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  • Coleen Graybill

South Dakota Sun Dance & Red Hawk Descendant

You plan. You schedule. Then you go with the flow.


We try very hard to be incredibly productive when we are on our road trips, so I usually have things well planned out. When you are in Indian Country though, things have a way of just happening how they are supposed to according to the spirits, not necessarily how you have them planned.


We were invited over a year ago by Medicine Man Henry Quick Bear, Chief John Spotted Tail, and Tamara Stands and Looks Back-Spotted Tail, to attend Henry’s Sun Dance on the Rosebud Sioux Indian Reservation in Rosebud, South Dakota. Henry Quick Bear is the Medicine Man who performed a sweat lodge in our honor last year. Excited to experience one of the Seven Sacred Rites of the Lakota Tribal Nation, this Sun Dance has been on our calendar for a long time. Many things tried to get in the way of us going, but we were meant to be there.


Our board member, and dear friend, Tamara Stands and Looks Back-Spotted Tail and husband, Chief John Spotted Tail, invited us to stay with them during our trip to South Dakota. We were thrilled to get to spend so much time with them. We had planned to sit out at the Sundance grounds the entire 4 ½ days of the ceremony so that we could experience everything. We wanted to learn and understand firsthand Lakota ways and what Edward had written about over 100 years ago. We wanted to see, in person, the Tree of Life cutting, the Medicine sharing, the dancing, and the piercing of the flesh of the dancers. As no photographs, videos, or even sketches are allowed of the Sun Dance, it forced us to be physically and mentally present.


Tuesday afternoon was the cutting of the Tree of Life, a cottonwood tree to be the center pole and central altar. We followed the line of cars leading to the selected location and watched as a virgin girl, dressed in white, made the first axe blows to the tree. Many of the boys and men helped chop down this 30’ tree and then load it onto a trailer without it ever touching the ground. This was quite a feat!


After following everyone back to the ceremony grounds, the tree was unloaded and taken to the center of the arbor, putting the base into a hole. Here it continued to be held off the ground where everyone said prayers and tied their prayer flags to the tree (including us) before it was lofted upright using ropes and manpower and the base filled in. It was a beautiful site seeing all the red, yellow, black, white, blue, and green strips of fabric blowing from the tree top. Each color held a significant meaning. It filled my heart.


Just days before we left for this trip, we got in touch with the director of the Rosebud Boys and Girls Club to set up a tour. The Board of Directors had voted to make this year's Give Back Program donation to this worthy group and being able to present this donation in person, along with Chief John Spotted Tail and Board Member Tamara Stands and Looks Back-Spotted Tail, was an honor. While on our tour of the facility, we entered their media room, and low and behold, there was the Curtis image titled “Sioux Chiefs” on their wall. It made us all smile. The Club director Glen Marshall wasn’t aware, prior to our coming, who had taken that image.


Chief John Spotted Tail, John Graybill, Glen Marshall
Chief John Spotted Tail, John Graybill, and Glen Marshall in front of a Curtis print hanging in the Rosebud Boys and Girls Club.

As a past employee of the Boys and Girls Club organization, I wholeheartedly believe in its mission. The Club gives kids and teens a place to hang out in a healthy environment. They have constant educational classes (even in the summer), cultural and art programs, two meals a day, and even pickup and drop-off for the kids who have no transportation. It is pretty easy to get behind all they do.

John Graybill giving Glen Marshall a check as part of our Give Back Program.
John Graybill giving Glen Marshall a check as part of our Give Back Program.

Unexpectedly, we ended up going to Wind Cave National Park one of the days we were there. Wind Cave is the location of the Lakota origin story and we felt we needed to understand it better by being in that place and feeling its energy. We were glad that we went. Tamara did not feel that they got the story quite right, but we were happy that they even talked about it on the tour. Of course, the park has made 98% of the education about white history and geology, which was disappointing. They presented the Lakota origin story as a myth. That would be like telling a Christian that the Bible is a myth. We have to honor each other's beliefs, not tear them down.


Tamara Stands and Looks Back-Spotted Tail, Coleen and John Graybill in Wind Cave.
Tamara Stands and Looks Back-Spotted Tail, Coleen and John Graybill in Wind Cave.

As we headed back towards Rapid City, Tamara had some friends she thought we should meet in Hill City. Stopping in to meet them at a restaurant downtown, there ended up being a group of about a dozen people gathered. They were mostly artists from that area and welcomed us to join. One gentleman had a couple of vintage Curtis images!


We had a distant hope that while we were there, we might find a descendant of one of the many Lakotas that Curtis photographed, to photograph and interview for our Descendants Project. With the help of Tamara and Chief John, we were able to accomplish just that. Tamara connected us with Vanessa Red Hawk - Thompson, a descendant of Chief Red Hawk pictured in Curtis’ famous image “An Oasis in the Badlands”. This image just happens to be John’s very favorite picture that his great-grandfather made. Imagine his excitement when the meeting was arranged!



An Oasis In The Bad Lands by E.S. Curtis
An Oasis In The Bad Lands by E.S. Curtis


Chief and Tamara thought that we needed their tipi set up for a background for the interview, so they called their neighbor Peter Gibbs to come help us. Peter is an Englishman who married a Lakota woman and has become quite a Lakota historian. He was so much fun to talk with. We got the opportunity to learn and participate in setting up the tipi. It is certainly a process!


Our grandson, Hayden, helping Peter Gibbs put up the tipi!
Our grandson, Hayden, helping Peter Gibbs place the poles.


John and Peter driving the stakes in for the tipi.
John and Peter driving the stakes in for the tipi.

Tamara also felt that we should meet the Acting President, Ted Hamilton, of the Sinte Gleska University in Mission, SD. This is where Tamara got a lot of her education from. Ted was very interested in what we were doing and how we could coordinate some mutual events and resources. Ted wanted to connect us with Tim Bernardis at the Crow Agency as well – which we then shared that we knew Tim already. Our relationship-building is working!


As we passed through the halls of the college we met several people Tamara used to work with, one being Leeland, who is a descendant of Little Dog. He is an encyclopedia of Lakota history! If we had met him a day or so earlier, we could have figured out how to interview him as well. We could easily do a whole book just on the Lakota. But, we feel our project needs to have a broad base of tribal nations.


We sat and chatted with Ted for 30 minutes or so when Tamara got an urgent call from Chief John to come home. The neighbor's buffalo herd had broken through their fence, crossed the highway, and took out the Spotted Tail’s fence which keeps their horses safe from the highway. As we jetted back to the Spotted Tails, the buffalo herd was mostly standing in the middle of the highway. We helped to block their path with the truck as an ATV tried to push them back into their own field. We headed back to the house to get ready for the interview with Vanessa as Chief John went out to fix his fence.


Buffalo jumped a fence and were crossing the highway.
Buffalo jumped a fence and were crossing the highway.


Vanessa Red Hawk Thompson, her husband Willy Thompson (which also happens to be my grandfather’s name), and her daughter Taylor arrived at the Spotted Tail’s home at 7 pm. We set up lawn chairs and got everything rolling for the interview. The background of the tipi and a buffalo robe on the ground made the perfect setting. It was a joy to meet and get to know this family. We felt as though we had known them forever. The interview went great and we got to include Tamara asking some questions too. It was wonderful to have her Native perspective on the way the questions were worded. I wish we could do that all the time. We set up the photography session for the next morning. Vanessa didn’t want to photograph at their place by the river because there are so many snakes, and she doesn’t like snakes. I was quick to add that I don’t either! She suggested just coming back and using the tipi for the background. The choice was hers.


Tamara asked Vanessa what she wanted to wear for her portrait. Vanessa wasn’t sure because she didn’t have a traditional dress of her own. Tamara was quick to offer her dress if Vanessa wanted to wear traditional clothing. Vanessa quickly accepted and was so grateful. She very much wanted to be photographed that way. She was so happy.


Vanessa and family arrived the next morning and Tamara made sure everything was perfect. Given that Tamara is also a jewelry maker and a chief’s wife, she has everything that was needed. Vanessa’s own personal touches included her eagle feather fan and a red eagle feather plume that was given to her by her grandfather.


One of the coolest things happened during the photography session… a bald eagle flew over the tipi. It gave me goosebumps! Sorry, I missed getting a good photograph of this. I was taking in the moment instead.


We had beautiful light to work with and everything went smoothly. As we were finishing our portraits of Vanessa, her daughter Taylor walked out the Spotted Tail’s door, now dressed in traditional clothing as well. Tamara had gifted Taylor a trade blanket dress and chest plate necklace. She looked so beautiful that we just had to photograph mother and daughter together as well. I can’t wait to see the final images.


John checking off everything to make sure it was right.
John checking off everything to make sure it was right.

Vanessa Red Hawk getting ready for John to make his picture of her for the Descendants Project.
Vanessa Red Hawk getting ready for John to make his picture of her for the Descendants Project.

Now feeling like we hadn’t seen enough of the Sun Dance, the Spotted Tails, the Thompsons, and us all headed out to the grounds to support the dancers and be a part of things. John was honored to be selected to come and receive one of the chanunpa (a ceremonial pipe) from a dancer to bring back to his group to share. You are not allowed to wear shoes, hats, or sunglasses when receiving the pipe. About a half dozen people are selected for each round of dancing to come and receive a pipe. After sharing the pipe, it is returned to the spot in which it was given, and the dancer takes it back.



The Sun Dancer by E.S. Curtis
The Sun Dancer by E.S. Curtis

We were also active participants in receiving a very powerful medicine during one of the rounds. This was medicine for our body mind and spirit, for good health.


Other rounds in the circle were filled with the sacrifice of flesh by the dancers. Of course, we have seen the photographs that Curtis took of this part of the 4-day event, but it is entirely different seeing it in motion and not just a still image. Fasting the entire time, the dancers choose when they would like to do this. Some do this on the first day, some on the last. The men have both sides of their chests pierced with an eagle bone. Following this, their families surround them, and they attach themselves, using a rope tied to the center pole, to each of these bones. After 4 separate trips to the pole to pray, they run backward thus tearing the bones from their chests, being caught by their families as they fall backward. Prayers follow.


The women have their biceps pierced and an eagle feather is attached by a string. Following their prayers, someone from each of their families urgently pulls the stringed feather and releases their piercing. All men and women do this with absolutely no flinching, expression, or reaction.


As the Sun Dance was coming to a close with the sun setting at the end of the fourth day, all the guests and family supporters lined up around the exterior of the arbor to shake hands and give acknowledgment to the dancers. Two different dancers gave John one of their sage bracelets that they wore the entire 4 days, signifying that you are in their prayers. What an honor. One dancer even asked John if he was going to dance next year…


This was an experience of a lifetime. You can read, study, and watch movies about the Sun Dance, but none can replace that of being there in person. Wow. We are so grateful for the invitation from Henry Quick Bear and the Spotted Tails to attend this year. What a special week, to say the least.


Tipi at sunset on the Rosebud.
Tipi at sunset on the Rosebud.




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