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Sun Dance of the Aztlan

by Clint Boehler

GARDNER- It could have been 1708 or 1808, but from July 13-20 of 2008, the ancient custom of the Native American Sun Dance was held in Huerfano County.  Several miles east of Gardner is a wilderness place called Aztlan.  Aztlan can have many meanings, but one popular definition is a place of new beginnings.  At Aztlan, Indian religious ceremonies are practiced and the old ways are not forgotten.  The Sun Dance is conducted annually here but with one big difference this time.  This ceremony has traditionally excluded non-Indians.  This time a sign along Highway 69 said “Locals welcome, but No Tourists.” Over 200 people were in attendance.

    As you enter the sacred grounds, you can hear the traditional drum with its ancient beat.  Vehicles are parked a few hundred yards from the ceremonial ring.  Looking at the beauty of the mountains, you feel as if you have been transported back to a very old time.  You enter by a pathway where you are met by a tribal member with a pot of burning embers.  The smoke will purify your spirit before you enter.  You must be humble.  All jewelry, big belt buckles and flashy sunglasses must be concealed.  It is important to show great respect on these grounds.

    The ceremonial ring is about 75 feet in diameter with a twenty-foot pole in the center.  The pole has buffalo hides and symbolic items around the bottom.  Several men, stripped to the waist and wearing red pantaloons dance around the pole.  Soon, one of the men comes closer and the others attach ropes or sinews to his chest with skewers, just above the pectoral muscles.  The dance continues with the central drum picking up a frenzied beat.  Soon the tension on the tether is too great and the bone skewers  pull from the flesh on the man’s chest.  Great celebration is shouted and sung.  This man has showed his great sincerity and spirit.  There are many other meanings to this event as well.  The men with him show scars of a previous Sun Dance, and some of them choose to show their spirit again, this time attaching the lines to their backs, just above the shoulder blades.  All this is done with sincere faith.

    Following this Sun Dance, young women with newborns gather at the pole and priests or shamans come forward and bless the children.  All are in traditional clothing, many wearing garments that are hundreds of years old.

    The basic choreography of the ceremony is based on Lakota style, but Apache, Ute and Diné are the primary tribes represented here. Diné is a term given to those of Apache/Navajo bloodline.  Traditionally, there are at least 25 tribes that have practiced the Sun Dance.

    These ancient rites are conducted for a full week each year and allowing the local public to attend is a huge step in communication.  Being able to witness these great spiritual events is a privilege very few in our urban world get to experience.  In fact, until the early 1900’s the government banned the dance; then non-Indians were excluded if the dance occurred.

    If you want to take a walk to a time transport, watch for notices of the Sun Dance for next year.  It is a religious, educational and spiritual event that should be included in everyone’s life.