Raising Prayer Through Voices

In Victor Turner’s piece Ritual, Tribal and Catholic I found myself analyzing our experiences at Pine Ridge both personally and through his critical lens. One piece of the rituals in particular I continued thinking of was singing in the sweat lodge. As he mentions in his paper, religious rituals can be a sensory overload for the participants. He states that “all their senses may be engaged; they hear music and prayers, see symbols, taste consecrated food, smell incense, and touch sacred persons and objects” (Turner 505). Although not all of our senses were targeted during the sweat lodges the combined voices created an auditory and tactile experience through the sounds and vibrations. Because of the duality of the sensations produced in the lodge by the singing, it became one of the most powerful pieces of ceremony for me at Pine Ridge and Turner provides valuable insight into this practice.

At first in the lodge I was not sure whether it was appropriate to sing or not. I did not know the words or tune and was worried of ruining the experience for everyone else but something told me to let go and sing. This participation in the rituals can be attributed to something Turner believes to be of utmost importance: he believes in the significance of “live[ing] what is being communicated, not merely understand[ing] it” (510). His scholarly opinion that participation in each part of the ceremony is crucial gave rise to a more powerful ritual for the majority of my classmates and myself. Turner believes that the participants are active players in each ceremony and therefore must live what is being communicated.

This is further expanded upon when Turner talks of ritual and repetition. He believes that although much of the native rituals are repeated in each case, new and varied practices occur more frequently than in our traditional Christian experiences. He states that “improvisation may not be merely permitted but required” (Turner 505). Because Turner believes that all participants in ceremonies are players he argues here that these players must make their own path at times and not simply follow the script. Each of us had to improvise during the ceremonies. We had no idea what we were doing but went along with the tribal members and tried our best. Occasionally, however, we took charge and completely changed what was going on and the sounds and words coming out of our mouths. We allowed the others to continue as usual and went on our own path, letting our feelings guide the sounds being produced. In this way we truly took charge of our spiritual experiences and many of my classmates admitted to feeling powerful and pleased when creating their own tunes.

Turner also touches upon the energy in the ceremony with regards to the dramatization occurring. He notes that the nature of ceremonies often “energizes and gives emotional coloring” (505). Allowing participants to be active players in the ceremony includes them in a powerful way. Through song an entire group can pray together for a common cause, which resonates and gives strength to the community prayers. Without the group working together and praying out loud through song this energy would not prevail. Allowing each individual to play a role gives these emotions to the ceremony and therefore makes it a more spiritual experience for all involved.

The majority of my classmates come from a Christian background and this causes a comparison to be made through our experiences. Although Turner notes many differences between traditional indigenous ceremonies and Catholic ceremonies he studies he believes that overall they are fairly similar. Despite the fact that singing is a way of expressing ourselves and the act plays an important role in both types of ceremonies, overall I would disagree with Turner and argue that these two ceremonies are primarily different with regard to vocalizations. He states that “every instance of a ritual performance introduces the additional component of personal and corporate creativeness” (523). I would disagree with that and propose that the creativity of the Catholic traditional ceremonies is diminished for a number of reasons.

The rules of Catholic traditions are extremely strict, which contrasts the fluidity of the performances of Native religious ceremonies. As Turner puts it, the ceremonies are “organized by universal rules” (512) which remain constant and thus stable across the world. There is much more perfection and far less creativity needed in something so stable. The Catholic Mass also follows a strict set of rules. Because “every detail of the setting of this central Catholic ritual was governed by rule,” (514) a lack of freedom diminishes the personal experiences of the participants. In our ceremonies at Pine Ridge there were no rules, but it is difficult to say whether that is because we were visiting and the participation was solely for educational purposes or whether these traditions simply allow for more personal freedom.

Singing is a form of expression in which one can display feelings through something other (and possibly more powerful) than speech. Something unique to the Lakota rituals however is the lack of text with regard to these songs. In the Lakota sweat lodge there was no book of hymns to look upon. Even if there had been a book there was no light to see and read with. Turner touches upon this concept in his reflections on ceremonies stating that “the major distinction between tribal and universalistic ritual systems is that the former are transmitted by oral tradition and the latter by written, later printed rubrics” (508). All of the native people in the lodge knew the words and tune, whereas we were stumbling around for the right sounds and intonations. The lack of knowledge of these songs really made me realize my position as an outsider. I didn’t know the traditions because I wasn’t a part of their culture and therefore had to create my own tunes or improvise.

Overall many of my classmates and myself compared our own culture with that of the new culture we were experiencing. With regard to song, personal experience and Turner’s views on ceremony helped distinguish the two and helped each of us to better understand and process the sweat lodge ceremonies we took part in during our time at Pine Ridge.

– Kristin Sawyer


Literature Cited:

Turner, Victor. “Ritual, Tribal and Catholic.” Worship Jubilee (1976): 504-26. Print.

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