Wyoming Hookah, Sun Dancers, and Cowboy Jack
The wind in Wyoming isn’t from earth. It rolls down the stratosphere and blasts past the aurora borealisphere from a frost pocket the size of Death Valley by the dark side of the moon. It sweeps out the prairies of the Medicine Bow Basin like a tsunami on its way to a dry hump, ghost dance in Gomorrah. It will force any grey-for-words cowboy to see pastel colors and turn a taciturn stand-alone frigidarian into a chattering poet.
The winds are called the Canadian Katabatic and are known to the Sioux and Arapahoe, high plains outliers and lonelier rangers, as the winds that could air condition Hell. They whip past the reservations, roll out the tumbleweeds, blow over railroad cars then gather all things truant back to their rivers, while leaving on dry land, the flood words that matter.
There is something a Navaho skin walker while wrapped in a blanket, sitting on a hill, once told me by mini Burning Man bonfire light, “Never tell a story in summer and don’t exaggerate.”
Few Americans know what a Sun Dance Ceremony is. Here are the basic facts: You strip down and go without food or water for four days and dance before almost dying. Then you get pierced with leather thongs, tied to a cottonwood tree, and break away like the warrior in Ernest Hemmingway’s short story The Indian Camp, who cuts his own throat and bleeds out for the sake of his bleeding squaw.
At least, that is what an outside observer would see.
But a Sun Dance is an act of surrender to something larger, something difficult for most Americans to understand because the concept of sacrifice has become obsolete in our culture. If an advertising agency ever tried to make leitmotif out of a Sun Dance song for the American consumer in a jingle using phrases from the ceremony like “Come join the joyful mourning /with fasting, praying and blood sacrifice for the family…and your elders,” it would be as difficult to market as a bottled water calledDried Buffalo Blood River to thirsty, vegan, Twitter-addicted teenagers.
The Native Americans called the first Europeans Wasi’chu. They still do. If you are a mass consumer chances are, even if you’re scraping by, you’re Wasi’chu. It roughly means, “Clever fat eater, or those who want it all and the fat too.”
When a Native American invites a person from the Wasi’chu tribe to participate in the Sun Dance, much of which involves sitting in a sweat lodge, it is an act of grace. Once the rocks come in, the heat goes on and the flap goes down, you’re alone in the dark with the others, native and non, but more alive alone together than the living dead in a well lit place.
It is the physicality of some rituals that can change a person partially or completely. In the case of preparation for the Sun Dance, the sweat lodge becomes so hot that you will get down with your face against the ground and listen to the spirits on the other side of the grass.
If there is no purity of intent, unlike the “Why take a chance” cameos made by some mega church pilgrims on Easter Sunday, there is no power in the leitmotif, or power in the song. You might as well put the Hymnbook down now. Whether Jesus loves or never loved you, one leaves the sweat lodge feeling KO’d like a hot yoga cage fighter who didn’t need a CD to the apocalypse soundtrack or any Book of Revelation lottery tickets.
I was aware of all of this when I set out for Wyoming in an airplane coasting down the runway of Newark’s Liberty Airport. The Boeing 737 reminded me of a dark-eyed junco going to God as it faithfully arched in aerodynamic majesty at a 150 mph tilt into the troposphere like a homesick angel. Once the Xanax kicked in, I had humanitarian epiphanies about God, plants, people, and everything including bombs of the heart and other odes from a private collection I call, Military Poetry, a genre that is as arcane to love as ammo is to camo.
And so, I flipped through my Cabela’s Gun & Camping catalog and attempted to bond for a third time with the alpha male sitting next to me by engaging him in a manversation.
While I looked out the airplane window, and he did, too, just to avoid eye contact, I asked him, “How big of a nuke would it take to wipe out the whole flora and fauna biomass of New Jersey? If Newark were ground zero, could a bomb level the Pulaski Skyway and flatten the waterfront silos? Could it get every seagull and flame weed the poison ivy on the factory chain link? Could it pummel the Turnpikopia and get all the Starbucks as well as the starlings, and Snooki?”
He gave me no answer and searched instead for the Flight Attendant. As the plane leveled off at thirty thousand feet over the great grasslands of the Midwest, back in seat 37B I had another Xanax epiphany: “Grass, the kind that grows in my backyard, is the benediction of all things and it is the subterranean veil between the living and the dead. What side of the lawn you’re on is all that really matters.”
Somehow the plane safely landed at an airport in Colorado and my companion headed off to his golf weekend at a neighboring Dude Ranch, while I met up with my Wasi’chu Sun Dancing party. We hit I-70 just as Lady Gaga’s salt caravan went flying past us in the other direction. The Black Angus steer in the field never looked up at the platinum blonde’s chartered bus. But if those cows could talk, they would have cud-twittered in guttural ungulate that when you are wearing one of them as a dress, your days as an audience-craving carnivore are over.
Four hours later, we arrived at the camp, nestled within an Aspen forest by a long clay road on the side of a mountain of lodge Pole Pine, impossible for a military helicopter or Homeland Security to find. We built the Sun Dance arbor the next day from fallen Aspens.
While the sweat lodge fires began heat up, we joined a group of Navaho and a Lakota Medicine man and went over the hill to the Never Summer Ranch to fetch a trailer from a cattle herder who went by the name of Cowboy Jack. He showed us the big rock by the barn where he had carved his name with the crimped end of a sharpened tail pipe muffler. It said “Jack,” obviously a Paleolithic clue to future anthropologists when they discover his gift, a petroglyphic track in the snow leading to Gone Global Jackdom. We wanted to get the trailer and leave quickly but at his request, we went inside the cabin that Jack built to meet his pets, two PETA survivors.
An eighty-two year old African Grey Parrot named No Doubt was stoically balancing on a bamboo trapeze inside a cage, which was about to fall off the kitchen table. The parrot stared unblinking at Jack’s cat, a murderous cheetah that had just tried to kill him. The declawed, corpulent cat had diabetes from an all cereal diet and was now trying to sleep in the sunless sunroom beside No Doubt’s galvanized wire cage.
Cowboy Jack also wanted us to meet his girlfriend whom he called the Goddess of Glide. The Lakota medicine man and some of the Navahos were now peering through Jack’s cabin window for a glimpse of his homeland amore, an air-blown, bombshell of vinyl blotation sitting up straight on satin sheets, slightly slanted in the bed at an “oh come hither” tilt, barely draped in the Victoria’s Secret peach pie cotton lace, which Jack had shipped to the cabin last Lent against the Laramie Mega Church’s wishes.
We knew that the girl wasn’t talking, but just in case, we waited motionless like a deer hunter in a tree stand. Jack explained that he was fed up with trying to tryst and troubadour the local women. With a Bud Lite in hand, he pointed to his new girlfriend on the bed, and sadly said, “The local ladies never write you a Dear John Wayne letter.”
We’d had enough, even though Jack tried to fist wave us back into the house with a bicycle pump in one hand and a can of Bud in the other.
The massage therapist and Pilates instructor from Boulder, who claimed paisley affected her chakras, was painfully cute, ready to get indigenous and looked up in furtive wind-gusted glances from the front seat of another cowboy’s two ton pickup truck. Her last boyfriend was a Twelve Step, Alcoholics Anonymous saga sapien and un-actualized Trustafarian whose self-realization, bill bilking by a team of Ponzi scheme therapists back in Boulder could have bailed out the Obama economy. She had sworn off him, Self Help books and the urge to drink or Tweet, one day at a time, and was now reading The Bridges of Madison County.
The skin walker told me not to exaggerate, so I can’t here, even though I usually do because you never let the truth get in the way of a good story.
Up on the hill we could hear the dancers wailing on their bones and the handsome Lakota pounding on their drums and singing the sacred songs. The campfire smoke rose and hovered like a penumbra that floated over the sweat lodge.
When a Sun Dancer blows on an eagle bone whistle for four days in the sun without food or water with two sweats a day, he dehydrates not just his body, but his whole universe in preparation for the flesh sacrifice he will make to the Great Mystery, or Great Spirit who has created us all.
On the third day, Chinook wind walls of water and drums of thunder poured down from the Big Sky percussion section and the sweat lodge fire kept burning and the sun dancers kept dancing. The fire had been burning for two weeks and the air was so hot that water evaporated before it hit the blaze, a pyrrhic act by the Great Spirit so that nothing could stop the immolation of the human soul.
The realm of the Sun Dance is one of the oldest churches in America and doesn’t exist on a ranch in Utah with Robert Redford. It is masochistic, not for the faint of heart and is performed with the double binary prayers of supplication, thanksgiving, fasting and piercing. There is no fruitcake and no water. It’s a beatitudinal act of penance to those who fought, starved and stood out in the Katabatic tsunami like the Mandan, the Kiowa, the Sioux and the Crow before there was a fork in the road or a road at all or even a wheel for the Robert Frost night. With the Tree of Life as its grounding force, human beings bow to what we don’t understand.
We watched them dance for three days.
On the fourth day, the medicine man moved the dancers around in the Sun Dance circle between the buffalo skulls dipping to the beat of the drums, smudging the dancers one at a time with sage and a Golden Eagle wing. The dancers were weak and taken easily by the elbow, limping like cooling clay in an annealing oven. The Medicine Man could have walked them one by one without protestation to an Aztec sacrificial altar. Instead he walked them to cottonwood trees and placed blindfolds over their eyes.
Next, he laid the warriors on the ground one at a time, cut them deeply with a scalpel and inserted wooden pegs through the flaps of skin on their upper pectorals. The pegs were tethered to ropes, which were tied to prayer bundles on the cottonwood tree.
The dancers backed away from the trees and while using the full force of their bodies, broke free one by one from the pegs in their chests while the drums the drums kept pounding and the people cheered. Chests became red with tribal bling and the dancers looked like self-immolating cutters who had succeeded at failed stone age triage.
There were seventy people witnessing from the Sun Dance arbor, friends and the families. Cowboy Jack’s ranch owner-land lady came, not the doll, but the real person. We all smoked tobacco from the pipe together.
Some of the women cried. We all gave a flesh offering and the people prayed and swayed to the drums for those four days by the Never Summer Mountains. There was little talking. They understand the language of penance and like the Wyoming wind it’s a high wordless eagle bone whine. This is the holy land of the mute and disembodied Sun Dancer. That is the dry game, to leave the flesh. Truly, pain is humanity’s long-suffering companion.
Landscape artist, curator of ideas, Peter Soderman is the brainchild behind Writers Block and Quark Park. He is the subject of the film, American Landscaper.