Sunday, June 18, 2017

Sun Dance as cosmic drama

‘If the word “art” is appropriate here, one could say that the Sun Dance is a powerful work of art; at all events, one can understand why the Red Indians never felt the need to create a great epic or the like. The manner in which they saw and experienced Nature excluded precisely every kind of fine art.’ This is Frithjof Schuon, a Swiss-born philosopher, metaphysician, poet and painter born 110 years ago today, writing in a diary he kept while living for a short while with the Sioux Indians in the United States. His diary and paintings of the Sioux were published together under the title The Feathered Sun.

Schuon was born in Basel, Switzerland, on 18 June 1907. When his father, a German musician, died, his mother took him and his brother to be near her family in Mulhouse, France, where he became a French citizen. Already as a boy he was interested in metaphysical ideas, and particularly the works of René Guénon, a French philosopher and Orientalist with whom he started a long-term correspondence. Schuon also took much pleasure in drawing and painting. After serving in the French army for 18 months, he moved to Paris where he worked as a textile designer and began to study Arabic. In 1832, he travelled to Algeria, where he met Shaykh Ahmad al-Alawi, a Sufi mystic, and was initiated into his order. Further trips to North Africa followed, including one to Egypt where he met Guénon.

Schuon again served in the French army during the Second World War, and was taken prisoner by the Germans. He was granted asylum by the Swiss and took on Swiss nationality. In 1948, he produced one of his most important written works, The Transcendent Unity of Religions, which spells out the metaphysical foundations of his religio perennis (perennial religion) ideas. The following year he married Catherine Feer, the daughter of a Swiss diplomat. Having developed friendly contacts with North American Indians who were visiting Paris in the 1950s, Schuon and his wife went together twice to visit the Plains Indians. During the first visit, the Schuons were officially adopted into the Red Cloud family of the Lakota tribe, a branch of the Sioux nation. Some years later, they were similarly adopted by the Crow medicine man and Sun Dance chief, Thomas Yellowtail.

Schuon continued to write articles and books, as well as to paint. Increasingly, he became known as a spiritual teacher, receiving many visits from religious scholars, and travelling himself widely in Europe, North Africa and the Middle East. In 1980, Schuon and his wife emigrated to the US, settling in Bloomington, Indiana. There he continued to write books - such as From the Divine to the Human, To Have a Center, Survey of Metaphysics and Esoterism - all published by the Bloomington-based World Wisdom. He also continued to write poetry, and to give spiritual direction to a community of disciples who had came from all over the world. He died in 1998. Further information can be found at Wikipedia, Frithjof Schuon, or World Wisdom. More about Schuon and his philosophy can also be found in Harry Oldmeadow’s Frithjof Schuon and the Perennial Philosophy (World Wisdom Books, 2010), available online at Googlebooks

There is no evidence that Schuon was a diarist, however he did keep diary-like entries during his 1959 and 1963 visits to the Plains Indians (Sheridan, Wyoming and Yellowstone Park). These were published alongside a series of his paintings in The Feathered Sun: Plains Indians in Art and Philosophy (World Wisdom Books, 1990). According to Oldmeadow, over the years, and without any intention on Schuon’s part, the feathered sun became a symbol for his spiritual message. None of the entries in the published book are dated but they do read as though they were written on a near daily basis. Here are several extracts concerning Schuon’s 1959 trip.

‘We went to a place shaded by trees where there were many Indians singing, drumming and dancing, men and women all in full costume. We met Red Shirt, whose acquaintance we had made in Brussels; he introduced us to a grandson of Red Cloud - the younger one - who then took us both by the hand and led us into the circle of dancers; there he made a short speech in Lakota to introduce us to the Sioux. Then all sang a greeting song and my wife had to join in the dance with them; after this Red Cloud’s grandson (Charles) took us to his elder brother, to whom we presented my painting of the White Buffalo Cow Woman; the old man studied it carefully and after a while remarked that at that time the Pipe was still made from the bone of a deer, there were not yet any Pipes made of wood and stone.’


‘The whole morning I sat beside Chief Red Cloud, (James) the eldest grandson of the great chief. He recounted to me, with many slow gestures, something of the history of his tribe and explained how all the vast land around used to belong to the Lakota, how everything had been taken from them, and how Big Foot’s band had been “rubbed out” at Wounded Knee. When I was alone with him, I communicated to him the essential of what I have to say to the Indians; he nodded in ready agreement, then for a long time we remained silent. At length I said to him - for he intends soon to go to Washington - that one must insist that the Lakotas be given work on their own land, and not somewhere far away. Again we were silent for a long time. All at once he asked for a piece of paper and wrote a few words in Lakota on it; he then told me that he wished to adopt me as his brother and call me Wambali Ohitika (Brave Eagle) and my wife Onpahi Ske Win (Antelope Teeth Woman); antelope teeth, which are very precious for the Indians, correspond to our pearls.

I had to think of Black Elk Speaks, as Chief Red Cloud sat beside me on a grassy rise, with his gray braids and his wide-brimmed black felt hat adorned with beadwork and feathers - as with gestures of the hands he conjured up the old days, and pointing towards the dance ground before us, said: “At that time, there were soldiers everywhere here.”

When we were taken to see Chief Red Cloud for the first time, he more than once cast a searching, penetrating glance at me. Then suddenly he seemed to conceive a great confidence in me; this I could see quite plainly. Once he put on his wonderful leather shirt, adorned with long fringes and embroidered here and in red, and held a fan of eagle feathers in his hand; in his hair he wore a long feather, like his famous grandfather.

Before night came, we had a long talk with One Feather and his wife. Tradition was dying out everywhere, he said, but there were men who sought to keep it alive. Before the coming of the white man, the Indians had the religion of the Pipe, and this had been brought to them just as the Ten Commandments had been brought to the whites. But with his religion the white man had also introduced the devil. One devil was alcohol, another was money. Christ had been crucified, but the Indians crucified themselves on the cottonwood tree; the cross of Christ had been of oak, whereas the Sun Dance Tree was, precisely, the cottonwood; a cross section through any branch of this tree always showed a golden star.

When One Feather speaks of spiritual things, he becomes a completely different man; he then speaks slowly and softly, becomes solemn, and emphasizes his words with impressive gestures. His tremendous angular and sharply chiseled face, with the triangular eyes, then becomes altogether spiritual.’


‘Second day of the Sun Dance. We are also fasting. In the early morning, before sunrise, we are already in the sacred Lodge. Coming down the road in the half-light of dawn, one can hear from afar the drumming and the powerful singing.

After the greeting of the sun, the fire is allowed to die out; the dancers crouch around the embers, wrapped in their blankets and with heads bowed; they sing four songs, and after each song they blow their eagle-bone whistles four times; four is the sacred number of the Indians, deriving from the Four Directions of space, or the four quarters of the universe. These songs are altogether peaceful, rather like laments, and are sung with a restrained voice.

Today, the second day, the Sun Dance reached its dramatic climax. This second day is the most important one, it is like the heart of the sacred event. Most of the dancers had painted themselves, which gave some of them a ghostly appearance. Their torsos were yellow, and most of them had their faces daubed with white and red spots; a few of the men had encircled their eyes with red, to make it easier to look into the sun; Yellowtail had black zigzag lines on his upper arms. The semicircle where the dancers were was now turned into a closed corridor, roofed over with little fir trees; the white cloth that shut off the corridor from the drummers and the spectators could be raised like a curtain, so that the stakes became visible. It was between these stakes that the painted dancers now stood; then the powerful drumming started up again and the dancers moved forwards and backwards, incessantly blowing their eagle-bone whistles. We sat on the rush-covered ground beside the drummers in a crowd of Indians, both men and women; during the dancing every woman received a spray of willow shoots and waved it up and down, or from side to side, in time with the drumming. At this point sick people came and stood beside the Tree in the center; the medicine man - a Ute - did various things in order to transmit to them the healing blessing of the Tree; he held handfuls of leaves over their heads and stroked them with them, blew upon the sick people, worked on them with a fan of eagle feathers, and did other things of the kind.

The Sun Dance is a cosmic drama, indeed it is a cosmos in itself. It is without beginning and without end: it is the temporal fraction of a timeless and supernatural reality; it is as if it had fallen into time; in it everything becomes timeless, outward happening stands still. The rhythm of the drum is rhythm as such; all is rhythm and center, equilibrium and presence.

If the word “art” is appropriate here, one could say that the Sun Dance is a powerful work of art; at all events, one can understand why the Red Indians never felt the need to create a great epic or the like. The manner in which they saw and experienced Nature excluded precisely every kind of fine art.

In some of the Indians the Sun Dance seems to have become crystallized; it gives them a definitive stamp - it has in a way become congealed in them, or rather, they in it. Or again, it continues to vibrate in them, its rhythm is their life.’

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