Greta Newton

The Sundance of War Dog Good Spirits

By Greta Newton

Copyright 2002 All rights reserved.

     Living a long time sometimes makes one think that they have seen it all, heard it all and done it all. Then a new dawn and a new day arrives and a profound experience comes along to jerk you into the realization that you have not seen it “all”.

     Legacy, history, remembrances, all make up life. In essence life is a compilation of a long set of experiences.

     So it has been with my journey through life. Then one day I met a man. His name is War Dog Good Spirits.  We met on a new moon in an old historical city in the West, in the state of Colorado.

     Perhaps at the time I thought it accidental or coincidental but looking back it was neither. I believe it to be destiny or fate. You put a name on it.

     I was grieving and in search. The Warrior, War Dog Good Spirits, is a full-blooded Native American of the Apache tribe. He had spent the past eighteen years of his life studying and practicing the traditional spiritual ways of his people and culture.

Like so many he had been left unfulfilled and lost inside from his years of Catholicism and it’s teachings. He desired more, so much more. He saw family members and friends living a life and existence of jeopardy to their physical, mental and spiritual bodies.

     This profoundly affected him. He soon realized the time had come to go back to his roots, so to speak, his people, culture and ways.

     War Dog Good Spirits participated in many sacred ceremonies over the past eighteen years. He had taught others, performed healing ceremonies and brought his family, friends and strangers alike into the true traditional culture of the Native Americans.

     To be such a stoic, solid man he was very unassuming to the eye. He stands 5’6” and light of frame, very agile and humble and quiet in personality. Tan skin and long beautiful black hair (super models would envy it) only enhanced his greatest attribute, his eyes. The Warrior as he is referred to  in “Circle” has the most penetrating, clear green eyes. Those eyes that appear to see more than you or me, even in the simplest of thing.

     His voice is comforting, soothing, no matter the topic of discussion. His wisdom and knowledge are sometimes confusing in accordance with his youthful appearance. It does not take you long to know that he knows the truth. That truth comes from deep within his soul.

     On a dry Colorado day, one of the hottest in history, we headed in the direction of the wilderness for the ceremony.

     The same ceremony that was banned and considered illegal by the laws of the Federal Government in 1904. The US government ruled that Native American Indians could no longer practice their traditional ceremonies as they had since the beginning of their time. This law was made after the US Army took their lands and reconciled them to reservation lands.

      The honor and privilege of such a sacred occurrence would be part of my path. I would attend, on this day,  by request and invitation of the Warrior who would lead the ceremony. We drove towards the mountains with prayerful spirits and open hearts.

     The interstate had long since been left as we wound down, around and up through miles of vast spaces of open land and grasses. Ranches and homesteads dotted the expansive open spaces of rugged land mixed with meadows and dusty roads. This was originally Comanche/Apache lands. A hawk was spotted on the horizon riding the currents in the clear blue sky. Puffs of white clouds broke up the blue landscape to form mountains of their own. The wind was hot and dry, bone dry. My long red Navajo skirt was by now crushed up in my lap in defense of the sun shining in my window and making me feel the heat of the mid-morning.

     Expectations and ideas were left at home. This was a play by play, moment to moment reality. A gathering of people, native to this country, were to participate in a sacred ceremony called the Sun Dance. It was a call to practice, their ancient traditional form of paying respect to their Creator. It was a risk the Apache, Lakota, Comanche and others were willing to take, even though they were in truth breaking a federal law.

     As the gravel roads wound up and down and the distance seemed further with each turn, my thoughts were with the Warrior. The conversations we had together were so intense and my questions were sometimes like rapid-fire bullets trying to acquire more knowledge of him. The Warrior had asked me to come and join his family in this ceremony. That was an honor for me. But, truth be told, this was a manifestation of my prayer into this reality. We drove on quietly, my thoughts racing.

     Every now and then I made some comment about how would we ever find our way back out? Then I remembered that the very thing that I was going to attend was against the Federal law so it had to be hidden in a remote place. I am not a criminal. How could my attending a ceremonial service be construed as illegal and unlawful in this world of perverted religious practices and murders in the name of God?

     After what seemed like hours we finally reached the destination, turned off to yet but another dusty two-wheel path outlined with dry trees, dust and rocks.

     I had been given printed information with directions and do’s and don’ts concerning the ceremony and use of the land. The rules of conduct read: Respect the host’s traditions, respect the land, collect all trash, be responsible for safety of children, no controlled substances, weapons, alcohol or pets.

      This was a hot day in July, 2002. My thoughts were with War Dog. He had been out here in the wilderness all week fasting, praying and preparing with the other warriors. This was his time, his turn. He was chosen by the elders to lead in the ceremony but he chose for himself to answer the call, to give of himself and participate. He also chose to ask my presence there. I was touched.    

     As we approached the gates to the ceremonial place,  I touched the softness of my leather and bead earrings called, Prayer Ribbons, for assurance and quickly  wiped the moisture from my face. The earrings were made by a Lakota artist.  

     The necklace of horse teeth that I had worn for over thirty years hung around my neck. The Comanche wear them to ward off evil spirits, I had often worn them in “Corporate America” to do the same thing.

     We were greeted at the gate by several young boys handing out printed papers that outlined proper protocol. We were smudged with Sage at the entrance then asked for an entry fee of $15.00. I thought that was strange, certainly not customary.  To my amazement, having just read again in the flyer given us at the gate about “respecting the land”, I was shocked to see the trash, old rusty bedsprings that had been laying there for many years,  abandoned cars, dilapidated shacks, bottles and cans, all along the path and surrounding the area of the site. Folks had driven up next to trees and tied up tarps for shade. The place was thick with Cedar and Pines, so thick there wasn’t much breeze or relief from the intense, noonday, high altitude sun.  Makeshift modern plastic tents were set up as if in a camp ground or a park. It was quiet, except for an occasional breath of hot wind. We pulled underneath a tree, hoping for shade.

     With each step of my moccasin-clad feet the fine dust would rise from the bed of dry needles on the forest floor. The turquoise band around my head absorbed the sweat while the sun pounded down. It was just after mid-day.  We made our way to the clearing on the ridge. Looking over the ridge down along the river a makeshift kitchen had been set up. It appeared it was only for the whites, the group following the landowner.

     A young Native American boy, perhaps 15 or 16 years old named Bear, rapidly approached us with staff in hand. I asked him where my friend the warrior, War Dog Good Spirits could be found. He motioned to the teepee just left of the circle saying he was preparing for ceremony. Then he began to tell us, “No metal of any kind beyond this point, no water, no cameras, no video tape and are you on your moon?” I answered no even though we new perfectly well the rules of conduct in the area of the ceremonial circle. (Women are not permitted to attend a ceremony if they are having their menstrual cycle.)

     From the surrounding trees and landscape people began to gather. There were about forty people, give or take a few, mostly Indians, and a small group of fifteen or so Hippie looking white people. We headed towards the clearing where the wooden open-air shelter had been erected in a circle. A pole shelter was erected around the circumference of the circle. Poles being placed 8’ to 10’ apart with the top held together by slats of wood to form an open canopy. Atop the canopy were branches of the trees, on the ground the sage and pine boughs were laid to complete the sacred circle. In the open space in the center of the circle, which was about sixty feet in diameter, stood the twenty-five-foot Aspen tree which had been carefully selected days before.

     Important men of the church circle, or tribe, were chosen to search for a tree with a fork in the top. A qualified person was sent to cut down the tree, never letting it touch the ground. This tree was placed finally in the ground, center of the circle and represented the center of the world, the connection between Earth and the Heavens. All trees are living things therefore this tree energy goes up to the Creator and the heavens in prayer and sacrifice for all to have life.

     There were three authentic teepees erected to the south of the circle. Nearby was the firepit that had been burning all week, tended by the official firekeepers. An arbor of pine boughs was placed between the lodges and the sacred circle which acted as the entrance. It was reminiscent of the historical sites a hundred years age.

     Each dancer and Warrior who would perform in the ceremony had prepared his own bundles or prayer pouches filled with the sacred tobacco, sage and various other precious items that were placed in the fork of the tall Aspen tree.

     Just before approaching the circle I noticed a group of white people heading up towards the circle. One of the blonde, fair-skinned girls came towards me looking all the world like a 60’s hippie, about 19 years old and carrying a year old baby on her hip. She was emaciated looking, skin and bone. She asked me if I had any metal, etc. and if I was on my moon. I was sort of shocked but knew instinctively that she must have been connected to the landowner and his group, the New Wave bunch. He had offered his wilderness, isolated property to the church for the ceremony. After all, it’s still illegal don’t forget.

     Then I got down-wind of her and her group and the stench was loud. Upon a closer look, they were downright filthy as if they wore their filth as a badge. In contrast the Native Americans were dressed in their very best attire. All the women wore their most beautiful shawls, a customary part of their culture. Their hair was long straight and beautiful. Their skin was tan, their statue unassuming. They moved so quietly and seemingly without effort in the hot sun with their long skirts gently brushing the dry dust of the ground. They all seemed to be in a certain state of harmony, casualness and every now and then a bit of timid laughter or chuckles could be heard.

     The sun was beating down on us. A quiet hush surrounded all who moved about. With whispers, one to another, people assembled underneath the open-air shelter waiting for the ceremony to begin. 

     To the left of the circle the teepees stood facing the west as a prayer. Inside I knew the Warrior prepared for the ceremony along with others who would dance with him, being led by the legend himself, Crazy Horse’s grandson, Chief Macaw.

     We finally sat on a blanket on the ground underneath the branches of the shelter. We were honored to sit with the Warrior’s family, his wife, beautiful daughter, sisters, uncles and cousins who had all come, as I did, to support with prayers the Warrior who would sacrifice in his own humble way for the people and most specifically for the children and the sick.

     The drums began. We all stood and the dancers entered the circle through the arbor to begin the dance. They all wore the traditional clothing, loin cloths, moccasins and the feathers. Three warriors at the same time entered the circle. They were the ones who would sacrifice. Chief Macaw came out next. It was amazing to see him there in the flesh after having visited the memorial to his grandfather, Crazy Horse, in the Black Hills of South Dakota. The legend, Chief Macaw himself, moved with such artistry and grace. He had often made the trek from Kansas to South Dakota to Colorado to New Mexico teaching all the people the ways of the Lakota.

     My friend, my teacher, the man I had become so close to through conversations at my kitchen table, was now as I had never seen him before. The headband, the one lone feather tied in his hair, the necklaces, the bear claw, his long straight beautiful hair cast with light from the sun, his body agile and moving in synchronization with the beat of the drum made me gasp for breath. He was War Dog Good Spirits the Medicineman. He was truly a sight to behold!

     The drum beat appeared as though it entered my body as it did the others. The family and all of us danced in place while the warriors traveled inside the circle, jumping stepping in time, holding their staffs in hand. Time stopped. Life was just now, this moment.

     As they danced I thought of the past days of War Dog Good Spirits preparing for ceremony, fasting, only having water, but one would have never known. To gaze upon his face was to see peace and pure purpose of heart, no encumbrances. I did not know the songs they all sang but I could feel the melody straight to my heart and soul. It was as sincere as the Christian songs of my youth. It had the dignity and spirituality of a Holy Ghost revival, a call for all to honor the Creator, here, now under the heavens He had made in the openness of space on this earth.

     I watched in silence as the dancers led War Dog Good Spirits to the buffalo robe that was outstretched on the ground, feet away from the tree. They began to kneel down on each side of him. With surgeon’s precision and no sound they cut two pairs of slits in the fatty tissue of either side of his chest and stuck the piercing pegs, made of cedar wood by his nephews, through his flesh. Then the next warrior laid down and was pierced, and then the third. When they all were pierced they stood and began to dance, sing, yell and act in a joyful trance of sorts. The crowd was yipping and yelling in native languages. 

     My heart began to pound and race. My body became weak. I leaned back against the  pole and fought hard to control my tears. The drums still beat the beautiful songs. His wife still stood beside me wrapped in the burial shawl of War Dog Good Spirit’s mother who had passed away many years before, but who had encouraged him at the end of her life to walk his spiritual path. She knew he had been chosen since youth.

     The dancers stood up with War Dog Good Spirits. They all gathered around the tree. The dancers who acted as support staff grabbed the three ropes that had been tied to the top of the tree and pulled the tree over in order to make it bend down enough to then loop or tie the three ropes to the wooden pegs inserted into the flesh of each warrior’s  chest. The ropes were then let go, the dancers stepped back and the three warriors stood tied to the tree. War Dog Good Spirits, stood with blood running down his chest, tied to a tree, humble before the Creator in sacrifice of himself for you, me , his family, his people, all people that we might GET IT!

     His bright, red blood cascaded down from his chest slowly streaking his stomach, resting in the wrap around his waist. ’Twas the same color as mine, the same color as the buffalo, the Elk, the Eagle, the horse, the rancher, the preacher, the Pope, the Methodist, the Baptist, the Muslim, the Buddhist, the black or white or brown or yellow people, the homeless, the sinner and the child. The same blood, the blood of the Creator. The blood of Jesus Christ another thirty-three-year-old who chose to be connected to a tree which became a cross. A cross of connection between us all!

     I gasped and covered my mouth  to prevent any noise escaping. A flood of tears streamed quietly down my cheeks to my neck and felt cool. Ebbs of emotion flowed through my body.  I was overcome and slowly leaned backwards onto my husband and the pole directly behind me. This was too visual, too real, but sadly too true in symbolic nature to how Jesus was sacrificed for others.

      War Dog walked toward the tree then backed up rapidly in order to “break away”. When the speed of stepping backwards causes the skin to tear or break away the pegs, the warrior is then finished praying. He is then released. He is in a trance or an elevated sense of spiritual reality and therefore, supposedly, feels no pain although I felt his pain.  War Dog literally tore the flesh with his pulling away enough for the wooden pegs to come out of the flesh and free himself from the tree which represents his rebirth. This also represents that his praying and his dialogue with the Creator is finished.  The torture and pain represents his personal sacrifice and with the tearing away, his humble offering of all he has to give, himself. War Dog Good Spirits in this case, is reborn spiritually, mentally as well as physically.

     I would have to say that this experience on his part has to be the ultimate in symbolism of sacrifice, and personally I don’t think there are many  who are committed enough to bleed for their people.

     I could see the peace on his face, yes, even the trance-like ambiance of his persona. Harmony of self, peace of self seemed to exude from him. He had a joyful, child-like countenance, mingled with the look of being totally alone and oblivious to the setting and the people around him. No doubt he was having personal conversation with his Creator.

     With each backward run from the tree I winced in pain for him as apparently he felt no pain. His family and all the Native Americans continued to sing and praise their support. They were confident in their actions.

     The two other warriors were making their runs from the tree as well trying to break away with the same strength and determination as their blood as well flowed down their chests.

     Finally, which seamed like hours to me, one of the other warriors broke free. Minutes later the other warrior broke free. War Dog still remained. In my empathy and compassion for him I longed for him to break but he must have still been in a vision and discussion with the Creator because he was still tied. But in the situation one has to remember that time does not matter, it stands still.

     The sun was so hot I was nauseous and my stomach was rolling with a thousand butterflies trying to get out and my heart was aching for War Dog and the other warriors.

     Eventually, with a high-pitched Apache yell that would wake the dead and his supporters loudly  praising, singing and dancing, the drums resounding the constant beat, the momentum fever-pitched, he ran, jerked and it was over. There was something so powerful in this time and the moment of his break. Others felt it as well. His wife and sisters as joyful and singing all the while teared up as well. All who were there with eyes to see saw the moment and felt the power that encompassed us. But yet it was a tranquil moment. 

     Hours later the family and I gathered under the shade of a tall pine tree. Sitting on a blanket the family shared with me stories of their life and times with their brother and his less than easy journey through life including his spiritual awakening. There were tears, but tears of joy and admiration for his life.

     I could hardly speak. The vision I had witnessed took hold of me, I knew I had never felt the Spirit as I had this day. My heart was touched so profoundly by this man and his desire to give, to honor and sacrifice and to see his people’s culture and tradition of honoring the Creator followed to the letter, no matter the price. That’s truly a commitment. Remember he did not have to sacrifice. He chose to.

     After the family dispersed I sat there observing. War Dog Good Spirits would not be with us again for another day. He would remain on the hill, still fasting for another twenty-four hours, in meditation and preparation before he returned to his family and the Sun Dance ended.

     Meanwhile, as new dancers and warriors prepared to enter the circle, I noticed the landowner in the crowd talking with some white folks that had just walked up to the area. The landowner, who was dressed in pseudo-Indian attire, with an arrogance that caught me off guard and seamed out of context with the occasion at hand, walked over to greet them as if he were a tourist guide. The white folks had metal lawn chairs, cameras, snacks and gear.  Money was exchanged and to my shock and dismay the group then proceeded towards the sacred circle.  I could not believe my eyes.  I knew this was very inappropriate and not customary by any means. The landowner had prostituted and sold out the ceremony. They strolled right up to the sacred circle on the far side from me and began making a front row seating arrangement, even adding branches to the shelter for more shade, rearranging the ground circle of sage apparently having no idea that the branches they added were to a sacred place that had been prepared in tradition for sacred ceremony. It had been smudged prior to the Sun Dance to rid the area of negativity and evil spirits. Their ignorance and arrogance was obvious but the landowner was the great perverted heathen. Once again the Native Americans were sold out as a side show. There were two forces present and walking parallel, evil and good, negative and positive.

     The landowner’s agreement, his offering of his land to the people for ceremony, only to end up as a monetary situation in his back pocket brings the broken treaties into focus again. Add one more to the 371 broken promises. A promise is a promise no matter the circumstance of the promise. The tourists had no idea of the sacredness of this time, place and ceremony and, no doubt, had not tried to educate themselves in proper protocol as a visitor or participant. There was no respect. They just wanted to see the spectacle, or entertainment if you will.

     With the addition of onlookers, having seen money change hands, etc. the Sun Dance for me and others was over. The negative energy had invaded the circle. The medicinemen, chiefs, elders, drummers, singers and firekeepers had been sold out.

Ceremony was over.

     The landowner’s entourage, the New Wave bunch, nonchalantly mingled around observing but appearing detached from the sacredness obviously felt by the Native Americans. One of the skinny white girls actually bent over and started picking up the sage on the ground from the inner circle and rearranging it in her total lack of knowledge of it’s sacredness. I was appalled and disgusted. It was time for me to leave. I glanced back over my shoulder after my good-byes to the family trying to catch a glimpse of the legend Chief Macaw. I wondered what his observations would be.

     War Dog Good Spirits has completed his fifteen years of study under the direction of the elders, the old medicinemen and the teachings of the native cultures. He has resurrected his own foundation of faith, from his Catholic upbringing to his biblical studies. He has left the pomp and circumstance for the pure and simple of his native people.

     Many since that day have sought him out for his personal council and his healing ceremonies. Lives have been changed. Folks have had ailments, both physical and emotional, arrested. Their faith and courage have been strengthened. He has powerful medicine. The Bible calls it “gifts of the Spirit”.

     War Dog Good Spirits and the Sun Circle Church are real, with open doors to all, although they have no doors of wood. Their church gathering is usually in the open or some barn during winter. Money is not expected or requested in order for you to have admittance, only a pure heart and a love of the Creator. There is not a pulpit from which someone condemns your mistakes in life, just prayer is offered and the natural things of this earth that we as a people were given by our Creator. The appreciation for all winged things and how we are all connected is taught in the old ways.

     When I now see the eagle fly my heart leaps for joy. I am told by War Dog the eagle is the messenger from the Creator, he flies up  closest to Him. The buffalo reminds me that Mother Earth will provide grasses for him and therefore meat and clothing for the people. The exchange between animal and people, the circle of life.

     As a hawk perches in a distant tree outside my window I am reminded of Hawk medicine, to perservere, to stay the course and search for knowledge and wisdom in all things, to be alert and aware.

     When I am weak and think I can’t face another day the bear reminds me of his medicine of  courage and strength that he represents and that strength comes from our Creator.

     But evil has perverted many of the religions in the form of man’s inner egotistical nature to be superior to his flock or following. Maybe the time has come for all of us to keep it simple, heart to heart. The Warrior desires that all who are empty, lonely, unfulfilled, yearning for more, plagued by doubts and demons, illness or brokenhearted, only come and enter the circle, to pray as simple as his people have for hundreds of years. The only thing different are perhaps the walls, there are none, imagined or perceived between those who choose to honor their Creator in this way.

     When you arise to the dawn of a new day stretch forth your hands to the heavens, your face to the sun and give thanks from your heart to the Creator, no matter your name for Him.  I have often times heard said that the printed word is a powerful tool and I doubt not, however, it has been difficult for me to fully capture and translate with this writing all of the impressions of this sacred event, the Sun Dance. With out a doubt it has affected me in a profound and powerful way. I hope that these words have at least given you an idea of the faith that abounds in some people’s hearts. And who can judge whether theirs’, the Apache, Comanche, Lakota, Crow and other tribes is not as viable a form of honor to the Creator as is any other form of faith to a higher entity. Do not think that I am advocating that all who read this run out in search of a Medicineman and go Indian. But I can truthfully say that this observance showed me the courage and conviction of one individual, one man who walks the walk and talks the talk. He inspired me as he did others. I offer this document to hopefully inspire you, the reader, and to let you know that there are others who perhaps believe a little differently than you but still remember you, me and all the people of this nation in their ceremony to the Creator. I  pray blessings on you and hope that each of you will follow the good road, the high road and act with as much integrity and honor as these people have.  

In the Spirit,

Greta Newton

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