THIS PAGE: FEEDING THE PEOPLE
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POLITICS: The Savage Polis
"As we drove out to the Pine Ridge Reservation of South Dakota on that warm mid-July morning, I was counting our blessings. My wife and I were once again headed for the family sun dance, a few miles east of the Calico community. In the back of our pickup truck we had the buffalo which we had purchased from May and Dave's ranch outside of Lander, Wyoming. It was quartered, frozen solid, wrapped in plastic, and sealed under a pile of tarps and blankets. Five days from now the fourth and remaining quarter would still be the temperature of chilled beef--and this accomplished without the aid of any refrigeration. Six days hence the sun dancers would have completed another stage of their vows. For some it would be the last, for some the second or third, or maybe even the first. My wife and I would each be completing our own individual pledges. She within the sacred dancing arbor, and I on the akicita (the camp 'police') squad. We were on the sun dance committee as well, and by bringing the buffalo we were helping to see to it that throughout the days of the sun dance, the people were fed.
It was a long drive half way across Wyoming, but as the day wore on, the weather continued warm and pleasant. Indeed, we had noted that the long term forecast for the next several days was for the same conditions to continue. That would go good for the sun dancers. Usually at this time in July the temperature in the Pine Ridge hills is in the hundred degree bracket. Yes, this year our blessings were many.
Although this is a brief essay into the timeless sun dance of the Lakota, I must remark here that there isn't much I'm going to say about the explicit ceremonial or procedural aspects of this rite. Plenty of others--'qualified' others--have written loads of information on those points. Black Elk (or Joseph Epes Brown), in The Sacred Pipe, or J. R. Walker in "The Sun Dance of the Oglalas," even Thomas Mails in his notorious Sun Dancing at Rosebud and Pine Ridge, and of course, John Fire in Lame Deer Seeker of Visions. (John Fire was our favorite heyoka.) Nah. I'm going to talk about what I once heard someone say was "the hardest job of all:" the processing, cooking, and serving to the sun dance camp and spectators of a buffalo during the days of the sun dance ceremony.
Anyhow, the sun dance remains, as John Fire said: "the Hanbleceya of the nation." It is like a gigantic community prayer, the prayer of the 'neighborhood', so to say. Although each of the dancers enters into this prayer with a highly individual--a very personal--vow, taken altogether, you could say that the sun dance adds up to a sort of communal 'prayer for a good year to come'. Occurring only once a year, this is a time which is at once festive and solemn. But I really do find it difficult to talk about. So I'll just leave that to the 'pros' I've mentioned above.
We arrived at Pte Woku, site of the sun dance ground, by evening. The next day would be tree day. After stashing three of the buffalo quarters in a cooler dug into the earth in the Ancient manner, we settled back to take everything in and set up camp. We visited with family and friends for a while, and then got down to having a good night's rest--our last chance to do that for the next five days. The frozen hindquarter which we had kept out of the cooler would, we hoped, thaw out in time to help feed the dancers, their families and friends, and the spectators (who are truly participants, too) on tree day and on the following day, the first day of dancing.
The sun dance arbor and encampment looked very good. During the previous few weeks my dad, younger brothers, nephews, some friends and I had put everything into order. The shaded arbor around the dancing area had been repaired where necessary, and loads of fresh pine boughs had been put on top of it in consideration of the comfort of the spectators and singers who would be sitting or standing under its shadow as the ceremony was conducted. The sweat lodges had been renewed, and the fire pit cleaned up. The whole area had been scoured of the previous year's refuse, and everything really had a very fine appearance. Off to the east we'd built a new cook shack, and it was the best we had put up yet.
Pte Woku is a very special place for such a holy ceremony. It is in the pine covered hills about five miles east of the main highway. Thirty eight years ago my younger brother was born here. It was the family home for years. In 1964, my dad participated here in the sun dance which he remembers as being his best.
The name of this place, Pte Woku, means "feeding the buffalo" in Lakota. The tribal elders tell about how long ago, when the buffalo and the Lakota were both free, some bison could always be found around this place. A friend who possesses some geological acumen once explained to me that this might have been because the spot is a ;geological pan' formation which collects natural mineral salts, and that the bison were coming there to get that. But I don't really know.
What is most appropriate about having the family sun dance at Pte Woku is that the buffalo is really such a central part of the ceremony. A hundred years ago there even used to be a portion of the sun dance known as the buffalo ceremony, and inasmuch as the sun dance is a petition for a good forthcoming year, the buffalo ceremony sought the health of the bison herds. But even today, the use and symbolism of the bison is evident everywhere in the sun dance. So that evening before tree day, my wife and I toured around the sun dance camp with my younger brothers and visited with dear old friends, some of whom we hadn't seen for a year. Everyone was in good spirits, and that night we slept soundly and well.
The next morning dawned clear and cool in the piney hills. As soon as the whole camp was up, everybody started getting busy with last minute chores. This was especially true of the dancers and their families and supporters, who all seemed to be busy making the sage wreaths, bracelets, and anklets which the dancers must wear while inside of the sacred arbor. Others went out to get more firewood for the sweat lodge and cooking fires, or more sage for the sweat lodge floors and sun dance altar.
At about three in the afternoon the entire sun dance camp loaded into their autos, vans and pickup trucks and drove in a caravan northward to a slough near Loneman. Here the camp's scouts had located the cottonwood tree which would serve as the sun dance can wakan--the sacred staff which when erected in its center would complete the construction of the sun dance arbor and the preparations for the sun dance itself.
The initial ceremony of tree day was conducted by my dad with the assistance of my two younger brothers in a manner similar to that described in some of the literature mentioned earlier. The tree, a rather large one, was ceremoniously chopped down, and carried to the truck which would be hauling it. It was carefully loaded on, and then we caravaned back to the sun dance grounds, the holy tree and spiritual men--my dad and younger brother--leading the way.
It was slow going, heading back with the sacred cottonwood, but this year all went very well, and no cars pulling up behind our long train of vehicles grew impatient with our slowness and passed us by. This was a good thing, for the occupants of cars which do speed past the sacred tree and the sun dance pipe--which is carried by the senior spiritual man--are sure to suffer some misfortune in the year to come. Not a few times in the past decade I have watched sadly as carsfull of young Lakota people have raced past us as we were in such a procession, looking quizzically in our direction with expressions on their faces which seemed to ask: "What are those fools doin' driving so slowly?" But this year that didn't happen.
As soon as we got back to the encampment the long ceremony of erecting the can wakan commenced. This would be the culmination of the tree day activities. By this time the centrality of the bison to the entire ceremony is very readily apparent. It is everywhere. Near the top of the holy tree are tied two small rawhide effigy figures, one a man and the other a buffalo. These are made of buffalo rawhide with the hair still on. Where the tree forks a bundle of green leafy chokecherry branches known as "the thunder being's nest" is tied. Just below this there is tied a buffalo skull. A buffalo skull will also serve as the centerpiece of the sun dance altar during the following four days. So too will buffalo skulls be the altars for the men and women dancer's purification lodges. During the two phases of the tree ceremony, the tree is painted with red paint. Here, whenever we can get it, we prefer to use buffalo blood. Before the centerpole is raised, pounded dried buffalo meat (wasna) and tobacco are placed into the hole which will receive it. All of these aspects of the ceremony remain the same as the Ancient time of its beginnings.
Meanwhile, back at the cook shack, a relentless work marathon has begun for the cooks and their helpers. For the next four days they'll be campground cooking for a couple of hundred people a day. Imagine, if you will, the logistics of cooking a quarter of buffalo a day over a campfire.
This year several other families had also volunteered to provide whole beef cows for the feasts. Surely there would not be a single hungry person in camp, and that is good--exactly as it should be.
The feast on the evening of tree day is an important one--especially for the men and women who will be dancing. It is now Wednesday evening, and after this meal, the dancers will not eat or take liquids again until the dance is over, on Sunday afternoon. This is a part of the sacrifice which they will make on behalf of their individual vows, and on behalf of the entire Lakota nation itself. The 'main course' of this feast is a classic Lakota meat stew. On this evening both buffalo and beef were being served by the Akicita and other helpers to somewhat more than a hundred people. But there was plenty of other food too--potato salad, fired bread, chicken soup, berry pudding, soda crackers, coffee and mint tea, and cake.
After the big feed was over, and the sun had set, the dancers slowly drifted over, one or two at a time, to the men and women dancers' tipis where they would begin their period of isolation in the dancers' compound. There they would remain separated from their families, friends, and the spectators until the dance was concluded. For the dancers, the sun dance would commence later on that evening when they entered the inipi for the first of several times.
Over the next four days there would be four great feasts occurring at around midday, and buffalo stew would be at the center of each of them. Later on, in the evenings, most of the spectators would return to their homes nearby, and there would be plenty of leftovers with which to feed supper to those remaining camped at the sun dance grounds. When the spectators left for home, many of them took with them bowls and containers filled with food from the afternoon's meal. With this they will feed their relations who were unable to attend the ceremony. This too is very traditional, and is an important part of the ceremony, for it includes into the sun dance those individuals who couldn't attend.
Every morning at the crack of dawn the cooks were up preparing for the day's big feast. After all, cutting up a quarter of buffalo into stew meat is in itself no small chore. But first, the camp cooks had to feed some breakfast to the fire tenders, the akicita, the singers, other helpers, and everyone else in the camp who desired it. Sometimes we were lucky and got buffalo steak or buffalo liver with our coffee, eggs and potatoes.
On the fourth day the largest feast of all was prepared for after the ceremony was concluded, for on this day the greatest number of spectators were present. This day was the piercing day, when those of the men dancers who have vowed it would make the sacrifice of having their flesh pierced. At mid-morning a buffalo robe had appeared in the dancing area at the base of the tree, and it was upon this robe that those men who had vowed a piercing would be laid to receive it.
After their sacrifices and the dance itself was concluded, the first persons to be fed were the dancers, who, after all, were coming out of their fast. They were served strong beef and buffalo broth, another very special soup, and buffalo tongue, as well as tea, coffee, and juices (soda pop and gatoraid are always favorites too).
Then, seemingly as suddenly as it was upon us, the sun dance was over. It is really quite amazing how quickly the encampment usually breaks up after the ceremony is finished. As the sun set on that balmy Sunday evening, the several of us who remained there sat around the dwindling flames of the sweat lodge fire discussing the events of the foregoing days, and the goodness of that great prayer. We were filled with a warm glow of satisfaction, knowing that we had again done well, both spiritually and materially, at feeding the people."*
Although Ota I YanKa's account is brief, in discussing a seldom-mentioned fragment of the Lakota sun dance ceremony, he subtly but succinctly presents the essence of the continuity of the most Ancient Lakota spiritual traditions. Enfolded within these traditions like the layers of an onion, and touched upon in Ota I YanKa's remarks, lie the essential virtues of the Lakota nation: Wisdom, Generosity, Courage, and Fortitude. The constitution of the Lakota nation took its shape from the honoring of these virtues. And it continues to live through them.
However, just as surely as Ota I YanKa's intentionally fragmentary description is to the point, it is inevitable that somewhere there is an anthropologist standing ready to point out that Ancient Lakota people did not drive pickup trucks, or eat potato salad. Such a critic would also be quick to note that some of the few details which Ota I YanKa mentions do not coincide exactly with the accounts of Walker, Black Elk, Mails, and others. Such a critique, however, must be noted to express a studied ignorance of Lakota society.
From the deepest Antiquity there have been seven spiritual ways, paths, or clans among the Lakota nation. Each of these is unique, different and distinct from the other. The details of the manner in which the ceremonies of each is conducted differ from the others. The eagle's way and the Yuwipi are the clans which are currently active among the Lakota.
Walker was inducted into the buffalo way, and accurately described its ceremonies. The literature has never described Black Elk as being, among other things, a heyoka. But it should have. The ceremonies which Mails describes were essentially Yuwipi. The sun dance which Ota I YanKa discusses was conducted according to the laws of the eagle's way, and although a few bits and pieces appear here and there about this path in the existing literature, the eagle's way has had the good fortune of remaining largely unknown to most of the 'professionals'.
This forces us upon a final caution to be observed in a general survey such as this current work. Everything you have seen must be placed within its proper context. The societies which we have discussed here are complex and difficult to describe with absolute precision. The parts of them should not be taken as depictions of the whole. When Brown, for example, quoted Black Elk as saying "the sweat lodge always faces to the east," he created a misunderstanding of tremendous proportions. What Black Elk said was true for a Yuwipi person, or for a heyoka, but it was certainly not true for all Lakota.
In interacting with the material in this volume, the reader must remember, above all, that what has been presented is a general introduction, and not a set of laws or ironclad rules. This has been a commencement of understanding, rather than an ending.
"Feeding the People--the Sun Dance at Pte Woku", first appeared in Buffalo! The National Buffalo Association, Ft. Pierre, South Dakota, January-March (Vol. 17, No. 1), 1989.
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