Vignettes From Standing Rock #1: Pipe Ceremony
Sunday the 27th of November was cold at the Main Camp, with a constant wind blowing out of the NW.
“It’s coming,” they all whispered. “A big one. Lots of snow.”
We worked through the day to make sure that tents were properly staked and there was firewood inside the tents lucky enough to have a wood stove as translucent white clouds gathered. A cold rain started just before sunset. It was to freeze and turn to snow.
I looked at my rented 24 foot Penske van, the one I had driven from Oregon. How would it do in the snow? I would have liked to have driven out of the small ravine that night and parked it on the road, but there was no room there. Oh well. I’d have to figure it out in the morning. I zipped up my tent and hoped for the best. It was to be my first night at the Main Camp. I was seriously sleep deprived and needed deep rest. I took half a sleeping pill and passed out.
Snow fell all night, driven by a fierce wind. It accumulated and sagged the tent. Several times I knocked it off to keep the snow from damaging it. My sleep was as airy as the weather, and less substantial most of the night.
It was still dark and I was finally enjoying deep rest when I heard a mechanical call over a loudspeaker.
“Pipe carriers and sun dancers! It’s time to pray!” the Native voice said, “Get up! Get up! Get out of your beds! You can’t stop the black snake from there!”
I jumped out of my sleeping bag with a “woot!” It felt like the midnight Eagle Dances we are often called to do during Sun Dance. We are wiped out from a long day, asleep in the middle of a merciful night near the tree, and suddenly the singers start singing. It doesn’t matter that we were asleep and exhausted. Eagle Dancers dance whenever they’re called. No hesitation. No complaints. This felt like that. That morning I put on my coat, grabbed my prayer pipe (chanupa) and walked into the storm towards the fire. The winds and driving snow were so strong that I had to turn my back as I walked.
I got to the fire and felt welcomed by that beautiful, earthy smell of burning wood, that seemed to tell stories of good conversation, life-saving warmth, home cooked meals and deep ceremony as old as humanity itself.
No one else was there yet. No pipe carriers, anyway. I approached the elders in the shack near the sacred flame. They regarded me.
“Can I fill my pipe by the fire?” I asked the closest one to me, who seemed to be the oldest of the three.
He nodded. “Go ahead.”
Kneeling by the fire in the darkness, I unfolded my pipe wrap. Ignoring the increasing bustle around me, I sang the pipe filling song, offering sacred tobacco or kinshasha to each of the six directions as I filled my pipe. A woman approached the elder to my right, greeted him and was about to walk in front of me as I filled. Realizing the impropriety of crossing in front of one so engaged, she closed her eyes in apology and bowed as she went by.
I prayed long and hard. Tears mixed with the snow and ran with them down my cheeks.
After offering my pipe to the six directions, I attempt to smoke it but the wind and snow made it hard to keep lit. I was still the lone pipe carrier at the fire so I was feeling self-conscious. Eventually I gave up and finished my prayer, offering an apology to Creator for not finishing all the kinshasha in the bowl. I carefully stowed my pipe without any guilt or regret. I had done my best and the power of intent has been well taught to me. This indiscretion will be overlooked.
Still, my heart was in two. I cried on my way back to the tent. I cried for all the beauty. I cried for the tragedy. I cried for my white people, who have been lost for too many generations. I cried for my Native brothers and sisters, whom we have mistreated. I cried in apology to our Mother for all our human blindness. And I cried for hope.
I carried my pipe in my hands. In some way the unity of the bowl and stem illustrate my hopes for mankind. Unity: between masculine and feminine, between countries, between people, within families, within ourselves.
But for now it is time to protect. It is time to make a stand. Just like I had to leave a comfortable rest and warm bag and walk into the cold in order to pray, so it is with us all. We have been comfortable too long. The call has sounded for us to get up, to kneel in the snow at our line in the sand and listen to the Voice that would unify us all.