Throughout our week at Pine Ridge, and in the classroom discussion that followed, we often addressed the topic of the authenticity of our experience and of the Little Boy family’s participation in ceremony. As a class, we acknowledged that our presence at ceremony inevitably changed the dynamics at play, and that our presence on the reservation (and the financial compensation that we brought with us) created additional pressures for the Little Boy family. We spoke a lot about this financial compensation that we provided to the family, and about the effect of the compensation on the Little Boy family’s motivation to host us. Often, questions were raised regarding the ceremonies led by Mike Jr. A common opinion within the class was that perhaps these ceremonies lacked authenticity, that corners were often cut or insincere comments made. The class contrasted these ceremonies with the sweat lodge ceremony led by Mike Sr., one that they found to be far more authentic–additional rituals and actions were observed, the sweat was longer and hotter than the others, more community members attended.
As a preface to my argument to follow, I fully acknowledge that I participated in these discussions and speculated about the authenticity myself. Specifically, I actually argued the opposite of the majority of the class and stated that I found Mike Sr. to be less sincere, often joking about our presence, calling us “city kids”, or challenging us by saying we would not survive his sweat ceremony. So yes, while on the reservation I too questioned the authenticity.
After arriving back on campus, many peers asked me about my experience, specifically about the sweat ceremonies, which seem to have gained the status of legend or myth among students who have not taken IRT. Friends asked me if the ceremonies seemed “real”. They asked about the family, about their drug and alcohol issues, about their socioeconomic status. Some told me about sweats they had participated in at summer camps as teenagers or at large festivals in big cities. Suddenly, I was answering questions about these sweats, describing the ceremonies to people who had never experienced one, and vouching for the authenticity or inauthenticity of the ceremonies we experienced.
Again in class today we discussed the topic of authenticity. During this discussion I realized just how uncomfortable I was with the entire topic. Granted, I think debriefing and reflecting on our experience is essential. But what I want to ask is, who are we to make judgments on the level of authenticity of these ceremonies? And further, does it matter? We experienced what we experienced, and except for maybe a few of us, we have no standard to compare the ceremonies to.
Many things struck me during our week on the reservation, but most of all I was impressed by the commitment and “buy-in”, if you will, by both Mike Jr. and Mike Sr. to their spirituality. Both of these men are faced with tremendous hardship, and surely a good amount of temptation, on a daily basis. And sure, they’re not perfect. And sure, outside pressures and temptations are bound to creep their way into these two’s lives, and maybe even affect ceremony sometimes. Both Mike Jr. and Sr. were practicing a spirituality that is central to their lives and seems to encompass a large part of their everyday. We were lucky to experience five days with these spiritual leaders, but it was just five days–not enough time to give us the authority to speculate about authenticity.