Tag Archives: Sun dance



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

hand drum

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.

The evacuation

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.



“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.

Buffalo Pipe

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.