A ladleful of cold water hisses and pops as it hits the red hot rocks in a tin bucket on the bare wood floor, engulfing me in purifying steam as I enter the ceremony room and take my place against the west wall with the other men. Drummers and singers are already seated to my left, waiting silently in anticipation, while the women enter and find seats on the opposite side of the room. Before me on the bare floor is a pile of sage, and beyond that a row of pots and dishes containing the ceremony food usually consisting of a stew, fry bread, wojape (plum pudding) and coffee, all purified and blessed with a sprig of sweet smelling prairie sage . The walls are bare with the exception of a few sacred articles such as canupas (pronounced cha-new-pah), the sacred pipes, hanging in decorated deer skin pouches, and some ceremonial drums. Against the north wall is the altar, a slightly rounded pile of earth from a mole hill, brushed smooth with an eagle feather and inscribed with a sacred symbol. It is surrounded with tobacco filled prayer ties, small ‘flags’ and a hoop made of choke cherry stems typical of Lakota sacred ceremonies. Sacred rattles which will later perform healing rest at the altar as well. A long string of 405 tobacco ties which I have prepared defines the perimeter of the sacred space and must not be crossed by participants. I have attended many ceremonies with the Chipps family on the east coast as well as here on the plains of windswept South Dakota, but this night is special, for tonight the healing ceremony is for me, the culmination of many days of prayer and preparation.
The Yuwipi healing ceremony is one of the principal ceremonies of the Lakota Sioux people, along with the inipi (sweat lodge) and hanbalecha (vision quest). This particular ceremony was a gift from spirit to the Chipps family generations ago and is practiced by family members to this day, passed along from father to son. The current ‘yuwipi man’ in the family, Godfrey, received the power to talk with spirits at the age of twelve and considered one of the foremost healers of his kind in America today. We first met some years earlier when I sponsored Lakota teachings at my home in Massachusetts, and was later invited to visit the family “in the country” near the town of Wanblee (Eagle) on the Pine Ridge Reservation near the spectacular Badlands.
At first meeting, I found Godfrey to be strikingly different from the image of the classic native American medicine man I had previously held. Here was man in his thirties, (younger that me), short and barrel chested, wearing boots and blue jeans with a printed T shirt and long black hair cascading from a baseball cap bearing the inscription ‘shit happens.’ As I have come to know Godfrey over the years, however, I have come to see him as a warm and sincere human being with flaws and shortcomings like all the rest of us, as one of my principal teachers and spiritual guides, and an extremely dedicated, focused and powerful healer. His role, as he explains it, is ‘spirit interpreter.’ Godfrey receives information directly from the animals, elders and other beings in the spirit world and relays this information on to those individuals in need of healing. This is his unique gift and burden, and I have approached him in the traditional manner, offering my ‘canupa’, requesting healing.
Once all attendees are seated, the canupa is filled with the smoking mix of tobacco, bark and osha root to the accompaniment of the sacred pipe loading song it is then handed to Grandmother Vicki to hold and pray with.
Eventually Godfrey enters the ritual area and removes his shirt and shoes. Assistants bind his hands behind his back, then wrap him entirely in a star quilt which is in turn bound with deer skin thongs. He is gently placed face down upon the bed of sage and we are ready to begin. My excitement soars as the flickering light of the lone kerosene lantern fades and we are left in absolute dark, the world of spirit, wonder and mystery. A rapid burst of drumming accompanied by the voices of singers pierces the silent blackness as ancient healing songs invite the spirits to enter and participate. I am directed to stand, offer prayer and request healing. Suddenly, the rattles lying at the alter are taken up by the unseen spirit beings and fly about the room, shaking and sparking against the ceiling before coming to me for ‘doctoring’ in which they rapidly but gently shake against my body from head to foot. Godfrey’s muffled voice can be heard as he speaks with the spirits and receives further instructions from them for herbal formulas, behavioral changes further ceremonies to be performed and so on. Next, the star quilt is thrown against me, indicating that Godfrey has been freed by the spirits and the healing has taken place. After a few more songs the lamps are lit, revealing Godfrey untied and sitting up, recovering. The canupa is passed around the room and smoked by all. After prayers we feast, and the ceremony is complete.
I have seen many incredible and mystical things around the world and the Yuwipi ceremony, performed right here in America, ranks among the top. I give thanks for the opportunity to share this healing experience with the Chipps family and all the Lakota people. Mitakue Oyassin – All My Relations.
Jim Martin, LAc