Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Watonga: Part Two - The Sundance

After Gordon Yellowman's presentation Wednesday evening (see Part One), Deacon Jim announced he had some bad news and some good news. The bad news was we would not have a sweat, as we have during past Vacation Bible School sessions. This particular VBS had been scheduled at the same time as the Sundance, and all the medicine men who might have lead a sweat were committed to be at the Sundance. The good news was that we were invited to attend a practice run of the Sundance Thursday evening. Gordon had invited us, as one of the medicine men officiating over the Sundance.

The group met at the future site of the Oakerhater Whirlwind Mission at 7 o'clock Thursday. Deacon Jim fed us leftover brisket, which was even better the second time. Several cars caravanned east on Hiway 33, then southeast on the back roads to arrive at the campground where the Sundance was being held. The camp was a little south of an Indian Gaming Casino, on a bluff.

There we saw something few have seen outside of the movies, or tourist attractions around Anadarko, Oklahoma: teepees and true brush arbors.

In fact as we were waiting for the practice to begin, several of us watched as a teepee was being constructed.

The Sundance is a type of vision quest done in honor of the sun spirit which lives in the southeast. When Cheyenne were a warrior culture, it involved a form of mutilation. The dancer would have eagle talons inserted in his pectoral muscles, then lean back from the talons with his full weight, until the talons tore through the muscle and skin. The dancer would pass out, then have his vision. A Hollywood version of this rite may be seen in A Man Called Horse.

Since the Cheyenne are no longer a warrior culture, it is no longer necessary for the dancer to "prove" himself in this way. I shall describe what we saw in the practice in a moment.

We stood by the side of a gravel road for some time. Deacon Jim said a caller would cry out when the ceremony was to begin. After standing in the sun for about 30 minutes or so, Marion Yellowman invited us to sit under her canopy. Marion is Gordon Yellowman's wife, and we were joined by his mother, June Yellowman. She offered us drink, shade, and shelter.

Shortly after that, the caller started making his way through the camp. He sang out the names of the clans which were sponsoring the dancers. See, the dancers had pledged to dance on behalf of several different clans. More time passed, then Jim said it was alright for us to go up to the center of the camp, where practice was being held.

A large teepee was near the center, and was the site for the practice. The actual Sundance Lodge would be built on Friday. The center post of the lodge would be the trunk of a cottonwood tree - because cottonwoods are very efficient at finding water.

Deacon Jim told us to sit well behind the clans and the other Indians gathered around the tent. For this reason, I had some trouble hearing or seeing everything that went on - but I can record some impressions.

A few of us started quietly visiting just as someone asked, "Who are those men wearing hoods?" And sure enough, six men came running from the east. Three wore something over their heads - it might have been a hooded shirt or a towel; in any case, we could not see their faces. The other three did not wear anything over their heads.

The men with hoods were the dancers, actually called Pledgers because they pledge the dance to the different clans. The other men were Painters, who will paint the Pledgers with the clan colors before each round. When I saw the Pledgers, I immediately thought of boxers - partly because of the hood, and partly because of the way they carried their bodies. Very solid, very packed into itself.

The Pledgers will pray in the Sundance Lodge for four days, and they make a commitment to do this for four years. They fast during this time. Most especially, no water is allowed in the lodge. Between rounds, the Pledges may take a sip of water and spit it out; have water poured on them; or suck on a bit of sage which has been soaked in water.

Each round consists of three songs. People on the outside of the tent sing these songs, to drum rhythm, as the Pledgers dance. To western eyes, it might look like they are running in place. At the appropriate point in the song, the Painter reaches over and puts an eagle bone whistle in the Pledger's mouth (the whistle has been hanging by a leather chord around the Pledger's neck). The Pledger then blows the whistle as he dances.

Following these three songs, a warrior story is told. After that, the Pledgers take a break and are allowed to leave the lodge.

The Pledgers do this for three or four rounds. All this must be completed before nightfall. After each round, the clans send large trays of food into the lodge. The Painters carry in the food; it's believed the food is blessed just by being in the lodge. Remember the Pledgers are fasting all this time, so they get to see and smell this delectable food several times during their fast. Maybe not as bad as having eagle talons rip through one's chest, but still pretty intense.

If you go to visit a Sundance - as two in our group have - you must sample food from each clan. It's considered rude not to gorge yourself on the offered food.

We stayed through one full round of the practice session, and the first two songs of the next. When we got to our cars, it was about 10:00; we got home at a quarter of midnight.

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