Thursday, December 24, 2009
A Christmas Gift for YOU!
This is a story about tree day and it is a gift to my blogging friends who have given me so much this year. Tree day isn’t about a Christmas tree-- it is about a sun dance tree.
It is a “gift” for you because spiritual experiences are rarely spoken of in Lakota culture and are seldom written down. In the dominant culture it is our tendency to want to (verbally) share spiritual experiences with others, in Lakota culture it is the opposite.
One way to explain this is like when you hear a really funny joke for the first time and you laugh so hard that you can’t breathe. Then, as the joke circulates from person to person, you keep hearing it and, each time, you laugh a little less. Over time, the joke loses its power to amuse you and you do not laugh at all.
It is this way with spiritual things. Sometimes we have an experience that we KNOW within ourselves was a direct experience with God/spirit, we feel the touch of spirit and in that moment have no doubts.
Speaking about such things to unbelievers diminishes the experience and robs it of the ability to empower you. Held within and thought of with gratitude, the moment helps you keep your faith.
And so in Lakota culture, when someone shares one of their spiritual stories with you it is a sign of love and respect and shows that they believe you will honor the moments when spirit touched them, just as they will honor yours.
So with all of that said, I give you my story of tree day, 2009.
T R E E D A Y
“They’ll never get this tree up,” my best friend, Jeanne, said, with tears in her eyes. “This is the tallest sun dance tree I’ve ever seen,” said someone else in the crowd.
To an outsider looking at the situation from a completely mundane point of view, the scene would have seemed pointless and impossible -- a bunch of Lakota Indians had cut down a cottonwood tree, transported it to the Sun Dance grounds, and with the help of a few visitors such as ourselves, were attempting to stick the tree in a hole in the ground and get it to stand upright so they can dance and pray around it for four days whilst going without food and water.
That is the mundane point of view, but of course there is more to it than that, as this story will explain. Sun Dance is an annual ceremony celebrated in the summer. The actual Sun dance lasts 28 days, but the last four days are the ones in which the dancing and most of the ceremony take place.
A person who is invited to Sundance (you must have an invitation) must spend some time preparing themselves for the experience. You never know what to expect when you attend a ceremony such as this and nothing but the experience gives you this knowledge.
During the sun dance, which lasts four days, the dancers do not eat or drink anything other than the sage water they are given during the sweat lodges that take place two or more times a day. From sun up until sun down, they dance and pray for everyone except themselves.
The day before this starts is known as TREE DAY. On tree day, either the medicine man himself or a helper goes to an area with trees to find the cottonwood tree that would stand at the center of the sun dance circle. Cottonwood trees are sacred to the Lakota because they are the trees that taught the Lakota how to make a tipi. Its leaves are shaped in the conical pattern of the tipi. Another reason the cottonwood tree is so sacred is because if you cut an upper limb crosswise, inside will be a perfect five pointed star which represents the presence of the Great Spirit and heavenly powers.
When the medicine man or the helper is guided to the right tree it is marked somehow-- usually by attaching a red cloth to it-- red being a sacred color, as all living creatures are red inside. That evening the people involved in the ceremony go to the tree and offer prayers before it is cut down.
During the Sun Dance, it is believed that the spirit of God will literally inhabit the tree to listen to the prayers and to reach out and touch the people there. The tree is cut down, usually by the men who have pledged to pierce during the sun dance (which I will explain another time). The tree is cut down in a ceremonial way that I don’t think I should write about. Suffice it to say, that the tree is not allowed to touch the ground-- ever.
The men move it onto a flat bed trailer and haul it back to the sun dance grounds where it is carried to the center of the Sundance circle from the west.
The dancers and their friends and family who will be there to support them during their prayer ordeal will have placed their prayer intentions into cloth bundles of sage and tobacco. As the tree is brought into the circle by the men, everyone ties their prayer bundles onto the tree.
Now comes the hard part. For every man who will pierce, a rope is attached to the tree. The tree must be placed into a hole and secured so that it will not fall for one year. The men stand on the west side and try to push the tree up, while the women hold the ropes on the eastern side and pull. The tree cannot be dropped or ever touch the ground.
This is a 30 or 40 foot tree, the weight of which is outrageous. When you are there observing this for the first time, you realize that from an engineering/human strength point of view, what they are trying to do is not possible. That is the point. Humans cannot do it. It is the people’s faith that raises the tree.
Trees reach into the earth with their roots and towards heaven with their branches-- and must do both in order to live. They teach us how to live and be strong and balanced. But when you cut one away from the roots for the sun dance, it is a reminder that for these few days, it is by spiritual power alone that we must live. Human and earthly resources cannot make the sun dance happen. It is a yearly renewal of your faith.
It took nearly four hours to get the tree up last summer. The more tall men that are present, the better-- they can push the tree up higher and help it have the momentum to go up. Traditionally, women do not do that part. But after hours of effort and given my height, the medicine man asked me to go on the other side with the men and help push the tree up.
After another hour of trying and praying, “Grandfather, Great Spirit, take pity on us,” I was exhausted, everyone was, we were about to drop when finally, there was a moment when I felt the weight of the tree leave my shredded up hands and I KNEW it was going up, up, oh my God, it was upright. I was in awe.
Some white people from a church group who had been invited fell to their knees. The women and some of the men were crying. We had all taken part in a miracle, and everyone knew it.
Once the tree is up, those holding the ropes quickly fan out and keep the ropes tight to keep the tree from falling, while some of the men secure the base of the tree in the hole. This part is not easy either.
My friend Jeanne is native, but was raised here on the east coast and had never seen a sun dance before. At the moment that the tree went up the look on her face was priceless. I saw the light go on when she realized that she was in new territory and that the next four days would be special.
I told her ahead of time that once you attend a sun dance you are never the same again. Maybe she thought I was being melodramatic. Most people think that, until they attend for the first time.
The next four days consisted of one amazing experience after another. One of the most memorable ones for me is about butterflies.
Visitors to the sun dance try to provide support and resources that the Lakota do not have. Jeanne and I went out and bought a cooler which we filled with ice and drinks and put it near the drum and singers, which they appreciated.
The dancers are sequestered and do not eat, but all of the supporters and the drum group must eat three times a day, fire wood is needed for the sweats, etc. The Lakota are poor, they don’t have the resources for these things. People like us are generally led by spirit to provide for the sun dance.
So I did what I could. And I was praying a lot, especially about my weight and health. The first day of the sun dance, Jeanne and I went to our tents for something during one of the breaks and there were about ten butterflies hanging around the door to the tent. They weren’t on anyone else’s tent, only mine. I thought it was a little odd but ignored it at that point.
Later, their numbers had increased and this kept going on. The next day, we were sitting under the arbor where the supporters sit --- so their sun dancer can see them and be encouraged. And those same kind of butterflies kept landing on my legs and feet. Jeanne was laughing and said, “Look, your friends sent out a search party for you.”
We went back to the tent again at lunch time and nearly fainted as now the butterflies numbered in the hundreds. They were all over my tent, especially the door. I was afraid to try to get in there as I didn’t want to hurt them.
I couldn’t stand it anymore so I went and got some tobacco (a traditional sign of respect) and gave it to a medicine elder in return for what they would say about the butterflies. She said the butterflies were messengers of spirit that represent kisses from heaven. She said they were thanking me for helping the Lakota people. I cried all day.
All of the visitors and supporters were camping together about a hundred yards from the sun dance circle. That night, there was a violent wind storm, more powerful than anything I had ever experienced. When we got up in the morning, every single tent there had been ripped apart by the wind and people were sleeping in their cars. Tent poles were snapped in two. The field was littered with tent pieces and people’s belongings that had blown away.
But our two little one-man tents were completely intact. Not only that, but a box of supplies outside of our tent did not move one inch. Jeanne and I were in awe. So that is the way that our four days went-- and of course I cannot wait to go back.
Some of you who are not inclined to believe in spiritual things may be looking for “rational explanations” as to how a handful of people lifted a 40ft tree or why butterflies covered my tent en mass and no others or why everyone lost their tents in the windstorm except for us……….. But how about if, as a holiday gift to yourself, you choose NOT to look for “rational” reasons, but view these experiences as exactly what they seem to be and accept my telling you as a gift to inspire your accepting at least the possibility of a spirit realm.
Merry Christmas everyone!
This is the area where we camped and we harvested that wild sage you see there and brought it home. The Lakota call it PEJI HOTA meaning, grey grass.
~ Some things must be believed to be seen.~ Ralph Waldo Emerson