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First Sun Dance by E. Forbes

Erica Forbes HeadshotThe air was light, yet full of an electric energy.  The sun was barely peeking over the horizon, so the tallgrass looked like it was catching on fire.  The ground was dark, but slowly bright orange flames danced down the stalks. The sparkles of the dew danced, flickering like stars through the morning haze.  

This particular day, my Daddy was taking me somewhere special.  The doors of his beat-up, red Ford Taurus squeaked as he opened them, and the joints groaned as we climbed in.  The inside smelled like stale cigarettes.  He reached over to his left side to fold his wheelchair before reclining the seat into a horizontal position, then effortlessly swooped the chair over him into the back seat.  I often attempted to help but was still too small to lift the chair properly to maneuver it into the back.  As an adult, I realized he was afraid of being “stuck,” or helplessly abandoned.  He was a proud, independent man who never showed physical pain.  At this stage, he had lost both legs to diabetes: one below the knee and one above.  Although he was wearing his prostheses, it was not uncommon for him to bring the chair as a backup. I assumed he brought it because we were not returning home for a several days. 

The gravel was pinging the undercarriage as he drove down the long, dirt driveway.  We were on the road for what felt like a long time but was probably within the realm of twenty minutes.  My legs were jiggling with anticipation.  He informed me the ceremony was in an isolated, remote area because it was important no one could find us. 

“When the White Man came, it was illegal for us,” he had told me. “They outlawed most of our ceremonies.”  

Although the Sun Dance was technically made legal in the 1970s, most were still leery of government intervention, especially those, like my stepfather, who had been active in the American Indian Movement.  

For some reason, my young mind suddenly recalled my Grandma Johnson’s stories about her experiences at the boarding school.  They beat her for speaking Dakota and attempted to make the children ashamed of their heritage.  They clearly didn’t realize the woman she would become – beginning college at 65 to become a teacher so she could help save the language within our tribe.  My family was full of activists.  

Out of those in my nuclear family, I was the only one who followed the “Red Road.”  My Daddy’s teachings meant everything to me.  My sisters remembered life with our biological father, but I did not.  I have scarcely any memories prior to my Daddy entering my life, and he always treated me as one of his own children.  I believe that is why his extended family followed suit.  I was a “Johnson,” despite not being one biologically.  My sisters weren’t afforded the same luxury, nor did they seem interested in it.   Perhaps that was the reason why I was the only one invited that day. 

By the time we arrived, the site was already set up.  The air was filled with sweetgrass, sage, and tobacco.  There was a large circular area, the perimeter of which was made of wooden poles and the awnings were made of small branches and leaves.  In the middle, there was a chopped, tall, white tree, limbs removed, standing erect with ribbons hanging from it.  Toward the bottom, there were brambles leaning against the trunk with items such as fabric, medicine bags, and feathers hanging from them.  It was the most majestic and awe-inspiring sight I had ever seen.

My Daddy explained how the cottonwood in the middle symbolized Wakan Tanka, “The Great Mystery,” joining Mother Earth and Father Sky.  It is a sacred tree to the People, as it encapsulates tribal symbolism: the leaves look like moccasins, and when you fold them, a tipi emerges; when you cut the bark diagonally, it shows the Morning Star, symbolizing wisdom, which is prominently displayed in star quilts. Historically, the bark could be eaten by horses when food was scarce.  I thought he was teasing me, as usual, until he showed me.  I giggled, finding it funny watching his large, rough hands gently folding this fragile leaf like origami.

There were large, colored flags hanging from the tree: red, white, yellow, and black.  Although I already recognized these as the colors of the Medicine Wheel, I let him proceed with his explanation.

“Each color represents a direction.  We always enter from the east, with the sunrise, and exit in the west, as it sets.  Make sure you come in through this entrance when it’s your turn,” pursing his lips toward the east entrance since “only wašicun [white people] point.” 

Shortly after arriving, he left me with the elders while he entered a larger tipi nearby to get ready.  Meanwhile, the other children and I ran down near the creek under their watchful eye.  We splashed in the shallow, muddy water for a while, looking for crawdaddies.  I was in the middle of a mud-fight with the boys when one of the girls pulled me aside and handed me a pile of sage.  We made crowns and jewelry out of the bluish-grey stalks.  The sweet smell overpowered the leftover mud that was beginning to dry in my hair, turning into solid clumps.  We barely had time to clean up once we were called to come back.  One by one, they lined us up.  The older children filed in line immediately, obviously experienced in the day’s festivities, while each of us younger children took turns having an elder grab the top of our arm, feeling the jolt as we were yanked into our respective, designated spots.

When the drums began their beat, everyone immediately became silent.  It is universally known that when you hear the drums, you stop and listen.  The drumbeat was subtle at first, but slowly became louder and louder, more pronounced in its steady rhythm: BUM bum, BUM bum, BUM bum . . . then the singing began.  While others around me joined in, I came to the stark, embarrassing realization I am actually a wašicu because I didn’t know the words.  I continued on, almost feeling like an imposter, and followed the beat with my footsteps as we made our grand entrance into the circle.  We stopped several times as we went around the circle to face the tree.  I later learned each stop was to honor the respective direction.

By the time everyone was in the middle of the circle, there were so many people I couldn’t find my Daddy.  I wanted to make eye contact with him, hoping he could see me and be proud.  I did not yet understand I was there to be proud of him.   

The ceremony lasted through four days and three nights, and there was so much to take in.  The rest of my time there is embedded as intermittent memories.  

In another memory, I was sitting under the shaded awning with many other people, my Daddy by my side.  The aromatic smell of sweetgrass and sage was particularly distinct, but another smell envelops me; it smells like my Daddy’s medicine bag.  I noticed the channunpa was being passed down toward me from the right, and I felt my stomach flip with anticipation, Do I actually get to try it this time?  My mother hadn’t allowed me to, saying I was too young, but my Daddy explained this is part of his culture, similar to a communion ceremony, and pointed out he was much younger his first time.  I was proud of myself for remembering his instructions on how to properly hold the sacred pipe: The left hand extends out to the pipestone, while the right holds the stem.  Lift the pipe up to the Spirits, asking permission and inviting them to join you.  If the Spirit tells you to join, you do; if not, you must thank them and pass it along to the left.  To this day, I can still smell the sweetness of the tobacco in contrast to the bitter taste of it and my confusion over such contradictory senses. 

The clearest memory I have that day was my Daddy’s part in the ceremony.  I remember feeling the most powerful, prideful, and spiritually intense feeling of my life.  My Daddy stood with the aid of his crutches and had two piercings on his chest, one on each pectoral muscle, string connecting the wood placed under his skin to the giant cottonwood.  It suddenly dawned on me where his previous scars came from.  I felt guilty leaving to go to bed while he was still standing there.  There stood this giant of a man, standing and dancing there despite his physical ailments, proving to all others how one’s bodily pain can be controlled by their spirit. I missed his moment to “break,” or when the Great Spirit tells you to pull back to break off from the tree, pulling the skin apart from the tree.

There are so many details I wish I could still remember about that day, but those I do I will never forget.  This event exposed me to an aspect of my Daddy’s culture which I may not have otherwise encountered.  Unfortunately, he passed away before I had the chance to actively participate, but I cherish the memory of my special invitation into a world few are exposed to, or aware of. I feel I have been given the gift of sight.  A’ho!

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