The Sundance Ceremony of the North American Great Plains People (which includes territories of the Cree people in Canada) is a prayer for life, the renewal of the world and thanksgiving. Dancers make spiritual and physical offerings to ensure the well-being of others.
In the previous post, I wrote about the possibility of recovering an indigenous view of the world and how building bridges of understanding between indigenous and non-indigenous people can help create shifts toward a more holistic, ecological, spiritual, resilient and life affirming approach.
In this post, The Sundance, I share my personal experiences participating in the ceremony. I describe shifts in my awareness, my felt sense, and the energetic movements I experienced. Several times, I apply what I have come to understand from my long-time exploration of ceremonial practices to my experience of the Sundance. I also share a few comments about the traditional meaning and purpose of the Sundance while trying to avoid details that I feel are not mine to share, especially as as a non-Cree and non-Native
I offer this post to give a sense of what it is like to encounter an indigenous view of the world by participating in an indigenous ceremony. Of course, what I am describing is filtered through my perspective and what might be a given or transparent to an indigenous person may simply not be visible to me. *I have also included a range of images in this post. Please check out my comments in the footer.
Those of us coming to the Sundance for the first time were treated to a welcoming video call with the Sundance Chief and his wife. We learned about the Sundance, how to prepare for our trip, and the basic protocol of what to do and not do so that we would know how to be respectful. The tribes and wider community gather from far and wide to be together for about a week’s time. During preparations they set-up camp, prepare the sacred ground, and build the arbor in which the main ceremonial activities take place. The main ceremony lasts three to four days during which the Sundancers and the community dance to the Tree of Life. The Sundancers may dance and make offerings for the well-being of a relative, friend or to learn about their place in the universe, or they may pray for the renewal of the tribe and the Earth. Part of this cultural belief is that during the Sundance the Earth and its creatures affirm their vital connection to the creative power of the universe and its ability to regenerate.
To be a Sundancer is a big commitment. It means dancing each year for four years. Each year is dedicated to one of the four cardinal directions and each year the learning about oneself, one’s role in life and service on behalf of the community deepens. It is a journey of growth, and healing, and shifts in identity. And as the Sundancer benefits so does the community. They are indivisible.
A Sundancer prepares for many months observing a very specific protocol. This includes several days in the wilderness without food and water. This strengthens their connection and intention for the Sundance. A dancer usually has a guide or an elder to support them in this work. During the Sundance they fast again as part of their sacrifice. They may also choose to make offerings through piercing of the flesh. In many indigenous cultures, like this one, there remains a recognition that we do not own anything but are meant to be stewards of the earth and resources the earth provides. This also means that the only thing we may ever get close to owning is our own body and therefore it is really the only thing we can give away or sacrifice. The word sacrifice comes from the same language root as sacred and means to make whole again. Sundance Chief White Standing Buffalo reminded the dancers and all who participated several times “We sacrifice so that others shall live.” His words convey the strength of the sacrifice that is offered during the Sundance.
In comparison to the actual dancers, my own preparation was very small, even though my experience as a first-time participant was powerful none-the-less. In the description that follows, I will often use present tense to help bring to life the moments I am writing about.
It is unusually wet for the early summer season near Calgary where this Sundance is to take place. I am flying in from California and had reserved a spot in one of several tipis. However, the ground is so saturated that vehicles cannot enter the ceremonial site to set-up camp. Locals as well as people from across the western regions of Canada and other international “guests/helpers” from the US and Europe are standing by for word about when to arrive. Up to date weather and arrival instructions are shared via a private social media site. To my relief, I find I can walk in and that the tipi had already been set up. I, along with one other woman with whom I am sharing the tipi, are able to get settled.
In the early evening the two of us are invited to share a meal with the caretakers of the land who live nearby. When we arrive, a few people are already there to help with initial preparations. As dinner progresses more and more people join us around the dining room table. All are welcome to share the food and the companionship. A tangible sense of generosity permeates the room with the feeling that we are going to be “family” for the week. Comments like, “this is what family is all about,” and “we look after each other”, are offered not only like blessings but also like gentle instructions for us newcomers. The atmosphere generated over dinner invites me to reflect on “What is family?” Before leaving, I am grateful for the invitation to come by for coffee in the morning as the kitchen at the ceremonial site has not been set-up.
Connecting with the Natural World
Later in the evening I sit in front of the tipi, taking in the beautiful scenery of rolling meadows encircled by pine and poplar forests. Several horses are grazing on the open land nearby. The cool evening wind is a reminder I have to keep warm. A sea of white and dark clouds swiftly shifts across the sky mixing with the orange and purple of the approaching sunset. While relaxing into the embrace of the natural world, I also feel alert and excited in anticipation of the ceremony. Just as the sky is shifting color, I am shifting into another frame of mind, a state of awareness where synchronicities, dreams, and surprise encounters can have extra special meaning. I am already entering into a different way of tracking what is going on around me and in me. I know that readying for ceremony is a time when the natural world and its visible and invisible companions can have important messages. Over dinner, I had heard about the sightings of bears and mountain lions in these hills. Cautiously I had asked about if I needed to be concerned. I was assured I would not have to worry.
I fall asleep snugly tucked into my new sleeping bag atop a cot and extra blankets to keep me warm. I was warned that the temperature can drop below freezing and sudden rains can flood the tipi. In the middle of the night I wake up and look up through the opening at the top of the tipi. I notice the clear sky and a few stars and go outside. The night is beautiful. I crouch by a nearby tree and relieve myself and quickly return and snuggle back into my sleeping bag. Before long, I notice something warm and furry at my feet. Something in my sleeping bag is moving and trying to come out. I feel it wrestling its way up alongside my body and soon it pokes it’s head out and looks at me. Before I can do much, it already has jumped out of my sleeping bag and through the flap of the tipi. I am utterly astonished and even amused by what just happened and feel the thrill of having been visited by this creature. A moment later I wake up!!
In the morning, upon my telling my tipi mate about who had come to visit my dreams, she tells me she had heard me whistling in the night.
Later that day I share the dream with one of the Native grandmothers. She listens animatedly to my description. Together we determine the spirit visitor was a marmot. The marmot lives in underground burrows (sleeping bag) and chirps or whistles (as I did) when it comes out to survey the surrounding environment. The grandmother looks at me and tells me something important will happen for me during the Sundance. I smile. I take it as an invitation to open my senses and perception even more fully and to allow for the possibility that the natural world may be communicating with me in ways I may not fully comprehend.
The medicine of the marmot is to be watchful and observant. I am very comfortable with these qualities. The more I am comfortable with the uncertainty of new circumstances, the more I am able to see and perceive. The more I open to my inner knowing, the more my boundaries between the inner and outer world fade away. In this state I feel alive as well as awake and alert. Synchronicities that might ordinarily elude my attention seem to communicate directly to my soul. Similarly, the meaning of symbols or symbolic acts become more significant, the spotting of a wild animal may carry surprising messages, and reflections on one’s calling become more profound.
During one of the afternoons we are preparing for the main ceremony, I take a slow walk across the meadow. The horses are grazing near the forest and I notice their strengths and beauty. My first drum was made of horsehide. I remember, I have never managed to sustain a slow beat on that drum. The drum always seemed to want to take me on a journey. After a while I shift my gaze away from the horses and I keep walking. Then right in the middle of the meadow, I see a very large owl perched on a small single structure that was built just the day before. It now shelters all the most important ceremonial supplies.
The owl must be less than 50 feet away. To not perturb the bird, I hold still. As a spirit animal the owl is known to represent wisdom, intuitive knowledge, and being able to see what is usually hidden. Is there a blessing that the owl might be bestowing upon the Sundance, I wonder? Would there be new knowledge or insight revealed to the community and its participants this year? Or, might the owl have a special message for me? After a while, the owl slowly spreads its heavy wings and in a low bow with large strokes swoops across the meadow into the trees at the edge of the forest.
Traditional ceremonies are powerful events that are carefully crafted, follow specific protocols, are imbued with cultural meaning, and often have a transformative impact. I am aware that the attitude and the behavior of each participant can directly impact the collective experience and the overall power and integrity of the ceremony. Participating in the women’s ceremonies of the Aboriginal people of Australia, I learned that they shift their protocol and what will be and what will not be included, based on the energetics and sense of readiness of the group that has assembled. Sensitive to this, I resolved to be a careful observer in addition to showing up fully and with an open heart. I would pay attention to those guiding the ceremony but also open to pick up more and more cues. I wouldn’t assume too much and would follow the guidance of others who are more experienced. I also continue to track what was going on within me. Everything can become a meaningful teacher—no matter the choice we made and how it worked out.
Dancing to the Tree of Life: Restoring the Balance and Well-Being for All Our Relations
Family members and friends who are there to support the Sundancers play an important role. They have helped prepare the ceremonial site, are running the camp, and are now participating in the main ceremony. Everyone is singing, dancing and praying. The spiritual healing energy circulating through the community feels tangible.
The tree of life at the center of the arbor is the most important focus of attention. It is as though the tree is a direct conduit to the Great Spirit. The energy circles from the drummers and singers, to the dancers and supporters, to the tree, from there to the Thunderbird (a legendary creature and supernatural being of great power and strength) to the Sun and from the Sun to the Great Spirit, and then back again to the living world around us, the forest in the distance, the animals, the meadow, the drummers and singers and to the dancers and so on. As time goes by my sense of interconnectedness grows and our communal heart continues to widen. Our tireless feet keep dancing on the muddy ground beneath. The connection with all our relations and the Great Spirit becomes a lived experience. The prayers and sacrifice are received, and life is being restored and becomes more balanced.
As one of the supporters, I feel the vertical flow intensifying as my feet rhythmically lift up and down to the beat of the drum and my eyes focus on the tree. My heart feels the weight of my prayers and the deep longing for the prayers of the others to be heard. During the most open and energized moments, cleansing tears wash over my face, my body vibrates with aliveness and I feel completely at home in the intimate connection with the tree.
We are in ceremony from the early morning hours late into the night—singing, dancing, and drumming. Teaching stories are shared by the Chief and other elders. Specific healing rituals and needed breaks weave together over the course of the day. During the night before the final day of ceremony, I awake to the sound of more drumming and singing. But this time it is not coming from the arbor as before. The sound is a bit more distant and ethereal but still very clear. The image conjured in my mind is of the ancestors of this land having gathered in circle to respond in kind to our prayers. A peaceful feeling settles in as I welcome feeling even more certain that our prayers are indeed being heard. The next day I share what I have heard at night with the caretaker. He mentions to me that one of the Sundancers has also reported hearing the drumming and singing.
The ceremony goes on until all smaller ceremonies within the larger ceremony are complete, and the Sundancers drink their first water, and all are invited to a big feast.
The time has come to shift back into more ordinary conversation. I connect with several members of the Native community I have not had a chance to speak with. Having shared the ceremony, we now have common reference points for inquiry and reflection. The journey of learning and being worked by the ceremony beyond being there has begun.
The next two days are spent clearing the camp and leaving no trace. Following a specific protocol, the arbor is disassembled with the exception of the Tree of Life which remains standing.
I too prepare to return home. While I feel remarkably clean, after eight days without access to water for washing up, I look forward to the next shower.
Life as Ceremony
As I reflect on it now, I realize what I experienced at the Sundance over the course of the week was living life as ceremony. The notion of life as ceremony has captivated my attention for a long time and rather than trying to define it, I have come to treat it as a generative image that invites exploration. Here are some of the ways it evokes meaning for me.
- Life as ceremony supports leading life with a sacred intent. It invites us to treat each moment as an opportunity to be more conscious and to recognize that we are part of the web of life, like a thread in a beautiful weaving.
- It challenges us to bring more balance to who we are and what we do. It bids us to be tuned into the smaller and larger cycles and flows and that we can even embrace endings as a necessary process in the cycle of life.
- Life as ceremony helps us welcome the unknown as a condition for creativity and shows us how sacred knowledge is part of the transformative process. It helps us be grounded when confronted with complexity and adds the perspectives needed to hold the tensions within paradox.
- Life as ceremony helps us to be attuned to the unseen and shows us that each act can be made sacred with an open heart.
The Sundance for me was one of those rare opportunities to practice embodying life as ceremony from the time I arrived to the time I departed. The land on which the Sundance took place played an important part in it as well. It had been home to many other ceremonies before and is regarded as sacred land. It was easy for me to treat the land as an active co-host and participant. The Sundance strung together the sequence of ceremonies, healing rituals, and ceremonies within ceremony like a beautifully necklace. Constructing the arbor was a ceremony. Finding the tree of life was a ceremony. Erecting the tree was another. Altogether these activities and the protocols created a very strong container.
As someone who is interested in helping recover an indigenous view of the world, I have learned to look for the outer processes and structures, like the protocols, the ceremonial site and the actual build structures as well as the various roles that people take up, to make the whole thing happen. And also I pay attention to the inner experience of the participants and process dynamics of the group and the overall energetics that are harnessed and amplified by such carefully constructed containers.
Such containers work like a crucible which are able to withstand very high heat. The process of heating things up is the condition for combining elements and initiating a transformation. Ceremonial crucibles hold and amplify the inner experience of the group and each individual, generated by the coming together of all the intentions and prayers, as well as the origin stories, the drumming and singing and dancing. In this circulating intensity we are ‘cooked’, cleansed, and healed and instilled into us are lessons about the nature of life that are only available in this kind of embrace of the sacred. As I was dancing to the tree of life, it was as though I was naked in the face of the divine and that life was directly pulsating through me in a kind of sacred union. The experience lives in me still and is one I can return to again and again. It is a source of confidence that I am not only loved and belong but that I can also be a co-creative participant in helping heal and bring balance to this world. We are and can be engaged participants shaping our collective future.
*To bring some more aliveness to this piece, I am including a range of images. The first one is a photo of a dream catcher and smudging stick. The drawing of the Sundance arbor was spontaneously done by David Sibbet as I was sharing with him about my experience. The rest of the images are not directly connected to the cultural tradition of the Native American people.