It was only my first time experiencing the four day event of the Whiteclay Sundance ceremony as a curious onlooker. It was the final day of the ceremony and the dancers would soon be done with their spiritual mission and fasting. The ceremony took place in a lodge that was framed like a circle but with a flat top and made of a wood from the surrounding area. The inside was enclosed with walls of brush. It was open from the top with maybe only eight poles serving as a roof base, but still able to let in the blistering summer sun.
So we all suffered under the blare of the scorching temperature. Some of the dancers had already collapsed from the heat, but refused to leave the lodge until their personal mission was completed. I was now seated on the right side where the women and women dancers sat, opposite of the men and male dancers. My body was beginning to ignore the heat on the back of my neck and I was now drawn to the sweet aroma of sage that had dominated every inch of the lodge. One of the drummers had gotten up and started to walk around with a shell full of burning sage for those who wished to smudge.
I had smudged almost all my life during ceremonies like this one, but never had to relay the meaning or purpose of it until now. My only definition of a smudge has been to take the smoke of the sage and spread it all over your body for prayer and healing. Smudging is a sort of medicinal practice to the Whiteclay people. Inside of the lodge there was a center pole wrapped in medicine cloths of all earthy tones: reds, greens, blues, yellows, browns, blacks, whites, and oranges. They were all organized towards the bottom of the pole.
There was also a carving of a ritual zigzag starting from where the cloths ended and continued all the way to the top. At the very top of the center pole there sat a buffalo skull. It had been painted with the same earthy tones of the medicine cloths. The roof also contained these colored medicine cloths that hung from the poles. These cloths were also a major part of the dancers’ regalia. The dancers were dressed in their power tinted cloths that were decorated with ribbons of all colors. They were wearing colors that were a branch off the medicine cloths.
Their heads were adorned in sage headbands that had been blessed by their relatives and also wrapped in cloths of their power color. Located on their wrists were sage wristbands which were similar to that of the sage headbands just smaller. Each dancer had their own individual power color, a color that had given them strength, belonged to their family member, had come alive at some point during their preparation for the Sundance ceremony, or a number of other reasons. Every dancer had their own color and some had the same, but the reason for wearing the particular shade was different.
The dancers continued to dance and pray for healings to their past and future sufferings. Sometimes these sufferings weren’t their own, but belonged to others close to them. I watched as the dancers’ focus intensified, their eager eyes on the center pole, simultaneously blowing their eagle whistle to the rhythm of song and drum. As I admired their disciplined bodies, I kept trying to figure out what the eagle whistles were for. I knew that they were given and not taken. I wanted to ask my grandma sitting next to me, but she was too deep in song.
So I enjoyed the ceremony and continued with song without ever finding out. My grandma did tell me that the harder they prayed, the harder they danced, and the harder they focused; the closer they found themselves in the spirit world. So maybe the eagle whistle helped them to enter the spirit world, also known to us as “Happy Hunting Grounds”. Still admiring the dancers I could see them physically there, but knew that they were detached from the current world and receiving strength in another. The dancers seemed to be seeking truths, understanding, and purpose.
As I was observing the dancers I could see bandages stained red on the men’s chests from the recent ceremony of piercing. During this sacrificial ceremony, two thin, individual cuts were made vertically on both sides of the chest or shoulders. The piercing materials, pegs and rope, were cleansed with an herbal medicine substance before they were placed into the openings of the slits. A peg would go through each of the two individual slits and then tied with a small rope on either side of these pegs. This piece of tied rope is then connected to another rope that contains a loop originating from the center pole.
The women’s piercings were usually done on their shoulders, but were covered up by their regalia. This act of flesh could be done for many different and personal reasons. Some may participate because they were offered tobacco by someone who wanted them to pierce for someone in their family. Others may have dreamt about fulfilling this piercing and therefore felt that it was their duty to go through with it. A more powerful reason could be that our “Grandfather Spirit”, had told them that they need to pierce for someone in their family who may become sick.
I never really knew which ones did the piercing ceremony for what reasons, only that they were a sacrifice of life. I kept thinking of the unbearable pain that these piercings would contain and thinking that I could never be able to allow myself to do that. Though the longer I saw myself in the lodge the more I began to realize that these dancers are in such profound prayer that they are probably numb to the outside world. In the final moments of song, dance, prayer, healing, and suffering, the lodge- keeper finally announced that the dancers could break free from the wall of brush that separated them from us.
Throughout their time in the lodge, the center pole had been a place of deep reflection and reverence. The space between the wall and the outside frame had been there place of sleep, dance, and vision. For four days these dancers were unable to eat or drink and it was finally over. The women around me and I helped the weak dancers break through their humble barriers. Everyone then immediately hugged and kissed their family members and friends. Tears of sadness and joy ran down the faces of everyone who had to watch their loved ones endure so much pain.
Everyone within the lodge was now gathered around the center pole, reaching out to touch the powerful medicine cloths bestowed upon by the dancers, singers, and spiritual ancestors. I saw my relatives who were living with internal sicknesses kissing the cloths and praying for healings. The emotional aura that had now been released through the joining of family and friends could only be described as “natural. ” There was nothing left to feel, but vulnerability. I walked outside of the lodge and waited as the lodge keeper broke the dancers’ fast with an offering of water.
Filled with this natural feeling of vulnerability, I welcomed one of my friends with a big hug as she shared her gifts of watermelon and water with us. I found myself unable to look away from her every action; she had this calmness to her and was very soft spoken after she came out. We had both been in the same lodge, but she was much more serene, almost as if all the hurt she’s ever felt was gone. She was a single mother and had endured many painful things throughout her life, yet at this moment she was able to feel at peace with herself.
Before she had stepped foot into the lodge I could tell she had a lot on her mind and she was constantly pacing the ground of the camp. So I couldn’t help but be curious about what had caused this complete change in spirit. As much as I wanted to know what she experienced and saw in the lodge, I knew that it was her secret to keep. One day I knew that I would have a true purpose to dance in the lodge and carry secrets of my own, but until then I would only support those who truly needed it.