"So That We All May Live," acrylic on canvas, ©2013 Marty Two Bulls Sr., m2bulls.com

Pine Ridge’s Sun Dance Dilemma: Sacrifice or End Alcohol Prohibition?

Marty Two Bulls
8/9/13

The full moon is slowly sinking to the west behind a nondescript butte dotted with pines. A warm light glows in the east the world stands still silently holding its breath as the Sun Dance ceremony is about to begin. The Oglala Lakota have held this ceremony for over 2,000 years to mark the end and start of a new year. “We dance for the people, we dance for healing and we dance for peace” the Sun Dancer says with a sigh. “In times like these, we have to dance now more than ever.”

———

The Pine Ridge Indian Reservation comprises some 3,468 square miles in the western corner of South Dakota, in an area unsuitable for farming or industry. It is the last toehold of what was a nation of the seven tribes of the Lakota, whose lands once covered what are now five U.S. states. Today, the reservation consists of nine districts with council representation in the centralized Tribal government.

Pine Ridge holds the distinction of being the poorest reservation and county in the United States. Alcohol rates are high, drug use is steadily climbing and unemployment stands at 85 percent. Lakota suicide rates are the highest in the nation among the youth and growing among the old, although “old” is a misnomer in a place where the life expectancy for women is 52 years, and just 48 for men.

———

The Sun Dance chief arrives, setting off a buzz of activity around the Inipi lodges as young men with pitchforks fish red-hot rocks out of specially tended fires. Participants will deny themselves food and water for the next four days, and the main fire will not be allowed to go out. The Inipi ceremony is held in a dome-like lodge, where those heated rocks are placed in the center pit.

Pine Ridge residents patronize liquor stores in Whiteclay, Nebraska at alarming rates.

Men crowd into one of seven darkened structures, and the women file into a single, larger lodge, after which a bucket of water and a pitcher are brought into each lodge. The prayer is invoked, as sacred songs from our ancient past are sung, asking for pity and blessing in the coming four days. Water is ladled over the red-hot rocks, hissing out the only source of light in this circle of faith. The steam burns the tips of ears but prayer holds the pain in check as the purification ceremony thinly bathes the body with warm water.

When we burst from the lodge, the cool air reminds us that we are human, and we begin our preparations to enter the sacred circle.

———

The Pine Ridge Tribal Government is, by all accounts, inept but grossly arrogant when addressing poverty on the reservation. Its latest brainstorm is a referendum to legalize the sale of alcohol on this historically dry reservation. The council hopes alcohol revenue will fuel the economy, since the border towns plying that trade reap huge profits. The most notorious is the township of Whiteclay, Nebraska, which is walking distance from Pine Ridge Village, the largest populated community and the center of government. Whiteclay has a population of around 14 souls (2000 Census), buts its four liquor stores paid $413,932 in sales taxes to the state of Nebraska in 2012. In 2010, those four stores reported $3 million in gross sales, on an estimated 13,000 cans of beer per day. The tribe is seeking to tap that revenue stream to combat the social ills created by liquor. The goal is to create treatment centers that would encourage alcohol consumers to stop consuming.

———

At the center of the sacred circle stands a tall cottonwood tree that was felled yesterday, carried to the site, and lifted upright where it now stands. A circular shade was built around the circle for spectators and Sun Dancers to rest under. Long bolts of blue, red, yellow and white cloth hang from the tree’s branches, each one holding a portion of chanshasha (native tobacco)—an offering tied with a prayer. Ropes of various makes and colors are tied around the tree trunk; these will be used by the dancers when they pierce themselves.

A breeze catches the leaves of the cottonwood, causing them to gently clap as the first rays of the sun slowly rise from behind a butte. The dancers are dressed in the Sun Dance regalia of red skirts, crowns, wrist and ankle bands made of sage and adorned with eagle feathers. The women’s dresses are made of the simple calico of their grandmothers, and on their wrists, ankles and head they have the same sage adornments as the men. The men line up silently, with the older dancers in front and the new ones toward the end of the line. The women line up in similar fashion, with the chief, headmen and headwomen at the front of this procession. The ceremony starts with a prayer, then a song and then the drums start up their beat as the men’s eagle bone whistles take up the tempo, and the four-day ritual begins again.

———

The regular Tribal election is slated for next year but a special election to legalize alcohol sales is set for Tuesday, August 13. This makes some people wonder what the rush is about, since the tribe can’t really afford a special election and this issue is over 100 years old. “Whatever is motivating this referendum is also motivating the speed it is reaching the polls,” a former South Dakota state representative says. “Follow the money and you will find the answer.”

———

The first day of the Sun Dance will be the hardest. It rained last night, which keeps the dust down but has left the hot air humid. Over 100 dancers are arranged in a huge circle around the cottonwood tree with women on one side and men on the other. As the heat of the day climbs, two dancers will succumb, and walk away.

Year after year the dancers work together to pay for supplies and organize the Sun Dance ceremony, a ceremony that few people even know about and fewer still participate. In the late 1800’s the United States government outlawed the Lakota traditional religion, forcing practitioners to celebrate the ceremony in secret during those long years of oppression. It wasn’t until 1978, when the American Indian Religious Freedom Act was signed into law, that the Lakota could worship their creator openly. And now we openly dance and pray with our pipes because we believe that should we stop, our world will surely end. 

———

The proposed legalization of alcohol would mean that liquor stores would open up in distressed communities. Starting a business on Pine Ridge is difficult for many reasons, including the fact that there are no empty buildings to lease or basic infrastructure. So a business plan would have to include not only the cost of construction, but finding a water course piping it miles to the site and building a septic sewer system. In the case of a liquor store it would have to be built like a fort, with concrete cinder brick walls, heavy steel doors, barred windows and a roof reinforced with steel. The costs associated with that kind of construction have throttled even the best businesses plans before they could leave the cradle.

Who will pay for the costs of building district liquor stores is anybody’s guess. Most likely a local tribal member will be the ‘front’ for a liquor license, with the financial backing coming from outside interests.

Or maybe the fact that each district was awarded $1 million ($1,000,400.17, with interest) for economic development (courtesy of the recent Salazar settlement) has something to do with the sudden urgency on this matter. One veteran politician believes the council wants to move on the referendum before the Salazar monies can be spent on something other than liquor stores.

In any case, no one trusts the Tribal government to run a business as complicated as a franchise of nine liquor stores and an alcohol regulating commission with a tribal council that has changes in leadership every two years and nepotism is the norm. When you are talking about that much money, politicians are the last people to trust.

TOMORROW, PART TWO: Vote for the Future, Not for Alcohol

 

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chahta ohoyo's picture
chahta ohoyo
Submitted by chahta ohoyo on
oh my god...this is horrible...pine ridge has turned into a vast wasteland with derelicts of humanity living in it...it would seem that at last every vestige of pride in being native american or having any religious meaning has totally vanished, and it is wide open for entrepreneurs of more badness... this would be the one shining example for the united states govt, our 'grandfathers' in washington to step into and attempt to turn around one of the if not the worst impoverished, alcohol soaked, birth defected areas of this country... what can be done...it is patently evident the whites of that area are not willing to extend any kind of helping hand, and seem to be sitting around the edges waiting for pine ridge and its people to just blow away in an liquor induced haze... it was horrible back in the late 1990's when i was taking donation clothing and household goods over there...looked like an atomic bomb had gone off... the so called 'tribal' govt have been a bunch of fools since the 1970's who appear to be looking out for themselves first, and putting the needs of the people who they 'govern' at the bottom of the list... (duh)... i believe there is still a spark of hope...and someone to somehow turn the people around, rebirth their self and nationalistic pride and beliefs...please dont let the sacred hoop be permanently broken...aiahninchi ohoyo/she who walks above

Two Bears Growling's picture
Two Bears Growling
Submitted by Two Bears Growling on
This is shameful & their leaders are being sell-outs all for filthy money! Any person & respectable elder should turn their backs on the present leadership for this shameful action! I never thought I would see the day come to the Lakota People such as has arrived now! SHAME ON YOU leaders, councils & businesses who are fueling this outrage! The Creator will not bless those of you who are living shamefully. Man Above will turn His back on each & every one of you people who have had a part in making this shame come to rest on the reservation! Chahta Ohoyo, I must join you in what you have had to say. It is true! This is a death toll for the future of the Lakota Nation to allow this poison & invite this evil on those sacred lands of the ancestors. Our People's leadership has shamed those of us who are doing everything in our power to drive this plague out from among our people far & wide. GREED is a disease like no other! Those of us who are living in a good way need to pray to the Great Spirit to protect all the children who are going to be affected in a bad way even more than they already are. We have enough fetal alcohol children & adults who are testimony to this plague called alcohol. We have enough family & domestic violence with all the drug & alcohol abuse. I am tired of having one more alcohol-fueled wreck that maims & kills our people across Indian Country. I am tired of hearing about people of all ages being raped & molested because of some doped or drunken fool. What is it going to take to wake people up with the horrors & results of alcohol & drug abuse? Someone answer me this!

Helene E. Hagan
Helene E. Hagan
Submitted by Helene E. Hagan on
There is a glaring error in your report on the Sun Dance, which did not originate a long time ago as mentioned. I quote : " The Oglala Lakota have held this ceremony for over 2,000 years to mark the end and start of a new year." The Sun Dance which has an obscure origin has a recent one none the less, having started in late 18th , early 19th centuries, abut 200 years ago.

Helene E. Hagan
Helene E. Hagan
Submitted by Helene E. Hagan on
This is the third attempt at correcting a glaring error about the age of the sun dance, which has not been held for 2,000 years , but whose origins go back at most to 200 years. The other two comments seemed to have been censured? SUN DANCE A public and dramatic annual American Indian religious ceremony held before the summer bison hunt, the sun dance spread across the Great Plains some time after 1800. The sun dance was a highlight of Oklahoma summer encampments among the Cheyenne, Ponca, and Kiowa. The Southern Arapaho of Oklahoma celebrated the sun dance among their northern kin.

editors's picture
editors
Submitted by editors on
@Helene Hagen: Marty Two Bulls says, "Helena Hagan There is no glaring error. I can't address George A. Dorsey or the assertion he made in 1905's The Ponca Sun Dance publication because, quite frankly, neither you nor I were there. And I'm not a Ponca, I'm a Lakota writing about an Oglala Lakota Sun Dance. We were practicing the Sun Dance ceremony long before European contact. Even before the last axial precession or the sometimes called precession on the equinoxes. According to our Lakota Star knowledge, that would predate the birth of Christ. I have been taught this by a renowned medicine man among our people, who in turn was taught from his grandfather, who grew up in a time when we were free people on the Plains. I did not read it in a book, as you have."

scotttreaty's picture
scotttreaty
Submitted by scotttreaty on
The Sun Dance is millions of years old. Christians try to fit the history of the world into their 20 to 50 thousand year old "garden of eden/genesis" timescale, but that doesn't apply to Indigenous Red Nations and Peoples of Great Turtle Island who are INDIGENOUS to the "western hemisphere" who have walked Grand Mother Earth here for at least 63 million years. Evidence: the word "Sunka Wakan" (Mysterious Dog; Horse); the animal was shorter, grazed grass on the prairies in herds, and had three toes (see remains in museum), then grew larger with two toes, then into the horse that indigenous peoples, such as the Lakota of the northern Great Plains, worked with and became the greatest horse people in the world with (not in a few hundred years as the lie "the Spanish brought them" misstates). Evidence is in the language FACTS.

scotttreaty's picture
scotttreaty
Submitted by scotttreaty on
The Sun Dance is millions of years old. Christians try to fit the history of the world into their 20 to 50 thousand year old "garden of eden/genesis" timescale, but that doesn't apply to Indigenous Red Nations and Peoples of Great Turtle Island who are INDIGENOUS to the "western hemisphere" who have walked Grand Mother Earth here for at least 63 million years. Evidence: the word "Sunka Wakan" (Mysterious Dog; Horse); the animal was shorter, grazed grass on the prairies in herds, and had three toes (see remains in museum), then grew larger with two toes, then into the horse that indigenous peoples, such as the Lakota of the northern Great Plains, worked with and became the greatest horse people in the world with (not in a few hundred years as the lie "the Spanish brought them" misstates). Evidence is in the language FACTS.

Helene E. Hagan
Helene E. Hagan
Submitted by Helene E. Hagan on
Hello Marty Two Bulls: It is true that I became interested in the origins of the Sun Dance some thirty years ago, and that I did a little bit of book research. I participated in Sun dances myself, on invitation, in the Black Hills, and on Pine Ridge in the 1980's, and the one prior to the last one I attended as a special guest of Frank Fools Crow on his property. We were good friends. the last one was with Dick Moves Camp who has invited me to return any time. I do not mean to enter into a debate about the age of the Sun Dance., really, and I respect your viewpoint. I liked what you wrote....So, If Lakota people want to honor this ceremony as ancient, I am not going to argue. However, I do not discard the anthropological knowledge of the dance which strictly relied on the accounts of Plains people at the turn of the 19th century..... At this point, late in life for me, I am not confrontational at all, and the last thing I want is to argue over spiritual matters, and ceremonies. Best. HH

Steve Lupcho's picture
Steve Lupcho
Submitted by Steve Lupcho on
I have danced at Pine Ridge, and call these people "relations" It is sad, and I pray always, for wochosniea wokia for all. Humbaliccia is the only thing that can get the mind right for the Wiwangawaccipi.
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