Monday, May 28, 2012

Native Vision Quest & Family Camping

In honor of the humblecha (native vision quest) happening this weekend on the Sundance grounds here in Indiana, I have to share with you this special piece I wrote after attending one two years ago when I was pregnant.

I didn't make it out to the grounds this year - on my moon and not feeling up for the challenge of camping for only one night with my 18-month-old and 4 year old.  My husband went solo instead, and managed to get two powerful sweats in and have some amazing discussions with the Sundance Chief.  

Here is what happened when my family attended the humblecha two years ago.

I love camping as a family. I love reconnecting to nature, forgoing time-sucking technology, letting go of cleanliness standards, and just having fun in the moment with the ones I love. Sure, there are many down-sides of camping, but I always return with a glow that makes it all worth it.

The camping we do usually involves non-camp ground facilities, and our eclectic band of Saltcreek Sundancers. This Sundance community is a special group of friends mostly from Indiana, but also from Europe, Canada, and all over the US, who have gone to the week-long Sundance in Hoosier National Forest for the past 10 or so years.

This time we are down at the sacred Sundance grounds for a humblecha, native vision quest. Once of year, they allow people who are called to do so, to go up "on the hill" and stay alone for 2 - 4 days praying and looking for their vision. The Sundance chief guides them and looks after them. The people who go on the vision quest make special prayer ties and have done special preparations. It is a sacred rite, and their is a certain way to do it.

When we arrive at the Sundance grounds, it looks so strange. Normally, during the Sundance, we are welcomed by the red-shirted Sundance volunteer security peeps and look down onto a wide grassy-field dotted with parked cars. Bounding down the hill this time it is eerily quiet. Instead of tents popping out of the woods, and kids zipping along the grass, there is a deserted prairie-like field of waist high grass.

Like an iron buffalo (ha ha), our truck makes it through the grass, past the wood skeleton of the sundance arbor. Visions of the colorful Sundance tree with all fifty or so Sundancers circled around singing with all their hearts, seemingly haunt the arbor's sacred space left alone "to breathe" for the rest of the year.

Back within the safety of the forest, we see signs of people, and our Sundance friends welcome us with open arms. First order of business is to set up camp (thankfully avec big tent and queen mattress) and thankfully with a little help from our friends. And yes, hullelujah, there are two nice clean port-o-pots!

Next order of business is to get out the big drum, gather the singers, so we can sing the sacred Lakota songs for the ones who are up on the hill.

That is why we are here, to support those four people who are searching for direction and answers on their vision quest up on "the hill." The vision-questers have prepared for this weekend for many months, and the Sundance Chief has aided countless people (native and non-native) through this native rite.

Although the Chief has put the people on the hill in the sacred way, and has said many prayers and sung sacred songs for them, "the people" have come together now, with one voice, to call out more sacred songs. I like to think that our singing helps raise the vibration of the forest, and helps to call upon more spirits. I hope it helps the vision-questers to feel the love of our Sundance family and to bring their mind to a sacred place.

What I do know is that a half-hour into the singing, my little 2-year-old son is acting like he snuck a whole chocolate bar and washed it down with a can of (forbidden) cola. He is wired to say the least.

My son is familiar with the sacred songs from them being blasted from our stereo, or from last year's Sundance, first-hand at the sweats or ceremonies we have be to since he was in utero. He loves banging on our drums and belting out a stripped down song, "tunkashila wama tunkashila" over and over again.

When the drum came out, my son was mesmerized. There he was sitting along the other men around the big buffalo hide-drum holding special drumsticks, preparing and praying before they started to sing. My son, then stoic and serious, looked like a boy ready to take on the responsibility of being a man.

He didn't quite get to join in with the drumming, but sat on my lap taking it all in. He sat and and sat until he pulled me to my feet to join the other ladies dancing and singing. We stayed here dancing and singing until his little friend Teddy arrived and he went away (pulsating) to play.

In the evening, the Chief led a sweat for the 30 or so people who wanted to join. It was such an honor to be in a big sweat, full of experienced "walkers of the red road", and led by the Chief. Normally at the Sundance, the women and men sweat separately. For some reason, at our Sundance, the man are exponentially more experienced and trusted with more responsibilities than the women. The men dominate the dance. The women are humble, and tend to be pushed aside at our Dance. It is very obvious. So as a women, sweating with "the experienced" men was a definite treat.

And what a sweat it was! First we honored the rocks, and then honored our Chief. When we honored the four directions, and said the spirit invitation song. Then something extraordinary happened. The pitch dark sweat lodge was lit up with white spirit orbs, and lightening-bug-like spirit lights floated around the top of the lodge.

Rattles were rattling whizzing about
eagle-bone whistles sang
other-worldly-sounding bird songs started to sweetly chirp
a rush of air, a flapping of large wings
a unmistakable growling-hiss of cat that made your hairs stand on end
horse hoofs clack-clack-clacking
the walls of the tents shaking like someone was grabbing it from the top.

I am used to seeing these sorts of things in a lowampi ceremony done in a black room, but never have I heard of it happening in a sweat.

When you are in the sweat, it is like you are back in the womb, and in direct contact with the "invisible world", or the "great mystery" or the "divine" or whatever you want to call it. There is a shift that happens when you start the sweat, and its something that you can only feel in your bones and gut.

For me, things of this nature have always seemed real. I may have small moments of "is this for real!" but overall, experiencing it, seeing it, hearing it, feeling it and knowing the background of these people and the Chief, (who are not there to impress and make believers out of anyone), always leads me to the same conclusion. The things we heard and felt in the sweat sound silly put on paper. But it is the truth of what we experienced, or anyone, when you start to walk down the path of the "red road" that has any true medicine.

Beyond all the strange sights and sounds of the sweat (which acted to solidify that the spirits are in deed out there looking out for us), the sweat was a beautiful time for the Chief to give us guidance, and for us to pray for the people on the hill, and the people in our lives that needed help.

In our prayers out loud, I hear my husband say a little prayer for me and the baby inside of me, and the whole lodge meets his prayer with "a ho". As all the voices come together for that "a ho" it is like their voices help strengthen my husband's prayer, and it hits me like a lightening rod right through me. I am filled with so much love for my husband and appreciation of being involved in these native ways.

When it's my turn, I manage to squeak out my prayers, knowing the spirits are listening, and my community is sympathizing to my humble prayers in my small voice.

Three rounds done and it's not too hot in there, like the unbearable heat of some of the sweats. But I am pregnant, and worried about over-doing it, thereby harming the baby. Between rounds, I catch glimpses of my son sitting quietly in a camping chair in front of the fire. I know he is in good hands with Rachel, but I find my mind now overcome with worry that maybe she is tired and needs to leave, or feeling guilty for leaving her with three kids, or worried that my son will soon be upset. In order to put my women's mind at ease, I sneak out of the sweat before the last round, kissing the earth and saying mitakuye oyasin -  all my relations - on my way out.

This is why I love my life and love camping so much.

In it's unrefined idealistic state (I say this because there is also lots of drama to go with it) I feel so blessed to feel like part of a community, and one that is trying to help others, pray for others, and to better themselves.

Camping to me is much more than going out in the woods with a tent. Camping to me and my family means it is a time to have fun and to reconnect with each other, with friends, with the earth, and with spirit.

Namaste ~ Wopila


  1. It seems to me Sam that you have found what you have always been looking for. You took me back to Sundance with you and I could just picture you there with Michael and little Ori. I loved your story (even though it seems a little scary to me), but I don't doubt what you have seen and heard. Keep writing!

  2. Sounds like the camping experience was amazing. Love the down dog pic with you kids!

  3. Terrific post. Native American rites are so powerful and have lessons for all of us to reconnect to the world inside and out. I believe that indigenous populations' philosophy will become more and more prominent as the destruction of our environment makes us realize that it is our own self destruction at hand and we will make more sustainable and spiritual choices for our children's sake in a Post-America world.