Lakota Nation Journal
Cal Thunder Hawk
Protecting the scared skies over Sicangu sundances
ROSEBUD—The sky is sacred, according to the spiritual traditions of the Sicangu Lakota. They also believe that the sundance is sacred, too. The sundance is an annual ceremony conducted at many different locations across the Rosebud Sioux Indian Reservation during the summer time. The ceremonies usually take place in remote and isolated locations. The ceremony occurs over a period of eight days, four days of preparation and four days of the actual ceremony itself. The ceremony is conducted in the open during the day. Each ceremony is a time for spiritual guidance, revelation and healing for tribal members and others.
This past summer, high above a sundance on the Rosebud Reservation, a pilot in his aircraft descended out of the sky. Shane Swimmer, an enrolled member of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, was waiting for it to come within the range of his camera lens. Swimmer had his video camera ready and hoped to tape the aircraft as it flew in low over the sundance.
It seemed to Swimmer that the pilot had figured out Swimmer’s routine and was looking for him. Swimmer was way out in the hot, sandy prairie. He was trying to find a place to hide his vehicle, “Dang, during the day there’s just no where to hide way out there, where it’s flat like that,” he said.
One time last summer the only place he could hide his vehicle was in the middle of a cornfield.
“From where I was hiding and waiting, you could see the sundance way over here. And if you looked over in the other direction you’d see either my little old blue car or my Suburban parked way over there, in the middle of a corn field. Just by seeing that you could tell that something wasn’t right. You could see that something else was going on and that I was trying to catch somebody doing something that wasn’t right. But there weren’t very many places for me to hide,” Swimmer said.
Sometimes Swimmer would be hidden beneath the trees among the piney foothills of a valley or he’d be on the other side of a high ridge next to a sundance.
Although he could hide himself and his portable video equipment, he couldn’t conceal his vehicles. Swimmer said that he could tell when the pilot flying overhead had spotted either of his vehicles because Swimmer could see the plane react. Suddenly, the plane would either fly away or begin to circle farther out, away from Swimmer.
At first, Swimmer’s surveillance routine for monitoring the sky above each sundance was from eight to five in the afternoon. Then Swimmer noticed that the pilot started to make his passes around the sundances earlier and earlier in the day, as if to avoid Swimmer. So Swimmer changed his tactics, too. He started to arrive at the sundance locations earlier in the day.
Sometimes Swimmer arrived so early in the morning darkness that he’d have to use his night-vision binoculars to try and identify a plane. “I tried to use the blinking lights to read the numbers on the wings,” he said. Swimmer said, “After a while, that pilot knew someone was watching him. And I could tell that he recognized my cars because every time he’d see my cars parked way out there he’d either go away or fly further out.”
He said, “You see, I’m used to the emergency medical-evacuation helicopters, emergency airplanes and crop dusters, you know, flying around the area. So I’m used to that. I can tell the difference. But, after I was waiting for the planes to arrive over the sundances here on the rez, I could see that the someone really was observing the ceremonies.”
Swimmer said that at the first sundance of the summer, in Soldier Creek, he scanned the skies through his high-power binoculars until he spotted an approaching airplane. He patiently waited for the plane to get within range of the lens on his video camera. Then he put down his binoculars, picked up his video camera, focused the lens on the airplane and started to tape record it in flight.
As the distant sound of singing and drumming from a near by sundance rolled over the plains and echoed through canyons, the magnetic tape silently rolled in the camera as the powerful lens captured images of the intruder violating the sacred skies over a sundance, an electronic witness to a crime.
“I wasn’t in the (sundance) camp. Or where I might accidentally record what they were doing down there. I was a little bit farther away, up on a ridge. I was way up there. So, the first time he flew over, I could tell that he saw my car way out in the middle of no where, and there I was looking at him.”
Another time, north of Mission, he videotaped a crop duster who inadvertently flew near a sundance there. “A week after that first sundance at Soldier Creek, I caught a crop duster. He accidentally flew close but he didn’t fly over the sundance,” Swimmer said. He was able to immediately identify it.
He said, “Yeah, I have a big atlas on airplanes. The plane was an agricultural model, called a ‘tractor’.” In order to identify aircraft, Swimmer uses “A Complete Field Guide to Airplanes,” published by Mifflin.
He said that some days high altitude commercial airplanes flew far overhead. It seemed to Swimmer that they flew too high to be intentionally violating air space. But other airplanes flew in low and slow. Each time an airplane circled within 1,000 feet of a sundance, it broke the law. But Swimmer’s presence, when it was impossible to conceal himself, appeared to be a deterrent to an airplane that approached a sundance west of St. Francis in late July.
“It was the second day of the sundance. I heard the airplane. I saw him for only a fraction of a second because it was really far away. I was using my binoculars. It looked like when he saw me he turned around and left right away,” said Swimmer.
A week later, Swimmer monitored the sky above another sundance, down in valley of Grass Mountain, along the Little White River. “That particular sundance, I was driving my four-wheel drive white Suburban,” he said.
“That area is in the timber reserve, that whole valley. I was parked underneath some pine trees. I was hiding, waiting for a plane to show up,” Swimmer said. “Man, it was hot and humid. No wind down there either. It was around noon of the third day.”
He said, “Then that airplane came down. It was travelling, using the sides of the valley. It went on one side, made a big loop, then went on the other side. And I pulled out. I put my truck into gear. I rolled forward in order to get a better view and he saw me. He took off. But I was able to get, maybe, a few minutes of footage of him flying.”
After that incident, Swimmer described the location of the next sundance as, “Out in the middle of no where.” There, on the plain between St. Francis and Spring Creek, he said, “I saw that same airplane again. It looked like the same one that was down in Grass Mountain and the one out by Soldier Creek at the beginning of summer.”
He said, “You know, during that first one, the sundance at Soldier Creek, there was also another one going on over at Spring Creek at the same time. ... It was really hot and humid out that day, too. I heard the airplane and I tried to catch it with my binoculars. It was like a commercial jet, like a Lear jet. But I don’t think that it had any interest in the sundance because of the speed and height that it was flying. I was watching it. But suddenly another one, the fixed-wing, flew right over me. That’s when I was on the ridge. It flew about 300-400 feet above me. Really close.”
Last summer Swimmer monitored the skies above and around the sundances because Tony Rogers, Director of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe Utility Commission, had found a solution to one of the problems that sundance leaders had complained about at a meeting earlier in the year.
So, when Rogers spotted Swimmer in the Sicangu Oyate Land office one day early last spring he stopped him.
Swimmer said, “I was in the conference room and Tony asked me if I was interested in doing some work this summer, videotaping aircraft that flew over sundances. I said, ‘Sure.’” Rogers was familiar with work that Swimmer had done previously for the Sicangu Oyate Land office in Rosebud. Swimmer had accompanied the Interim Land Use Commission to the Bell Farms hog facility and he had videotaped the visit for them.
Rogers said, “Shane had the experience and the equipment. His vehicles were set up for this kind of work.”
Earlier that spring, a conference of Sicangu sundance leaders had been conducted February 15 at the Rosebud Sioux Tribe Veterans Affairs building in Rosebud. Rogers had requested to be placed on the agenda of that meeting. He believed that he had found a solution to their complaints of aircraft that had flown over or near the sundances while the ceremony was taking place.
Rogers said, “All the sundance leaders were there. They all had problems with aircraft flying over or near their sundances. We showed them that we supported them by submitting this plan. And they supported us. I needed unanimous consensus from the sundance leaders in order to be able to do this effectively and they gave it to me.”
Rogers’ plan included hiring someone to monitor the skies above the sundances. “It’s actually a violation of the AIRFA to fly within a 1,000 feet of a sundance,” Rogers said. He needed evidence of violations of the American Indian Religious Freedom Act by aircraft that flew over or near the ceremonies. The footage of the aircraft violating air space around a sundance would be turned over to the Federal Aviation Administration for enforcement of the AIRFA.
After Swimmer was hired, a letter was provided to each of the sundance leaders introducing Swimmer to them. The letter described his role. It also gave each sundance leader an option to sign and reject the service that RST Utilities Commission offered to them. Not one rejection was received.
Swimmer didn’t encounter any problems with the sundance leaders or their security people. Swimmer said that he had personally met each sundance leader before each ceremony began. He told them who he was, where he’d be and what it was that he was doing. So, the security people around the perimeter of each sundance area knew of Swimmer and why he was out there.
Swimmer would arrive at a distance from the location where a sundance was taking place and he’d get out his equipment. He was ready.
He used a Simmons spotter scope, 100 X 200 power, that requires a tripod. He had Tasco 10 X 50 power binoculars for closer viewing. For the early dawn hours, when visibility was low, he had a Russian-made 2 X 5 X 42 power night vision binoculars. He would hook up his battery powered black and white monitor to his video camera, a RCA 12X Zoom, so that he could make out the image that his camera was capturing. He also turned on his Pro-70 Hyperscan radio scanner.
“Sometimes when I couldn’t see an airplane but I could hear its engine, I would have to listen to my scanner. I wouldn’t be able to actually get them to talking to me. But my scanner has a setting where I can scan the higher bands. Certain frequencies start buzzing and making noise as they approach. And sometimes this was the only way I could tell that they were coming.”
When the summer had ended and the sundances were over, Rogers turned over Swimmer’s video footage to the FAA office in Rapid City.
Rogers’ plan for next summer’s campaign to protect the sky above the sundances on the Rosebud Reservation include a similar program. Swimmer is ready, too.
Asked about his plans for next summer, Swimmer said that he would be available for this kind of work again. What would he tell the pilots of the aircraft who fly their planes over or around the sundances, disturbing the sundances and violating the law?
“Eventually we’re going to catch you,” Swimmer said.