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Beyond the Sundance

An article by Harold A. Monteau about Sundancing

It’s difficult to write about “spirituality;” it’s an individual experience. In this era of instantaneous electronic communication young Indian men and women utilize daily, it is essential to bite the bullet and write about the spiritual experience in hopes that young people will turn to cultural spirituality in times of and to develop ones identity.

Scientific experiments indicate humans retain the ability to band together to create a “group” influence on each other. Scientists acknowledge that electronic/magnetic fields have many influences over our existence.

Whoa you say! What has that got to do with spirituality?

Anyone who has experienced the group influence of either being present or participating in what we generally call a Sundance does not need me to explain how strong that influence is. The concentration on one’s personal and group relationship with the Creator/God that goes along with our ceremonies does have an influence. Some of our elders, and some of our younger spiritual leaders (Heyoka, for instance) had a heightened sense regarding these “aura”, at the risk of sounding like some crystal-stargazer groupie. Whether that heightened sense comes by “gift”, by sacrifice or by practice is open to debate. All I know is, it exists.

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There is more, much more, to a Sundance ceremony than just showing up. There are preparations that go into it that are part of an annual cycle handed. The arbor is beautiful, yes, but one should experience the selection of the pieces that go into it and the prayers and songs that go into such selection and its construction. The center pole is not there just to hold up the branches, or in some cases, the dancers. The branches and willows that go into the construction of the arbor are selected with precision. The fireplace and the smudge materials are in their place for a reason. The spirits that are brought to the arbor by the families who are responsible for their feeding, watering and other care are living beings. It is taught that each thing we see in creation has a spirit. Some are lucky enough to experience these “spirits” on a personal level. When we are young, we wonder, how is it that a rock, a root, a branch, a tree, water, wood, fire and all else we see, have a spirit? Modern science will tell you that even “inanimate” objects are the sum of their parts; parts which move, have electronic and magnetic charges and whose molecular structure or atomic structure (or sub-atomic structure) is capable of change. Witness magma. The fluid form of rock. Witness smoke and heat that comes from wood. Witness steam from water on the rocks. (Hiey) Our ancestors were right. Everything has a spirit. There is no such thing as a dead substance in Creation. Scientists now say “there is no nothing” there is matter and there is anti-matter, and there is “strings” and there is light which we cannot see and so on.

I attempt, probably rather lamely, to explain some of our Indian spirituality in modern scientific terms. I do it to encourage the younger generation to seek that which is missing from your life in the spirituality that is available all around you. You just have to look for it. Don’t wait for someone to lead you by the hand, go seek it out. Go there and observe these things for yourself. Have the courage to step into the circle no matter how you look, where you were raised or whether you have been raised in a Christian religion. Religion is organized worship. Spirituality is your personal relationship with the spirit in all Creations and thus your individual relationship with the Creator/God.

Some criticize me for “exposing” our religion to the public. I have done no such thing. The outward manifestations of our lodges, our long houses, our drums, our songs, our prayers, our sacrifices of flesh, thirst, hunger and other comforts and our cycle of ceremonies that culminate in the Sundance (or other main ceremonies depending on the tribe) are just that. Outward manifestations. There are certain things, beyond the outward manifestations, that we learn by a lifetime of participation and “being there” in response to the “pull” that draws us there time after time. I’m no expert, no holy person, I’m no authority. I’m simply an Indian person who wants the younger generations to “share” in this wonderful part of our Indian life. Sure it’s hard and can consume a large part of your time. But, it will be time well spent and you will be grateful when you see the positive effect it has on your life, your family’s life, your children, your grandchildren and great grandchildren. Step into the circle.

Harold A. Monteau is a Chippewa Cree attorney who resides in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and was the chairman of the National Indian Gaming Commission in the Clinton administration. He can be reached at