We Danced to Dedicate our Lives to Creator and Our People
DYNAMIC SOUTHEASTERN CREEK INDIAN DANCES ~ Part IV
by Ghost Dancer
Have you ever seen an etching or drawing of trees with tiny images hanging from them on pottery or a gorget? If you have, has anyone ever told you what this represents or its purpose? The tree is the Tree of Life and the image represents some Southeastern People’s equivalent of the Sun Dance. This is one of our most ancient dances, and like all forms of self-sacrifice among Native Peoples, the significance is poorly understood. This ceremonial dance is how we give our bodies in sacrifice and prayer to our Creator. When a young man made the decision to enter into the dance, he was making the commitment of living his life to serve Spirit and his people. Making this commitment requires a pure heart, lots of love, dedication and prayer. So please bear with me as I share this insight with you as I understand it.
Those who choose to hang from the Tree of Life in sacrifice begin preparing months in advance. The spiritual, mental and physical training begins each week by drinking the black drink and purging from within. The dancers train by running and sweating their bodies all day and then jumping into ice cold streams and standing there without moving, all the while in constant prayer. At night, when they come out of the water, a spiritual teacher will use a long bone or stick with 4 rows of claws or teeth to rake across the body from one shoulder to the opposite hip, then the other shoulder to the opposite hip, front and back. Then the legs. The blood flows. Cedar is then rubbed into the wounds. A piece of a sacred root is placed in the mouth and chewed slowly, then swallowed. This will send them to their visions to find the medicine they need for what lies ahead. Each night they lay inside the mound, or where there is no mound, protected beneath a cedar and holly arbor. A sacred fire burns and wet cedar is placed upon it to produce steam and sacred aroma. These are just a few of the rituals they will endure.
On the day the ceremony begins, the dancers will come out all painted with ancient symbols, and the winged beings and all-seeing-eye-on-the-hand disk hanging from the neck to the chest. They each have small young cedar branches wrapped around the wrists and ankles. Holding a turkey feather and white crane feather in their hands, they dance toward the Tree of Life. They dance 4 times around the tree as the drum sounds the heart-beat rhythm for their feet to match. Each time they come around the tree, the people cheer and give thanks to them for this sacred act of giving of themselves. The spiritual teachers throw corn pollen and meal upon them. They have not eaten nor have they drunk any water. Their entire being is now on this Dance of Life and Death. They will give up their flesh so that their spirit many live.
Each dancer now dances in place as a beloved woman and beloved man each take a sharp claw and pull up pieces of flesh in the arms, running the claws completely through, and then quickly inserting a bone through holes. Each arm is done. Then each leg is done. Braided leather strips are then tied to each end of the bones. Strong vines are connected to each of the leather strips. Once this is done a great shout is lifted up by the people. Women begin trilling and the men give loud whoops and stomp their feet, hitting their chests with their hands in honor of the commitment these dancers are making.
When the drum begins, family and clan members begin pulling them up using the vines that go high up into the tree on various branches and hang down to the ground. As the dancers are lifted off the ground, the flesh where the bones are stuck through is severely pulled and the blood begins to flow. As the blood pours down the dancers all sing a thank-you song to Spirit for the love and gifts we have been given. By hanging suspended in the air, each dancer, in essence, is calling out to the Creator to look and see the love he has for Creator and for all the people. We do this ceremony in love. Our blood is sacred and we give it freely out of love. During this time, with arms lifted and face upturned, the people all sing thank-you songs and dance around the Tree of Life, giving thanks to our Creator for our life and the lives of all creation, for all the love we receive, and all the gifts that we are given so freely.
The dancers hang for however long it takes for the bones to tear through the flesh. When the flesh is almost torn through each place, they are lowered closer to the ground. This could go on for days, and if after 4 days the flesh has not torn through, a beloved one will take pity and cut through the dancer’s flesh to release them. Afterward, a feast is held. The dancers are taken on litters to be washed in a cool stream or spring and then slowly nursed back to health. Their lives have been dedicated to Spirit and to the people for the next 4 years.
Now picture this in your mind: Think of all the life-blood that has poured down and the tree has drunk this blood even in its roots. From the earliest beginning, the trees selected for this ceremony have always been the red oak, the blood tree, some call it a water oak. So, the next time you see the red oak, remember all those before you who so bravely sacrificed themselves to Spirit and for the people.
Ghost Dancer, July 2017 ©
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Richard Thornton is a professional architect, city planner, author and museum exhibit designer-builder. He is today considered one of the nation’s leading experts on the Southeastern Indians. However, that was not always the case. While at Georgia Tech Richard was the first winner of the Barrett Fellowship, which enabled him to study Mesoamerican architecture and culture in Mexico under the auspices of the Institutio Nacional de Antropoligia e Historia. Dr. Roman Piňa-Chan, the famous archaeologist and director of the Museo Nacional de Antropologia, was his fellowship coordinator. For decades afterward, he lectured at universities and professional societies around the Southeast on Mesoamerican architecture, while knowing very little about his own Creek heritage. Then he was hired to carry out projects for the Muscogee-Creek Nation in Oklahoma. The rest is history.Richard is the Tribal Historic Preservation Officer for the KVWETV (Coweta) Creek Tribe and a member of the Perdido Bay Creek Tribe. In 2009 he was the architect for Oklahoma’s Trail of Tears Memorial at Council Oak Park in Tulsa. He is the president of the Apalache Foundation, which is sponsoring research into the advanced indigenous societies of the Lower Southeast.
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