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by Clint Boehler

GARDNER- Strong drumbeats accompanied by reed whistles and spontaneous shouts underlay chanting and singing in the Lakota language. The sounds echoing from the hills of Aztlan, outside of Gardner this weekend. These were the sounds of the Sundance, an ancient Native American ceremony celebrating regeneration and the continuity between life and death.

    Originally, Aztlan was the Aztec home to the Nahua people of seven tribes living in seven caves who settled there in the fifteenth century.  Here, Aztlan is home to the Native American Church, overseen by an Apache Priest/Shaman named Tomas Shash,  who guides members of many tribes through the ceremonies.

    The ceremonial grounds consist of a circular wood arbor approximately 150 feet in diameter.   In the center is the sacred cottonwood tree.  The arbor and people are constantly purified by cedar and sage smoke from containers carried in the circle.  People arrive on foot from a distant parking area and must be humble in appearance and conduct. No bright jewelry or dress, no sunglasses or items that will  reflect the image of another are allowed.

    Outside the perimeter of the arbor are tepees, a sweat lodge and other structures for supporting the ceremonies. Dancers prepare in this area and are summoned to the arbor by drum beats from a forty-inch drum.

    Tomas begins the ceremony with an invocation, in which he sets the theme. In this case, he prays for happiness for all.  He emphasizes that happiness can often be found through sacrifice and the Sundance can provide that sacrifice.

    Following the opening prayer, drum beats signal the entrance of approximately 30 dancers, mostly men, stripped to the waist with a bright red wrap around the lower body. The wrap indicates a circle.  Most are wearing some type of head cover and are blowing reed whistles in cadence with their steps.  Every move has meaning.      For an hour and forty-five minutes, they dance and chant.  Some give a flesh sacrifice:  their pectorals are cut, a wood skewer is attached through the cut, and it is then attached to a tether leading to the top of the cottonwood tree. They lean back on the tether while dancing until the skewers pull out.  If a woman wishes to give a flesh sacrifice, she moves to the tree and kneels at the base while a small piece of skin is cut, usually from her arm.  This practice was the basis for the government to outlaw the Sundance beginning in the late 1800s and the ban was not lifted until the 1930s.

    The Sundance is held from 4 to 8 days usually during the summer solstice.  Tomas’ son, bearing the tribal name of  Smiles Shash, says about 250 people from different tribes were in attendance.  Smiles says the only real disappointment is the lack of attendance by non-Indian peoples.  Until recent years, the Sundance was not open, but now tribes would like to have more people take advantage of the extended hand of friendship offered by these first Americans

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