When I was a kid, my grandfather told me tales of his time with the Sioux Indians of the South Dakota Black Hills. How I yearned to be an Indian. As an adult, I revisited the plains Indians to study the Sun Dance. I’ve sprinkled in a few Sioux words, hopefully understandable in context.
(Tavernier’s 1875 Sun Dance illustration for Harper’s magazine)
IWOBLU ~ Blizzard
Snowblind wind rips bitter cold across the plains of my father’s fathers. It twists and tears at the thatched rooftop of our sweat lodge.
From within, somber chants and grey INIPI plumes purify, ascend, escape the center smoke hole and vanish in the bluster.
In my fast, I contemplate my own vanish. In my peace, I hear faint voices of TANIKA, the ancient ones, they echo in the wind’s howl.
We huddle naked in its gust awaiting our test, our purification. Brother, friends, Lakota all, we stand at brink of manhood.
A rhythmic beat on thin stretched buffalo drumskin calls dancers and chanters to their sacred places. One by one, we file inside.
KATA ~ Heat
rolls off glowing embers in the ceremonial pit. Our nostrils flare to the thick concoction of sacred smoke, rock frothed steam, and sweat soaked hide.
The purified form a sacred semi circle south of the buffalo hide doorway. Their bare chests boast scars of passage. Among them, my father looks on with pride.
Barefoot, we initiates line the north wall. Single file, we dance into the central arena, blowing maddening shrieks for courage on eagle bone whistles.
For an hour, more, we dance and sway around a single young cottonwood tree and painted buffalo skull perched at its base in the center of the lodge.
All the while, singing, whistling, dancing to frenzy. Then… abruptly,
AINILA ~ Silence
I’m scared, petrified, but dare not flinch. A path swells open before me in the crowd of men. I float into the opening and stretch out prone.
Elder Black Elk, medicine man, approaches. As he kneels beside me, he draws a blade from beaded sheath, same blade that scarred my father’s chest, and presses it to my own.
On each side, dual gouges rush bloody. He pinches up skin between each gash and stabs bone prongs from one gash through to the other, piercing each breast.
I rise, dazed with pain, my spirit rushes free from ignorant flesh through ruptured skin, submitting to the Great Spirit WAKAN-TANKA. My blood mingles with that of all slain warriors.
I watch transfixed as Black Elk stretches down a long hemp rope from the ceiling. He lashes tight two rawhide thongs at its end to the bone prongs protruding from my chest.
That done, the frenzy rises again and soars to climax. Their chants, wild calls and whistles beg me on. I back away against the rope, lean further, further back until my weight suspends on boney prongs.
Eternity passes away, and with it, consciousness.
HIHPA ~ I fall
I’m caught mid-fall by strong talons round my arms. I recognize my father, eagle now. He’s swept me up. I soar with him above grassy knolls, no snow. Below, I see our tipis, children scamper in and out.
My mother rises from her berries and peers aloft. Her hand first shelters eyes from sun, then waves in joyous recognition. Grandmother, long dead, now living, leaps and shouts with glee at her side.
And then, suspending talons slip away, retract. But I still fly! I look to my chest and find broad wings where my wounds were. Below, two eagle silhouettes glide across our land.
One fades from sight, I find myself alone. Ahead, the salmon river, beyond, the great black mountains. I soar on breakneck thermal to thunderhead and back. I dive beneath the falls and startle feeding salmon.
I splash up from the surface and soar above once more. My wings are gone, yet I fly on. There is no howl of wind. I am the wind. I whisper through the trees. The needles of ten thousand pines tickle through my being.
An instant later, all those pines are as many buffalo. I join in their stampede, we rage across the plain. The dust of our run blackens the sky. We are nation, TATANKA, LAKOTA, we are one.
UGNAHELA ~ Suddenly
my joyous run is cut abrupt. My vision fills with woe.
Vast rolling hills lay barren now, the grasslands lain to waste. The buffalo fall dead and dying. Salmon river trickles dry.
Where there were ten thousand pines, now as many stumps wither without shade. Worst of all, my greatest dread, I search but cannot find, my home.
OYATE, my people, our campsite, vanished. In this still, there are no ancient voices. I slash my arms, I weep and moan. WAKAN-TANKA, hear my sorrowed plea!
HAN BLECEYAPI ~ My Vision Cry
awakens me, my vision done. There is great excitement in the sweat lodge. Chunks of my flesh dangle on the rawhide thong, sacrifices torn free from my chest in my fall.
Father kneels at my side, Black Elk dances trance-like. I struggle for clarity, to return to this realm.
Outside, our cook fires pop and crackle. My week long fast is at its end. The tantalizing scent of roasting buffalo loin gives chase to fevered vision.
KOKI PE ~ Dread
I dread counsel with my father and with Black Elk. I must search for words to explain the great sorrow my vision portends for our land, the buffalo, and our people.