The Power of Contradiction: Aligning the Ideal and the Actual through the Sweat Ceremony

During our time at Pine Ridge, we often spoke about the theme of contradiction that could be observed both in ceremony and in everyday interaction with the Little Boy family members. Usually, these contradictions were manifest in Mike Jr.’ and Sr.’s teachings about spirituality and the spiritual lifestyle, standing in contrast to the observations we made about their lifestyle. Sometimes, these conversations amongst our class felt to have negative or judgemental undertones. Oftentimes, these observations of contradiction lended themselves to students larger questions about the authenticity or sincerity of the ceremonies in which we were participating. As I expressed in my blog post earlier in the week, I am uncomfortable with the speculation on the authenticity of the ceremonies. Additionally, I do not feel that I could ever know enough about the Little Boy family dynamics and the larger Lakota culture on Pine Ridge to draw any conclusions at all about contradictions between ceremonial practices and participants’ lifestyle.

Using the theoretical model that Jonathan Z. Smith presents in his paper, I hope to support my argument in my earlier blog post (titled: “On the Question of Authenticity”) that we cannot speculate on the authenticity of ceremony or the contradictions it contained. Further, I use this model to argue that perhaps the presence of contradiction actually strengthens the power of ceremony–giving participants a tool for rationalizing actions and aligning what “ought” to happen with what actually happens in ceremony, while also giving participants an idyllic spirituality for which they can strive.

Before delving further into this topic, I think that three key points must be addressed. First, we must think about what was made accessible to us while we were at Pine Ridge, and from what practices or behaviors we were barred. This issue is important because it alludes to the fact that we will never understand the full picture of the many overlapping dynamics and pressures at Pine Ridge and within the Little Boy family.

Secondly, we must acknowledge the reality of prescribing to a spirituality (and at that, a spirituality that, in terms of lifestyle, is quite demanding) while simultaneously taking part in a living culture and community. Our class could sit all day making a bucket list of contradictions that we observed, but we must acknowledge that this is not a religion that is being practiced within a bubble–it will never reach the ideal. Rather, the overwhelming pressures that are the result of poverty, alcoholism, unemployment and poor health are bound to creep into every decision and behavior that any member of the Pine Ridge community makes, regardless of their spirituality.

Finally, we must ask the most important question: did the contradictions that we observed also represent contradictions to the Lakota? Were the actions that we identified as problematic or failing to align with the spiritual teachings of the Little Boys also problematic to the Pine Ridge community, or are we guilty of projecting our own judgments of what is right or wrong onto the spiritual and lifestyle practices of the Little Boys?

With these three ideas in mind–accessibility to the “full picture”, pressures of the Lakota culture and Pine Ridge community, and our class’ own judgements of right and wrong–I argue that we cannot draw any conclusions about the contradictions we witnessed during our visit to Pine Ridge. Instead, I hope to explore the use of ceremony, specifically that of the sweat lodge, as a tool for uniting and aligning the spiritual world of the Little Boy family with their lifestyle as community members at Pine Ridge.

In his chapter, “The Bare Facts of Ritual”, from his book Imagining Religion, Jonathon Z. Smith argues that ritual is used as a way to negotiate between the ideal and the actual, a way to align what ought to happen with what actually does. Put simply, ritual, as well as religion as a whole, gives those who practice it the capacity to rationalize. Perhaps true spirituality, actual spirituality, is found when participants can resolve their lifestyle with the ideal spirituality they are taught to strive for. This is what makes spirituality dynamic and allows it to adapt to whatever the current set of pressures and issues is that a community faces. Ritual and the act of rationalization allows for a spirituality that accommodates its participants, making that spirituality all the more powerful.

Smith argues that the power of ritual lies precisely in its ability to overcome contradiction, freeing participants from a very “present and powerful” reality. For a community like the Lakota that faces such intense poverty and social devastation, the contradiction between lifestyle and ideal ceremony is a stark one. Enter: the sweat lodge. The ceremony of the sweat lodge takes place in a dark, small, enclosed space. Although full of music and drums, this space is also quiet, the heat allowing participants to think of few things besides prayer and music. Perhaps the sweat lodge represents the ideal spirituality: it allows those who enter to return to a primal state that pulls them away from societal pressures and into a place of full embodiment. It provides a space where the contradiction is eliminated, a chance to be one’s most spiritual self. It offers a quietness in which to reflect on how to strive to be better, heal others, and live in a way that more closely aligns with the ideal. As Smith writes, “Ritual provides an occasion for reflection and rationalization on the fact that what ought to have been done was not done, what ought to have taken place did not occur… Ritual gains force where incongruency is perceived and thought about.”

The sweat lodge serves as a static environment, where what Smith calls the “variables of ordinary life” are controlled for and left outside. Contradiction for the Lakota people is inevitable, but the sweat lodge serves as a tool for spiritual rationalization unlike any other ceremony we experienced while visiting Pine Ridge. As a class, I believe that it is wrong for us to speculate about the authenticity of the ceremonies we witnessed or point out contradictions we might have observed. The spirituality of the Little Boy family is a strong one, but the societal pressures of life on the reservation are also strong. Inevitably, there will be contradictions. The sweat lodge ceremony serves as a tool to align what is and what ought to be, eliminating contradictions for the length of ceremony. When this alignment is achieved during ceremony, the spirituality is strengthened and participants can glance at the ideal, and perhaps experience it, even if just for a short amount of time.

-Maggie Dillon

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