Oklahoma Sundance

 

Manataka American Indian Council


 

 

Oklahoma
Sundance
By Jerry Matlock

 

It was near the time of the Spring Equinox of 2000 when I first saw and heard him.  He was speaking at Gulpha Gorge at a ceremony sponsored by the Manataka American Indian Council.  I had seen the ad in the Hot Springs newspaper announcing that the Native American would be there.  For many years, I had felt a calling from the spiritual ways of the First People but my experience had been limited to books and personal searching.  However, there was an undeniable call from that path.  I felt I should go to Gulpha Gorge.

It was a beautiful Saturday afternoon with a blue sky and sunshine.  My friends and I made our way through the campground to a gathering of people.  There, by the creek, encircled around a fire, was a large number of people of all ages and races.  Hawks flew overhead and crows glided over the path of the stream and all around.  Lee Standing Bear Moore hosted the ceremony on behalf of the other Elders of Manataka.  He announced a man who blessed the four directions and explained the importance of reverence to the Creator and Creation.  There was a pipe ceremony and this man was asked to speak.  I liked him from the beginning.  He had a very pervasive presence.  He spoke of many things that afternoon including how he never had an alcohol or drug problem and about the importance of family.  He said, "As a white man, I have failed.  But as an Indian I have succeeded.  I have crossed many mountain ranges."  He later told me that this meant he had gone through and accomplished several levels of priesthood through holy ceremonies.  I remember most his clarity and lack of 'civilized confusion' that so many people carry in their hearts, minds, and souls.  He had a clarity and peace of spirit that inspired me immediately.  I left the ceremony happy and with a feeling of renewal.

I picked up his flyer that Sunday and I wrote him a letter.  I just wanted to express thanks for his participation in the ceremony and wanted to discuss my long time interest in Native American spirituality.  My information had come through the books of Wallace Black Elk, Rolling Thunder, John Fire Lame Deer, Frank Fools Crow, and others.  I also had the good fortune to have a close friend introduce me to Native American interests and provide a constant source of inspiration in learning about these things.

I received an answer to my letter.  He responded to the points of interest I cited and encouraged me to continue on my path even if I needed to find a home in a conventional style church.  A few weeks later, I wrote again concerning spiritual interests and the First Peoples' spirituality.  After a few weeks, I received another response.  By this time, I had become familiar with the Cherokee Longhouse in Hot Springs and had been volunteering some there.  There was a new fire burning and I was excited about all I was learning and experiencing.  He had written an invitation to come to a small town in southern Oklahoma near the Texas border to attend a Sundance, the most sacred ceremony of the Cheyenne, Lakota, and other plains Indians.  He was to be a guest and provide some services for the 12-day ceremony.  He was asking me to come and participate in whatever way I felt comfortable, even if it meant just observing.  I felt honored and overwhelmed at the invitation.  He suggested I could camp with him if I wished.  There was no way I was going to refuse.  I wanted to learn and was being given a chance to begin.

The Sundance is a dance of renewal of the Earth and Cosmos.  It is the beginning of the new year for many Native Americans.  He said, "All the combined prayers of the Sun dancers and supporters go back to the Creator.  All the Energy of the Cosmos comes down and becomes concentrated in the dance arbor."  The four days of purification were to start on June 12.  Sun dancing would continue through the 19.  I arrived on June 13 and met the Sundance Priest and sponsor and the rest of the camp.  I found a place to put my tent and was setting up when a van pulled up.  I recognized him when he got out of the passenger side.  We had not actually met at Gulpha Gorge.  We had only spoken through letters.  I spoke to him to confirm, and he immediately came over.  There was that warm, open clarity again. He introduced me to his daughter-in-law and we all unloaded his tent and supplies.  He had a way of making you feel instantly at ease.  Having never been to a Sundance, I was in new territory but this man had a way of dissolving the apprehension I was feeling.

The next seven days are days I will never forget as long as I live.  I experienced many incredible things, some very personal and challenging.  I cannot write about all of them but the Sundance was a life changing experience.

There was much activity and responsibility.  We attended the sweat lodge and had the privilege of being led by Star Boy.  I still remember him saying, "Every breath is a prayer."  It reminded me of Wallace Black Elk's idea of  'Walk Pray' - continual communion with Creator.  Out of respect for the Sundance ceremony, Star Boy did not dance as a Sun dancer because he arrived too late to begin purification.

Everyone was kind, friendly, and willing to help those of us who were new.  Our campsite was very busy with visitors.  Lots of people wanted to meet and talk with him.  He was always generous in sharing his spirit and friendship with anyone who came to talk.  He spoke of the Creator and the Grandfathers, the Mah Dah (tree spirits) and the Ho Ho Nah (stone people.)  He honored me by adopting me into his family.  He said, "Now you're my nephew.  Now call me uncle."

He is known as Ish Hit Mit Ends, Rising Sun, as a Northern Cheyenne.  He is a sacred Arrow Priest, Lizardman, Whitetail Deerman, Bald Eagleman, and Sundance Priest.  The sponsor and Sundance Priest had asked him to bless the Sacred Tree on the day when the Tree was to be adorned with prayer ties and erected in the center of the Sundance arena.  About seventy-five people were in attendance.  On the Tree blessing day, we attached the prayer ties we had made to the Sacred Tree and Ish Hit Mit Ends Rising Sun performed the blessing for the Tree.  It was a pipe blessing with song.  When he finished the blessing, he came over to where a few of us were standing.  We were all preparing to raise the Tree in the center.  What he said next became clear only on the last day of the Sundance.  Rising Sun said, "Now, on the last day of dancing, Grandpaw Thunder will be here.  The sky will be covered with thunder and lightning."  Several of us heard him say this though he did not make a general announcement to everyone.  There was so much going on at the time, I didn't think much about it. 

The Sun dancing began after the four days of purification.  Many of us danced under the arbor to support the Sun dancers who had been fasting from food and water from the beginning of purification.  Each day was full of experiences and learning.  We had sweat lodge in the early morning, Sun dancing all day, and sweat lodge again at night.  So many things happened.  We all became family and we all became community.

The last day of the Dance was the piercing day.  When we started dancing the sky was clear and sunny.  As the drumming, singing, dancing, and the emotion intensified, two hawks flew from the nearby woods and circled above the Sundance arena.  The Spirit of the place was strong and everyone seemed to be aware of the specialness of this day.  As we danced, a large cloud was forming in the southwest.  It grew larger as the ceremony continued.  The Sun dancers were pierced in the chest and tied there by ropes, which were attached to the upper part of the Sacred Tree.

Hawks flew overhead.  The Sundancers made their way again to the Tree and danced back out, ropes attached, then a third time to the Tree and back out.  Spirit was high, all of us one song, one prayer, one Dance.  On the fourth approach, the Sundancers were to break free from the Tree.  They danced in and back out.  With a single motion, they all pulled back and broke free at the same time.

It began raining and thunder rumbled across the field.  Lightning flashed in the sky.  The drum pounded and the singers sang.  The Sundancers began dancing up to the Tree and back out to the perimeter of the circle.   The rain had been coming down for some time now.

The sky grew dark. Thunder rang out.  Lightning flashed. Immediately, the cloud covered sky opened up and the sun shone through on the dancers and the arbor and remained.  The rain stopped and this incredible river of energy, spirit, emotion, and love moved through the place. It was total joy.

Everyone was smiling and amazed. Grandpaw Thunder had indeed made his appearance as Ish Hit Mit Ends had said he would on this last and most important day of the Sundance.  Had I not seen and experienced this myself, it would seem beyond belief.  It did go beyond belief, into the realm of experience.  And there we were!

No drugs or alcohol were permitted on the premises.  We were encouraged to keep from having ill thoughts since all these things would contaminate the Sacred nature of the ceremony.  The Sun dancers had made vows to the Creator and as supporters we had to do our part to uphold the event, the dancers, and ourselves.  One man could not complete the entire Sundance.  He had to withdraw after the first two days of dancing.

The women present had an extremely important role in the ceremony.  Women have the feminine creative principle, which is important for renewal, rebirth, and regeneration.  The woman is the bearer of creation and new life, the main theme of the Sundance.  Women and children are Sacred and Holy.  Many women were crying tears of joy for the Sun dancers as they danced.

After the Sundance, there was a Giveaway and a wonderful feast with all manner of food.  That evening, the field was peaceful and quiet.  Flute songs and drum songs quietly drifted through the air.  The Sundance was over and we had been blessed with renewal.  A condition of spiritual elation followed for many weeks.  I am thankful for having been a part of this event.


 

SUN DANCING: A SPIRITUAL JOURNEY ON THE RED ROAD

By Michael Hull  OS 0892818506

A powerful story of one man's redemption through the Lakota Sun Dance ceremony.  Written by the only white man to be confirmed as a Sundance Chief by traditional Lakota elders.  Includes forewords by prominent Lakota spiritual leaders Leonard Crow Dog, Charles Chipps, Mary Thunder, and Jamie Sams.  The Sun Dance is the largest and most important ceremony in the Lakota spiritual tradition, the one that ensures the life of the people for another year. In 1988 Michael Hull was extended an invitation to join in a Sun Dance by Lakota elder Leonard Crow Dog-- a controversial action because Hull is white. This was the beginning of a spiritual journey that increasingly interwove the life of the author with the people, process, and elements of Lakota spirituality. On this journey on the Red Road, Michael Hull confronted firsthand the transformational power of Lakota spiritual practice and the deep ambivalence many Indians had about opening their ceremonies to a white man.   Sun Dancing presents a profound look at the elements of traditional Lakota ceremonial practice and the ways in which ceremony is regarded as life-giving by the Lakota. Through his commitment to following the Red Road, Michael Hull gradually won acceptance in a community that has rejected other attempts by white America to absorb its spiritual practices, leading to the extraordinary step of his confirmation as a Sun Dance Chief by Leonard Crow Dog and other Lakota spiritual leaders.    Sun Dancing is a bridge which can take the reader into a deeper understanding of life and our human roles as we shape the new way of being that is offered humankind at the end of this century. Inner Traditions International, November 2000, Soft Cover, 232pp.  $20.95

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