Getting back to those young men who seek out and participate in Sun Dance piercing ceremonies, why are they doing it? What do they get out of it? Originally it was a way to model and experience the consciousness changes connected to ordeals. Plains Indian men had lives based on hunting and fighting to preserve their band. They needed courage and determination and had no thought of painlessness as desirable. (The pre-anesthesia era.) Life was challenges and a “swag” (swagger) attitude was crucial. In return for their demonstrations the people gave them respect.
But traditional Blackfeet did not inflict pain on their children as a means of control or punishment. The harshest punishment in the early literature is “throwing water up their noses.” (Waterboarding! But that is far more extreme.) There was none of the thrashing by irate fathers or caning by frustrated teachers that is a steady theme in Euro fiction and bio.
The Sun Lodge ordeal was embedded in the culture in the same way as the Vision Quest trial. This is not to say that free-form or formally imposed affliction was a value nor was all pain a matter of blood and force. The virtuous old woman with her digging stick ceremonially fasted for three days, which was life-threatening and unpleasant, but this was a time and place where people might go hungry for any number of reasons and could survive it. Why is it that old white ladies of virtue don’t arrive at Plains Indian gatherings to declare they are going to fast as a sacrifice for others? Is it because they may have been on diets their whole lives in order to improve themselves, their own status?
The two rituals, piercing and Vision Questing, have similarities and differences. Piercing at a Sun Lodge ceremony was witnessed and highly prescribed -- a rawhide thong to pinned to one’s chest muscles with a skewer. One had to tear oneself free, ripping the chest muscles. Others danced and sang in the special “lodge” like a round tent with a leafy canopy and high leafy sides that contained a center pole, as is often present in religious symbology. Vision Quests were solitary, high in the mountains, and often detectable today because of leaving one of the rare “architectures” of worship that whites are used to: a low outline of stone the right size for someone to lie down in: a “dream bed.” The person, usually a boy ready to become a young man, went there to fast and thirst until his consciousness had changed enough to invite a vision.
The similarity between the two ordeals was that even for the solitary youth, someone was watching and ready to intervene. In the case of those skewered and pulling at tethers or dragging bison skulls, the helper might add his own weight to make the ordeal shorter. Or the man in charge of placing the skewers might, in his judgment, decide the skewers should be fairly shallow because the person who had volunteered was overestimating his stamina. This in spite of everyone agreeing that the deeper into the muscles the skewers were implanted, the more honorable the ordeal. Pride, showing off, was the big danger of ordeals. (Also of combat, though there it was encouraged.)
Since showing off is a part of adolescence and knowing one’s limits is a part of growing up, there was some danger of a young man simply dying in pursuit of his vision. So a relative or older mentor would make it a point to check on him, maybe from a distance so that he didn’t even know it. There is a cautionary tale about a man who wanted his son to fast longer and better than anyone else’s son. When he finally got around to checking, the son was gone and all that was left was a little mournful bird. It wasn’t even the son’s own pride that killed him.
When members of one culture, who have organized their brains according to the assumptions of the people they have known and loved, encounter another culture with entirely different cubbie holes and secret compartments, they can’t see what’s before them. This is now notorious knowledge.
One of the most secret of Blackfeet societies was the Horn Society doin’s. It was so secret that accounts of it were written in Latin, the assumption being that REAL authorities mature and entitled enough to know about it would be able to read Latin -- like priests. And the others didn’t need to know. The reason it was secret was that it was a ritual based on congruence: the vital buffalo had to make babies, so the ceremony re-enacted how to do it, from the heat to the birth. The Blackfeet women sequestered themselves to be yearning cows. At some point they imitated the delivery of calves. The Blackfeet men did their best to look like old bulls. At some point the chief among them demonstrated the sex act. (It was noted that if the most important man were too old, once he had taken the most appealing of the women off onto the prairie to show the bison what to do, he should just pretend.)
Prissy anthropologists were shocked! Well, actually they weren’t. But in the 19th century they thought that on the one hand people would think they were naughty to know such things, much less write about it, and on the other hand it undercuts the mystique of anthropology not to know racy things about native cultures with no taboos. (Well, not the same ones as the Victorians.) It was a woman, Alice Kehoe, who let the English version out -- as bold a social action as celebrating the Mass in English.
The Blackfeet had some small personal rituals, little things with the efficacy of rosaries, like the fossil stones known as “iniskum,” or buffalo stones. With a bit of imagination and maybe some helpful filing, these little bits shaped by the insides of compartments in baculites (a sort of squid) did look quite like a buffalo. The idea was that the people were starving and again it was a woman who came to the rescue. This time it was not an old woman who knew how and where to dig roots. It was a young woman, the youngest and least valuable of multiple wives, who was left behind on a women’s expedition for firewood. She hears a little voice, some say a whistle or song, and finds an “iniskum.” It has the power to call buffalo and it does. The people are saved by an humble person, unexpectedly. It’s a New Testament sort of story. And in this case, two cultures are in agreement. “The least of these” is important and should be valued, a basic human truth.