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Summer sun shines on a ritual for the ages

My preparation for the ritual of the Sundance this year has been like my first ceremony. "I'll participate fully," I find myself thinking one day; "I'll participate on the outside," I think the next day.

My preparation for the ritual of the Sundance this year has been like my first ceremony. "I'll participate fully," I find myself thinking one day; "I'll participate on the outside," I think the next day.

It's my physical self that doubts I can complete the four days this year.

One of my colleagues sometimes tells me that I am not clear enough about some of the American Indian terms and ceremonies such as the Sundance. So, here is a little about Sundance.

Sundances are held throughout Indian country, and they are as different as each individual tribe yet there are commonalties. We gather to pray and sacrifice for the people as our tribal nations did for thousands of years.

Sundancers are a group of Indian people praying in unison while sacred songs are sung. We fast for four days. The ritual takes six days. I went to my first Sundance with little instruction, few friends and a vision. I must have stopped my car 10 times during that long eight-hour trip to South Dakota. I would sit for a while thinking, "What I am I doing here?" Or "I can't do this."

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I wanted to turn around and go home but then I'd look toward the outline of the dark buttes and ochre hills, and move forward. There was something in those hills that pulled me toward the ceremonial grounds.

This year, as the temperature bumped up against 100 degrees, I knew it was time again for Sundance, and I hurried to make dresses for the ceremony. I remember my sister gave me "that look" when I told her in October that I'm going to make my dresses early this year and she was right to do so, because Tuesday night, there I was sitting at the sewing machine rather than watching "The Closer." It was after midnight before I finished my outfits just four days before Sundance.

Several years ago, a Minnesota friend brought a thermometer to Sundance that registered 114 degrees in the shade at about 5 p.m. We don't know how hot it got at 2 or 3 p.m. that day, but it was extreme. We were barefoot, and the ground burned our feet.

When I look back on the 12 years that I've participated in the Sundance ceremony, I often compare it to childbirth an extreme and difficult time, but the result is the best, most joyous and exhilarating experience you will ever have.

The demand and mandate of the ceremony is overwhelming at times. The heat of the sun is biting and sucks the energy from your body, but you're sustained.

There are times when the Sundance takes on an unreal or ethereal quality. We rise at dawn to cool air and the growing light of dawn. Birds are up early and sounding their calls. As we wait for the drums to begin, the sky is turning ever more red as the sun edges upward toward the east hills. It's about 4:30 a.m.

On the "blue day" which is the night of the full moon, the moon is the only light, but it is so bright that it's almost like day. Yet there are deep, dark shadows. The trees along the river are black, and usually the wind is rocking them gently. They seem to be talking or singing in a language of trees, and we wonder.

As we gaze up, stars shoot across the sky or blink off and on like neon lights.

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The rest of the camp is outside the "arena" where the dancing takes place; they are supporting and praying. Sometimes, they tell us they can see ancient dancers in the shadows. Spirits surround the dancers and reach into our minds. It's a holy place because it has been the site of Sundances for more than 40 years.

A few years ago, I'd go to my Aunt Pearl's place when Sundance was over. She'd be at her house by herself (when she was well) and would be so happy to see me.

She came to the Sundance a few times, but the heat was too much for her. The doctor said it affects older people more than the younger ones.

So, she'd come to the door of her home when she heard me drive up, and her face would light up when she saw me.

We'd sit down and talk. She wanted to know everything that happened. I'd spend a few days with her; at times, I'd walk out on the prairie looking for different roots and collecting sage. It was that time when my spirit was most at ease and uplifted. In a few days, I will begin my journey once again for the 13th year and the beginning of another four-year cycle.

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