Raising a Tipi for All Night Prayer Ceremony

Tipi viewed from inside

Raising a Tipi for All Night Prayer Ceremony

I love learning and experiencing new things. This past weekend I had a chance to learn a few things while supporting friends who were preparing for an all-night prayer ceremony, helping them as they put up a tipi on beautiful land in the Hudson Valley of upstate New York, the traditional territory of the people of the everflowing waters, the Muhheakkaniuk (known in English as Mohican).

We began as six or seven of us gathered early in the peaceful sunny morning and all kneeled on the ground, facing east. We offered our prayers of thanks, and our prayers for our brother who had called for and sponsored this meeting. The prayer meeting sponsor was a very dear brother of mine, a friend of more than 35 years who had recently endured, in the depths of the pandemic, a journey with cancer that involved a period of profound immune system sensitivity and thus an extended time of no contact with his wife and children, and all those who loved him best. It was not an easy time, and the outcome was not at all certain. It never is, really, is it? Yet he was blessed to come out of his treatments and the isolation healthy and with a heart full of love for his life, his family and friends, and the many signs of grace he witnessed and enjoyed.

So, in gratitude, he called together his community of fellow prayers, and offered to sponsor this meeting in which he could offer his thanks amongst members of his extended family. I felt blessed to be included in those who would help prepare the space for such a holy gathering of kind souls. 

I have the utmost respect for the Native American Church tradition–I have a number of friends and family who have taken these ways deep into their heart, have learned much and reaped many blessings from receiving these sacred teachings from the original people who have lived on this land for countless generations before my ancestors arrived here long ago and upended everything about those old days and those old ways. I was not going to join the meeting itself, but felt grateful to be present for this tender time of preparation, and be able to offer my own gratitude to the circle of life and community, and feel my own heart full of loving relations with my friend and his friends, many of whom I was meeting for the first time.  

As we knelt in the early morning dappled sunlight coming through the forest, one man–not the one who was to be running the meeting according to the ways he had learned through years of humble study under the tutelage of his indigenous teacher and guide in these matters, but a younger man sitting to his left on the ground–began by rolling some tobacco in a corn husk, lighting it, and offering prayers to the Creator. Thank you for letting us greet this day, for bringing us together today, please take care of our dear brother, and the ones he loves, please listen to his prayers and give him health and a full heart. Then we all silently shared that sacred smoke, offered our own quiet prayers, and laid that devotional foundation down for the work to come.

Initial prayers and gratitudes completed, we carefully calculated where the sun would rise the next morning, positioning the tipi entrance to face that direction to receive the morning light. Using more than a dozen tall tree poles gathered from their land, we started with three poles arranged in a particular way, the tip of one between the other two and tied together carefully near the top. Working together we stood them up to be the structural tripod that every other pole would rest upon. Carefully choosing the poles by length, we stood up each pole moving north (or clockwise) around the circle, so that in the end the shape of the poles formed a shape referred to as a “war bonnet” as they all emerged from the top of the tipi canvas.

After standing all the poles, more rope was carefully tied around the top, securing the structure together so it could safely hold the canvas, which was tied onto one pole and then lifted into position. As we discussed along the way, there are many different traditions and different ways to put up a tipi. Different fireplaces, too, the traditional heart of the ceremonies, are run in different ways according to the practices and traditions handed down through the ancestors. All the particular ways used to erect this structure and run the fireplace were learned over many years directly from our host’s elders and teachers, and reflected the old ways passed down by tradition from their ancestral lineage.

Of course there is something peculiar about people of European ancestry–the very people responsible for the devastation of the indigenous peoples’ ancient ways of life–finding themselves holding the memory, the ways, and the practices of these traditions. This oddity was decidedly not lost among our group on that day. They reflected and discussed it openly: “We asked our elders decades ago, ‘why are you teaching us these old ways?’ And they replied ‘Our young children don’t want anything to do with the old ways, they want to leave the reservation and go into cities and get jobs and assimilate into the mainstream culture. But the day will come when they will return in search of their old ways, and we, their grandparents, will be long dead and gone. That is why we are sharing these ways with you younger white people–because we know that you will take good care of these traditions, and respect them, and pass them back to our people when that day comes.” There was something profoundly humbling to all of us about witnessing and being part of that cross-cultural transmission.

This day, the tipi poles went up easily and well, on the first try. This is a good omen, they said, it bodes well for a good prayer ceremony. The canvas was held elegantly, with equal airspace along the ground for optimal ventilation inside the tipi. As the canvas was tightened down, it made the sound of a drum as the fabric became taut and firm along the tipi poles. It was a beautiful process, and a beautiful tipi.

As I left the site after lunch to return home to my own work, my prayers remained activated and in sync with my brothers and sisters in the tipi, as sundown came and their ceremony began. I kept them in my heart until I took rest after midnight, and prayed with them again as I awoke before dawn, thinking of them in their still-ongoing all-night prayers.

Today I heard back from the man who led and hosted the ceremony: “We had a good prayer.”

Thank you, Creator. Thank you for all your blessings, and for the chance to wake and see the sun another day, and play our own humble part in this beautiful day, in this beautiful way.


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