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South Dakota Adventure

by Jane Al Salem


Jane Al Salem, psychologist-writer, resides in the California Bay Area when she isn't traveling the world.

What an adventure I have had when I went to South Dakota for twelve days to the Council of Indigenous Grandmothers. It was the most intense twelve days of my life. Every day was full to the brim of impressions, information, emotions and much more. The schedule was hectic, most of the time from 7:30 in the morning to 10:00 at night and that was only the official part. The trip was divided into two halves with a rest day in between that several of us used to tour around a bit.

We stayed in a little spa town called Hot Springs. It only had one main street that opened, almost immediately, into open countryside. Open was the operative word. This is big sky country and I was constantly aware of the sky and in awe of how vast it was. For one thing it was so changeable. One minute it would be a pure clear blue the next filled with huge fluffy cumulous clouds and the then black and grey storm clouds and forked lightening. The landscape was just as varied as the skies. It would change from huge vistas of rolling plains to rocky, forested outcrops in the space of a few miles. I think that millennia ago there must have been earthquakes that thrust those huge rocks up randomly here and there.  

Not to be outdone by the sky and earth, the weather was also constantly changing. We had clear cool days, blazing hot days (104 degrees one day) and big storms and always wind. However, every day around five o’clock the temperatures would begin to drop and the evenings and nights were beautiful. South Dakota is one of what they call the Plains States that were originally occupied with huge herds of bison, wild horses and prairie dogs, the only ones that have survived in their original numbers are the prairie dogs and you see them standing up outside their burrows wherever you look.  There are now reserves where the bison and wild horses live, just barely rescued from extinction.

Two sister Grannies who are members of the Lakota tribe, which is affiliated to the Great Sioux Nation, hosted the conference. They and the rest of their tribe live on a reservation. There are many reservations in this part of the country and dismal barren places they are. The entire history of the reservations is one of the shames of our history in this country.

The Thirteen Grandmothers gather twice a year to discuss the state of our planet (perilous), the state of Indigenous peoples (worse) and what we might do about it. The main focus of this conference was water and the urgency they feel about the catastrophic state of world’s water resources. They continually reminded us that we are all babies born of water and it is of the utmost importance to the survival of the human race that we begin to acknowledge that all around the globe water resources are degraded and threatened and that time is running out for all the peoples of the world to begin to tackle this problem in a serious way.

There were many other heart-rending presentations about the sorry plight of the Native Americans.  A plight that serves as a microcosm of what has happened to almost all indigenous peoples around the world.

I felt that there was an interesting parallel between the “conquers” behavior towards the indigenous peoples and how many men behave towards women. My theory is that both men and conquers fear the deep connection that indigenous people and women have with the forces of nature, forces that trump those of any human power so they try to control that through dominance. 

There were about two hundred participants at the conference from all over the states and many, including my roommate, from much further a field.

As I went by myself, there was a distinct feeling of déjà vu, a return to that horrendous feeling of the first day in a new school. Remember that awful feeling in the pit of your stomach? A frightening reminder that we are all pack animals and we know what happens to those rejected by the pack.  So, I just girded my loins and went up to different groups and sat at a different table for every meal.  It got better with time but continued to be a challenge for the entire time and I did meet some fascinating women.

My fellow participants are worth more than a passing mention. They were almost all women ranging in age from late twenties to sixties but the majority in their forties. Most of them were arrayed in hippie chic clothing, peasant skirts, shawls, ethnic jewelry and beautiful folkloric embroidery. They looked like a flock of brightly colored birds. They were as eccentric and eclectic in personality as in dress. Many of them operated from way out at the fringes of what the establishment might call normal. Talk of alien visitations, out of body experiences, spirit guides, astral projections and many other altered states, abounded. It felt very liberating to be amongst them. I could have been more outrageous than I had ever dreamt to be and no one would have even noticed! My roommate and I did take the micky though by constantly saying things like, “Spirit told me to have muesli for breakfast”. I also felt that it could have been labeled as the Conference of Wounded Healers.  Virtually everyone was either in the healing professions or worked or ran very idealistic Non-Profit organizations. They were very intense and wanted to know all about the deepest recesses or your life and wanted to tell you about the deepest recesses of their own. It was like a twelve-day therapy session – absolutely exhausting.

My roommate was one of the joys of the experience. Her name is Tsippy and she comes from Israel.  She was born into a very conservative family and from an early age she knew that she had a different agenda in life and has been able to both walk her own path and stay closely involved with her family a neat trick if one can pull it off.  She is a duella, one of the wise women that attend to women in childbirth, sort of a spiritual midwife. She also has her own yoga studio where she gives yoga classes for pregnant women. I have never met someone who is as grounded with a positive, can do attitude and such a zest for life. Just to be around her was a tonic and everything we did together turned out to be an adventure including a helicopter ride. If we could just bottle her essence the world would be a much better and entertaining place.

Before the first half of the conference ended each of the Grandmothers had, for want of a better word, a session in which they performed a sacred ritual, prayer or healing in the manner of their tradition. These varied hugely in content, intensity and format. There were, however, some common features like drumming, singing, dancing and chanting. There were also symbolic elements or substances that reappeared again and again, fire, water, feathers, incense, seeds, paintings and flowers in various combinations. They were fascinating and often very moving and on occasion evoked profound reactions from the audience. There was one of the Grandmothers, who somehow, without doing anything outwardly that different to the others, managed to move many of the participants to altered states, they were dropping like flies, speaking in tongues, and weeping and sobbing. It was, as the organizers put it, a real magic carpet ride. I certainly hadn’t experienced anything like it before and while I didn’t react particularly dramatically at the time I certainly had a meltdown later in the day that I could probably trace back to the mornings excitements.

So both the conference content and the attendees were full on. To say that there were enormously intense atmospheres and energies raging in all directions at all times hardly begins to describe what was going on.  t was at one and the same time exhilarating and exhausting.

By the end of that we all need a day to rest and explore before the second, equally challenging, half of the conference began. Tsippy and I and another woman from Israel took a little tour around and looked at some of the sights, which we enjoyed tremendously and it was a nice break.

The second half of the event was a traditional 5-day ceremony, sacred to the Lakota people, called a Sun Dance. Like the majority of the other participants, I had no idea of what Sun Dance was or what was the proper protocol for those attending the event. Both were to prove problematical.

We did soon learn that it would be better to camp near the ceremony site than to try and go back and forth from there to the hotel as the energies and mind set were so totally different in the two places.  So, on a whim, we cancelled our hotel reservations for four nights and went out and bought a $25 “pimple” tent, a $14.99 sleeping bag, and an air mattress to accommodate our aging bones and stole a roll of toilet paper from the hotel and we were good to go.

The event was to be held within the grounds of a wild horse refuge. It is part of the ethic of the Lakota, that only temporary structures would be put up, and then completely dismantled after we had left leaving the site as it had been found. The Sun Dance grounds were at the top of a long tall hill.  There was a large circle of dirt surrounded with an arbor constructed of cedar saplings topped with cedar boughs where the observers stood. This arbor had four “gates” at the four compass points.  The east gate was considered to be sacred and was decorated with staffs with large feathers and animal pelts and buffalo skulls and other symbolic objects. We were warned, again and again, that the most terrible sin we could commit was to “cross the east gate” so everyone was very careful to give it a wide berth. Just outside the east gate were two large tee pees, one for the male dancers and one for the females. They were very beautiful and atmospheric.

About twenty minutes downhill, out of sight of the dance grounds was the kitchen. Here there was another tee pee for all the supplies and another shade made of cedar with tables and work stations underneath. Much of the cooking was done on an open fire and buffalo meat figured large in the cuisine. The kitchen was run with an iron fist, by Charlotte Black Elk.

Down another hill from there, but close by, we found a beautiful spot next to the river and underneath a huge cottonwood tree, whose leaves rustled all night sounding like rain and shaded us from the fierce sun all day. That alone was worth the entire trip. I had not been camping since I was in the girl scouts and had never camped in a place that was not an established campground. This was just a randomly selected spot in nature and heavenly.

On the first day, late in the afternoon, there was a ceremony to select and fell a tree that has been especially chosen by the elders and around which the dance is held. We all drove in convoy for about twenty minutes to the selected site. When everyone had gathered the ceremony began with a prayer asking permission from the tree for it to be cut down for this very special purpose. Then it was asked that all the virgins come forth to begin the chopping of the tree. All these little girls and young teenagers stepped forward and each of them took a turn to take a couple of hits at the tree. Some of the tiny ones had to be helped by their mothers or older sisters and it was very charming. Pretty soon though, we ran out of virgins and the men stepped in for the actual felling of the tree. When it finally fell, it was loaded onto a specially built trailer. At this point people stepped forth with what are called prayer strings. They were, strings with little tiny bags of tobacco (one of their sacred substances, the others being cedar, sage and sweet grass). There are supposed to be eighty-one bags per string and they represent a prayer or intention. They were then wrapped around the trunk of the tree and eventually covered the entire trunk. Others had made bigger pouches attached to long cloth streamers and these were attached to the branches.

We then re-convoyed back again to the dance circle and the tree was installed in a hole dug in the middle of the circle. 

The next morning things began in earnest. There were about fifty dancers, pretty evenly divided between men and women. They never danced together, they either went single file around the periphery of the circle or formed lines that moved like spokes of a wheel around the axis of the tree.  The women wore long dresses with a triangular shawl with long fringes tied around their waists and the men wore long loincloths. Each of them had a headdress of sage in a circlet around their heads that shaded their eyes and most of them carried what I presume were eagle feathers or eagle feather fans.

They were to dance, without food or water (except for one glass a day) for the entire four days.  There were two long sessions in the morning and two or three sessions in the evening averaging about six or seven hours a day. It was very hot for three of the four days with temperatures hovering around 100 degrees and they were in the full sun the entire time. There were drummers and singers singing during each of the sessions. The dancers, and the audience, did a two-step in time to the chanting the dancers shuffling around and the audience staying in place. The audience was forbidden to eat or drink in sight of the dancers so it was a bit of a test for us as well. When there were breaks the dancers would retreat to their tee pees to pray or rest and the audience took their chance to sit down or go and have a meal or drink of water.

It had been suggested that we might try and emulate the dancers and not wash or change our clothes for the four days. I decided that I would do that, in part just to see what that would be like and in part to experience what is, for my homeless guys, a way of life. It turned out to be easier than I could have thought possible, I’m sure that the very dry climate helped, and very liberating. Having my hair stiff with dust was a unique experience. By the time I did, finally, take a shower the water ran brown for a long time.

There was a very intricate protocol to the ceremony both for the participants and the observers.  Unfortunately, the Native American way to learn is by observation. They do not believe in briefing you first so we were constantly doing the wrong thing. In addition the ceremony contains hefty amounts of ritual mutilation. While I am reasonably certain that the men, and it was only the men, were in a trance state by the time they did this it was very difficult to witness in the proper spirit by the uninitiated. I felt that there was also more than a whiff in the air of disapproval that non-native people were there but I may have been over-sensitive.

At the end of the second day the audience all spread themselves out along the perimeter of the arbor and the dancers filed out and gave each of us a blessing, either whispering prayers or touching or brushing us with their feathers or sometimes taking our outstretched hands in theirs.  For most of us it was a very powerful experience.

After that I decided that I was too uncomfortable to continue to watch the dancers.  The incidence and severity of the mutilation continues to increase until it builds to a crescendo and I had long since exceeded my comfort zone.  I had not had adequate preparation either for the protocol or the content and it truly felt wrong that I was viewing what is their most sacred rite as a tourist.  So I retreated to the kitchen and our tent for the third day.

Just being in that beautiful setting was enough for me and I helped around, made a run into town for supplies, and shared meals with the other campers and sat under the tree just soaking in the beauty.  There was still plenty of energy buzzing around and people would come down the hill full of the dramatic sights they had witnessed and hearing about them second hand was fine.

The last night they set up a tee pee for the drummers and singers not that far away from our little tent. It was so fabulous, the crescent moon and Venus the only star in the early night sky with the horizon a cobalt blue and the upper sky lighter and brighter blue that later darkened and became spangled with stars and the milky way and drums and age old chants all night long, sights and sounds from time immemorial.

On the last day I decided to leave in the morning and join Tsippy, whose reactions to the ceremony were similar to mine, had already gone back to town. We toured around again and went to see Mount Rushmore and the bison.  During the trip there was a big storm that made it very dramatic, exciting and wet.

When everyone else came back from the ceremonial grounds they had a tale to tell.  The dance ended at midday and there was to have been a big feast.  As I mentioned Charlotte Black Elk was the formidable character running the kitchen.  She had had run-ins with almost everyone there and I guess also with the organizers.  They had wanted her to bring the food up to the grounds at the end of the ceremony and she had flat refused.  The same storm that had hit us at Mount Rushmore had come their way preceded by such a fierce dust storm followed by hail, that no one could be outside much less eat any food.  It is very tempting to think that some of those people had enough power to deliver a message with the weather. Goodness knows there was heavy-duty energy flying around to do that and more.

There was no ending ceremony for the Grandmothers and that felt very flat.  People just came back cleaned up, packed up and left.  I said a sleepy good bye to Tsippy as she was leaving at 4:30 in the morning.  I had one more day before my own early departure and I spent it roaming around the little town meeting up with several others who were there for an extra day and just getting ready to go.

It is now a little more than one week since I returned.  I have found it very difficult to accomplish anything much less return to my normal routine.  I am just beginning to absorb the sights, sound and lessons of this epic and I think they will continue to resonate for a long time to come.  It was, even the difficult bits, a very positive experience and one that I think I would be happy to repeat or equal in another arena.  Here’s to adventure!

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