SMITH’S ACCIDENTS IN RITUAL: And A Case Study of the Lakota Tribe

Sacred symbols function to synthesize a people’s ethos…

–Clifford Geertz, “Religion as a cultural system”, pg. 89.


A ceremony is a ritual that portrays the symbols and goals of a set of beliefs. These symbols represent the morals and practices of the culture. The ritual in itself attempts to hold meaning in every part it plays. In other words, everything about that ritual is controlled. However, life never follows rules set out for ritual and chaos is the eventuality of preparedness.  The more preparation, the more likelihood that the plan will not play out exactly as planned. Many people call this eventuality chaos, that which cannot be planned for or controlled. Ceremony evolves with this chaos, or accidental interference. Many times repeating accidents become part of the ritual.  According to Jonathan Z. Smith, this serves a very unique purpose. It allows for ritual to demonstrate the ideal form of culture. He states, “Ritual is a means of performing the way things ought to be in conscious tension to the way things are in such a way that this ritualized perfection is recollected in the ordinary, uncontrolled, course of things” (63). In other words, the ordinary can become sacred when connected to ritual. Real deeds will not mimic the ideal ritual but rather call forth the moral attachment to the deed. This is enough to, for example, sway the guilt of killing a sacred buffalo to feed the tribe. If a ritual is performed and the hunt goes well, the ritual intention trumps any dirtiness in the killing. Here is a look at a subtler case study.


A Lakota birthday party creates a hubbub of different activity. The ceremony aspect involves all present to sit in a circle. No one can double up, so two rooms might be used even if one room can barely see the other. Every tribal member who wishes to give a devotion prayer will receive the prayer stick and rattle. A roaming drummer follows the stick where other drummers lack. Each devotion takes at least ten minutes not including speeches. All and all, with only a few tribal members the ceremony will last around two hours. However, there are a few exceptions to this circle. One, women can stay in the kitchen or out of the way. Two, the spiritual leader can walk in an out of the circle as he pleases. Three, children can run around as they please or join the circle when chastised to sit still. Additionally, late arrivals, bathroom breaks, and other small or large emergencies can allow for leaving or entering of the circle.

With imagination one can imagine that all of this creates a lot of confusion and would interfere with the coherence of the ritual. However, the ritual occurs smoothly as each prayer giver has utmost concentration. If they were holding a child, that child is passed along so that they can pray, and returned after the prayer. The birthday boy sits on a pillow in front of his cake for as long as he can. (This represents a new kind of torture, I never encountered as a child, and this may also be why, Lakota adults are so familiar sitting for long periods of time when they would rather eat a cake.) The ritual itself allows for ordinary life to smash up against ritual life without spiritual casualty. Jonathan Z. Smith states that during ritual, “[the ordinary] becomes sacred by having our attention directed to it in a special way” (55).  From first hand observation this appears true to an extent. During the ritual, ordinary things, such as a spider may appear special, but an Auntie shaking her head at a five-year-old niece still does not seem very special. So how does ritual account for such distraction of day-to-day responsibility?

In a way, it simply ignores it. Discounting it from the perfection that should be represented. Or another way to put it, the ritual’s sacredness shifts to allow for such behavior to become sacred as well, and part of the ceremony since it is a constant factor. Smith writes on what makes something, “…sacred or profane. These are not substantive categories, but rather situational or relational categories, mobile boundaries which shift according to the map being employed. There is nothing that is sacred in itself, only things sacred in relation” (55).  So, depending on the ceremony traditional norms can be thrown out the window. The Lakota tradition feeds off of the Native American Church, which represents un-traditional views. In this way, many traditions are hybrids, between the two worlds. Mike Little Boy Sr. attempts to stick as closely to traditional practices as possible. In his sweats he allows only prayer, no outside conversation. However, sweat fills up with able-bodied people who do not need undue attention such as injured people or small children. In this way, the “sacredness” of the situation seems to change with necessity.

Out of this strange ordinary-ritual combination comes a kind of unique humor. A Lakota person does not really differentiate between sacred life and ordinary life. Ritual integrates itself so thoroughly into their lives from birth that there is no other way. They grow up with “white-man” humor, and laughter and family around them, but also a quiet seriousness. I learned that many good people in this tribe suffer hardships before they even understand what a hardship is. There is no one untouched, and no one without a reason to pray. The mix of order and chaos in their rituals serves as a model for their true lives, where amongst chaos, order can still emerge and prevail. [1]

[1] Smith, Jonathan. Imagining Religion. The University of Chicago Press; London.

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