MC Black Elk

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You too can drive the Anglo-American way: take wheel between thumb and forefinger, point car towards destination, insert drink in beverage holder, and set cruise control for 95mph. This will leave both feet free (why not put them on the dash?) and one hand available for tuning to country rock stations, while you and your partner howl along like moonstruck coyotes. Road Trip Heaven, I can assure you, is a white Pontiac Grand Am Sports tearing up Interstate 90 towards the Cheyenne River Reservation, leaving all and sundry in its dust.

South Dakota is an ocean of land. Drive for hours in any direction and all you'll see is endless sky and the road ahead, a few tiny farmhouses adrift on rolling plains, or perhaps the twisted grey skeleton of a barn, shattered by some long-forgotten tornado. Two-and-a-half hours and 170 miles later we slow to a crawl and park at a respectful distance. Here in the heart of America's heartland, beside a dirt road in the middle of nowhere, a hundred or so Lakota Sioux Indians have gathered on a windswept plain for their annual Sun Dance. The sun responds appropriately, by scorching everyone in sight. Temperature: 97 degrees Fahrenheit.

Wiwanyag Wachipi, the "dance looking at the sun", is not some simple act of solarism. Rather, it honours Wakan-Tanka, the Great Spirit of Enlightenment, and symbolises the interdependence of all life. "As the flames of the sun come to us each morning," said the Sioux holy man Black Elk, "so comes the grace of Wakan-Tanka, by which all creatures are enlightened... the two- and four-leggeds, the wingeds, all rejoice at the coming of this light. We can all see in the day, and this seeing is sacred for it represents the sight which we may have through the eye of the heart." Black Elk instructed his people: "When you perform this sacred dance, you should remember you are bringing light into the universe."

Standing at the centre of a grassy circle is a young cottonwood tree, representing the union of heaven and earth, with coloured cloths tied to its upper branches in honour of the six directions. Buffalo skulls are laid out on one side of the "sacred hoop", and stalks of sage, used for purification, are scattered around the site. At intervals during the day, some 60 Lakota men and women in crimson robes, their heads wreathed with sage and eagle feathers, perform their slow, shuffling dance, clockwise around the tree. Then they stand in line and face the blazing sun, raising both hands in salute. All this time, the drumming, singing and dancing never stops, while above it you can hear the shrill call from the eagle- bone whistles that each dancer keeps in his or her mouth.

Hanging from the tree-top are several hide ropes. Male dancers have their chests pierced with two wooden stakes which are attached to the ropes. They dance up to the tree and away again until the stakes are torn from their flesh. As we arrive, the men are getting their towels, ready to enter the sweat lodge and purify themselves before the next dance. Most have small bloody mouths gaping above their pectoral muscles, and many bear the scars of previous rites. You can count them: some have done this six or seven times.

Again, Black Elk explained this ritual act of suffering as symbolic of non-duality, the state where there is no differentiating between subject and object, the perceiver and the perceived: "The two thongs are really only one thong, cut in a spiral from a single buffalo hide, and tied to the tree at its centre; it is only the ignorant who see many where there is really only one. This truth of oneness we understand a little better by participating in this rite, and by offering ourselves as sacrifice."

Overseeing proceedings from a canvas chair is Sidney Keith, a white-haired Lakota tribal elder and spiritual leader. Though he is 75 years old, and suffers from emphysema (a condition not helped by his taste for Native American untipped cigarettes), Sidney was pierced this morning. "It was hot," he says, with a sly smile. "Nearly fainted out there."

Blue nylon sheets, rigged up on poles to shade the spectators, snap in the wind. The dance comes to a halt, and four men tethered to the tree fall to the ground. There they rest, as best they can in this blazing sunset, while we talk softly, and watch the children play. Although it seems we have only just arrived, Andy and I have to leave.

We have tried to fit this ceremony into a tourist schedule, a grave mistake. Sacred things are timeless things, and we have not allowed time enough for the Sun Dance. I apologise to Steve Levitt, who has guided me here, to Sidney, who approved my presence. There is no time to talk to the dancers.

The sun is falling, and we must cross an ocean of darkness

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