...And then I promise I'll stop! Through various circumlocutions in the blogosphere, I found an article in Nature. As I mentioned before, I took a bunch of classes that summer, and one was led by several medicine men. They took us out and showed us plants they used to heal and we were allowed to attend various ceremonies they performed.
The most famous Lakota ceremony is the Sun Dance. This is a celebration of the summer solstice that's held some time during the summer near that time. A couple of different medicine men on the Rez had sun dances that summer, but the one our class participated in was by Pete Catches.
In order to participate in the sun dance - known for people who 'dance' suspended from a pole to which they are attached by long strands of rawhide held by stakes that pierce the pecs - you have to be clean, purified... You have to undergo a sweat lodge, and this in the middle of the South Dakota summer heat! Of course, if you're going to be staked by your pectorals to a pole in the hot sun, I guess a steam bath is a pretty moderate thing...
Sweat lodges are sort of tents made from flexible willow poles, covered with old blankets and quilts. There's an opening with a cover and a pit in the middle, which is filled with smooth rocks from the river that have been heated in a fire. The rocks are really, really hot. The participants go inside and the medicine man throws water on the rocks, making a lot of really, really hot steam. Everyone sings sweat lodge songs and tries not to pass out. Our class was designated to cut the willow branches for the sweat lodges, a big honor in and of itself!
Now, because this is a sacred ceremony, you have to cut the willow branches in a sacred way. You can't just go down to the banks of the lovely Little White River, where the mint grows wild in the shade of the willows, and start chopping away, no, that would be too easy.
You have to say prayers, out loud, to the willow spirits while you cut them down. You don't want to offend the willows, because that would be bad, ummm, karma (wrong Indians, I know). First you drape the willow you're going to cut down with tobacco ties. Almost anything religious is going to involve tobacco ties. I think different medicine men may make them different ways, but the ones we made had cloth of six colors: blue (sky), white (north), red (east), yellow (south), black (west), and green (earth), each with a pinch of Bull Durham in the middle, tied onto a piece of yarn. You say a prayer for the success of your project each time you tie a piece of cloth on. Usually you have to make 49 of these, so that's a lot of praying before you even get started with the damn willow trees.
You go down into the grove and focus on a good looking little willow plant and tell it how sad you are that you have to chop it down, but that it's for a good cause, it's going to be part of the sweat lodge for the sun dance, the annual renewal rite for the people, and, boy howdy, what an honor that is; it should just be glad it doesn't have to hang suspended from the pole! Then you grab the plant right next to it and cut it off at the ground!
Of course the willow you had hung with ties and were talking to was terrified the whole time and shaking and stuff. And the little willow next to it was being all sympathetic and unawares and NOT terrified, so it dies a little willow death with a clean, uhhh, whatever willows have that keep 'em going. And the willow you didn't chop down is soooo thankful that you didn't chop it down that it breathes a sigh of relief and all the willows in the little grove feel better! Needless to say it takes a long damn time to cut down enough willows to make a sweat lodge.
There were ten or fifteen people in my class, so we spread out in the shade of the willows on the banks of the Little White. Since there were so many of us, we were in groups of three or four, each person tying his or her ties on a willow, talking earnestly to it - which is hard to do with a straight face in front of witnesses - and then grabbing the tree next to it and hacking it down. "Oh, yeah, I felt THAT collective sigh of relief!" the guy next to me said as I hacked down my poor little willow.
The medicine men were standing with our teacher, Scott Quimby, on a bridge. (They called him 'Spiritual Leader' when they shook hands with him at the beginning of class. "Ahhh," they would say, "Spiritual Leader! How are you today?" And Scott would blush, and say "hullo," and the medicine men would laugh.) I walked up onto the bridge to ask Scott a question. Below me I couldn't see my classmates, I could only hear the murmur of voices as they talked to the trees and see the trees tremble. And the medicine men were laughing...
Nowadays it seems like there's a lot of talk about Indians holding ceremonies for white people and how it pollutes the pureness of the ceremonies. It's a big topic on the Rez, so I'm glad I was there thirty years ago and got to do what I did.