The Native American Spiritual Practice Of The ‘Sundance’
Many years ago I was invited to a Lakota Sundance. It was held way out in the middle of what felt like nowhere. It was not a spectacle; there were no entrance fees, no concession stands, just a big tank in the back of an old pickup where where we could help ourselves to water. What was offered, for free, was the honor of bearing witness to a prayer for the earth, for humanity, for healing and for peace. The dancers, both men and women, would be dancing for several days in temperatures often over 100 degrees. It was the real thing.
I have felt a strong connection to Native Americans for most of my life. As a child watching cowboy and Indian movies I had many déjà vu experiences before I knew what déjà vu was. On the big screen, the sight of a Painted Horse and feathers hanging from long black hair shimmering in the sun sent waves of obscured remembering rippling through my body.
I know you, I say silently, as I look at the dancers in Native dress, but I’m afraid you won’t recognize me inside this white skin.
I am called
It begins. Rhythmic and repetitive— the wailing voices, the heartbeat of the drum and the pounding of moccasin-covered feet —we are lifted higher and higher above the human fray, carried back to a soul time when we were connected with each other and the earth as a way of being.
At some point a young Lakota man carrying a Sacred Pipe makes his way around the circle in which the dance is taking place. He stops when he comes to me, lights the Pipe and hands it to me, indicating I am to follow him. Pipes are also given to three other observers beside myself and we are led to where the Medicine Man stands. I have suddenly become part of this ceremony. The Medicine Man speaks only in Lakota. I have no idea what I am to do. Oh my God, why did you pick me? But there I stand, holding a Sacred Pipe before a line of Sundancers all facing me. The drumming and singing begin. I fumble my way through, terrified, following the other three the best I can as they hold out their Pipes and bring them back in toward themselves as if in offering to the dancers.
It does not occur to me, even for a second, that it is a great honor to be chosen. I just want to hide. It entirely eludes me that perhaps I am recognized after all—not as someone special, but as a sister and a brother in my heart. The Pipe ritual is repeated several times during the four days. As the young man makes his way around the circle, I look away and pray he will not choose me. It is my own fear that keeps me separate, nothing else.
A willing sacrifice
Part of the Sundance ritual is the men piercing. Long straps are attached from two piercings on their chests to the tree in the center of the circle, and the men dance and pull until their skin breaks free. I am prepared for this. I have been told that by the time the skin breaks, the dancer is in an ecstatic state and feels no pain, but what about the piercing itself? And I was told they do this not for themselves but for the Earth and all humanity, that the Sundance is a prayer, an offering, a conscious and deliberate conversion of pain into Love and healing.
Then one dancer appears with piercings on his back and a long chain of seven enormous buffalo skulls is carefully brought into the circle and attached to him. I am not prepared for this. As the drums beat and the call of eagle bone whistles echoes off the parched inferno of a sky, he drags the buffalo skulls around the circle and around until finally his skin and his spirit break free.
There are no other words but these, as if I am a witness at the Crucifixion and the Resurrection.
A body and blood sacrifice of self made for the sake of healing humanity and the Earth, enacted communally for the sake of transforming pain into Love. This man chose the symbolic but also startlingly literal sacrifice of carrying and releasing the weight of seven Buffalo skulls… and for a moment, my own breath pierces the cosmic fabric that holds my mortal body to the ground.
Called and called again
Despite myself, I am handed the Pipe once more for the closing ceremony. The terror is no less this time around. It isn’t until much later that I realize, of course, that the most profound of rituals are to be taken home and integrated into our daily lives, and that whatever is most difficult for me is part of the gift of the Sundance. I know now that every one of us, and that means me as well, have been handed a Sacred Pipe, a pain to bear, a ceremony of transformation to participate in, a gift of Love to share, whether it is on a world stage or in the privacy of our own anonymous lives. No one has to remember our name. We are simply being asked to carry our Pipe out into the world as our offering to life and not be stopped, as I have so often been, by fears of unworthiness, of making a fool of myself, or the impulse to hide. We are being asked to step into the circle again and again, and keep our eyes on the sun.
I wonder if the Sundancers feel fear every time they are pierced. Or perhaps they welcome the pain because they know the ecstasy of where it will take them. Or both. Perhaps their Souls are willing and their personalities still wince. I don’t know. I know my Soul is willing, eager even, to carry the Pipe I have been handed and my personality still fears the pain of piercing over and over again. Perhaps this won’t change and perhaps it doesn’t need to. What I understand now is that every day can be a Sundance. There are a million moments of pain just waiting to be consciously embraced and converted into Love…from a piercing look of anger, the torn flesh of a failed relationship or an unexpected death, to the agony of hate crimes or the destruction of the ecosystem. There might be a million moments of hesitation and fear, too, and if we’re lucky, we will be called again and again. Perhaps all that matters is that we find the courage to go back out into the arena and accept with gratitude and even happiness the Sacred Pipes we have been handed.
When the Sundance is over, a young man is brought to the center of the circle. I learn that he is about to go to prison. I don’t know what crime he committed or who he might have hurt, but he is called back to his greatest self by the entire community. No pain too dark, no shadow too long, no Pipe too broken; no-one left outside the circle. He, too, is blessed as a Sundancer, pierced like the rest of us by the sharp edges of our human-ness, and given yet another chance to transform pain into power and resurrect Love.
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