Dance Looking at the Sun

Robert Bensen

“The Old Ones who gave us these songs and dances said that when we do this, they will come and hear our prayers for help and healing,” Buck Ghost Horse told me years ago, inviting me as he did every year to his family’s sun dance. I always found an excuse not to go. I was leery of being an outsider, skittish about what might be expected of me, a non-Indian. So I avoided the anxiety and expense of travel, and missed the benefit as well–that is, until my daughter Annalee’s well-being was at issue. In 2011 she was instructed at a lowampe singing ceremony to “go to the tree” for healing of a career-ending dance injury that had led to other injuries and two ankle surgeries. We began preparations to go for healing, not only for her physical being, but also for damage to her spirit, suffered from years of pain and recovery, injury and rehabilitation, and the cycle of shattering and rebuilding her dream of dancing.

My wife Mary Lynn and I had adopted Annalee as an infant of mixed European and Native American ancestry. For years, she trained to be a ballerina, and saw herself in the footsteps of her heroine, the renowned Osage prima ballerina Maria Tallchief. For white parents, raising a Native child involves a cascade of issues both moral, cultural, and legal. From her first day with us, at four weeks of age, my wife Mary Lynn and I brought her into contact with a growing circle of Native people, who took on the responsibility of being good aunts and uncles, grandfathers and grandmothers—adopting her back, one might say, in informal but culturally necessary ways.

Annalee grew up dancing in Native socials and in Western classical ballet. Her calling to dance was clear. But at 17, she rolled over her foot en pointe and snapped the midfoot Lisfranc ligament. It’s a painful injury that often ends dance careers. But Annalee refused to let that happen. Over the next four years, we consulted the most reputable dance orthopedists in New York, Philadelphia, Toronto, and elsewhere. None of their treatments restored Annalee to full health.

In the blazing heat of summer Annalee and I flew across the country to Sungleska Oyate, a huge swath of high desert in Central Washington State. Sungleska Oyate is the spiritual home to the 800 members of the Ghost Horse extended family, or tiospaye, many of who gather for two weeks every July for the sun dance. Buck had passed on a few years ago, and his son Paul Ghost Horse was accorded the leadership of the family’s ceremonial life. Wallace Black Elk taught the sun dance ceremony, or wiwanyang wacipi (dance looking at the sun) to Buck, and Buck taught Paul the four days of songs and prayers for sacrifice, healing and renewal.

We landed in Portland, Oregon, and were driven several hours east along the Columbia River, the north to the desert home of Sungleska Oyate and a beautiful painted tepee. As I wrote by flashlight, with Annalee fast asleep after the first day of the dance, through the tepee’s skin, snatches of talk rose and fell with laughter, filtered through the encampment shrubs and trees, and the lodges on either side of ours. A short walk from us, under the bright starlight, was a ghostly sight: four men, pierced in ceremony that morning, lying on the dance ground, a bone skewer under the flesh of each breast, the skewers to be tethered to the sun dance tree each scorching day and each cold night.

On the fourth day, the four men would dance backwards, pulling against their tethers again and again until the skewers tore free. The dancers’ sacrifice and suffering were made with prayer, song and dancing, and the support of celebrants under the arbors, who prayed, sang, and danced with them. Some also made skin offerings, and some pulled buffalo skulls tethered to their back flesh, around the dance field, until they broke free, and sacrificial blood flowed. These offerings were made to give back to the sun and earth, for all they have provided the people, and to renew their identity as a people.

Annalee and I were invited there to be doctored by animal helpers, especially the bear, as well as other spirits and medicines, all invoked through song and dance, and the intercession of the sun dance leader, Paul Ghost Horse. The first morning, Paul’s step-mother, Vicki Ghost Horse, said that I too should be doctored for my neuropathy, brought on by a skirmish with a rabid bad and a nasty reaction to the vaccine. And so, as we sat under the arbor surrounding the dance field, a Helper brought two bear skins, and draped them over Annalee and me. The bear faces covered our faces, their front legs, our arms, and their rear legs, our legs. My bear’s claws were nearly as long as my fingers, the paw resting on the back of my hand, a friendly gesture, I thought.

Vicki said we were to let the bear medicine take us to the “renewable center of creation.” We were to focus on ourselves as we were before we got hurt, in our best, younger bodies, and envision becoming that pain-free, happy self again. Paul instructed us to “look for when and why the problem started: ask the bear to give that.”

We might fall asleep, Vicki said. Fine. In the middle of drumming and singing, wrapped in a bearskin in 100-degree heat, under a relentless sun beating down on the arbor’s cedar bows, in the afternoon shade, we did fall asleep. We would wear the robes for three days, drifting between dance and dreamtime. On the last day, the healing round, we would go to the tree. Amidst the drumming and singing, the dancing on the grounds, I felt miles away. My bear took me to a field of yellow flowers, where I watched him lying on his back, enjoying the chance to roam around. He was no help at all, and I told him so, but it was pleasant there.

Later that evening, I asked Annalee what happened to her. She said she dreamed of a barn on fire, a place she recognized from a recurring, terrifying dream she’d had for years. Usually, she was frantic to get inside to help the people she was sure were inside, but this time, she lay on the ground, pinned by a black wolf, his paws so heavily pressed into her chest, she could not breathe. The wolf put his face to hers and inhaled all her breath into himself, then ran away. Breathless, she clawed for air, and was nearly unconscious when a white wolf came, put his nostrils to hers, and breathed into her the sweetest air. The white wolf gave her new life.

Each morning a Helper gave us a different bear robe to wear. On a rare break, in the afternoon of the last day, we lay in our tepee, drained on our cots sweltering in the heat. A breeze slipped through the spiked grass, under the liner, and brought a breath of air, and with it, the first beat of a drum, calling us back to the dance ground.

In minutes, we took our places in the arbor, the drum circle singing the Helpers into its center, who then spread themselves out, into a ring around the Eagle dancers at the tree, slapping their tethers with eagle feather fans, in time with the drum.

I scanned the 200 or so people sitting, standing, dancing in a sway, under the arbor. They were reduced to a silhouette, cut out of the brilliant, hot sun, on the scorched dance ground. Half the people wore bear robes, the bears’ faces covering their own, so it looked as though a hundred bears were sitting among a hundred people.

I caught a shifting of one bearskin and saw Paul’s profile, thickly crusted and coated in brick-red clay; this was Red Man, emerging. Red Man is the spirit who possesses him, and in exchange for being in this world, Red Man brings his powers of healing. He was Paul and not-Paul, hunched over, shuffling with a hitched gait. He looked around, squinting, quizzically sizing up where he was, then he set about to work.

The Helpers led the first four people who sought healing to the tree, Annalee among them. I was led to a gated entrance to the dance ground. A line of those to be doctored grew behind me. The four at the tree were swallowed in bearskins. Red Man’s long fingers moved rapidly and deftly and not at all gently across their bodies, pushing, pulling, tugging on fur. Paul, who was not-Paul, but Red Man, yanked a bearskin off one woman’s shoulder, attacking the air above her with a rattle.

A Helper, with Eagle prayer feathers tied to his headband, came from the field, took my arm, and led me to a chair at the east side of the tree. I hadn’t seen Annalee leave, but I looked back, and there she was, in her chair under the arbor, folded into a bearskin, staring down. Another Helper held up a brown bearskin, so I leaned over to let it mount my shoulders, let its paws rest on my hands, and its face cover my own.

Red Man circled behind me, tugged the pelt off my shoulders, and sniffed around. Paul later said that Red Man can’t see very well, so he has to sniff his way around. He circles behind people, so all he sees is the bear robe. He thinks he’s doctoring bears.

Putting his lips on my shoulder, right at the neck, he sucked hard, straightened, and spit whatever spirit or malady or hurt out, over his right shoulder, towards the eastern gate. He’d found the place the rabid bat had landed on me, the place it had bit me, the poisoned place that the doctors had tried to heal. But the toxins in the medicine began to destroy the sensory and motor nerves in my feet and legs.

Red Man pulled the bearskin back over me. I stood hunched from the weight of the robe, facing the tree. The sacred colors of a thousand prayer ties were wrapped around its trunk, prayer robes hung in its branches. And surrounded by the shrill scree! of eaglebone whistles, distant coyote whoops, drumbeats, and the wail of singers, I felt equally safe and exposed to the unknown and unseen. In time, a Helper handed me a paper cup with a tea-brown liquid. I asked what it was. “Medicine,” he said. “Drink it.”

After being attended by Red Man, people were escorted away, new people appeared, and bear robes were placed over them. A Helper brought me another cup of “medicine.” Soon, Red Man was behind me again, lifting the robe from my back, sniffing along my shoulder and the back of my neck. Dipping his rattle in a bowl of red-brown clay, he tapped a line across my shoulder, down each leg, then down my arms–each tap felt deliberate, aimed. Later, Paul told me that Red Man saw little lights along the nerves inside me, like fireflies, and he was swatting them. When Red Man moved on, two Helpers, one at each elbow, escorted me away from the tree, and back to my chair.

Beside me, Annalee looked tiny in her bear robe, the curve of her forehead child-like and peaceful. I tapped her elbow. She started and looked at me. I pointed to the red dots down my sleeves and pant legs. She reached past her knees, then lifted her long skirt up, far enough for me to see her feet. Her left foot and ankle were painted red too.

Sam, an elder who’d taken me under his wing, had cautioned me to be careful with everything I did once I’d been to the tree, because people can get disconnected after being doctored in ceremony. But I felt the opposite. I felt a kind of energy at the center of my being, an energy that shot out, connecting me to everything I saw, felt, heard. Either I was in full possession of myself, or I was possessed.

That night I slept easily, deeply, and dreamed I heard a woman’s clear voice singing above a drum, a heartbeat, my heart. I woke to the same dawn-song, sung in sibilant Lakota spreading through the camp like mist. In the lavender shafts of a grainy dawn, I stood. My pajamas—shirt and pants—I checked, then checked again, then laughed out loud—were on backwards. Some heyoka clown, I thought, played a trick on me. Then I realized the clown was me.

One month later, Annalee, her mother and I were in the car, loaded up, heading to Philadelphia to drop Annalee off at college. About half-way there, in the early fall light, on a stretch of dull turnpike, I stared ahead, thinking we hadn’t yet shared our experiences at the tree. Much had been understood, unspoken, but I still wondered what she’d experienced, would she’d have to say. Now we were only a couple of hours away from her school. Then, we’d have only the phone or worse, the brevity of texting.

As I was thinking of a way into the subject, she said, suddenly: “I feel the life was taken out of me when I was injured. I was the walking dead. But since the sun dance, I’ve been pain-free. And now I want it all.”

I said I’d been wondering what happened to her at the tree, what she could tell me. Glancing in the rearview mirror, I saw her looking out the window at the passing mountains. She said, “I was just in my prayer.” We were a month and a continent away from the ceremony, but the memories spilled out of her. “There was so much going on, things trying to get in me, lights and stuff I didn’t understand.” I asked if she was aware of Red Man painting her foot.

“I only knew somebody was pulling my leg off, really hard—in fact, somebody was pulling the whole left side of my body off,” she said. I clenched the wheel against the blow-back of a eighteen-wheeler passing me. “All my injuries were on my left side,” she said quietly. “They all came out. Everything happened so fast, so much energy. I touched the tree and started to convulse. Somebody shouted, Let go! Things were trying to enter me, and Helpers kept flicking them away with their eagle feather fans. I couldn’t see with the bear robe on, I saw very differently, but I can’t say how.”

“I know what you mean,” I said. “Under the bear was a kind of vantage place for hiding and seeing the intense energy in everything, at the same time. Even the leaves on the trees were full of sounds, and the movements of people fluttered like leaves.”

She reached in her bag and pulled out a pouch of dried apricots. “My foot belongs to me again,” she said, handing the apricots forward to Mary Lynn. “The first year at UArts, I didn’t know if I could handle class each day, how painful my foot would be when it touched the floor. It went on so many years.”

She explained, “When I thought I couldn’t dance, everyone said, Do something else. But what else is there? Dance demands everything, and for that time, I could give it nothing. I thought I was dead. But I wasn’t. I tried to break the idea of myself as a dancer, but it would not break. Hard as I tried, it would not.”

That was a lot to take in. A lot. The tick of my turn-signal carried us into a rest stop. Annalee fell silent, thinking about what she’d just said, now that she’d put it in words, a revelation even to her. Her mother and I finally understood to what depths despair had brought her, with no choice but to quit dancing. And yet she would not give in.

At the lowampe ceremony, Annalee had been given a spirit name to use in ceremony, one she had to earn and grow into. She was told that her idea of herself was dancing along, way out ahead of her body, which was lying somewhere broken, back in a ditch. She needed to bring them together to be the person she needed to be, the person her name fit, and then she’d dance again. The sun dance had given her a step, a giant bear-step, and a long, breath of wolf, toward that vision, toward her name, herself, her dancing. Paul Ghost Horse said, in all his father’s ceremonies and those he’s conducted, he’s seen few miracles. But often people go on strengthened, better able to fight the enemy, the toksa, the disease or condition that life has brought them.

One of the gifts both Annalee and I gained was to experience the embodiment of Spirit in dance and song, that lives in and through the dancer. Knowing better our daughter as a Native person, as a dancer, is a gift of the sun dance. For me, seeing her conviction and determination confirmed was all I could ask. Both of us had the benefit of the bear medicine and the attentions of Red Man, which brought about the further healing of her injuries and arrest of my degenerative neuropathy.

Annalee is still on her feet, and so am I. Day to day, she trains, she works, she auditions. She scans the world for opportunity. She’s doing all anyone could ask to fulfill the nature that the sun dance helped to reveal more fully than ever. As for me, every day on the green side of the grass is a good day. I cannot say we got the miracles we envisioned. I cannot say we did not. That we keep praying, seeking, trying, training, working, hoping–surely that we can do so is the gift that we live out miraculously one day at a time.

Robert Bensen’s fifth book of poems is Orenoque, Wetumka (Bright Hill Press). His work has appeared in the AGNI, The Paris Review, Callaloo, The Caribbean Writer, Native Realities, Akwe:kon, Poetry Wales, and elsewhere. He edited Children of the Dragonfly (University of Arizona Press) and other anthologies of Native American and West Indian writing. He has been awarded fellowships from the NEA (poetry) and NEH (scholarship), and he received the Robert Penn Warren Award and other awards for his poetry. Bensen is Professor of English and Director of Writing at Hartwick College, Oneonta, New York.
Featured Artwork: untitled ledger drawing in pencil and colored pencil by Lakota artist and leader Black Hawk, born ca. 1832.
Black Hawk, Untitled, Plains Indian Ledger Art, 26 October 2016,