Pine Ridge: The Three Stages of Liminality

Pine Ridge Reflections

Looking back on my experience at Pine Ridge reservation, I initially found myself confused on where I was spiritually and academically. However, through the readings of Victor Turner in his article Frame, Flow and Reflection: Ritual and Drama as Public Liminality and through reflection on my own time, I have come to the conclusion that Pine Ridge was a liminal place and state of mind. This place, along with the customs and traditions of the Lakota people, helped me to realize this as I struggled to place myself in a consistent state of mind. One of the ideas that I really connected with was the ideas of a Belgian folklorist by the name of van Gennep. Van Gennep said that liminal rituals known as “rites of passage” occurred in three stages: 1) separation (from ordinary social life); (2) margin or limen (meaning threshold), when the subjects of ritual fall into a limbo between their past and present modes of daily existence; and (3) re-aggregation, when they are ritually returned to secular or mundane life either at a higher status level or in an altered state of consciousness or social being (Turner pgs. 466-467). In the spirit of van Gennep, I shall reflect on my experiences at Pine Ridge reservation as liminal in three distinct stages.

The First Stage of Liminality: Intent and Reason for Going

Through the work of Turner, I learned about the liminal state. The liminal state is literally”being-on-a-threshold,” means a state or process which is betwixt-and-between the normal, day-to-day cultural and social states and processes of getting and spending, preserving law and order, and registering structural status (Turner, pg 465). This state of being on the threshold of what you know is something that was very familiar to me while I was at Pine Ridge. The whole situation with us being there was one of the first things that helped me to realize that this trip was setting us up for a liminal state. We were not completely outsiders to the culture or the people, but were also not insiders to the people and the customs of the Lakota people. We had many conversations before we left for South Dakota and after we came back about how we felt about us being on the reservation and practicing the ways of the Lakota. The reactions from everyone was very mixed, with both major sides of the argument accounted for in each person. There was no overall consensus on whether it was respectful or right of us to be doing the work we were doing in South Dakota. One of the big reasons why most people felt nervous and frankly is because of the damage that non-Indigenous people have done to the Lakota people since we first came to the US. Although Mike Junior and the Littleboy family were welcoming us in for this extraordinary experience, we still felt out of place. This lack of placement in the grand scheme of the trip helped us to move onto the next stage of liminality.

The Second Stage of Liminality: Performing Ceremonies at Pine Ridge

Being on a threshold for me was the thing that I would use to describe ceremonies at Pine Ridge. This idea of a threshold is seen most specifically in the conflict between plural reflexivity and private reflection talked about in Turner’s article. Plural Reflexivity, according to Turner, is when a group does solitary reflection together. Turner describes plural reflexivity as taking the form of a performance (Turner pg. 465). Turner talks about how public reflexivity uses symbols, dances, etc. to help make the action more dramatic and that they are literally “doing” codes (Turner, pg. 465). When we went to the sweat lodge, Mike Junior told us to pray for ourselves and use this time to really pray on our own. Here we find that Mike is emphasizing the fact that we would be performing plural reflexivity, since we are supposed to reflect on our own in a group setting. Throughout the ceremony we listened as Justin and Mike sang traditional songs and played on sacred drums. Here again we see that, according to Turner, we were practicing plural reflexivity. Another sign for the sweat lodge being a liminal place was the fact that the length of the doors, or stages of the sweat, for the sweat lodge were not timed. Mike felt the energy of the ancients and decided if we should go longer or shorter or hotter or not as hot. In this way, time stopped for the people inside of the sweat lodge leading to a feeling of a limbo state; a liminal state.

For the Ouwipi ceremony, we find the same evidence of plural reflexivity. We go to secluded place to reflect for ourselves, yet we were still with the group. There are sacred objects and rituals that must be followed for the ceremony to be done correctly. During the ceremony, everyone gets some time to express their prayers to the group. However, Mike Junior told Justin to pause the prayers and move back to the singing. In this way, we see again the same lack of time-based structure that was prevalent in the sweat lodge ceremony. In this way, we lost track of time and just stayed in this liminal state.

The Third Stage of Liminality: Returning From Pine Ridge and Resuming Normal Life

One of the things that really struck me about my trip was when I was leaving. On the van ride home, I found my had empty. I tried to distract myself with my music or falling asleep but still felt myself being in that liminal space. I reflected in my head about the things I had experienced and how this would affect me as a person. When we got back to campus, I did not really know what to do. I felt like time had stopped. I felt the actions I normally performed, the “scared dances and songs” of the day were just a performance that I needed to do to reflect with others on the day to day actions of life. Unpacking my items from the trip was one of the sacred dances that I had done frequently. Maybe it was the fact that my friend was talking to me while I unpacked my clothes and such that made it feel like a performance, but whatever the cause it felt very liminal. Another thing that struck me was the fact that my professor had emailed us saying that it might be hard for us to readjust after the experience and that he would understand if people are a little slow to get back into the groove, dance, of life. In this way, I again went back to the thought that since he mentioned it to everyone and I felt it as well, that we were feeling the after effects of plural reflexivity and a liminal state. I found myself not really at Pine Ridge anymore, but not really completely back on campus. I was somewhere in between. A threshold if you will.

One of the big things that holds back a complete analysis of this experience is the fact that both personal and academic analyses fall short. For the personal experience, eing in a liminal state, as one would imagine, would make it hard to reground one’s self and take an outside perspective. You get lost in the feelings and thoughts you have and it becomes something of a mind numbing feeling, which can cloud the mind. In this way, taking a more disconnected approach gives the academic analysis some weight over personal. However, if you take too much of an outside experience you never really get the whole picture since you are not in the moment. If you think about this in terms of the sweat ceremony, the personal approach would be being inside of the lodge while the academic approach is being outside of the sweat. I think that in order to get the full picture you would need to fully engage in the sweat, and then walk outside and breathe in the cold air to help reground you. In a way, you need to be in the middle to get both sides; a liminal approach would be the best.

-Raylon Silberman

Works Cited:

Turner, Victor. “Frame, Flow and Reflection.” Ritual and Drama as Public Liminality. 465-468. Print.

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