Ritual and Experience in Yuwipi

Whitney Perry

October 14, 2014


Our group huddled around the small, cold basement floor of Mike Little Boy Junior’s house. The room was transformed from a basement into a sacred space through decorations and our own interactions with it. Everyone removed his or her shoes and no one spoke. In the center of the room was an altar from where Mike Junior would lead the ceremony. In Jonathan Smith’s article The Bare Facts of Ritual, he emphasizes the importance of a temple in ceremony as a focal point for religious activity. “When one enters a temple, one enters a marked-off space in which, at least in principal, nothing is accidental; everything, at least potentially, is of significance” (pg 54). In the Yuwipi ceremony that we were about to partake in, the basement room was our temple because of its ability to be completely blacked out. No light seeped in. Mike Junior called to the Spirits and participants prayed for healing for one person or group of people.

Mike Junior, who led the ceremony, was tied up with his hands behind his back and placed face down on the floor in the center of the room in the middle of an altar. The lights were extinguished, the bulb unscrewed, and the ceremony began. Through song and drumbeats the Spirits were called into the room and asked to hear our prayers and heal our people. Our group was a mixture of Colorado College students and community members of Pine Ridge Reservation. We never decided on one coherent person or group to heal, so everybody prayed for his or her own people.

When the lights were extinguished my stomach immediately clenched and a shiver shot up my spine. I could feel the energy in the room shift. Smith describes this greater sense of awareness as a common occurrence in a temple, where alternate forms of communication are engaged and the exchange of information between humans and higher powers increases. It was very dark and it was very quiet and I began concentrating on praying, imagining myself as a hollow form through which golden beams of light emanated.

In Smith’s terms, the temple eliminates barriers between man and god. Midway through one of the first songs in the Yuwipi, a white light began dancing around the room and a rattling noise shrieked. The room was tense. I experienced feelings of intense fear and clenched onto my neighbors hand. It was the first time I had been in front of a Spirit so blatantly. I concentrated on releasing my fear and by the end of the ceremony I was smiling. I remained concerned for Little Mike throughout the entire ceremony and was praying so hard my brow was furrowed in concentration.

To me it was the most amazing sight. We called the Spirits and the Sprits came. It proved to me the notion of ask and you shall receive. That there is a force, an energy, gaia, God, whatever you perceive it as, that is here, it is real, and it is responsive. I accepted this discovery entirely and quickly and upon doing so my fear dissipated. It was confusing to reappear from the darkness and immediately hear my co-students conjecture about how the Little Boy’s had managed to pull it off. People thought they had tricked us, were being deceptive or used quartz crystals to produce the light.

In this instance of ceremony my own personal experience was vastly different than the other participants. But such an individualized outlook on ceremonies fails to capture the bigger picture. Turner proposed “to use ritual in the first sense, for all human societies have codes for transmitting messages to one another about matters of ultimate concern” (pg 504). Ritual becomes a necessary exchange of information that takes on symbolic importance and ultimately guides us through life. Ritual through ceremony becomes something bigger than an individual could begin to conceptualize and cannot be viewed as a single event, but in conversation with larger culture and rituals.

Geertz and Smith both argue that ritual is a self-fulfilling prophecy, a collective attempt to create order out of chaos of our everyday world. In terms of the Yuwipi (which because it can be performed at any time I consider it to be more of a ceremony than a ritual, although there are aspects of the ceremony that are ritualized to make it what it is as opposed to any other ceremony), it is an attempt to have control over the uncontrollable. The ironic part is how out of control I felt during the ceremony.

The Yuwipi ceremony was a rich experience for me. Evaluating a transformative experience under an academic lens always has drawbacks. One can never fully do it justice while discussing it amongst intellectuals. A large disconnect exists between the felt importance of an experience and academic discourse that sums it down to a group activity to make sense of the world. Not necessarily Smith and Geertz, but academia as a whole leaves out the personal experience, the inexplicable aspects of ceremony. Similar to how my co-students rejected that Spirits were with us in that room, in many academic writings the inexplicable is surmised to some scientific occurrence or coincidence.

Relying solely on personal experience to understand ceremony also has its drawbacks. My own reaction, that God exists and can be called upon, is fairly drastic. Understanding it as a piece in my efforts to understand the world, as Smith suggests, puts it in perspective. Reading these articles also raised the question of – does it even matter if humans made the lights? That experience was real for me and my conclusions afterwards were valid. I create my own reality and will live in that world forever. Completely incapable of being objective, I choose to believe that the Spirits came down to us and heard our prayers. I have already seen an alleviation of pain for one person I prayed for. She is smiling again. For me, that is truth.

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