As they have for 16 years, on these wondrous plateaus of the southern Black Hills of the northern Great Plains, Uncle Joe American Horse, traditional chief and also former tribal president, his brother David American Horse, Grandma Beatrice Long Visitor Weasel Bear, respected headwoman Loretta Afraid of Bear, respected Pipe Carrier Tom Cook and the families of the American Horse/Afraid of Bear tiospayes, received brothers and sisters of the many directions.
The purpose was to pray, by dancing, by receiving each other in a good way. In a place where wild horse herds roam relatively free and is properly isolated, a ceremonial arbor set into the Four Directions is flanked by a large “shade” on poles and a dozen large tipis. This is home for four and more days to over sixty dancers, there to don the ceremonial skirt, red-tied bracelets of prairie sage on ankles and wrists, crown of sage tied in red cloth, dual eagle feathers, (“spikes” are favored) placed on the head, set to carry the ceremony as dancers of the sun. Below, “downstairs,” a second plateau half-mile away is camp for some two hundred family supporters of specific and groups of dancers, where more tipis and tents, an occasional RV, many trucks and cars, circle around a communal kitchen, staffed completely by volunteers, cooks and helpers.
There are many sundances each summer, perhaps fifty or more just at the Oglala-Lakota Reservation of Pine Ridge; hundreds, maybe thousands, across the Northern and Southern Plains, many more in Sun-appreciation ceremonies in the hemispheric Native Americas. While foundational precepts and structures are manifested wherever Native peoples salute or celebrate the sun, each sundance has its history, its specificity of culture and practice over its own ceremonial trajectory.
The Sundance sponsored by the American Horse and Afraid of Bear tiospayes, with much support by Red Clouds and other Lakota families, is unique in this general manner. About twenty years ago, grandfathers and grandmothers of the previous generation, guided by Larue Afraid of Bear and Ernest Afraid of Bear, journeyed over four years throughout the Black Hills. Through sweat lodges and long walks, they searched for a proper place to bring the Sundance of their tiospayes from nearby Pine Ridge Reservation, home of the Oglala Sioux Nation, to their ancient grounds in the Black Hills. They found it inside an 11,000 –acre sanctuary for wild horses saved from real state development years ago by a venerable cowboy-writer named Dayton Hyde. The story of how the old Indians found a meaningful partnership with the old horse cowboy who had saved a herd of mustangs, how they shared “signals” from a cave of ancient pictographs, put up “inipi” (sweat lodge) ceremonies and finally “were led to” the sacred grounds of the present Sundance, is worth much longer telling. It is an origin story and legend dotted by magical elements and assertive values, mysterious yet true and historical. That narrative informs this particular sundance, weaving into a common thread, which, for sixteen years since 1997, has united a widespread range of participants.
Tiospaye describes the very large, extended families of Plains Indian culture. American Horse descendants number into the hundreds and originate in the line of a great chief from the 19th Century—American Horse—contemporary of Crazy Horse and, along with the renowned warrior, one of four “shirtwearer” chiefs of the Oglala people. Afraid of Bear was also a chief, from a family of strong political tradition, and progenitor also of hundreds of descendants. Other Oglala families also participate in this summer solstice ceremony, notably the Red Cloud people, intermarried and relatives through tiospaye alliances since before reservation days.
These are strong Oglala families, leadership people in a tribe with a long and difficult history. Deeply rooted at Pine Ridge, the American Horse-Afraid of Bear Sundance gathers spiritualists and cultural practitioners, activist families and individuals of many tribes and peoples. The tiospaye, through the leadership of Tom Cook and Loretta Afraid of Bear, Chief Joe American Horse and important allies such as Milo Yellow Hair, work a summer gardens project that receives volunteers and consultants from many parts. Friendships and alliances extend internationally from just this one piece of Oglala universe. This reality led the elders, after much discussion, to allow the tiospaye to accept people of other races to participate. “There’s four colors of man, red, white, black and yellow. Anyone who wishes to come pray with us can come pray,” Ernest Afraid of Bear once put it. This became a definitive decision at the founding of their sundance by Oglala elders. The decision does not lack for controversy, but the head people have only deepened their conviction over the years that while their ceremony must remain rooted in the Oglala families and Native leadership, “kolas,” good friends, of all races would be welcomed to participate.
On “tree day,” the evening before the start of dancing, a line of fifty cars snakes from the grounds to a creek where a silk cottonwood tree with just the right qualities has been selected. Stricken first by four young girls, the tree is sacrificed – greeted, smoked over, painted and sung over, then cut down by the men dancers, who are charged to not let it hit the ground. Thus it is carried and motored to the sundance circle, where it is prepared, decorated with the many “tobacco tie” offerings and put up, straight and gorgeous, full of life and spiritual promise, the Tree of Life.
Seven flagpoles to honor Armed Forces veterans are erected nearby in ceremony, to the east just outside the arbor, American and tribal flags snapping in the wind, and portraits of fallen loved ones on chairs draped with starquilts.
Day after day, the sweat lodge stones hiss with steam, the eagle bone whistles blow, feathers sway in the wind and the feet of many people, in the dance ground and in the surrounding, shaded arbor, keep pace with the drums and singers, strong-pounded sundance songs that sustain the prayers of the people.
In 2012 more than 60 dancers pledged to dance the four days, fasting from food and partly from water, about forty men and twenty women, more than half from native communities, dressed out in colorful skirts, manifesting much red—an impressive sight. Always tough, severity of sacrifice varies among the many sundances and among the individuals who participate. Men’s chests and backs are cut and pierced, hooked to hang and pull from the Tree of Life, hooked to pull buffalo skulls until breaking free, bloody wounds of courage and pity, pleading and hope, to give of their own bodies, according to traditional teaching, the only thing that actually belongs to a human being. Women give flesh offerings from their shoulders, sometimes stitching eagle feathers to their arms. Sacrifice is prayer by gift of suffering and at this sundance, such activity is carried out with dignity and decorum, with much common support. Veteran dancers set the pace and mood. Macho is disdained, bragging easily identified. The prayer of an individual, his or her particular vision, elicits complete respect.
Every day, pipes are loaded with prayerful tobacco, taken into the dance and over the day given over to selected people outside the dance who will smoke it for the dancer, releasing his or her prayer to the universe.
Every day, water is remembered fondly. Our relationship and memory of water is deeply reset; our yearning for its gift; our appreciation of its identity in ourselves.
For four days, the people convene, the Sacred Tree sways in the wind, the singers drum and the dancers dance. It is an exciting monotony and much happens, in the wind and the sky and among the people. Oglala Lakota Tribal President John Yellowbird Steele shows up on tree day with the Oglala Sioux Tribe pipe, a beautiful red pipestone buffalo carving on a long stem. He asks for special prayers for the nation, as upcoming meetings will severely challenge its sovereignty; strength of resolve is sought. The Black Hills case is mentioned; all the Lakota tribal governments are holding firm so far: “The Black Hills are not for sale.” A family comes in with four horses to give away; a group of heyokas, or contraries, shows up, adding to the ceremony with their humorous pranks directed at the dancers, teased with buckets of water. High winds, clouds of dust, hot sands and sudden rain, meaningful clouds, exhaustion and renewal, tears of pain and hope.
Tunkashila-Wakantanka, Sun and Blue Skies, energy and movement, time. The Sun is grandfather. Throughout the Native Americas, the Sun is regulator, he is the day, illuminator, Creator himself or his central representation in Creation, Ahau among the Maya, Inti to the Quechua, steady, unchanging, Heart of the Sky.
Very special this year, the main prayer that unites all the dancers is dedicated to womankind — “the women.” Release from shame, from violence is sought. Native ways of North and South are recollected. The Maya Calendar days are pondered and indeed the days of the dance precisely correspond with particularly intense “women’s days” in the sacred calendar, significantly the 13 Ix. This is all noted. A mother and daughter from Navajo visit; during a break between dance rounds, they speak to the assemblage about a movement among women on reviving the practice of the ceremonial Moonlodge. Good teachings around the confusing subject of menstruation and ceremony emerge, dreams recounted. In the privacy of the men’s sweatlodges, words of respect, affection and support of the women and the families are offered. On these and many subjects, elder teachings are shared and pondered – true purpose of a sacred gathering. Men grow as the women concentrate their power.
On day four, as the dance concludes and final blessings are sought from the dancers, other ceremonies take place. There is “hunka,” or the making of relatives; there is a naming and honoring gifted in eagle feathers, where the venerable cowboy, Dayton Hyde, on his 16th year of hosting the sundance on his horseland, receives the Lakota name Wapiya Owanyanke, or Protector of Ceremonies; there are veterans’ salutes; there are giveaways by families and individuals. There is a big feed.