I just returned from the Cheyenne-Arapaho Sundance with my son River. This is the celebration of a new year, according to the Indian ceremonial calendar, and is the most significant rite of the tribe. It was River's first time to attend, but for the record he spend all of his time with other kids hunting grasshoppers in the prairie grass.
The last time I was on this ground, it was for a cleansing ceremony at a time when the buffalo surrounded us. Tonight, we rumbled up the dirt road to a clearing where hundreds of people were gathered in encampments made of willow-limb arbors and tipis. Among the dozens of tipis in the prairie wafted the smoke of cooking meat over campfires as elders sat and whittled and children ran through the grass. In the center of the clearing is the Sundance arbor and a huge tipi in which the pledged dancers were preparing for their four days of ceremony.
In the Sundance, dancers pledge to spend their time without rest dancing around a center tree inside an arbor, baking in the sun and weary with exhaustion, but in total devotion to renewing life for all creation. The Sundance is a ceremony that teaches us to willingly expend ourselves for the sake of all life, to suffer on behalf of the suffering. Western cultural values tend to eschew and pathologize those beliefs, but in tribal cultures it is considered obligatory to work, perhaps even too hard, for the sake of others who suffer.
One family called us into their encampment to feed us. They had no idea who we were. But this is precisely the ethic I am describing: "What can I do for you? Would you please take what you need from me?" We shook hands and filled our bowls with hominy stew (a traditional Plains Indian dish) and a cold can of Sunkist pop (another cultural tradition of the Plains Indians). They couldn't remember my name so they just called me "Hey, Anishinaabe!"
We watched as the women lined up in the field to give their blessings to the ceremony in the form of tying a prayer cloth into the boughs of the center pole (since this ceremony represents renewal of creation, women are central to it and have the role of initiating the ceremony in this way). Then the encampment watched reverently as the center pole was lofted into place by the men and planted into the ground. Elders knelt as this happened, like a congregation before a sacrament.
Oh, and I also met an elder named Eugene Blackbear, who is very revered in the Cheyenne Tribe, and he ordered me to help him build his tipi. Notice that I didn't say "he asked me"; he pointed at a lodge pole and said, "You! Lift this and put it on the east side!" Then he directed me to fastening the seam pegs down the front of the tipi (since I am tall). Mr. Blackbear is a descendent of survivors of the Sand Creek massacre, and also appeared in the film "Last of the Dogmen".
So at the moment I smell like campfire smoke.
Tomorrow, River and I are leaving to head northward to the lands of the Ojibway, so he can see and meet more of the people. I'll also take him to the Black Hills and the site of the Wounded Knee massacre.