Sundance

by Jampa Dorje
Photos & drawings by the author
40 pages, 2005


Something to sleep on, thatís a good place to begin. We spend a third of our life in bed, so having a good mattress is important when youíre camping. Iím always using used stuff. I had a thin, camping mattress Iíd inherited from a friend, and I took it with me to the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota and blew it up, and the air went right out of it, and I looked at it, and it had half a dozen patches, and I thought, ďOh, that was silly of me.Ē We had to go to town the next morning, so I bought a new air mattress, which I could inflate with a pump plugged into the carís cigarette lighter.
   I set my tent on a slight slope and had to prop the mattress up with stuff out of my pack. It was like being on a waterbed, only it was an airbed, jiggled, but I did get a good nightís sleep. The Sundancers had their tents in a separate area, near the sweat lodge. My son, Theo, had plans to dance. I helped Melissa and Kyle, his wife and son, get their tent set up down the road from the arbor and the dance circle. Theo made his camp in the area reserved for the dancers.
   Next, we had to cut a tree for the ceremony. First, we went to the wrong spot. We followed a car that went to the area where a tree had been cut the year before, and we looked around, and then we drove back to Ericís, the medicine manís, house. We had driven around for an hour, and just as we pulled up and parked, Eric walked out, got in his pickup, and everyone got in their vehicles and followed him, along with another pickup towing a long flatbed, out his driveway and down a reservation road. We drove back to where weíd been. Eric and his helpers climbed down the side of a hill to the cottonwood that had been chosen.
   Thereís a young girl, who plays the role of White Buffalo Calf Woman. In some ceremonies, there are four girls, but in this case there was just Brittany, the adopted daughter of Don and Kathy, from Ellensburg, Washington, and she took a brand new ax and made a mark on the tree in each of the four directions. Then, a man shimmied up and ropes were thrown to him. The ropes come from the guys that are going to pierce. They have to have their ropes ready. Itís part of their gear. They have to be prepared. They have their pipe and their skirt and their rope. Their pipe has to be wrapped with sage, and they make anklets and bracelets and a crown of sage. They mark their ropes in a special way, and there were bits of colored cloth tied to the ropes, this one with red, this one with a strip of red and blue, and so forth. Eleven men tied onto the tree, the Tree of Life.
   We were parked along the road. People drove by and stopped. Little groups of people, family, connected to the dancers. People looking at one another, checking each other out. Iím a Tibetan Buddhist monk, but I wasnít wearing my robes. I wore my jeans because I wanted to help with the tree, which had to be caught. It canít touch the ground. All the ropes were attached, and a man took the ax and whacked the tree, and it fell, and while some of us used our hands to steady the tree, others steadied it with their ropes.
   This cottonwood didnít seem so big, down in the gully, but after we caught it and carried it up to the road to the trailer it was more impressive. A chainsaw was called for, and some smaller trees with forked limbs were cut to support the tree on the trailer, so that the branches wouldnít drag on the ground. A few leaves touched the roadway, but the bulk of the tree was propped up and tied down, and then the caravan set off for the Sacred Circle. It was dramatic, the cars following the tree along the road across the prairie at sunset. People driving the opposite direction stopped their cars, showing respect. They knew it was a Sundance Tree. They knew these dancers were going to dance for the people.
   The arbor for the Sundance was tucked behind a low hill. You couldnít see the arbor coming up the road until you were right on it. The arbor was about forty feet in diameter. Small forked trees covered with pine boughs for shade. Inside the arbor in another circle there were tiny prayer sticks with a tobacco ties at the top. Different colors for each direction. Four gates with larger prayer sticks. Yellow in the east, red in the west, green in the north and blue in the south. At the red end was an altar for the pipes and the Tanka, the buffalo skull. In the center, a pit had been dug for the tree.
   By the time we arrived, it was getting dark, and people bustled around. The ropes were removed and the lower limbs were trimmed off the trunk. And, then, there was the ceremonial process of taking the tree into the center of the Sacred Hoop. There were four stops, and we had to hold the tree above the ground. I counted forty of us, and the tree mustíve been forty-two feet tall. We could have used two more people. It was that heavy. At each stop, the Buffalo Girl proffered the pipe to a direction, and the medicine man chanted. To the north, to the east, to the south, to the west, and we held the tree off the ground.
   After these stops, we took the tree through the East Gate, and again held the tree, while women tied prayer ties in the upper branches, along with special objects. A bundle of wild cherry branches. The skin of a buffalo, cut in the shape of a buffalo, with the hair in tact. And a cardboard cutout of a man with a hoop in one hand and a pipe in the other, which was tied in the branches above the buffalo. While the women worked, we held the tree. Standing there, I heard a crackling, buzzing, crunching sound, and I turned, and above the East Gate, a meteor was burning up in the atmosphere. Crackling and blowing up.
   Thereís a character in the Lakota lore called Fallen Star, so a falling star seemed appropriate and a good omen for the Sundance. Then, all the dancers that had plans to pierce tied their ropes onto the tree for a second time. At this point, the ropes were used to raise the tree, and everyone huffed and puffed and pulled and pushed. The men with the ropes spaced out around the circle and steadied the tree, while some packed the earth around the base. The tree is considered to be alive at this time. It represents the axis of the world and is a symbol of rejuvenation, of renewal. The medicine man, who is known as the Interceptor, and his helpers did their ceremonial thing. The ropes were rolled up, and we went to bed. The ropes dangled from the tree, ready for the time when the piercing would begin.
   Piercing is the most dramatic part of the Sundance, but it is not the biggest part. It happens near the end, but before then, there is a lot of dancing. There are different sides to this dance: a physical side, an emotional side, an intellectual side, and a spiritual side. These correlate with levels of interpretation. A literal level, the dance, the sun, the heat. Then, thereís the emotional pressure on staying the course. The metaphorical or allegorical side is revealed in the stories behind the ceremonies. The flesh sacrifice that mirrors the Lakota tale of Inyan, where the first creation was accomplished through giving blood, giving life force. And, thereís the spiritual part. The dancing for the people. The sacrifice of something that is yours alone to give. To renew, to purify and heal, like the ChŲd practice, in Tibetan Buddhism, where we symbolically cut ourselves up into small pieces with a knife and feed our demons.
   The women donít pierce. But they cut pieces of flesh from their arms. They can cut one piece or one hundred pieces. Not big pieces, just big enough so they bleed. There are different reasons to give flesh offerings. Itís part of the myth of rejuvenation. This is the offering that connects you with the totality, to propitiate the cosmos. It may be you do it for your grandmother, who is ill, and at the same time you do it for the people as a whole. And then, you do it for yourself, for the vision, for the courage, for the honor, for fortitude. To return to the roots of your personality. A solar return.
   The dancers donít all have extensive knowledge about the symbolic qualities of the dance; some have more, the medicine man and his helpers; but for most it is enough to know what they are doing is good for the people. Itís natural for there to be a macho attitude, but Iíve heard that there are Sundances where a person who is just into body piercing can go and pay money and pierce. The Lakota consider this a desecration of their tradition.    Again, the piercing is not the main part of the Sundance. It comes near the end. The main part of the dance is dance. The drummers drum; the singers sing; and the dancers dance. There are pipes to be smoked and prayers to be offered up to the Great Spirit, Wakan Tanka.