Sacred Dance For Spirits

PowWow Drums ~ Ashley Mackinnon 2010

PowWow Drums ~ Ashley Mackinnon 2010

People think we all just go dancing in a circle at a pow wow. But it’s not like that. When you go into the dance arena and you’re praying and dancing, people will leave you alone. It’s an accepted place where you can go and be alone with your prayers and stuff. You end up dancing with your feet, and that’s a prayer because you’re praying with your feet—you pray with your whole body. So that’s the importance of dancing, along with rebonding with friends and relatives, and it’s that way for me.

There was a time when they were shooting up Bosnia and I was asked to do a talk on Saturday, so Friday night we started a pow wow and it was 72 degrees when we started dancing. Friday night is usually just an evening pow wow set up for dancing on Saturday morning. We were in the upper desert, and when the temperature dropped, it got really cold with in one and half hours and every one went home except the head staff and the drum. It got cold as heck, but I decided this pow wow was for me, and so I was gonna go out there and dance. Sauginea was MC at the time. I decided to dance my heart out until I got an answer about what I was supposed to say about Bosnia. So I started dancing, and the sweat started coming down my face, and Sauginea started cheering me on, and even when the drum stopped I kept on dancing. I learned in that dance that my weapons were the rattle and the wing and that I must keep dancing and praying for what were asking for.

To me, this social connection has a high spiritual value, and when you have that sacred fire burning, you can go and make your prayer there and dance, dance, dance. Then go burn tobacco. That’s what I do. This speaks to everyone there, because this is not a party. These are our instructions: our first instruction is to give thanks and the second is you must enjoy life. So that’s what we are doing, enjoying life, but we do not forget what it is we were asked to do. That is, to give thanks! Dance and remember who you are. That’s what I think.

Grandpa Raymond Stone taught us that two things do not mix. Back in the day, there was a lot of out of circle drinking and fighting going on. In order to come and go at the pow wow, you had to pass through the drinkers. So if you walk the traditional way, Grandpa Stone told us, you had to stay away from that because you will get sucked into fights and arguments and people doing that kind of stuff. When the old man passed away, they started bugging me to be a part of the pow wow. How do you tell if you are on the right path or not? What I do is put a request out to the spirit world. When I went in the Youth Authority Prison, I said I would go in on the condition that I never would have to show ID or have to open my medicine bag. So this went along for five years, until one day they started to ask for my ID. All of this told me spiritually that I was in the right place and that they were looking out for me. The pow wow was similar, and I said okay I will do it on the condition that we have a sacred fire burning. We put the sacred fire up so that anyone had an opportunity to also come and pray. It was a message to all the dancers and supporters that anybody that was just sitting around could come out and make a prayer anytime.

Now some pow wows won’t let us put a fire in the middle of the grass. But we always light a sacred fire, even if it is not in the middle. It can be on the side, and a fire keeper will take care of it properly. We take care of that sacred fire by only putting wood, tobacco and prayers in—that’s it. We take care of it in a good way; somebody will stay up all night to take care of that fire. You can call it a pow wow, but you know a lot of times here in California we call it Big Time. That’s the gathering under a pow wow format. In California, we do not forfeit who we are, as we must carry the message in this way. A lot of times there is Christianity around and they do not want to see or hear a real traditional ceremony or see the sacred fire burning at the pow wow. Some people want a Christian pow wow. To be truthful I don’t know what that is because our feathers and regalia have a spirit and our medicine has a spirit, but sometimes Christianity sees that as idolatry, but I do not know how they can do that and call themselves good Christians.

Photo by Rafael Chacon

Photo by Rafael Chacon 2014

Part of my job as the spiritual person at a pow wow is to do the blessing of the grounds; if you don’t do that blessing, anything can happen on the grounds. When we do a blessing on the grounds, it is because we want healing. We want the dancers and all the participants to leave better than how they came, and that’s why we do that sacred blessing of the pow wow grounds. We put down medicine and prayers all over, and we make sure everyone knows these grounds are sacred and special grounds. It’s about bringing in all the spirits together to dance there.

People say it’s a social, and that’s true but it’s a spiritual social gathering. If you remember, it’s a special place to pray. If there are trees around, what do you do? I Sun Danced for twenty-five years, but what do you while you are there all day? What do you do with your mind? It’s not about shagging or something like that. It’s about keeping your mind in a good place; it’s about keeping your walk in a spiritual manner.

When you have pow wows and you go there, things happen, but that’s what socials are for. Socials are not less than sacred events; sacred events to me have a purpose, and the purpose for socials is for us to get along, for like people to gather. That’s the law: like things gather, and the place where like things gather is a very powerful place. When hundreds of dancers are actually talking to the spirit world, it’s a powerful place to be. The MC is keeping it going and keeping it spiritually strong and reminding us—even with laughter—who we are and what we are for. We must not lose sight of our values or our sacred fire or what our fire speaks for. Our fire doesn’t let you forget. Our fire reminds us and speaks to us in a healing way.