In this column I share a personal story about my first trip to a Sun Dance ceremony that was held on Fort Berthold in the summer of 1991 (twenty years ago). I provide a sampling of how the mind and brain were involved in this experience.
June 3, 1991
I awoke this morning to the sounds of rain covers rhythmically slapping the front of my tent. North Dakota is nearly always windy; and when you’re camped on top of a large clay Butte for several days of ceremony, the winds continually remind you that you have entered their world of movement, violence, and calm.
Underneath me the earth is hard and uneven. It has not had a drink in a long time. I open my eyes and my brain waves begin climbing towards a low Beta state as I become conscious of my surroundings. I adjust my body position slightly in my sleeping bag and feel several small pointed rocks imprinting my body, despite the generous thick carpet of buffalo grass underneath the tent. All night my brain rested in a calm theta sleep and I dreamed of the wind. I stare at the side of the tent and watch as the light from the sun grows brighter and brighter. In perfect sync with the brightness of the sun, my brain’s visual cortex, my occipital lobe located in the back of my brain, activates with a harmonic electrical response. It’s as if my brain and the rising Sun have become one.
Outside seagulls dive bomb into the camp at first light and begin fighting over the sacred garbage and used pampers on the ground. I lift my arm out of my sleeping bag and look at my Timex Ironman sports wrist watch. It’s 5:30 a.m. Time to run or meditate.
June 1, 1991
I left Madison, Wisconsin at 3:09 p.m. on Saturday. My three youngest sons, Michael Jr., Peter, and Matthew, and I are going to the Sun Dance that is being held on a Butte overlooking the Missouri river on our reservation, just outside of New Town, North Dakota. My oldest son, Jason, my Adventurer, did not come this time and is hanging with his friend Ethan. Maybe next time.
I have never been to this ceremony and do not know what to expect or if I am prepared for what’s coming. As I experience both excitement and fear, regions in my brain’s deep limbic system activate and then calm. As we drive west on Interstate highway 94 from Madison, the loud, constant vibrating, clunking sounds from somewhere underneath our 1985 mini-van unnerves my sons and me. I experience bouts of anxiety knowing we could breakdown long before we reach our destination.
As we rattle along, Peter, asks, “Do you think we’ll make it Dad?” Matt, my Philosopher, looks up quickly from his theories of human nature book to gauge the expression on my face as I respond. Michael, my Warrior, quickly intervenes in the conversation to avoid having it get out control. He responds by saying, “Man, Peter. You worry too much. Dad’s got it under control!” I smile and look at Peter and say, “No Buddy. We’ll make it. We’re doing something holy.”
He smiles and looks away. Still, after having paid a few hundred bucks to the Firestone automotive shop, earlier that day, to get us road worthy for this trip I am hoping that all will go well.
The sounds of vibration are soon overridden by the myriad of questions from the boys about the Sun Dance, the reservation, our relatives, and where a good place will be to take our first break. Our active conversation has boosted our brain waves to a mid-high Beta range as we listen and respond energetically to all that is being said. We have a couple of loaves of sliced white bread, two packages of the good kind of baloney, a couple boxes of ding dongs, a big bag of barbeque chips, two six-packs generic soda, a gallon of water, and a thermos of coffee: road food fit for a Chief!
Our first break comes not long after the boys finish their first can of soda. I pull over and get out and stretch as they hustle out of the van into the restroom to flush their small, soda-pop sugar coated kidneys. As we drive off I notice how the dome of the sky, the green trees and grasses, and the interspersed browns in the toiled earth shimmer beautifully in the setting sun.
At 7:00 p.m. we cross the line between Wisconsin and Minnesota which brings cheers from the boys who excitedly look to see if they can determine any subtle differences in the landscape.
After a stop in Rogers, Minnesota, about 40 miles north of Minneapolis, we cruise nonstop into Fargo, arriving at 11:30 p.m. The boys are sleeping and I glance at them and smile, wondering what they may be dreaming about. I watch several cars speed by us as we pass through Fargo; I wonder if any of these folks are headed to our Sun Dance destination.
Midway between Fargo and Bismarck I am drawn from the darkness of the road to the flashes of lightning in the dark heavy clouds in front of us. I’ve always loved lightning at night. One of my nieces, when she was a little girl, used to tell me that the lightening was caused by God lighting matches in heaven. I would tell her that, “God is too old to mess around with matches. I think it’s probably some naughty Angel kids trying to start a fire. When they play with matches they pee in their beds up in heaven.” With a puzzled but serious look on her face she would ask, “is that where rain comes from?”
June 2, 1991
Nearly three hours later we arrive in Bismarck. It’s early Sunday morning. I exit onto highway 83 north towards home. The shift in speed wakes Peter, my Sensitive one. He climbs upfront and asks where we are. "Buckle your seatbelt,” I tell him. “Did you have good dreams?” “I was dreaming about being chased by bees,” he replies. It’s time for gas and I turn into a station to fill up, noticing that the sounds of our van’s bumble-bee vibrations are much quieter.
We drive off from the station; another eighty or ninety more miles till White Shield. Peter remains awake watching the road before us. We begin a conversation about the night and the creatures that depend on the dark for life. He tells me about bats, nighthawks, skunks, and deer and their preference and suitability for darkness. I listen intently to his gentle, well-informed descriptions.
All of a sudden our headlights reflect two shining eyes in front of us, at about the height of the windows of our van. Peter sees them first and says, “watch out Dad!” I’m already slowing down, “I see them.” We slow into a calm, quiet rolling stop and stare at the deer as she walks onto the road. She moves to the middle of the highway and pauses. Although, our encounter lasts only seconds we take in the shape of her large beautiful ears as they shift back and forth, listening, trying to determine what or whom is behind the bright, blinding light on her right side. She faces us for a moment and then gracefully turns her long beautiful neck and body away from us and walks elegantly back down into the ditch.
At 3:35 a.m. we turn off highway 83 and head west on highway 23, the old Lewis and Clark trail road. We are about 30 miles from home. At 4:07 a.m. we cross the line that separates the State of North Dakota from our reservation and turn right onto the dusty gravel road going north to my mom and dad’s place, which is about a mile away from the paved highway. There are several cars in the yard, no dogs barking, and no lights on in the yard or the house.
I pull over the car, park, and turn off the motor. I get out and walk up to the door and turn the doorknob, which is locked. I turn around and return to the car, deciding not to disturb whoever is home. I tell Peter that we will sleep in the car for a few hours and then head inside when it gets light outside. We settle back and I drift between awareness and sleep as Peter pulls guard duty.
June 3, 1991
I sit up in my sleeping bag and zip it open as I listen to the seagulls crying and the rain covers gently tapping outside. The boys are asleep. I can feel the heat of the summer morning building as I slip on my running shoes, tee shirt, and shorts. I brush the bits of grass out of my hair and put it in a ponytail. I fold my red bandana into a headband and wrap it on. I set the timer on my watch and zip open the front of the tent and step out. I stretch lightly and begin running to the North East, the semi-cardinal direction of the winds and all life in the air. As I pick up speed my body relaxes into my run; the wind greets me. I begin my prayer: “Winds be with me. Carry me. Protect me. Winds bless us all.” My right temporal brain lobe (the God spot in my brain) begins to activate.
Michael Yellow Bird, MSW, Ph.D., is an enrolled member of the Three Affiliated Tribes and a professor and the director of graduate education in the Department of Social Work at Humboldt State University, Arcata, CA. His teaching, writing, research, and community work focuses on social work with Indigenous Peoples, neurodecolonization, neuroscience and social work, and employing mainstream and traditional Indigenous mindfulness practices in tribal communities to promote health and well being. He can be reached by email at: firstname.lastname@example.org