(This is an article in 5 parts about the spiritual ways of the original inhabitants of North America)
The Sun Dance
By the time the berries were ripening, in July and August, all people went through an annual and very old ritual called the Sun Dance. It was meant as a renewal of the pact between the powers of Heaven and that of the Earth. They danced in a circle and in the midst of it, a tall trunk stood, erected after being cut in the wood like an enemy. In triumph the tree was taken to the camp. Four days and four nights before the dance, dancers would eat nor drink. To be truthful to the limit in their promises, they stuck wooden pins in the flesh of their breast. The pins had ropes tied to the tree. By dancing forward and backward, eventually the pins would break loose. Thus, a dancer freed himself.
Mato-Kuwali, a Santee-Yanktomai Sioux, explains: “For us, the Sun Dance is so holy that we don’t speak very often about it. The cutting of your body to fulfil the Sundance-promise is entirely different from the cutting of dead flesh. The body of a living man is his property. When he gives his flesh, he gives the only thing he really owns.” Therefore, some Indians cut little round pieces of their flesh as an offering.
“So when a man gives a horse to Wakan Tanka, he gives something he already owns. I can give tobacco or other things and offer them, and and at the same time leave behind the best I have. No one would believe I am serious about my sacrifice. I should give something really worthful, to show that my whole being accompanies my gifts. This is why I promise to give my body. A child believes that only the deed of an unkind person will cause pain. But in the Sundance we take the divinity of Wakan Tanka for true. So we prepare to suffer pain, so we can pay back what he did for us. When a man has done something admirable, we will praise him, saying it is wonderful. But also when we see the changes of day and night, of the sun, moon and the stars, and the changing of the season with the ripening fruits, we all must see this is the work of someone more powerful than mankind. He, the Sun, is the greatest of all. Without him no one could live.”
The sacred pipe
The holy ritual of smoking the pipe comes, according to an old saga, from the White Bison Maid who ordered that the smoking of it should be a holy deed. Until now, the pipe is a cultus symbol. It symbolizes peace and honesty. The pipe is so sacred that Native Americans, when put into court, were allowed to lay their hand on the Pipe instead of the Bible, when swearing to be honorable.
Mato-Kuwapi: “Before we talk about holy matters, we prepare our words by offering…One man fills the pipe and gives it to the other. The other will set it on fire to offer it to the sky and the earth. Then they will smoke together. Only then, they will be rady to talk. ”
Chief Lame Deer: “We who know the meaning of the pipe, know that we, as a living part of the earth, cannot harm her without harming ourselves.” In Native American life, the sole strict duty to observe was the duty of prayer. It is seen as a daily honour to the Unseen Eternal. These daily devotions were more necessary for him than his daily food. At dawn he awakes, pulles on his moccasins and goes to the edge of the water. Here he splashes hands full of cold, fresh water in his face or jumps right into it. After his refreshment, he stands upright in front of the approaching day, facing the sun that dances on the horizon, and sends his unspoken prayer up to her. His friend can go before him or after him, but never together with him. Every soul has to greet the morning sun, the new good earth and the Great Silence on his own.
When a hunter during his daily hunt sees a showing that is extraordinarily beautiful or high- esteemed, he stands still for a while, gazing in respect. Like at a black thundercloud above a mountain with a rainbow above it. Or when he sees a white waterfall in the heart of a green ravine or a greatly outstretched prairie in the blood-red colour of the sunset. In contrary to for instance Christians, he does not find it useful to choose one day in the week as a holy one. For him, all days are days of Wakan Tanka.
When he seeks contact with the Great Mystery, he never does so in a direct way. Instead, he will ask a tree, or a round stone, to be his intermediate, as a negotiator between him and the Divine. Or some places he keeps in memory, of special sights he passed by and had to stop for a while.
“When a bird, or an man, halted there, the God halted and with him the moon, the stars and the wind that is with him. The realm of trees and that of the animals, all is there where he halted. The only thing he has to do is think back of that glorious moment or even multiple places and then send his prayers there, to arrive there and so he will get help and blessing” (an old Dakota magician).
Some Indians see the dream as a medium for the divine. Some young ones, who wanted to become a full-grown hunter, had to leave for some time to retreat in the hills, observing their dreams. The animal that most frequently occurred in someone’s dreams during this retreat would be the personal symbolic leader for the rest of his life.
Smohalla, a chief of the Sokulk tribe, founded a dream-religion and started to preach around 1850. His dream-religion was an attempt to reconstruct original ideas about the true nature of Mother Earth. Dreams are our well of true, supernatural revelations according to Smohalla. When once, his kinsmen asked him to go leading a western working man’s life in the city, he refused to give them permission. “Our young man will never work”, he said. “Man who work, cannot dream. And wisdom comes to us in our dreams. You ask me to plough the ground. Should I take a knife and cut my mother’s breast?”
© Frank Flippo, October 2018
(This is an article I wrote almost 30 years ago. It has never before been published)
(Soon to be published… Part 5 Death and the Afterlife)