Unfocused Lenses

In Bare Facts, Jonathon Smith describes a sacred place as a “focusing lens” for significance. Our focusing lens, Bear Butte, brought attention to a split between the ideal and reality of ceremony. Ironically, the lack of lenses, being instructed to put cameras away, highlighted an interesting way of designating sacred space and time. The coincidences and procedures atop Bear Butte made for a conflicting experience under the focusing lens and lack of.

In Bare Facts, Smith discusses the interplay of ritual and coincidence or accident. Our large class encountered a stranger at the top of Bear Butte, an older woman who was out hiking the hill. This was unexpected, an accident, yet Mike invited her to be a part of the pipe ceremony ritual. Smith writes about the imperialistic eagerness with which ritual takes advantage of an accident and, by projecting on it both significance and regularity, annihilates its original character as accident (54). Was it not an accident that this woman was present after all? Was it a sign of some sort, or an intention?

I don’t know if it was because I am an active member of the most important team, the Media Team, but I immediately noticed the interaction of cameras upon the hill. When I approached our group, the stranger woman was photographing Mike and Bruce preparing the ceremony with her iPhone. When the ceremony began, he asked that we put all cameras away. When the ceremony finished, one of the first things said was the woman asking if she could take our photo. Cameras bumpered the ceremony, but why? Did the putting away of the focusing lenses allow for sacredness? We were in the same place the whole time, with the same people, sitting in the same position. But suddenly, with a word from Mike, the small space became too sacred for photos. What changed?

Mike vocally designated the beginning and end of the ceremony, though physically, the ceremony was still continuing. The passing of the prayer ties had not yet finished; three or four students had yet to pray over them, though Mike had moved on to allowing the visitor woman to take our photograph. Does this mean that the ceremony was finished because Mike said so, even though the rituals were still occurring?

Observations of technology during the Bear Butte pipe ceremony can lend insight into a theme that Smith discusses: the ideal. Smith describes that ritual is a means of performing the way things ought to be in conscious tension to the way things are (63). Did Mike ask for cameras to be put away in the hopes of creating an ideal ceremony, the way it “ought” to be? Natural, no distractions, sacred (not able to be shared all over the internet by hitting a simple “upload” button). But it is hard to know what the ideal is, after so many generations of ceremonies. When did it become acceptable to use lighters? I could hear Justin’s phone chiming throughout the ceremony next to me.

As I tried to interpret the ceremony as “what ought to be,” how I ought to know a Lakota pipe ceremony, I was confused by a couple of factors. My experience on Bear Butte was shrouded with a fear of doing it wrong. I don’t think I got any smoke out of the pipe because I was concerned about spinning it, couldn’t remember how many times to puff, and was sitting next to Justin. I watched the prayer ties in the plastic bag come closer to me and thought about what I would pray for. I was looking forward to it, this kind thoughtful prayer, until Justin took the bag, sort of giggled, and passed it to me immediately. I no longer felt that I was supposed to spend real time with the prayer ties, or felt embarrassed if I made a big deal out of it, after Justin had dismissed it.

Smith writes, ritual provides an occasion for reflection and rationalization on the fact that what ought to have been done was not done, what ought to have taken place did not occur (63). The ceremony on Bear Butte raised a lot of questions about the split between what “ought” to be and what is. Was the woman a coincidence, a sacred occurrence incorporated into the ceremony in a beneficial way? Or was she only included because we weren’t supposed to be off-trail and she looked like a park ranger? What is the ideal presence of technology? What does the focusing lens of Bear Butte render sacred? Many questions were left unanswered.











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