Sunday, August 10, 2008

Sundance: Sierra Valley in northern California, Native Americans & ritual

I went to the Sundance on Sunday, June 21, 2008. It was 10 miles away from Sierra Hot Springs in the Sierra Valley, near Calpine, California. From the very small town of Calpine, people drove along a dirt road, which was marked only by a flag on a tree, and went in about 1 mile. It was in a beautiful lodgepole-like pine forest, interspersed with meadows in the Sierra Valley. It was at about 5000 feet elevation, and there was a number of forests fire in the area, so the air had smoke in it. The forest near Calpine on the road had also seen undergrowth fire.

When I got to the area where the Sundance was occurring, a man, white with long hair, came over and said it’s the last day. I said yes. I had seen H, whom I know from Harbin, at Sierra Hot Springs, too, as well as some other First Nations' Canadian women and one man in the pools at Sierra Hot Springs They were wearing bathing suits, although Sierra Hot Springs is clothing optional, and most people are naked. (Sierra Hot Springs is also one of the nicest, uniquest and economical places to stay in the Sierra Valley for this Sun Dance). I had also met HF, who has Native American background, at Sierra Hot Springs.

The man at the entrance to Sundance said I could only go into the dance itself wearing bare feet or moccasins. I said my feet were chapping and cracking, and would it be possible to wear my Birkenstock sandals. He said no, and, looking at what I was wearing, also saying I couldn’t bring the sun glasses I was wearing or bring what I had in my pocket – a pen and Olay Regenerist skin lotion and sun protection, because my skin has been very dry. I said O.K. and removed them. He pointed to where I could park. The area was filled with tents & vehicles, all spread out haphazardly under an open forest of Lodgepole-like pine.

I walked through the area toward the drumming and found the Sundance. It was a circular area, with a kind of circular wood arcade covered with shade cloth, inside which the ritual was occurring. I saw the entrance to the whole circle, before which people could smudge themselves and enter, leaving their shoes behind. A few people were going in and out. There was a rope around the whole Sundance area that marked clearly what was inside and what was outside. And in the ritual, onlookers were marching their feet to the drumming, while the ritual participants were moving in and out toward the central pole, which was a upright, felled tree, wrapped with many colorful cloths, its leaves still on some branches, at the top, and also wrapped at the trunk with colorful, mostly red cloth, as well as some braided rope work.

Part of the Sundance ritual, I had read (Lawrence 1980 - (, involves a kind of self-mutilation - where people pierce their backs inside the scapula area, and their chests, inside and above their nipples. A native woman at the Sierra Hot Spring's pools this morning had mentioned this. This woman - with the 3 other native women and a native man from Ontario, Canada - was actually originally Micmac (tribe) from Nova Scotia. They were flying back to Ontario, Canada, on Tuesday.

As the ritual went on, with the regular beat of the drum in the background, I saw men, mostly dressed in red ankle and shin-length dress-like clothing, with naked torsos, and some with a ocher mark on their left temple, and many with long hair, many Native, a few white people, and one black man.

A group of dancers circled the perimeter of the ring, just inside the shade cloth, and at the head of the procession, two men accompanied another man who had one or two lines attached to his back – piercing the skin in two places right at the inner edge of the shoulder blades – and he was dragging 4 cattle skulls, which possibly weighed around 40 pounds together. A long parade of men in the ritual followed them, and the two men on either side of the man with the ropes attached to his back, seemed to act as support, as he probably was in pain. A large number of eople inside the cordoned area watched. As the man got to a place just in front of me – I was sitting 20 meters away outside the rope perimeter - the lines broke out of his back, and he continued forward, wincing a little. His skin had ripped. This was a peak of the ritual, it seems to me, when a kind of sacrifice of pain occurs.

This was the last day, and the last dance, and the Sundance proceeded for another 15-30 minutes, with men going into and away from the central pole, and other men going into a covered-with-shade-cloth central area at one side of the ring. At the end people broke into groups in the ritual area, and it looked like some people were passing around sage, and others maybe sharing a peace pipe.

Behind the ritual area were four teepees and between the main shade-cloth area on the side of the ritual circle and these teepees, were two large mounds, and a large hole and fire pit. From where I was sitting, I saw a flag pole outside of the circle, with U.S. marines, navy, air force and army flags on it, an incongruous addition to an already syncretic Native American event. Some people with native American blood were probably in the armed forces at one time. As people left the cordoned area of the ritual, they held one hand up and turned in a circle. I also saw E, who is a Harbin resident from E. in one of the closing group circles, come out of the ritual area. And I think I saw H lying down by the fire part after the ritual was over.

I walked to the other side of the circle, and, there, many of the ritual participants – men – lying on blankets, with one man in a kind of hole in bark covered earth which he had dug, were resting. They were still wearing their long red cloths, and some men were inside the shade cloth area resting in a similar way. It looked like ritual-resting to me, or perhaps the dancers were simply exhausted. They may have been dancing for 8 days. Other bystanders and viewers talked quietly sitting in small groups in and out of the circle. It was a friendly, family, open atmosphere. Whether the Sundance was primarily Sioux and Lakota, at root – both plains Indians – and then syncretic on top, I’m not sure, but this ritual is vitally important to a lot of people.

I decided to leave then, and perhaps I’ll come back for the feasting at night. I saw the woman, and the man she was with, whom I had talked with at Harbin the evening before, who characterized the event as harsh and a step back 500 years in time.

In some ways, the Sundance itself is a form of information technology, where the ritual (as a kind of information technology) may function to unify an identity, and where the people who participate in it exchange information.

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