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Articles    H3'ed 7/8/10

One Road, Many Branches

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Here's what we think happened, at least in one sundance camp. In the 1980s, culture became incorporated into alcohol and drug treatment programs. Those programs who served a llarge percentage of Native people began to offer sweat lodge ceremonies. They began to welcome the involvement of traditional elders. Since Federal reimbursement guidelines prevented them from treating only Native Americans, this programming became available to people of all ethnicities. Many people of European descent discovered that the Red Road, the sweat lodge ceremony, and the Sun Dance, to name a few ceremonies, were better at prevent relapse into alcohol and drug use than the conventional modalities they had previously been offered. Indians and non-Indians formed lasting bonds in treatment programs through ceremonies conducted there that continued into the larger world. We believe that treatment programs changed the exclusivity policy into inclusivity.

My own involvement mirrored that trajectory. I began by teaching professionals how to incorporate culture into their practice. Soon after that, I helped found a not-for-profit, whose mission was to fund ceremonies on reservations and in urban settings, for people who couldn't otherwise afford ceremony (they are not cheap!). We worked hard at that mission with many successes, but largely our entrance was also through drug and alcohol treatment programs.

One of our members said he had read that there would be over 300 sun dances this season across the United States (40 in South Dakota alone). I suspect that is an under-estimate. Canada would add several hundred more. Sun Dance is flourishing. Many of the people I have met at sundance proclaim the red road and all its ceremonies as what kept them alive and sober. These are people from all ethnicities, not just Native American. The majority of sundances now welcome all comers. Discrimination by ethnicity has stopped. Whites are welcome as are blacks, Chinese, and any other configuration.

Before leaving this topic, I wanted to add that I have also gained a new understanding for "white shamanism". These people in the 1970s and 1980s longed to recovery their indigenous past and their indigenous roots, and didn't know where to look. They didn't want to offend Native Americans and they didn't see many Native Americans coming forward to teach them, so they went to Siberia and discovered shamans. Michael Harner among others brought this back and invented American shamanism. Probably if ttraditional people had come forward to teach them, this would have been unnecessary, but, at the time, it was all they could do, for we all have an indigenous heritage. Sweats are still being done in Ireland and Scotland, for instance, with wonderful four directions songs in Gaelic. Sweats are done in New Zealand by Maori people. Ceremony, ritual, four directions, sweats, etc. are universal and cannot be trademarked by any one group.

Regarding our North American ways, one Onandaga elder told me, "these ways are for everyone. Creator gave them to the people to share with everyone, not just Indians. That's why I welcome everyone with love, for we are all one. His motto was one road, many branches. He also said, in explaining the differences found at each sun dance ceremony, one theology, many practices.

What is apparent here at sun dance, even by the second day of purification, with 7 days remaining, is the incredible love and support that exists for everyone. Hatred and anger has not entered these sacred grounds. We are all working together to produce a dance that is for the healing of the people. We are choosing to suffer on purpose with a purpose, so that the people who come here may be healed, so that the people for whom we are praying, can get well. I will bring people to the tree for healing my friend Julie, who suffers from newly diagnosed ovarian cancer, my friends who are suffering from severe mental and physical illnesses, my new patients for whom I wish to do more than anyone previously has ever done for them. Through our sacrifices and our prayers, these people will be helped.

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Lewis Mehl-Madrona graduated from Stanford University School of Medicine and completed residencies in family medicine and in psychiatry at the University of Vermont. He is the author of Coyote Medicine, Coyote Healing, Coyote Wisdom, and (more...)
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