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Researcher describes Danza del Sol ritual in hills above Ajijic

In a previous article, I wrote about a hike to the Indian Ceremonial Grounds, located 1.7 kilometers north of Ajijic. These grounds are located on a wide, flat, grassy meadow where we found a very large circle of stones encompassing a lone tree decorated with long red, white, blue, green and yellow strips of cloth.

Just outside the circle we found two igloo-shaped frameworks made of thin branches, which can be transformed into sweat lodges (temazcales) when covered with blankets.

My hiking companions described rituals they had seen in this place involving dramatic piercings of the skin reminiscent of scenes in the 1970 movie A Man Called Horse, starring Richard Harris.

Curious to know more about these ceremonies, I mentioned the subject to an anthropologist friend, who, two days later, placed in my hand a thesis written in 2011 (in Spanish) on La Danza del Sol de Ajijic by Aldo Daniel Arias Yerena. Arias Yerena was present at the dance in 2009 and 2010, a privilege he earned by volunteering to do work around the campsite like cutting wood and carrying water. In addition, he interviewed many of the key people involved in bringing the Danza to Mexico and organizing it in Ajijic.

Based on documentation collected by Arias Yerena, it appears that the ceremonies at Ajijic have their origin in the First Symposium of the Four Arrows, held in 1980 in Mesa, Arizona, where many indigenous chiefs from the entire continent of America gathered, affirming that all native people of the Americas are members of the Anáhuac Confederation and that they received many of their cultural, nutritional, and ritual customs from “the center of Mexico” long, long ago. At this meeting, steps were set in motion to bring the Danza del Sol to Mexico, not as a Lakota “export” but as a Mexican ritual returning to its place of origin.

In 1982 Chief Leonard Crow Dog authorized a certain Tlakaelel (Francisco Jiménez) to hold the ceremony in Mexico’s Distrito Federal.

In 1990, differences of opinion among the organizers led Tlakaelel to accept the offer of the Guadalajara-Ajijic group (Grupo Cultural Axixik Temascalpul-li) to hold the event on La Mesa de Los Encinos (N20 18.226 W103 15.967). This was a picturesque spot, but at that time it consisted of two hills side by side, not exactly a suitable site for holding a dance. So, all sorts of volunteers went to the place and “a punta, pala y carretilla”—with picks, shovels, wheelbarrows and much hard work—they lowered the high places and raised the low places and ended up with a wide, flat, Meseta de la Danza.

Finally, in 1991, the first Danza del Sol was held in Ajijic. “Muchísima gente,” or many people, showed up from all over Mexico and the USA, plus over 100 dancers. It seems that the Danza is always held in July or August, when plant growth is at its maximum, and, according to Arias Yerena, the main purpose of the event is to thank the Great Spirit for the gift of life. Curiously, the Tree of Life, which is four to five meters high, is not growing inside the circle, but, like a Christmas Tree, is chopped down in the woods, carried to the site and made to stand up in the center of the ceremonial circle. Decorated with colorful strips of cloth, it stays there all year and is replaced before the next dance begins.

To be admitted as a dancer, candidates must have assisted the group for at least the previous two years and present an offering of copal or tobacco. In the ceremonial area, they must refrain from certain practices such as yoga, politics and Catholic rituals and may not use alcohol, marijuana, peyote or other plants, except for sage and tobacco.

During four days and nights, the dancers fast from all food and drink. Every day, in the full glare of the summer sun, they dance and sing for seven rounds (sessions), each lasting from 45 minutes to an hour. The singing is in the Lakota language, which most of the participants don’t understand. Unlike Muslims, who can eat and drink once the sun goes down, these dancers must aguantar (endure) without sustenance for the entire period and I can’t imagine how they could do it. It is said that many suffer spells of dizziness, headaches, stomachaches, kidney pains and sheer exhaustion.

Perhaps some relief is experienced during daily sessions in the Temazcal, but I doubt it, because another test of a warrior is to endure extreme heat during this ceremony. Arias Yerena’s description of the rituals which take place before, during and after this steam bath tally with those practiced all over Mexico and suggest to me that the Sweat Lodge is the one indigenous ceremony which really unifies all native peoples of the American continent.

The Offering of Skin takes place on the last day. According to Arias Yerena, it is made by passing two wooden stakes through the chest of a male participant, stakes that are attached to two cords tied to the tree. At the end of the ceremony, he dances backward away from the tree and breaks the skin where the stakes are embedded. When this happens, he prays and gives thanks and then makes a circuit of the stone circle, saluting the four cardinal directions. Based on the observations of several lakeside hikers, John Keeling for example, I get the impression that the Skin Offering may have taken different forms before 2009, but that some kind of piercing was always part of it. Keeling also touches on the subject of why the Skin Offering is only for men: “I was told that the ritual designed for the initiation of the young braves emulated the pain that women have to suffer when giving birth.” Arias Yerena also mentions that women “already give blood” on a monthly basis, so this ritual seems aimed at giving the gents a chance to catch up with the ladies as far as Karma goes.

Says Arias Yerena, “the offering of skin is an act through which the dancers sacrifice a part of themselves, that is, a piece of their own flesh. In this way, the dancer becomes the offering itself, an act which results in his unity with nature and the Great Spirit."

In case you are thinking of giving this ceremony a try (which, they say, Richard Harris did), note that Arias Yerena states, “…Among these offerings, the most valued are those which are carried out with the most enthusiasm and pain.”

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