A Native American Church Birthday Ceremony: Critical Analysis of Spiritual Coincidences

Make a wish on an eyelash. If you find a penny, pick it up for good luck. When the store is closed, it’s a sign that it wasn’t meant to be. We assign meaning to the mundane that brings significance to little moments every day. It’s these little coincidences and rituals that help restore our faith. Jonathan Smith’s chapter “The Bare Facts of Ritual,” in his book, Imagining Religion: from Babylon to Jonestown defines coincidences in a scholarly sense. Smith states, “The discovery that two events, symbols, thoughts, or texts, while so utterly separated by time and space that they could not “really” be connected, seem, nevertheless to be the same or to be speaking directly to one another raises the possibility of a secret interconnection of things that is the scholar’s most cherished article of faith.” (Smith 53). In addition to scholarly coincidence, the thrill of encountering a coincidence applies to spirituality in ceremony. The audience within the ceremony determines the meaning of the coincidence.

On the first night at Pine Ridge we were invited in to participate in a birthday ceremony. We entered a room of family, decoration, and commotion. During the ceremony, when a spider came down from the ceiling in front of some of my class and me, it felt like it held meaning or power within the context of the ceremony. The few of us who were gathered around the spider pointed it out to one another and shared the experience of wonder. We had already noticed that one of the leaders of ceremony at the reservation, Mike Littleboy Jr., had a spider tattoo and the appearance of this spider was no longer just a common occurrence that was easily dismissed. We assumed that Mike Littleboy Jr. must have a connection to spiders based on his tattoo and so this spider that came down from the ceiling could be connected to the spirit world and represent something much more meaningful. The connection between the spider tattoo and the appearance of a spider causes me, as the viewer, to hold this event as a “cherished article of faith.”

Smith’s concept of a focusing lens provides a useful tool for understanding and analyzing the ritual. A focusing lens, such as a temple, is,  “a marked-off space in which, at least in principle, nothing is accidental; everything, at least potentially, is of significance.” (Smith 54). Within the sacred space of the ritual, the ordinary becomes significant. Although, during the birthday ceremony we were in a living room of a house instead of a temple or a sweat lodge, the nature of the space shifted to that of a sacred space. We all formed a circle, as the space would allow, which created a sacred unity among us all.  This ceremony provided the opportunity for what might have otherwise been disregarded to feel sacred because of the situation.

Smith states that ritual is an exercise in the strategy of choice. He asks questions that are important and applicable to the Lakota ceremonies we participated in at Pine Ridge. What do you include as part of ceremony? What do you hear as a message? What do you see as a sign? What do you perceive as having double meaning? What do you exclude? What do you allow to remain as background noise? These questions direct the analysis of our experience to provide an academic approach at understanding what happened during the ceremony.

At the birthday ceremony, the children running around became part of the ceremony. Nevaeh pushing her stroller into the center of the circle time and time again was accepted as background noise. There was space for the children to be and within that space their interjections became part of the ceremony. Just as in Smith’s example, the leopards drinking the sacrificial chalices become part of the ceremony, examples of other coincidences or even mistakes becoming fused into ritual can be found in many different traditions. In birthday ceremonies, the traditions have made room for the children to be children and perhaps even allowed these small interruptions to become part of the ceremony.

Smith also brings up to concept of what makes an object sacred. Sacred objects are sacred solely because they are used in a sacred space and for a sacred purpose. The common theme of sacred implies that the space, purpose, and object are all a part of a spiritual and/or traditional experience.  The drum used in the birthday ceremony was no different than any other drum, but because of its purpose in the ceremony it becomes an “agent of meaning as well as utility.” (Smith 56). So how do we treat a sacred object any differently outside of ceremony? I remember on the van ride back from Bear Butte one of my classmates wanted to get his backpack from the back of the van. He asked his friend to grab it for him because the spirit staff that had been used in ceremony was blocking his access to the bag and he didn’t want to move or disturb the staff. There is a level of superstition in handling these objects because we don’t understand their implication and power, which instills a certain sense of fear.

In terms of other more personal questions- I look at my own involvement in the birthday ceremony. Do I see the spider as a sign? I can’t exactly recount my experiences simply, but I do know that I had a powerful enough physical reaction to the ceremony to leave me lying on the bathroom floor. Was the reaction connected to the spider? Do I interpret my intense physical reaction to the ceremony as having double meaning? What was the message that I took from this ceremony? How can I know what really happened and what was my perception of what happened given the context? There is no one answer to any of these questions.

During the birthday ceremony, I disconnected from my body. I started to feel myself losing control and leaving my body. My hearing felt distant and my vision was no longer mine. Images were not still, focused, or normal. The harder I tried to ground myself, the farther I floated away. It felt as though everything- light, sound, energy, spirit- in the room was coming at me all at once. I stood up and went to the bathroom to collapse on the floor. Later that night, I realized I had just started my period. I remembered Celinda’s words of warning. She had said that women should not participate in ceremony during moon time because all of the spirits will flock to them at this powerful time of their cycle. That would certainly explain what had literally knocked me off my feet at the birthday ceremony.

So, taking a critical perspective- how can I ever truly know that my experience was because of the spirits and my moon time or if it was all just a coincidence? Of course, I am more likely to embrace the meaningful interpretation of it because it provides significance to this overwhelming and frightening experience. The question becomes- would I have thought twice about the power of my moon time if I had passed out during a lecture or if I was in a movie theater? The interpretation becomes biased because I am analyzing my own experience within the context of ceremony and tradition.

These academic tools provide me with a lens in which to analyze and interpret my own experience. This is extremely helpful in many ways because the experiences themselves can be overwhelming, but at the end of it all- how can you truly interpret and analyze something you barely understand? The academic interpretation of such experiences may in some senses provide more clarity, but in other ways it detracts from the meaning of the raw spiritual experience. I find more clarity when I think of the context of ceremony and the human fascination with coincidences of the sacred because I can see how that directly applies to my experience. However, why do we always need to dissect and understand the things that happen to us? Can’t we just let the experiences be as they are at a certain point? Curiosity and desire to find the answers drives this analysis.

It reminds me of the story of the Four Rabbinim. In the story, the four rabbinim are carried by an angel into heaven and see the sacred Wheel of Ezekiel. In their descent back to Earth, one Rabbi loses his mind over the splendor he has seen and wanders frothing and mad until the end of his days. The second Rabbi was very cynical and said, “Oh, I just dreamed Ezekiel’s Wheel, that was all. Nothing really happened.” The third Rabbi carried on and on about what he had seen, for he was completely obsessed. He lectured about how it was constructed and what it all meant. The fourth Rabbi, who was a poet, took a paper in hand and a reed and sat near the window writing song after song praising the evening dove, his daughter in her cradle, and all the stars in the sky. And he lived his life, better than before.

This story highlights the range of reactions to spiritual encounters. If you treat your experience with too much wonder or too little, you will lose the message and significance of it. I don’t understand why I ended up on the bathroom floor during the birthday ceremony, but I can see many different angles of explanation. At the end of the day, I can only hope that this experience will allow me to praise the evening dove, my future daughter, and all the stars in the sky. And maybe I will take this experience and live my life, better than before.

-Lucy Gamble


Work Cited

Smith, Jonathan Z. “The Bare Facts of Ritual.” Imagining religion: from Babylon to Jonestown. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982. 53-65. Print.

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