The Sacred Spirit of Dance in Ceremony
by N J Howell
From my journal .... I am in South Dakota, having traveled about 2,300 miles to attend a spiritual ceremony about which I know little. This Sacred Ceremony is called Sun Dance. I am here to support in whatever way I can, not knowing much about it except what I've been told. I am unprepared, both for the sheer experience of the extreme weather and for the severe hours, hard work and intense spiritual energy.
I make errors in ceremonial etiquette. I know this not because someone tells me but because I feel that I have. I sense it through the energetic airwaves. No one points out the right way to participate in a Sundance, at least not the ones I've been privileged to attend.
In the beginning, I was looking for instruction. I did not know enough to be still until I got it without words. Being still, and watching, I finally got into the gridline of consciousness that taught me how to stay respectful and in alignment but that took a few more Sun Dances after this one. Despite my ignorance, despite my ego eruptions, despite my exhaustion and struggle with the altitude and the heat, I came away from this Sundance experience, and the others that followed, with more of myself remembered.
Sundance in the Black Hills - The Transformative Power of Sacred Dance
I am attending a spiritual ceremony, a sacred dance. It is the Lakota Sundance at Rosebud Reservation and it is my first exposure to the Sun Dance way. I do not know when I arrive that Spirit is calling me to do a lot more than merely attend.
This is before Arvol Looking Horse bans the participation inside the arbor by non-full-bloods. I feel very blessed to have been able to experience the Sun Dance in a more full way that a caucasian might now be able to experience it.
For those who may be unfamiliar with Sundance, it is a very strenuous and challenging spiritual ceremony, consisting of four days of purification that includes fasting, many Sweat Lodges, prayer, visioning and other spiritual preparation, followed by four days of dance, piercing and prayer. Sun Dance is practiced by other tribes besides the Lakota. However, my experiences were always with the Lakota people so that's what I can share about, my experience.
As to what all the dances, songs, prayers and ritual mean, that's the task of the Lakota Elders to teach. I do not speak to that and certainly would not venture to speak to that. I only share the Dance as it was when I was there and from my perspective only.
The Sundance takes place in a circular arbor with a hole dug in the center, into which is placed a freshly cut Standing Person, a Tree chosen the year before. The Standing Person is not just chosen but cared for, all year, and prayed with all year by someone chosen to care for it. The degree of preparation for this Dance is remarkable. The Tree is carried from where it is cut, on the backs of the Dancers and Supporters without ever touching the ground.
It is a magnificent sight when the tree is raised, draped with hundreds and hundreds of different colored prayer ties and prayer flags, and placed majestically in the center.
The Dancers dance all day for four days, out in the hot sun. While they dance, they drink no water and eat no food. In addition, many of them choose to have their skin pierced in the chest area, and dance attached to the Tree. Others are pierced in the back, to pull heavy Buffalo skulls around the circle. Still others are actually lifted off the ground and hang from the tree, attached by only their own pierced skin.
Before experiencing this Sacred Ceremony, I found the idea of it quite incomprehensible. I wondered why such pain would be necessary, even desirable. It was a naive view, particularly from one who was raised in the Christian faith. Christ certainly suffered.
I was taught that, at least with the particular Dancers I spoke with, that the only thing a person really has to give is the body. To give in the way of piercing, or by making a small flesh offering, is to sacrifice for the people and to honor the pain of women in childbirth. Piercing at Sundance is a way for men to connect with the sacrifice all mothers know. The continuous prayers of those who dance contain tremendous power.
The energy field within the arbor is transformative and many people have visions that change their entire lives. The prayers are for relatives, for children, for the addicted, for the suffering of all nations, for the Earth and for the future.
The first time a man was pierced, all my distaste and preconceptions about what piercing meant dissolved. I felt the pain, instantly and specifically, in my female organs. I've never had a child and yet, I felt this pain was like labor pain. Other women have reported a similar reaction.
The first time I stepped into the outer circle of the arbor, where supporters danced, I began to cry. I spent a good deal of time crying, and more time dancing than I would ever have believed possible. I was lifted by the energy to the point that my endurance was very far above normal.
The first time a man hung from the Tree, I was completely awed by a sudden image of Jesus on the cross. I understood. Just as Christ suffered in the flesh for others, so were these men.
During the Sun Dance, I saw things that cannot be adequately explained and felt myself embody forms other than my own. I felt energies that were unmistakeably divine.
And...despite dancing with what seemed to me to be super-human endurance, I would flop like a wet rag on the air mattress as soon as I dragged myself back to the tent at night. It was two worlds - the one in the arbor or around the arbor, and the other world, where I was human.
When I got home, I could hardly move a muscle when the Sundance had ended. The energy is so intense that, if not physically fit, it is easy to over-extend and not even know it.
If you are considering attending a Sundance, take the advice I didn't take and prepare your body. Go for long hikes, do daily stretching, and spend time in the sun. Otherwise, you may have a rude awakening after the ceremony ends!
I saw many other things. I felt many Spirits and saw many visionary imagings that informed me of spiritual teachings on a higher level than words. I came away changed forever. It was a different activation than what I had experienced with the Dalai Lama, hitting me more in the lower centers, and grounding me to Mother Earth so heavily that, for a few days, I had difficulty standing up or walking.
The Good Red Road, the Native-American way, has been activated within me so strongly now that I feel it will always be part of my path.
I see now, years later, that some who Danced felt no pain at all and that suffering isn't necessarily part of the Sun Dance experience for every dancer. There is a meeting of the Spirit at the level of the individual and, for some, the pain is not necessary for the Dance at all. Some are uplifted and transcend pain. I like believing that's what Jesus did too.
Aho. Mitakuye Oyasin.
Another Sacred Dance