread. There was also fresh salsa made from fire roasted peppers and served with lunch and dinner. Breakfast was hot oatmeal served over mixed chocolate chips and nuts, all melting to perfection from the hot oatmeal. I would have never thought to try this myself. For dinner, we had spaghetti with some incredible leek sauce served over the top. Everything was made from scratch with fresh ingredients. A generator kept a freezer going so we would have a supply of ice, and also to run a blender for them to make salsa and watermelon water. I can not say enough good things about the kitchen staff and their culinary skills.
Inipi: Sweat lodge
I sat at the back of the inipi, directly across from the door. It was completely black inside, except for the late afternoon sunlight entering through the door. Helpers carried cantaloupe sized volcanic rocks from a fire pit, on the blades of pitch forks and placed them one at a time on the flat stone lined depression in the center of the inipi. The stones glowed orange from the intense heat and energy which they contained. Medicine (plant herbs) were sprinkled over the hot stones and then a wooden stick was scraped across the stones just prior to the door being closed. As the blankets covering the door were dropped and the room became completely dark, the rocks came to life. Everywhere the stick had been scraped across the rocks, golden sparks twinkled like a thousand tiny lights.
The spiritual leader offered up words of prayer and wisdom in English. He finished his words as my eyes lay transfixed upon the glowing and sparkling rocks, feeling their warmth and heat upon my face and chest. I heard water being lapped from a bucket and the the distinct sound of steam forming as the water hit the rocks, sizzling, and boiling, ending the light show that I was enjoying. I instantly felt an intense surge of heat as the steam rose from the rocks. Lap, lap, lap; the rhythmic sound of water being scooped from the bucket continued for several moments. Although unseen, the steam rose to the top of the dome structure, then rolled down the walls until it filled the room. At first I could feel the extreme heat on the top of my head. It made its way down onto my shoulders, then across my back like a wave of fire. Instantly sweat began to pour from every inch of my body. The steam had the smell of hot celery from the herbs, at least that is the only way I know how to describe it.
Boom, boom, boom, the sound of a large hand drum filled the inipi
The spiritual leader began to sing in a native tongue that I did not understand. Breathing was difficult, at least deep breaths as the searing heat burned my nostrils and throat. I found that small slow breath remedied the discomfort however I was stunned that someone could actually sing in here. This went on for four rounds with brief moments in between where the flap of the door was opened allowing fresh air to come in. I don’t know how long we were in this ceremony. It seemed to last a long time, however, once it was over, I felt we had only been inside for a moment or two.
When the ceremony was over, and the door came open for the last time, the first person I saw, was an older native American man with long white hair. He sat there quietly with a small smile upon his face. He was obviously a veteran to this tradition. I was impressed by how stoic he was and how he seemed un-phased be the extreme heat we had all just endured. One by one, each in his own time, the people that took part in the ceremony climbed to their knees and crawled from the inipi. I was one of the last to exit as I wanted to take in every moment. When I emerged, the cool air washed over me. It felt refreshing to my skin in much the same way as I felt refreshed inside from this experience. I climbed to my feet and realized that every person that had exited the sweat lodge before me, had lined up and were greeting each person exiting the inipi behind them, one-by-one with a smile, a hand shake, a hug, and a grateful “Thank you”. I made my way through the reception line, smiling from ear-to-ear, and then took my place after the last person and continued to greet those that came behind.
What a powerful and heartfelt experience. I only knew the two people that I had entered the inipi with, but afterwords, I felt like I had a new family; two dozen people that I had never seen before, I now shared a bond or connection with. Days later, I can still see their faces and feel their embraces, and a bond that runs deeper than flesh that has touched my heart and changed me forever inside.
I have never been an addict of any substance, but I now understand what is meant by “chasing the high”. There is a very real “high” that I felt from this ceremony, that is so strong that it has left me with the desire to have more. I want more. I want to feel this feeling again. I was greatly anticipating the next nights communal sweat, but unfortunately, some wild fires forced the evacuation of the camp just shortly before the next sweat was to take place. I am home now, happy to be back to my family and my creature comforts, but I have found myself looking for local sweat lodges and native american communities near me. I am chasing the high and I also want to share it with my wife.
We gathered in the arena for the closing ceremony for the day. There seemed to be a bit of commotion as the tribal elders were gathered under the arbor talking among themselves. This gave me some time to reflect on the previous two sessions of the day. In the opening ceremony, an adorned buffalo skull is carried into the arena along with several c’anunpa. These items were ceremoniously paraded around the arena and placed at the west gate as an alter of sorts. I witnessed piercings, and a dragging of buffalo skulls. and much more dancing. A soft breeze kept the temperature pleasant. and the smell of smoldering cedar filled the air, as smoke rose from the smudge pots at each gate.
Everything seemed so perfect…so peaceful
One of the tribal leaders made his way over to us and let us know that there were wild fires in the area, and the chief had decided to end the Sun Dance two days early and evacuate the camp. It was a surreal moment. Eric and I were on fire watch the night before until midnight, and had seen the lightning flashes all around the starlit sky. Meteors streak over head as we kept a vigil over the Sun Dancers, never discussing the fact that the lightning could spark up a fire in this drought plagued forest. It was on both our minds though and our worst fears were realized.
They completed the closing ceremony. The buffalo skull and c’anunpa’s were retired and the dancers were released. All the dancers, led by the chief and his son, made their way around the arena and shook hands, hugged, and thanked the spectators for their support. The emotions were mixed and overshadowed by the solemn ending to the ceremony. After the last dancer went by, we exited the arbor and hastily packed up our tents and belongings, and offered a hand to others. Vehicles began pulling out of the camp. I was in a kind of daze, not sure what I should do.
I said good bye to my friends, old and new, climbed in my truck and headed down the hill. It wasn’t more than half a mile when I spotted the first fire. A lump formed I’m my throat. My heart was heavy with the thought that this beautiful place was in danger of being destroyed, all the trees and animals that filled this land could be gone in an instant. I took a good long look at the forest around me and said a quiet prayer for its safety, then made the five hour journey back home, contemplating all that I saw, heard, and felt at the Sun Dance.
I am a firm believer in “you get out of something what you put into it.” The experience will certainly be different for everyone, but for me, I entered this journey with an open heart and an open mind. I wanted to learn about this culture and this ceremony. I had no expectations other than to feel and to participate in everything that I could. I left my judgments and negative thoughts behind me when I turned off the main highway and followed the strips of white and red cloth down the long dirt road that wound its way through the forest.
I emerged a changed person
better for the experience, thankful for it, and with a new found knowledge and respect of a culture that has left me with more questions than answers. I will walk softly now as I seek more wisdom and more adventure, and take my place among the others that have gone before me. It is these types of experiences that drive me. They give my life meaning and a thirst for knowledge that I am eager to quench.
Mitakuye oyasin — I have taken the first steps of my journey into the sun.