Pages from a Rez Journal
For many of us, our first introduction to the Sun Dance came in a movie -- "A Man Called Horse." Blond Richard Harris was the protagonist, matching his Sioux hosts grimace for grimace as he was hoisted off the ground by thongs attached to sticks poked through slits in his skin.
It's called "piercing." Like many other ancient cultures, some Plains tribes considered it worthwhile to "sacrifice" something (or someone) to promote the general welfare. The act might curry favor with one or more gods, or simply maintain the balance of the world.
The Sun Dance was such a sacrifice, pledged by men to honor their tradition -- sometimes to restore health to an ailing relative or the tribe in general, but always to ensure the world would continue. Absent such a ceremony, there was a real risk the universe would just fly apart and disintegrate.
The sacrifice involved more than piercing -- four days, dancing in place, puffing on eagle-bone whistles and fasting without food or water. They used to stare at the sun too, and I've never seen any account of subsequent blindness.
After the Conquest, Indian religious practices (which were at best pagan, at worst devil-worship) were systematically suppressed by the U.S. government. Sun Dance was considered especially barbaric, though the priests that condemned it might themselves have sanctioned fasting, or otherwise mortifying the body through flagellation, hair shirts, celibacy and other physical penances.
Eventually, Sun Dance was allowed again, but many tribes worried resuming the piercing would invite more condemnation and interference, so they left that part out. Even so, the ordeal is pretty stressful.
HolyElkBoy, a Lakota married to a Cheyenne, tracked me down every year before he went back to South Dakota for their Sun Dance, since they had resumed piercing; they loved our number-11 blades for a quick, relatively easy skin incision. I always gave him a handful of disposable scalpels, which lasted years.
The practice of sacrifice-by-piercing did resume elsewhere as well, but it was performed in private. In my exam room, I still saw the tell-tale scars when Cheyenne men disrobed.
Having been invited to attend such a ceremony, I drove my battered Ford pickup out into the hills and finally spotted three tipis, sited where the rolling sage and grass prairie gave way to thin Ponderosa pine forest on steep hills.
Later, near the tree line, BigLeftHand went first. LittleCoyote used a pocket knife to cut two parallel slits in the skin over his left breast, then over his right. A short, peeled chokecherry peg was forced through beneath the strip of skin between the slits on each side. To the protruding ends of each slender peg, they tied forked leather thongs, securing them carefully so they wouldn't slip off under tension. The thongs from both sides converged to form a single tough tether, which was tied to a tree approximately 40 feet away.
Facing the tree, BigLeftHand could lean backward away from the tree, pulling against the pierced skin, and causing intense pain. Then he stepped laterally, always tugging, working his way side to side in an arc, back and forth -- all night, in the dark, alone and suffering.
When we returned the next morning, a deep path had been worn in the grass, about 120 degrees of arc centered on the tree.
The skin was cut to free the pegs, and charcoal from the campfire rubbed into the open wound. A master of understatement, BigLeftHand grinned and said "that urt!"
It wasn't over.
Next, LittleCoyote made similar cuts on BigLeftHand's back, inside each shoulder blade, and placed new pegs. Fumbling a bit, LittleCoyote tied four heavy buffalo skulls in a line, then secured the new anchor thong to the first skull.
BigLeftHand couldn't just cut himself loose this time -- he had to tear away the pegs. He positioned himself at the top of the hill, then leaned forward and strained.
The skulls weren't heavy enough, or his skin was too tough, so instead of ripping free, he just took off down the hill, the line of skulls trailing behind, bumping and bouncing.
At the bottom of the hill, he stopped to catch his breath. This wasn't going according to plan. Finally, a couple women sat on the skulls to provide more resistance. With a final determined lunge, BigLeftHand tore the tented skin and popped free.
After the dangling skin strips were cut away and charcoal applied, it was time for a sweat-lodge ceremony to conclude the affair. We stripped down and entered the inverted bowl made of woven chokecherry sticks and covered with blankets.
We sat in a small circle around the central pit containing the glowing, sparkling rocks; as the entrance was covered, darkness enveloped us. After appropriate prayers and supplications, the water hit the rocks and we were inundated with hot steam.
Then the chanting began -- a deep, sonorous sound that seemed to resonate throughout the dense steam clouds, and our bodies and minds as well. Though I didn't know the "words," I joined in and kept pace. That alone would've altered anyone's consciousness, but combined with fasting and exhaustion, it assumed religious dimensions.
Afterward we feasted back in the tipi. I'd gained a new respect for an ancient ritual.
Jon Hauxwell, MD, is a retired family
physician who grew up in Stockton and now lives outside Hays.