Spirit of Life–part two: Sun Moon Dance, being a Dog Soldier

My oldest sister invited me to be her support person/dog soldier in her third Sun Moon Dance this past April at Sweet Beautiful Waters located just outside Tucson, AZ. It was such a powerful experience that I feel it’s important to share, not just with others, but to remind myself, over and over.

Saguaro Cacti at Sweet Beautiful Water in Tucson

This is what I wrote in my journal, following the experience:

I just need to write without too much thought. Jane (the dance chief) asked that we not read or write while the Sun Moon Dance was happening, which meant that my processing, such as it was, has all been internal–though as a dog soldier support person I was allowed to speak to others when a good distance from the arbor. And there were hugs and kind smiles when things got overly intense for me. The last morning, the drums went to a very sad place and Becky was so clearly experiencing anguish. My heart felt like it was being torn out of my body–that’s maybe overly dramatic–but I was trying so hard to be strong for my sister and to support the Tree of Life, the beautiful young acacia tree in the center of the arbor.

The arbor with the Tree of Life–before we placed the shade tarps for the dancers and drummers

The drums and chanting…the dancers danced their love and support and gratitude for the Great Spirit to the Tree, then turned around and danced its love and support for the world on the way back to their spots. They each had a line to follow, sacred and laid down with cornmeal at the start: symbol of work and sacrifice and gratitude to all that sustains us from Mother Earth and Father Sky. They danced and blew their piercing turkey bone whistles as long as the drums sounded. When the chanting happened,  it seemed like the Tree was speaking to me, that the Great Spirit resonated into me with the drums and chants, messages that repeated, over and over, an infusion of meaning.

Some were songs of pain, some of joy, some of conviction and promise to work hard and stay steady. Some were songs of acceptance of very hard things. And of healing. I resonated with the drums and whistles so much more than I thought I would. At times I felt so full of chi–I flowed out with intention–my prayer of energy to the world, to the dancers, to the other dog soldiers (there were many of us). The drummers explained that the drums and chants learn THEM, as opposed to the other way around. 

We dog soldiers tended the fire, which marked another strong line heading East from the Tree, also laid in cornmeal. We smudged all who entered the sacred arbor. We witnessed all the dancing, standing in a roped off (less holy) place as soon as the drums called the dancers back. In a sort of clumpy crowd of support and witness, we faced the Tree, feeling the music, offering our love and energy as support to the Tree and to our particular dancer if we had one, and to all the dancers if we did not. It was such a deep connection to witness my sister doing this. Her spirit is so strong. Her being is so beloved. I felt and still feel so honored that she asked me to support her, that she trusted me to say yes, trusted me to have the giving energy required. And the open mind and heart. I want all my sisters to be able to have this experience.

I am still feeling fragile, vulnerable, ready to cry. Exposed. My heart feels exposed to the air of life. Not a bad thing, but also not exactly easy. 

I’m still hearing the chants: “Mama san, we will walk through pain, ayee oh ayee oh ayee oh ay o.k. Ayee oh, ayee oh, ayee oh, ay o.k.” I know that’s not the words really, but it is what I heard. The message: pain is not a bad thing. We will walk through it. We will be okay. I think there must be an element to this as part of the ritual of the dancers, fasting without water for three days.

At other times in the arbor, I had visions of a gash/gaping wound on the Tree of Life healing over, and the Tree assured me that it was stronger for the wound. It’s that adage, “what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.” So there is hope for Mother Earth; there is still joy in her heart. The Great Spirit is part of Mother Earth, but also there supporting her, having her back. 

Visionary, artist, and author, Joseph Rael Beautiful Painted Arrow had several visions in the late part of the 1900s that showed him that non-natives needed instruction in how to cherish and care for the earth. These visions led him to create song chambers and centers where he instructed non-natives to train other non-natives in important rituals. Several non-native centers across the nation now run sweat lodges, drum and song circles, and various sacred dances for people who would not otherwise have access to such practices. Although some practices–maybe all–have been borrowed from the traditions of several tribes, I was told Joseph tried hard to escape the accusation of abetting non-natives in appropriating the holiness of native cultures and practices. For instance, he created his own language for the chants.

But of course there has been appropriation, and I am torn knowing that Native Americans have every right to feel offended–violated even–by whites practicing rituals that historically our race has tried its darnedest to wipe off the face of the continent. There can be no racial right for whites to practice this kind of ritual.

But the purpose of the Sun Moon dance outweighs my concern that it could offend someone. It is a ritual replete with gratitude and sacrifice. We need these symbols, all of us do, no matter our heritage. We need to feel the power of the symbol of the Tree of Life in our bones and our hearts. I’m claiming this as a species’ right, a species’ need.

The purpose of the Sun Moon Dance is to save the world.

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