The Power of Ritual

Mitakuye Oyasin is a simple yet profound statement. It means all my relations, and is expressed by the Lakota people during prayer and ceremony. It is an affirmation that acknowledges our interconnectedness with all relatives of this web of life. It brings light to the notion that everything is related because it all emanates from one source and has purpose, as Mike Jr. explained, ‘everything happens for a reason’. For me, this underlying sentiment resonated throughout the rituals we participated in during our time at Pine Ridge. Ritual, for the Lakota, is not found in a separate category, isolated from daily routines. Rather, the Lakota traditions are seen as a system of spirituality more fully integrated into a rhythm of life that includes all aspects and patterns of the universe. Similar to the rituals of Ndembu religion described by Victor Turner, the Lakota rituals we engaged in were led by individuals for whom ritual leadership is only one aspect of their lives. Turner views ritual as a set of actions that actually work, and do so by providing order to believers’ lives (Turner, 517). Among the Lakota ritual is introduced into the lives of children from a very young age, and this alone indicates their strong belief in its power and importance.

Jonathan Smith expresses the idea that nothing is sacred in itself, and that things are only sacred in relation. This phenomenological approach suggests that something can become sacred simply by having our attention directed to it in a special way. Therefore, this perspective implies the idea that sacredness has, what Smith would refer to as, “mobile boundaries which shift according to the map being employed” (Smith, 55). The different Lakota rituals all seem to have an element of dialogue taking place in which the ritual leader finds himself communicating with the spirits. For this reason, there is a sense of unpredictability attached to many of the rituals. A clear example of this was in the Yuwipi ceremony when the singing and chanting resumed while a circle sharing was still happening. A sense of both constancy and mutability are present in the Yuwipi ceremony, which gives space for active dialogue with the spirits while still honoring traditional protocol. This notion that nothing is inherently sacred, and only sacred in relation becomes particularly insightful when interpreting the Pipe Ceremony. Within this ritual every step is reverently completed, as their relation with the tobacco and the pipe itself clearly adds to the sacredness of the ritual. Prayer and singing accompanies the filling of the pipe which is symbolically handed to the left after being smoked. The clockwise direction follows the path of the sun, and thus reinforces this understanding they have in regards to their connection with the world around them. Meanwhile, it is believed that the smoke from the pipe will hear the prayers of those gathered. This smoke from the pipe can be seen as sacred because of their intentional relationship with the individual rites that make this ritual. Further, the way in which the pipe is incorporated into other rituals could be seen as an expression of this intimate relationship. However, there seems to be an inherent sacredness, that which this framework would disregard, associated with Pipe ceremony performed at places like Bear Butte where the mountain itself is seen as an extension of the creator.

Upon entering what is considered a sacred site, a temple, principle suggests that nothing happens accidentally, and at least potentially, everything is of significance (Smith, 54). The purification process brought about by sweat lodge had the potential to manifest in a myriad of ways, and therefore the various responses to the experience could all be considered significant. Among the participants of the sweat lodge there was a tendency to attach spiritual significance to the various physical experiences. For instance, within this sacred ritual Harrison was able to see the connection between the uncomfortable physical sensations he was feeling in his hands and having fed the dogs blessed food that had been given to him earlier that day. Harrison was able to later recognize this occurrence as an important lesson from the spirits about respect. Similarly, others in the group had physical and emotional experiences that could have potentially been due to the extremely hot conditions of the lodge, and instead associated these sensations to a greater significance. In this way, the sweat lodge gave meaning to experiences that would otherwise be considered ordinary outside this sacred space.

Turner articulates an aspect of ritual that often seems to be overlooked, in the way ritual becomes ‘supersaturated with existence’ and ceases to be merely a cognitive experience (Turner, 510). In other words, one must go beyond the idea of understanding what is being communicated and actually experience it for themselves. No matter how precise Mike Senior would have been in describing the messages he received from the Great Spirit, only upon having visions of our own can we fully comprehend the essence of such an experience. Furthermore, it is exactly under such conditions requiring first hand experience that scholarly attempts to analyze ritual will inevitably fall short. Additionally, one requires deep contextual insight into community dynamics in order to make sense of their rituals on a more holistic level, that which a scholarly approach would find very difficult to attain. Ultimately, having an academic focus suggests that one enters the field searching for answers, and that one might potentially come in with preconceived notions of what one might find. This alone indicates how academic attempts to analyze ritual may be skewed from the start.

Personal experience is what gives room to the possibility of attaining to wisdom in addition to knowledge. In my opinion, ritual has a purpose of transferring wisdom to participants, wisdom that cannot be gained relying solely on academic analysis. Wisdom is gift of ritual, and provides more than an answer. Wisdom is the unfolding of our consciousness, in which we drop the search for answers, and embrace the great mystery of life. The pure sensory feelings connected to ritual, which in a sense give it true meaning, can never be grasped by an academic analysis. Additionally, Robert Innes describes the colonial nature of outsider research that can be similarly ascribed to academic analysis (Innes, 441). The way in which it imposes a set of values upon a culture that it fails to fully understand.

On the other hand, being so heavily invested in the experience can also have limiting implications for any analysis of ritual. The overwhelming nature of the sensory feelings can definitely make it hard to distance yourself from the process. This distance seems necessary in order to engage in some form of critical analysis. Further, it is observed that intense personal experience can result in situations where the participant is incapable of articulating very much of what happened at all. Circular time, sacred time, among other ineffable feelings experienced during rituals can make objective analysis a difficult task. However, it seems that this first hand experience, regardless of whether it brings forth clarity or confusion is a step towards personal truth, something inherently valuable.

Zoe Kian Santos

Works Cited

Innes: Wait a Second. Who are you anyways? (pp. 440-457)

Turner: Ritual, Tribal and Catholic (pp. 504-526)

Smith: Bare Facts of Ritual (pp. 53-65)

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