Linda Neale's Blog

Mother Goes to Sundance

Linda Neale - Sunday, August 11, 2013

I’ve invited my 88 year old mother to one sundance or another for the last twenty-two years, but there was always a reason why she couldn’t attend. I wondered about those reasons, and assumed they had something to do with what she’d heard about the ceremony.  Most people tend to exaggerate the physical aspects – the piercings, fasting, and suffering that goes on – and forget the joy, support, love, and connections that are present.  Over the years I said little to my mother about my involvement in the dance.  The sundance ceremony is both beautiful and intense and there’s really no way to describe it.  It must be experienced.  After 22 years of rejected invitations, I almost didn’t invite her this year.  Sometime in May I mentioned it in a rather backwards way, after she inquired about our plans for the summer. 


“Well, the last week of June we’re going to a sundance.”  Long Pause…  “You’re always welcome, you know.”


“Where is it?” she asked.


I told her.


“I think I could do that.” She said.


I wondered if she heard my quick intake of air. “Really?”  I exclaimed, then hurried the conversation along to the planning phase.  I didn’t want to act too surprised, and I worried she might change her mind.


There are reasons why I didn’t give up asking her, reasons beyond the little-girl longing for her mommy to be present.  I felt that my mother would be touched by her experience and find something personally meaningful at sundance.  The ceremony reaches beyond culture to basic archetypal themes that are part of everyone’s life -- themes like connection to the earth, nurturing, the masculine and feminine principles, support, prayer,  gratitude, pain and joy. 


My mother, who made chocolate chip cookies for all the students in the fourth grade, has experienced great pain and great joy in her own life.  She’s had three husbands, some better than others, and experienced the death of both siblings, one of whom died when she was only 13.  By the time you’re 88, I’ve noticed that the pain and joy seem intimately connected to each other.  Mother is relatively strong and healthy, and has five children (I am the oldest), nineteen grandchildren, and eleven great-grandchildren.  I don't look much like her.  I'm tall and blond, and she's short with beautiful red hair that attracted so many in her younger years.  Although she doesn’t participate in our sweat lodge ceremonies, she supports by bringing a casserole to almost every post-sweat lodge potluck.  She is currently Catholic (a Matthew Fox kind of Catholic) but when I was growing up we attended the Presbyterian, Congregational, Episcopalian, Catholic, and Unitarian churches. 


My role at this sundance was limited.  I wasn’t dancing, so I could stand beside my mother and support her in whatever way she needed.  This turned out to be a very good thing.  Although I might have appreciated my mother’s presence years ago when I danced, it was much better for us to experience the ceremony together.  I felt like I was seeing everything fresh through her eyes.


I told Mother very little before she arrived on the sundance grounds. “Bring a skirt and shawl, and just imagine you’re entering a foreign country.”  That was about it.  I try to always give minimal direction and instructions to new people, so their experience is untainted by mine.


We arrived the day before tree day, so she could meet people and gradually enter into the   ceremony. As the oldest person there, she was honored and treated with respect.  Everyone helped her, waited on her, and wanted to connect with her.  She was amazed by the amount of work and preparation that had been done.  “They had to cut all those fir branches, didn’t they?”  “How do those women do all that cooking?”  “Look at all those tipis.  Who puts them all up?”  She loved the white buffalo calf woman story I shared with her as we sat together waiting for dinner, and the children who listened in on the story. 


On tree day she accompanied me, the other elders, the men, and the tree maidens as we went to capture the tree and make it a friend.  Before the tree is cut, all the elders pray at the tree.  I’m one of those elders.  Mother wanted to go with me so I asked the intercessor if that was possible.  We walked to the tree together, through the underbrush, escorted by two helpers, and put our four hands on the tree as the drummer sang a song.   She stayed there for a long time, and I cried.


Mother slept in a motel, thirty minutes from the sundance grounds, rather than camping with the rest of us, but she showed up at sunrise on the first day of the dance, ready to welcome the sun and the dancers into the arbor.  We sat near the drum in the south gate.  At first she was unsure what to do.  Most of the supporters stand around the outside of the circle singing and dancing -- saluting the tree at the same time the sundancers do.  During the opening round Mother sat while I danced beside her.  By the second round she was standing.  And during the third round she was dancing, swaying back and forth to the beat of the drum, and raising her arms to salute the tree.  I was filled up with joy.

We had to leave the dance at the end of the first day.  My husband Rod, who has been a sundancer for over 30 years and a lead man dancer for ten years, was very ill in Portland, and I got a call that I was needed at home.  Mother and I were both worried as we drove away from the sundance grounds.  As we left, many people said they would be praying for us.  It was a quiet 2 ½ hour drive home.  When we entered the house, Rod was sitting up, and although he was in pain from the horrible case of shingles he'd contracted, it was clear that he wasn’t on death’s door.  Rod asked Mother about the dance.  “Oh, it was wonderful!” she said.  She went on for a bit, talking about all the preparation, the dancers, etc.  “You get better, and next year we’ll go there together.” She told Rod.


"All right," he replied.


I smiled.

anand arupo commented on 11-Aug-2013 07:13 AM
such a touching experience of sharing this with your mother Linda and do appreciate your sharing with all of us. blessings for you all, arupo
Laura commented on 11-Aug-2013 10:04 PM
Thank you so much for sharing. Just Precious! I hope to meet her next year. :)
vicki ghost horse commented on 12-Aug-2013 05:31 AM
I love it when our moms and dads show up at our dance. Ms Georgia is beautiful and is a gift to us all. Thank you, dear Sister, for sharing her with us all. And I agree with Uncle -- good story! Vic
Anonymous commented on 05-Oct-2013 10:00 PM
Such a sweet story. Gives me hope for my own relationship with my mother
Georgia Sohlstrom commented on 15-Oct-2014 04:43 PM
thank you Linda for sharing that beautiful story.

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