The shaking tent is a ceremony widespread among indigenous peoples of North America, during which a shaman is tightly bound within a darkened lodge, the structure shakes violently, and the shaman — and sometimes the audience as well — converses with spirits who speak and sing, and sometimes appear in various forms, such as darting blue lights. When light is restored, the shaman is revealed to be unbound and sitting comfortably, apparently untied by the spirits.
Among the Lakota, the shaking tent ceremony is called a yuwipi. As elsewhere, the healer is tied up with ropes or leather thongs and a special blanket — wicahpi šina, star quilt — while praying for the healing of a specific person or persons. The term yuwipi is usually derived from the Lakota verb form they wrap him up. The healer is called yuwipi wicaša, yuwipi man, who gives away a piece of his life every time he performs the exhausting ceremony, in order to serve the people.
The yuwipi man mediates between the people and the spirit world. He is a wicaša wakan, a sacred person, who is not only a healer, but whose counsel is sought for family and business matters. He understands the languages of all creatures and can communicate directly with the spirits, who tell him how a patient's sickness may be cured. The Lakota distinguish between white sickness, which can be cured by biomedical intervention, and Indian sickness, which is the result of disharmony between humans and the spirit world. The yuwipi man is the sole healer of Indian sickness.
During the ceremony, a helper holds the sacred pipe, and people around the perimeter of the room also pray for the healing. While the spirits are present, people other than the patient may also make their requests known to the spirits, addressed as tunkašila, grandfather, through the medium of the yuwipi man, who acts as the ieska, interpreter. A detailed description of a yuwipi ceremony is here.
Cultural Survival is the leading US-based organization defending the rights of indigenous peoples around the world. It was founded in response to the opening up of remote Amazonian and South American areas during the 1960s, and the drastic effects this had on indigenous inhabitants. It has since worked with indigenous communities in Asia, Africa, South America, North America, and Australia, guided by a board of directors that includes not only anthropologists, philanthropists, and entrepreneurs but also prominent indigenous leaders.
As part of this project, Cultural Survival joined with the Ringing Rocks Foundation to produce a series of programs in which indigenous spiritual leaders from around the world talk about their practices and traditions. The talks are part of a lecture series sponsored by Ringing Rocks, and the audio portion of the talks is then translated into the four principal Mayan languages and broadcast on the Guatemalan radio stations. The video clips below, by yuwipi man Gary Holy Bull, are from the first of these programs.
The Cultural Survival website — brief registration required — provides Holy Bull's fascinating first-person account, transcribed from the talk he gave at the Ringing Rocks Foundation, of how he became a healer. Here is a brief excerpt:
I want to tell you how I became a healer. I was a little boy, 10 years old, running around Rocks Side. It was mid-July, a hot summer day, no cloud in the sky. I got tired, so I went inside the house to take a nap. To this day, I’m not sure if I fell asleep and these things happened or if I really did see them. We lived in a log house, a one-room log house, and there was one big log right down the middle, all the way across, which held all the rafters. I sat down on the bed, looking out, and I think I laid down. I saw this lightning come in on both ends of this one log. And that lightning came through, met in the middle, and went down. When it hit the floor I heard this big crack, and when I looked at it, there was a man standing there with a sacred pipe. He stuck the pipe right through the floor into the ground.
Cultural Survival has also made available two video excerpts from that talk, one containing Holy Bull's advice to young indigenous men, and the other talking about change.