by Clint Boehler
HUERFANO-The end of the summer solstice brought to a close the annual Native American Sundance held at Aztlan, deep in the mountains, northeast of Gardner. According to ′Uncle′ Tomas Shash, an Apache and spiritual leader of the Native American Church sponsoring the event, over 200 participants and 30 dancers converged on this five-day religious gathering to celebrate and gain spiritual enlightenment.
In 1904, the government, in their infinite wisdom, outlawed the Sundance, but tribes still kept it alive in seclusion. For this and other reasons, many outside of the Native American community were excluded from the ceremonies. Recently, Shash says, the public has been invited to come and see the truth of the Sundance, removing false ideas and rumors caused by those who have not seen. The only thing the public must do is respect the traditions, which basically means show humility and humbleness. No flashy jewelry or wild clothing, no rowdy behavior, and no women without head coverings. If a woman is in her time of the moon (mensus), she will be sequestered due to the strong spiritual aura she possesses at that time.
To enter the ceremonial grounds, you must park a distance away and enter through a portal, where you are purified with a smudge pot of smoldering cedar wood. You then walk to the top of a hill and find a wooden ring of wood covered with boughs from the local trees. This is the sacred ring and only those involved are allowed inside this ring. The ′Sun Pole′ In the center is a very tall, trimmed, cottonwood tree. Shash says that even the tree itself has meaning. The leaves are shaped as the teepee and when you cut the wood, the core looks like the morning star in the center.
The people dance around the tree with prayers and homage. Some attach themselves to the tree with tethers that are attached through their pectorals at the fleshy point with sharpened wooden pegs. All dance until they are finished and those who are tethered pull free. To put it simply, the Sundance is an endurance test—a form of suffering that Indian men and women pledge themselves to as a means of demonstrating to the spirit world that they are worthy of its counsel and guidance.
The Sundance can last from four to eight days, beginning and ending at sundown on the first and last day. The ritual is practiced by many tribes and is a time for learning from each other and sharing new ideas. There is a festive nature to the time, for it is a celebration of many things. The eagle and the buffalo are held in high esteem. Buffalo skulls may even be used to form an alter.
The Sundance ceremonies are a community event. There are several Sundances conducted in Colorado and within Huerfano county. If a person will respect the religion of others and conduct themselves accordingly, they can now visit and learn firsthand that we are all not that far apart. The calendar dates change, but look for a Sundance at the next summer solstice.