Religious Performance and Plural Reflection

In Frame, Flow and Reflection: Ritual and Drama as Public Liminality, Victor Turner outlines how religious ritual performance is tied to reflection. He does this by defining public reflection, or “plural reflexivity,” as “the ways in which a group or community seeks to portray, understand, and then act on itself,” which Turner argues occurs in an act of performance (465). My experience with our class in the sweatlodge at Pine Ridge Reservation seemed to fit many parts Turner’s model, since the last sweatlodge’s performance evoked reflections for my peers and I on our own culture.

Because none of our class was Lakota whose practice we participated in, it is important to note that the aspects of what I consider to be performance are not all necessarily considered that by the Lakota. That being said, my own experience of the last sweatlodge fit many aspects of Turner’s description of “tribal ritual” performance (469).

To begin with, Turner describes rituals as having structure, but one that only “arises after secular social structure has been suspended to allow it to emerge” (469). Indeed, the participants in the sweatlodge had to leave behind most of their clothing, their daily duties, and even their ability to see to enter the sweatlodge. Although there are other reasons that these things were not brought into the lodge, each of these things often acts to maintain daily social structure, because through our dress, actions, and vision, we are able to define parts of others and ourselves. The lack of these things during our sweatlodge provided a structured experience very different from our class’s daily, or secular, social structure.

Turner describes this structure as “anything but rigid,” in the sense of the structure of a performance (469). This was very apparent during the last sweat in particular, as Mike Littleboy Sr. changed the number of rounds during our sweat to two from the standard four. Turner also describes these performances as “comprising [of] several performative genres,” including “singing, chanting,” and using “many musical instruments” all of which were particularly loud and present throughout the last sweatlodge. This provided a feeling of being overwhelmed by sound, which, combined with the extreme heat of the steam that Mike Sr. provided, the smell of sweat, and the pitch-blackness of the lodge, relates well to Turner’s description of “all the senses [being] enlisted” during a tribal ritual performance (469).

For me, this experience felt like my senses were being overwhelmed, to the degree that I felt I had to turn my intention inward to address my inner thoughts and feelings. I began focusing on prayers of gratitude as well as prayers that asked for assistance and guidance from the earth, the spirits, and God. I also began praying for others’ well-being, and addressed issues with prayer that I felt needed attention. Prayers for Kyle’s sickness is a basic example, but these prayers also included asking for help for our class to understand others, to use wisdom well, and to remember the earth and our ancestors.

Turner writes that plural reflection occurs when a society frames a piece of itself so it can be “scrutinized, assessed, and, if need be, remodeled and rearranged” (468). Although I cannot say for sure what others experienced, I can safely say that my own prayers seemed to show a process of framing qualities of our group and culture that I felt required attention. I think I felt this way because the performance of prayer by Mike Sr. included gratitude toward ancestors and mother earth, so I framed that understanding within my own culture and questioned it’s strength and universal value.

One assessment of mine was that the majority of our class, and the majority of non-indigenous Americans really lack a connection to both ancestors and the earth. That we put elders in elder homes, pollute the earth to the degree that we put the life of so many species in danger, and simply are often not intentionally grateful for both ancestors and the earth seemed wrong to me, so I began praying for this to change. Whether or not one holds belief in prayer, I think it can be agreed that these prayers functioned as an attempt at remodeling the social structure that devalues both of these things. In this way, I think my experience during this last sweat lodge shows a connection not only to Turner’s model of scrutiny, assessment, and remodeling, but also the connection with performance evoking a reflection on one’s society.

The notable difference, however, is that my reflection in the sweat lodge was not ‘plural’ in the way that Turner describes public performance evoking. However, one of Turner’s critiques seems to reveal a possibility of why my experience felt more personal than plural. For Turner, religious rites that evoke plural reflexivity are done “in full view of everyone. They are not secret affairs, performed in caves or groves or in lodges,” (467). That my sweatlodge experience did, in fact, occur in a lodge suggests that perhaps the difference of the visual connection in public rituals and the privatization of going into a physically different place may have affected my perception of that experience being more personal.

However, after talking to some of my peers after the final sweatlodge, I found that many others had experienced reflective moments in the lodge. Sometimes these reflections were more personal, but often there were reflections upon the lack of this type of ceremony in our own culture, or again how our culture doesn’t seem to value the earth as the Lakota do. In this sense, I felt connected to my peers in that together we experienced some reflection on our own society, and in that perhaps together experienced plural reflexivity.

In conclusion, the performative aspects of the final sweatlodge seemed to inspire my peers and I to investigate values in our own non-indigenous culture that the Lakota performance brought up. My own experience seemed very close to Turner’s model of performance being connected to plural reflexivity, and the main point that did not fit this model seemed to be explained by a critique he made of private versus public ritual.

However, I would note a unique attribute to my experience that is different from Turner’s model, which is that the performance in the sweat lodge was not a part of non-indigenous society, but rather a ritual that featured contrasting indigenous cultural performance values. This difference either suggests that the connection I’ve made from my experience to Turner’s model is invalid, or that the Lakota sweatlodge performance served a universal role in the process of our class’s reflection. In the hope of the latter, I would say that performance inspires deep reflection when there is a great contrast between the social structure of the performance and the social structure of the daily society. Keeping this in mind, I cannot imagine a greater contrast than our classes daily secular lives and the religious performances of the Lakota. I am very grateful for this inspiring contrast.


Works Cited

Turner, Victor. “Frame, Flow and Reflection: Ritual and Drama as Public Liminality.” Japanese Journal of Religious Studies. December 1979. 465-499.


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