In the early hours of Monday, 7th June 2010, this year’s Sun Dance attendants erected the first teepee. Others soon followed it and the little camp grew rapidly.
At the same time, an arbor was erected, a fire-pit was dug and an inipi (sweat lodge) was constructed in the traditional manner of the Lakota people.
Tuesday was ‘tree day’ – bushy pine trees were cut and placed around the arbor frame, leaving the eastern gate open so that the rays of the rising sun could enter unhindered. Finally, the tree of life, a tall birch with a single fork was selected by the elders and ceremoniously cut down. Many willing hands caught the tree as it came down and carried it to the trailer on which it would be transported to the Sun Dance grounds.
Once the tree arrived there, those same willing hands raised it in an effort that surpassed the flag raising on Iwo Jima.
The dancers settled into their teepee and the fire, which would burn for the duration of the ceremony, was lit.
In the morning, before the sun rose, the dancers entered the inipi, cleansed their bodies and prepared to dance to the sound of a drum and the traditional songs. Solemnly they entered the arbor through the eastern gate and began their dance that would not cease until the sun had traversed the sky and touched the western horizon. They finished the day with another ceremonial cleansing and then retired for the night, denying themselves food and water.
This was repeated for the following two days, culminating on the fourth day with their final sacrifice.
Observing this ceremonial dance, was indeed an honor and one can not help but admire the devotion of the dancers, singers, drummers and helpers who offer up so much time and effort to this single event for which they prepare themselves annually.
I wanted to know the significance of the ceremony and was told that it was a ritual celebrated by men. The purpose was to remind all of the beginning, that birth is painful and that the path one chooses in life becomes more difficult to change with the passage of time. This was most poignantly symbolized by the tree of life that stood in the center of the circle. Its single fork with its diverging branches is always in the dancers’ eye whenever they stretch forth their hands towards the sun to absorb its life giving energy.
The rising sun is honored by the color yellow and it decorates the eastern gate. The white color, to the south, reminds the dancers of the shimmering sheen that rises from the earth during the heat of the summer, the black color, to the west, identifies the thunder clouds and cleansing and life giving rain, and the red color to the north is a reminder of the ancestors and the blood that flows in all of our veins. The north wind gives strength and endurance to all life. The sky blue color signifies the sky above and the green color the earth below.
The inipi, apart from being a place of contemplation, is also symbolic of a womb from which one emerges into this world.
Twenty-eight poles are used to construct the arbor, signifying the ribs of the bison and this is to also be a reminder of the cycle of the moon as well as a woman’s natural rhythm.
And indeed, the Lakota creation story is embodied in all of these symbols.
The creation story tells of the emergence of the first family (Tokahe and his family) from the spirit world, enticed to come forth by Iktomi the trickster who introduces Tokahe to the taste of bison meat.
It is also said that when the Lakota were still in the spirit world, they fell in love with the bison and followed it into this material world, binding themselves to the fate of the bison forever.
Each of these tales have a part in the Sun Dance ceremony as the dancers are allowed some bison tongue soup at the end of the second day and a morsel of bison heart after the last day.
Once the ceremony was concluded, the Sun Dance ground was restored to its original state. All traces of the arbor, the fire-pit and the inipi disappeared, blending into the natural swell of the ground.
A feast and honoring ceremony with gift giving concluded this Sun Dance.
This ceremony made an unforgettable impression upon me. Being born in a city that had become but an island in an Eastern European zone after World War II, I can well appreciate what freedom truly means. Yet despite my family leaving that city after the wall that was to imprison us further was raised, despite us migrating to Australia to find true freedom, it remained beyond our reach. When I was a child, my father introduced me to the writings of Karl May and I devoured the books that told of the deserts and prairies in far off lands. Yet even in the Australian desert, far from the touch of mankind, I caught but a glimpse of true freedom. My father yearned for it all his life, but he passed away, secluded behind the gray walls he built to shut out the world, never finding it on this side of the grave. The embers of my childhood visions were again fanned when I came to this country and visited the purported sole remnants of the true prairie near Pipestone, Minnesota. I saw the devotion with which the native inhabitants pried the sacred stone from the earth. I saw how they fashioned the calumet and carved the pipe stem and I saw the peace that came from within as they did so. Now, thanks to Mr. Russell Means’ invitation, I was privileged to observe another kind of devotion, one that binds all of mankind. It is a devotion that is not centered on self but on the world at large. It is a yearning for a true peace and freedom that is so sorely needed in this world, which is filled with greed and strife. What I have experienced and observed can not be expressed in mere words. One might call it an inner peace, yes, even enlightenment, perhaps even an epiphany but in truth it is an indescribable feeling that will remain with me forever.
Among these people I have found new friends, they have welcomed me with open arms, accepted me into their fold and extended to me a friendship that I have not encountered before. It is a friendship that I greatly treasure and value.
I thank Russell Means and his wife Pearl for guiding our understanding of the Lakota people and the symbolism embodied in the Sun Dance Ceremony