Blood Drops and Butterflies: My Experience as a Supporter at the Lakota Sun Dance Ceremony

Some days I can't believe the places and experiences my spiritual path has led me to. I believe that when you set an intention, like really set it from an open heart; willing and ready to receive, the universe will bring on the magic. My recent request had been this: a deeper understanding of my relationship with the spiritual practice of others. Ask and you shall receive. My partner and I had the fortunate opportunity to have been invited in supporting a leader in our community as he danced in the Native American tradition, the Lakota Sun Dance Ceremony. Did I learn more about myself? Yes. Was it comfortable? Not at all.

 Can you spot the dragonfly?

Can you spot the dragonfly?

What is Sun dance?

When most people hear "sun dance," it's common to think of the Sundance Film Festival. That's what had come up for me as well. However, the Sun Dance I'm referring to in this blog post is a grueling spiritual ceremony of personal and community sacrifice that has been taking place within the Native Lakota people well before America was "founded," slash stolen (I'll leave that there). Up until the late 1970s, US laws were put in place with the intention of supressing indigenous people from openly participating in Sun Dance or any sort of cultural practices.

Preparation

Dancers spend the year preparing mind, body, and spirit for the ceremony through sweat lodges, solo vision quests, and a very specific diet for a set period of time. When it comes time to dance, the participants gather around a single tree in a circular cleared arena. They are then pierced through the skin of the chest on the left and right side, in order to be tethered to the tree by rope. In this sacred space they dance for 4 days with no food or water, focusing on a single eagle feather at the top of the tree and their prayer. In this time period, friends and family support in an outer circle behind the participants by dancing and singing. The energy and support of the community are both incredibly important in in helping the dancers push forward in this period of sacrifice and spiritual challenge-- as they have very little energy themselves. 

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What is the Purpose?

I know this sounds like a brutal tradition, and it kind of is! I experienced a bit of culture shock during my time supporting. There is a purpose though... The tree they are attached to is not just about their personal prayer, but also of those of the community. Black, white, red, yellow, and blue strips of fabrics are set with single prayers from supporters and community and tied to the branches of the tree. Prayers for peace on this planet, healing from sickness, prayers for the suffering, and so on. The dancers become a vessel to hold and strengthen these prayers through their personal sacrifice and focus. As a result of the preparation, and essentially sacrificing their flesh, they connect to spirit, experience visions, and receive messages from guides-- all while being physically tethered to the tree and shuffling in place under the hot sun. During this time, women are also participating in ceremony, but in a very different way...  

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A woman's Ceremony: The Moon Cycle

When entering the grounds supporters like myself had the option of giving a small flesh offering. A small prick of skin to be attached to a prayer flag and tied to the center tree. I didn't feel the call to give an offering, and I was told that women give an offering every month through our cycles. The Chief's wife spoke of the power of the ceremony women go through monthly, the imbalance of power between the masculine and feminine in western society, and the desperate need for women to fully step into their power and be supported. The well being of the planet is dependent on this support. It was also explained that during the moon cycle grandmother earth is speaking, and it is to be honored by both men and women as ceremony. Without women, there would be no life! This simple, single fact, is what makes women so incredibly powerful. This is also one of the reasons women on their moon cycle stay isolated from the ceremony at a separate lodge. I was told a story of a woman who had been in menopause for 7 years began menstruating and stories of other women beginning their cycles at odd times during the ceremony due to energy of the ritual being so potent.

 Foraged finds.

Foraged finds.

Breaking the Skin

Although the ceremony has a strong emphasis on supporting the participants, it is also a place where radical change can take place in supporters and helpers. The experience was strong enough to move tears through some, to bring up emotions that need to be looked at, and to provide much needed insights about life. It's also not uncommon to have more vivid dreams and to be more sensitive to the surrounding energies. All of which I experienced myself in just a few days of attending.

On the final day of fasting and dancing, the dancers free themselves from the by breaking the skin attached to the rope and tree-- releasing the prayers. The prayers stay with the tree for a full year until the next dance takes place. Afterwards the dancers go into one last sweat lodge together, then join their communities to smoke red cedar bark out of a scared pipe called a chanupa, and finally feast afterwards.

What I learned

I honestly struggled a little bit with the discomfort I was feeling watching the exhausted and moaning dancers attached to a tree by the skin of their chest. There were moments when it made my body tense up and my eyes and mouth jolt wide open. There was blood, but then there were also butterflies and dragonflies dancing between them. It was painful and beautiful at the same time, just as life is. It made complete sense to me, as much as I wanted to reject and throw out the experience all together. I questioned if this experience was actually "spiritual." My methods of connecting to self and spirit have been through silent meditation, through psychedelics, through heartbreak, and sometimes through uncomfortable yoga positions, but never through blood-- which I always associated with darkness. I'm the type of woman who like to hang out in the light with the butterflies and babies, not the darkness. But who am I to dictate the right and wrong way to connect to source, the universe, to self?  I was reminded that spiritual growth isn't always comfortable or done this or that way. It's painful and beautiful at the same time, and there is no linear path to enlightenment. All paths lead to the same place, even if they appear different.

*How do you connect to spirit? Do you have rituals, ceremonies, or practices that help you grow spiritually? 

Due to the effort in keeping the space sacred, no images were allowed of the actual ceremony.