I had no idea what I was to do as a supporter for John and others during these four days of purification before the Sun Dance, but I quickly learned. We were so tired after that first sweat when we arrived that John and I just dumped everything out of the van and went to bed as soon as we could. It was good to see Spencer again, Gary’s Dad, and to meet some others. In the morning, we prepared the camp. I would be staying in our tent during the dance, and John would be in the men’s tipi. We might be able to greet each other if we passed one another, but we would not really be able to talk until the dance was over.
As I worked, I watched the magnificent tipis being raised. One large tipi was to be for the men, and the other would be for women dancers. All dancers were instructed not to touch the water and not to use sharp objects during purification. They were to drink sage tea. As a supporter, I quickly learned what I was to do. There were requests from the moment I stepped out of the tent that John and I put up until dark. Susanne, can you get me sage tea, help in the kitchen, go to town and pick up meat? Can you find colored cloth? At times, I felt frustrated, but then I remembered, “Do your best, and that is good enough.” The next day of purification, Gary asked, “Susanne, can you make prayer ties to go completely around the arbor?”
On the second day, we rose early and made breakfast for everyone. Then I began making prayer ties. Prayer ties are small pouches with a prayer in each pouch attached to one continual string of yarn. As the sun rose and became hotter, I was asked to go into town to pick up supplies. Anita went into town with me. Upon our return, it was back to prayer ties. I had two little visitors, Dace and Rae Dawn. They were 4 and 7. They quietly watched until I asked if they would like to do some prayers. Yes, they did! We each said our prayer out loud as I showed them how to make prayer ties. They were so proud. They also asked me how to pray. I explained that was the easy part. They could say a prayer for their granddad, their aunts, something they were worried about, or maybe the dancers for the Sun Dance. Dace said, “Susanne, my Granddad (Spencer) will be so proud that I know how to make a prayer tie. So here I was, sitting on reservation soil, teaching children being raised in the traditional way how to make prayer ties.
Allen, Anita, and I worked as a team as we were all from the Oklahoma group. When Anita and I left camp to get supplies, others were going to gather sage. Allen remained to help dancers needing assistance, plus he worked in the kitchen preparing the next meal. Dancers were to eat lightly for the four days before Sun Dance. When Anita and I returned, I always immediately returned to the tipi to work on prayer ties, and she helped Allen. Dace and Dawn often joined me until I finished. I looked forward to their visits.
More and more people kept showing up. I continued to watch and listen. Gary brought white people from Oklahoma. The rest were Native Americans. We were being tested. They seemed to ignore us and loved the fact that we were working hard while they were resting. Some may have been dancers, but we really did not know. I was quite aware that I was on a reservation with people that were different than me. It was my first time to be “the one they were prejudiced against.” They were watching me and waiting for mistakes that might confirm what parents and others had taught them about whites. A little boy started coming over to see me when I was sitting on the back of a truck. His Dad kept calling him back. He did not want him to talk to me. In town purchasing supplies for the camp, I stopped to get a coke. As I entered the restaurant, the few persons, all Native Americans, sitting in booths were laughing and talking until they saw me. They became silent and stared, never taking their eyes off me. I got my coke and gave them a kind smile as I left, but they did not return my smile. This was truly an opportunity for me to see what it felt like for so many people of color when they entered a place where others stereotyped them according to what they had been taught or believed because of a situation that programmed them to believe what they had been told automatically. All the way back to camp, I thought about how awful they had been treated. Part of what they had been told was true, and hopefully, all guilt and dislikes on both sides can eventually be released and healed. What is in our consciousness today?
Back at camp, Anita and I were asked to find gummy sap needed for the Sun Dance. We had not seen trees. We asked where to go, and they told us to find the trees. Obviously, this was a test. We left and did find the trees by turning in a different direction than we normally went—big, beautiful trees. We soon learned that where the tree’s bark had been damaged, maybe from a storm or perhaps a lightning strike, there was a gummy sap oozing from the place where the tree was hurt. It took a while to gather what looked like “enough?” Upon our return, we were proud to take our find to Spencer, Gary’s Dad, that had asked for it. He said that we did well, but they no longer needed it for the eagle bone whistles to call the eagles. They already had some. This confirmed we were sent on a treasure hunt to see if we could do it. However, we passed this test. Now we wondered what would happen next.
The following morning, everyone rose and dressed to cut the tree for the Sun Dance. We all gathered into pickups and automobiles to go to a place where there were cottonwood trees. A tree that stood tall was chosen. We stood silent as a young girl/young lady, a virgin, was handed the ax to make the first swing to cut down the tree. Then each dancer, including John, did the same. The ax was then handed to every person that had not yet swung the ax. When the tree was ready to fall, the dancers lined up to catch it as it came gently down. I watched as so much water was released from the bottom of the tree when it fell. I was surprised by the amount of water within it. The tree was never allowed to touch the ground. This entire ceremony began with prayer, and prayers continued. To my surprise, we saw that when we returned to the cars, some dancers and other men began to walk as they carried this large tree that just gave its life so the people could live. I thought about the healing that will take place, prayers that will be answered, and how the earth will be helped. When we returned to camp, the drum began. We all waited on the tree. I later learned that if the men had to set the tree down along the way, it would be laid on a bed of sage gathered a day earlier for this purpose.
When the tree arrived, it was laid down on a bed of sage placed so that when the tree would be raised and be in the center of the circle. Dancers and supporters placed prayer ties below the fork of the tree. Prayer Flags that were made were placed above the fork in the tree. No one was to step over the tree for that would dishonor it. Sun Dance leaders tied a bundle of chokecherry branches to the tree right below the tree’s fork. We all stood in awe and gratitude as this tree was raised. Then we all were able to wrap prayer ties we had made around the trunk of the tree. It was amazing! The tree looked magnificent. Then Gary motioned for John and me to bring out the bucket of red dirt from Oklahoma. We were to pour it around the tree.
That night we received a gift from above! As we stepped out of the evening sweat, we saw the Northern Lights. I had not ever seen a show like that before or since! After a while, we all headed to bed for tomorrow was the first day of the Dance. John headed to the men’s tipi, and I headed to our tent. Robert was also dancing. He also moved into the men’s tipi. Anita planned to stay in their tent but soon came to my tent and asked if she could move in during the dance. Certainly! We both felt like that was a good idea because neither of us knew what the week would bring forth while supporting.
LESSON: When one steps into a world that feels foreign, observe, listen, and think. Be kind and practice loving having no expectations. If a test comes your way from those unlike you, know that we all just might be changed for life regarding stereotyping each other. We all have red blood. We are all alike in so many ways. Kindness, respect, and discovering how we are alike can help us move the world’s consciousness to a much higher level.
GIFTS: I was so honored to be learning so much more about a culture I always admired and loved from a distance.
On my first date with John, we hugged a tree and told each other how we were like the tree we were hugging. Now we were watching a sacred tree’s life be taken. Its life was about to help so many others. That water coming out of the tree kept reminding me of the water within each of us. The sores on the tree that Anita and I found reminded me of our own hurts within that need to be healed.
Everything used for the Sun Dance is done with prayer. Nothing is taken without a prayer that is made for our earth and its replenishment. What if we treated all we used every day and each person we touched as sacred every day of our lives?
This experience of the Sun Dance was truly touching my heart, mind, body, and soul!
Can we get to the point that we can be like this Sacred Tree?