Summer ceremony time is upon us and there are many tribal celebrations going on. Many of our peoples gather at this time, pray together, cry for vision, sweat, sundance, dance green corn together. Those circles of commitment always strengthen family, celebrate the children and the mothers of the culture, respect the elders, remind the people that they are in this together; through good and bad, success and tragedy, the common human condition is apparent. Families suffer their private woes and receive blessings while helping the nations grow. Throughout much of Indian country it is believed sincere expression makes many wonders possible.
Every year at this time, it seems, unfortunately, tragedy waits for those who act without sufficient knowledge and without proper cultural protocols. In particular when the ceremony or medicine is misused or improperly attended, harm can happen. In California, a couple died of asphyxiation while partaking of a sweatlodge event that appears ill conceived and dangerously designed. A "vision quest" experience offered by and to non-Natives to "participate in an American Indian ritual to observe the summer solstice" turned fatal when someone completely wrapped the lodge with plastic sheeting, which, according to the Sacramento Bee, "was buried in the ground around the lower edge to make it airtight."
The sweat lodge was designed as a "four hour" experience. Two participants who survived became nauseated and crawled out before passing out. Two did not: Kirsten Babcock, 34, and David Hawker, 36, died in the lodge. The gathering was not apparently supported by any tribal organization. None of the participants claimed to be American Indian, according to police statements.
The practices of American Indian lifeways, the ceremonial patrimony, are almost always hard by American 21st century standards. "We live in a world of suffering," says one Plains song. And at ceremonies, physical discomfort, even pain and in some cases, the actual giving of flesh, is part of fulfilling tradition. The sense of sacredness at those times, however, is paramount. Even in the midst of suffering, of deprivation and sacrifice, the intent is completely about life, and the offering is so that "the people" may live. If there is any request, it is about healing individuals and families, about lifting evil from a person, from a situation, about opening the way for the life of a young person, about easing the way of the old and infirm. This is the crux of the prayer in traditional Indian ceremonies ? in the center of suffering, people watch out for each other. All are encouraged to express the desire for good results; none should want harm for anyone.
There should be no mistake. Indian ceremonies are about positive feelings, about "the Good Mind," about health and life. We point this out because just last month, when a Native student attempted to wear a sacred eagle feather on her graduation cap, her request was denied and she was compared to "Satanists," who ostensibly would also be denied such a request. Racist and/or ignorant approaches to Native beliefs are still quite in evidence and the potential slanders that can follow against Native lifeways always need to be confronted.
At a recent meeting of the Fort Peck Indian Treaty Council, several traditional chiefs challenged the running of commercial workshops on Native ceremonies by non-Natives. Bernard Red Cherries, Northern Cheyenne sundance priest, put it this way: "Pray with us ... But don't take it away. It belongs to us."
Injuries happen, even at the most well run ceremonies, particularly at sundances. But everywhere among traditional practitioners, one sees special attention to the medical and medicinal care of their dancers and other participants. Tools are sterilized. Health conditions of individuals are taken into account. Most importantly, intercessors and elders act as advisors to the ceremonies. Tribes are greatly fortunate when they can gather elders who know the tried and true rules for ceremonial practice, people who know how to "do it right." This is crucial.
Rushing into the use of traditional medicines and ritual, without proper instruction, where no one knows what is permissible and possible and what isn't, is not advisable. Beyond its disrespectful context, it needs to be said that appropriating Native lifeways can be a potentially dangerous proposition.