• Eric "Aspen" Marley

White Man, Red Ceremony: The Critical Container

Updated: Apr 23

I am a white man that performs Lakota ceremonies.

So what? There are a lot of people that say that, these days. I guess I just want to talk for a second about what that means to me.

The first thing I want to say is that I’ve had good teachers in these ways, and a few that were not so great. My first teacher, a man I loved dearly, will be in prison for the rest of his life for doing some very bad things. He deserves to be there although my heart hurts for him. We had a falling out long before some of his dark deeds came to light, but that doesn’t matter. The bottom line is that he helped bring me real healing in a difficult time in my life. Among other significant things, he introduced me to the Sun Dance, something that has been a big part of my life now for over a decade. So, in spite of who he turned out to be, I am eternally grateful to him and continue to pray for his healing and health.

I’ve had great teachers as well. Eddie and Tina. Sam. Jim. Kam. Augie. Gabriel. Even Lakoda, my friend in Australia, has had a large impact even though I’ve only seen him in person a few times. Each of these men and women was either full-blood or close to it.

Each brought teachings to me that have made me a better person, let alone a better practitioner of ancient ways; ways that my own ancestors definitely knew something about within their own spiritual cultures but which were mostly Northern European.

(I recently found that my great x4 grandmother was of Native decent – Sally Hulett – but I don’t know which tribe and will probably never know. Although I do feel her presence at times and am in the process of building a relationship with her.)

In short, I’ve had a lot of good teachers. They taught me authentic ways to participate and perform ceremonies like the sacred inipi, or “sweat lodge,” and others. The teachings around a ceremony make up what’s commonly called, “a container.”

It’s important to understand that a container can be tight, or it can be loose. Each creates different “effects.” I’ll explain the benefits of a tight container, and the disadvantages of a loose one will be evident enough.

A tight container is one that is as authentic as possible. For an inipi, this means, among other things, that it will include Native songs sung in a Native tongue. It will feature accouterments such as a sacred chanupa (prayer pipe) from which is smoked the bark of the red willow and possibly other sacred, non-psychoactive plants. The fire is tended in a certain way. People enter and exit a certain way. People dress in a certain way, too. This is, in part, out of respect for ancient mores and the ancient spirits that will be invited to attend the ceremony, as well.

My point is that if I am holding a tight container, I don’t get to change these ceremonies for any reason.

Yes, it may be inconvenient to start and run a sweat lodge fire a certain way. But it has to be done. The effectiveness of the ceremony itself is at stake. More on that in a minute. But what I want to emphasize right now is that it’s not ok for me to change the way things are done. Particularly not for my own convenience, including my own lack of understanding. Not for bad weather, because I’m too thirsty, or too hot, in a hurry, or unprepared.

In short, I am expected to bend to them, not the other way around.

For example, if I have some paper in my pocket that I want to get rid of, it’s not ok to throw that into a sacred fire. Why? We can talk about respect. We can talk about tradition. We can talk about a lot of things around this. But the bottom line is even simpler: it’s just not done.

The bane of my existence, and probably yours too, is my mind. An untrained mind probably isn’t going to accept, “just because… now shut up and sit by the fire, and keep your trash out of it.” But that’s exactly the right answer (well, maybe it could use a little more compassion). Because it’s not about what makes sense to the mind. It’s about what feels right to the heart.

What if it “feels right to the heart” to throw trash into a sacred fire?

I’d say to go get your heart right, come back to the ceremony, and we’ll sweat you up.

And, I’d add that this is why we have teachings: because white ways, including spiritual ones, have become polluted with “mind.” There is no heart in white culture, is there? It feels hollow. That’s because for good and ill, it has been run by “reason,” want, and fear for centuries. All things that make sense to the mind. Which, as we know, is often at odds with the heart.

You can see where that’s gotten us.

So, a way to ensure that a container is kept tight is to have rules that we follow, whether we understand them or not. And, for those of us with super-curious minds like mine, I have some advice. Let’s again use the fire example, for this.

Let’s say that it deeply offends you that you can’t throw a gum wrapper into a fire.

“What?” you reason. “Is it going to wreck the fire because I threw a one-inch square piece of paper into it? Is it somehow going to void all the prayers that people will bring?” Notice how seductive and subversive that question is. It's not blind obedience that is being asked - as if there were no answer. Instead, we're being asked to feel into the answer with the heart, rather than mind.

With that in mind, my response would be simple. It would go something like this.

"Keep your trash to yourself, and start sitting around sacred fires. Quiet your mind, and sit. Open your heart, and sit. Pray for help to understand this for yourself, and sit. It may take two minutes. It may take 30 ceremonies, or fifteen years, or a lifetime. The answer is the same. Open your heart… and sit."

I promise you with all that I am that if you do this an answer will come to you. Better yet, it’ll be for you, in your own language. And, I can also promise you that you won’t be tempted to throw trash into the fire ever again.

This is how sacred ways are really learned. They’re experiential. They aren’t learned from a book, or a weekend workshop. Those teachings bless us with their Presence, and that Presence enlivens every other aspect of our lives. I don’t know how. I don't know why. They just do. We get deeper roots, in a manner of speaking. All from keeping a tight container.

Now, there is more; much more to this. I’ve seen things happen in sweat lodges, and in pipe and healing ceremonies, that I won’t post here. Things that are too sacred to talk about in this public and frankly unworthy setting. There was one healing ceremony that I attended where the container was so tight, the requirements so precise, that the Medicine Man (and he really is a Medicine Man, not some weekend poseur), stopped the ceremony twice to correct something that I couldn’t even perceive. And I was in charge of that particular thing so, believe me, I was looking. And I still didn’t catch it.

But once it was fixed, there was no doubt in anyone’s mind – no one’s – that there were miraculous things happening in that room. A room that had been sanctified by a container. It was a container that this man’s unseen Helpers recognized, so they came in force, no longer unperceived. That much I can promise.

That, in a nutshell, is why we keep a tight container in spite of inconvenience, in spite of culture, and in spite of questions, impulses, and simple human weakness. We want the Helpers who are sent from our Creator to show up. If they recognize the container, and if our hearts are in the right place – humble and ready to receive help – they will. They always do.

Now, we can make small errors, in many cases. Perfection is generally not required. This is a good thing, because my lodges aren’t perfect, either. But, the more powerful the prayer, the more strident the need, the bigger the “ask,” the more we’d better be ready to give – including doing all we can to honor the authentic teachings that have been lent to us.

Lent to us. We don’t own them. Never make the mistake of thinking we do.

As I said above, I am a white man who performs Lakota ceremonies. It took me ten years of these ways, hundreds of sweat lodges, and seven Sun Dances before I poured my first sweat lodge. I take this very seriously. I’m putting this out there in this forum for all to see, so there is no misunderstanding. I do this in full view of AIM members (American Indian Movement), who will have no problem calling me out if I am inappropriate in any way, and to whom I have and show great respect. Because without them, and without their ancestors who practiced their religious freedom at the peril of their lives, our ceremonies would still be illegal. They all were until the mid-1970’s. This, in a country that was founded in part over freedom of religion. It’s hard to comprehend.

But mostly, I want to invite those who want to learn a little of these ways to do so carefully. Go slow. Be respectful. Humble yourself. Lance, Karen, don’t assume that you have “rights” to do whatever you want. That’s the worst kind of “white privilege.” Instead sit quietly and watch. Experience. Process. And then come back for more in like manner time and again.

Because Native American or not, this is how your ancestors did it, too.

--Eric Marley

(artist unknown)

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