By Richard E. Bleil, Ph.D.
Several years ago, I was honored to be invited to attend a Sundance ceremony, and later, a sweat lodge and the following ceremony at the Rosebud reservation.
It is heartbreaking to me when I hear negativity towards the Native Americans. In this blog, I would like to discuss these experiences, to the extent that I believe will be respectful to those who invited me. Please keep in mind that this is written from the perspective of an observer, so please allow me to apologize in advance for any mistakes I may make, or if I overstep my boundaries. Please do feel free to inform me should I do so, and I will happily edit this post.
If you’ve never heard of it, the Rosebud reservation, part of the Sioux tribe, is known to be the poorest reservation in the country. While those who love it may see beauty that I missed, it appears to be a barren and sparsely populated land, with barely any development. It is located in the shadows of the Black Hills, a region that is holy to the Native people, and where we felt it necessary to blow up one of their mountains until it looked like it had the faces of our presidents. This certainly has not be the end of the atrocities against these people, as they have been in the center of the Wounded Knee massacre, was involved in the pipeline protests, and a recent court victory involving removal of children in violation of the ICWA treaty.
With such a history of assaults on the sovereign nations, it cannot come as a surprise to discover that the tension in the area is high. The irony, of course, is that with this history of atrocities against that native people, somehow it is the non-native people who distrust the native people.
Okay, that is probably enough soliloquizing regarding history and stress. But let me take one moment to explain my my belief that tensions often arise because of a lack of understanding. Familiarity goes far in reducing such friction, so I have made it my goal to attend as many native events as possible. For example, I have attended (at least to some extent) the LNI sporting event and Pow-wow. These are events that are open to the general public, though. The Sundance, however, is typically a closed event.
The Sundance is an annual spiritual event. It lasts for a week, involves constant fasting before and after the very long daily ceremonies, which involves repeated and elongated dancing. In the height of the summer, with no food or water, stressful exercise, and personal sacrifices, fasting through the day is truly challenging. As a closed event, it was an honor to be invited.
I was allowed in on the last day of the event. Around the holy area, there were areas for guests to sit. Although the participants were fasting, many of the guests did bring food and water, although, out of respect, I felt it appropriate to fast as they were during the event. Throughout the event, participants sacrificed of themselves in manners that I’m not sure that I can share.
One of the most memorable parts of the event, which occurred more than once, was the sharing of the “Peace Pipe”. Before I explain this, I should explain that, as I understand it, the Peace Pipes, which are hand carved, are held sacred. I liken it to sacred like the bone of a Saint might be sacred to a member of the Catholic church. As I understand it, sharing the Peace Pipe originated during a time that tobacco was expensive and difficult to come by. To share tobacco, then, was an act of true generosity.
During the Sundance ceremony, people would select visitors to receive the pipes. This happened a couple of times through the day. The Sioux people participating in the event would all line up in front of the invited recipients. They would dance, and pass the pipes through the crowd, and finally present them to the recipients. The recipients, then, would take the pipes back to the visitors, where the tobacco would be lit, and shared.
As I read my own words, I realize how feeble an effort this is to explain the grandeur of the ceremony. I am woefully ill-equipped to properly explain the generosity, the warmth, the honor of the ceremony. Be that as it may, the reality is that, having been invited to these events, I have been changed. My respect for the generosity, the gentle nature, and the generosity of the Native People is something that I wish was more common among our society.