While working in Albuquerque for the Native Lands Institute, another conference I attended was that of the Indigenous Environmental Network (IEN), held one year on the Sac and Fox reservation. It was a camping conference at their pow-wow grounds outside Stroud, OK. For many participants, the conference was most dramatically punctuated by the tornado sirens that went off about 4:00 am one night! But for me, the highlight of the conference was a different night, the night of the full moon, after the day’s workshops and presentations had ended, supper had been served, and darkness had fallen. That night, we were invited to attend a demonstration dance by local Yuchi people. The elder who led the dancing explained beforehand that this was stomp dance, the ancient ceremonial dance of his people. He explained that the lights of the pow-wow grounds would be turned out for the rest of the evening, as this dance was done without artificial lighting. He said that normally it was open for anyone to participate, but since so many were present from so many different tribes who did not know anything about the form of this particular dance, he would request that they refrain this time unless they knew how to participate properly.
I had only recently heard of stomp dance. I knew this was something that Cherokees did as well, but I did not know anything about the form of it, so I would simply watch this time. I placed my lawn chair in the front row of observers and settled in with anticipation of something wonderful, but I could not have had any inkling that I was about to be given everything that I would ever need for the rest of my life.
As the singing and dancing started, it became wonderfully weird almost immediately. It began with a creeping awareness that I knew these songs. No, I did not know them cognitively, I had never heard them, but they were in my consciousness nevertheless, they were the most familiar things in the world to me. It continued with a realization that this moment didn’t exist anymore. The silhouettes outlined by the full moon and firelight had dimmed, the people around me had fallen away, and this had transformed into any and every moment that this dance had ever been or would be enacted -- past, present, and future. The people moving in this firelight were my great-great-great grandparents going so many generations back, and they were my descendants many generations ahead. Time, as my poor human brain understood it, had absolutely collapsed and I was floating in an amazing, breathless, eternal moment. I knew this sound, these rhythms, these people, this movement. It was etched forever and always in that essential, tribal consciousness that scientists tell us doesn’t exist. As a social scientist, I would have said this as well, until I, too, fell into that essential eternity for an instant.
In our mundane sense of time, it only lasted a few minutes, or perhaps only a few seconds - I really couldn’t say. But I emerged from it without any questioning of it. I was crying silently, and I could not stop. I hoped no one saw me. I hate listening to or reading about things like this, and I try not to write about this kind of thing. But the limitation is not in the experience; the limitation lies in the inability of language (or at least the English language) to convey something about the experience to another person. So, I will say no more. But this happened to me, too, as something like it has happened to many people, and it changed everything ever after. In that moment, it was decided that I would come home, fully and forever. In truth, I knew that I had never been away. Throughout all of eternity, I had never been away.
Two weeks later, I attended the Sun Dance at Big Mountain, AZ with my husband. He had been sundancing for many years at this place, fasting, sweating, and piercing over four days each summer. But it was my first time attending, and on the fourth day, I supported my husband by running alongside him around the perimeter of the arbor after he broke free of the leather thongs that had held him to the tree, and then packing his chest wounds with tobacco. We then joined the line of dancers ringing the arbor, and after everyone had completed their run around the circle, the sundancers moved along the line of supporters to thank them and bless them using eagle feathers. As my husband passed by me and passed the feather over my head, my heart, my body, he thanked me and I heard the softness in his voice and saw the glow that surrounded him. I knew he was in that moment of eternity, transcendence, and vision. I felt so happy for him, for everyone there who was sharing in this.
After the men, the women dancers began to pass along the line of supporters to bestow their blessing as well. As I stood there with my hands open, palms out, receiving the soft touch of eagle feathers as the women passed by, one young woman, a white-looking woman like me, said to me, “Get your hands up, you’re letting it all spill out!” Ah, yes, the shattering power of New Age one-upsmanship. Would she have dared to say this to a more “Indian” looking person? Did she really believe that the spirit that was flowing through all of us at that moment did not also encompass me because I was holding my hands a certain way?! Was there no escaping dogma? No, ultimately this was not mine. I would be a stomp dancer, a shell shaker.
For the past 25 years, this has sustained me, whether I am able to dance every weekend, or have been unable to dance for several years. Once it is in you, it doesn’t leave you. As a Cherokee, this will carry me throughout all time.
What is it about being Cherokee that carries you through your lifetime?