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Explaining a Sun Dance to an STD doctor

The doctor had my notes on the desk in front of him, in a buff card file.

‘You understand,’ he said, removing the stethoscope from around his neck and placing it on the desk beside the file, ‘that before I can give you the result of your test I am required to offer you counselling. This is our standard procedure. It doesn’t presuppose a positive result, or indeed a negative one.’

The clinic was in Charlotte Street, in the West End of London. I had come to be there as the result of a conversation with a friend, who, as a student, had spent a year doing voluntary work for a telephone advice line.

‘You did what?’ he’d said, aghast, ‘With who? You want to get yourself checked out, mate. You could have anything, you know, absolutely anything.’

And then, over the next hour or so, he’d told me in great detail about the counselling work he’d done, and how, in particular, I should watch out for any swelling or discomfort in my armpits.‘It always starts there, you know.’

And, indeed, now that he mentioned it, it did feel somewhat uncomfortable there. I’d put it down to it being a warm day and my wearing a slightly tight shirt with rough seams. But the more I thought about it, the more noticeable the feeling became.

‘Now,’ said the doctor, ‘a few questions for you. Are you an intravenous drug user?’

‘Do I look like one?’

‘You’d be surprised.’

‘I’ve never even been drunk.’

‘Fine. I’ll take that as a ”no”, then. And have you ever had a blood transfusion?’


‘So tell me, in your own words, why you think you might have placed yourself at risk of contracting this virus.’

‘I was on an Indian reservation.’

‘Go on . . .’

‘In America, and they had this thing called the Sun Dance, and I got invited to it by the man whose land we were working on, and he said it was something of an honour, because they didn’t normally let white people go along.’

‘So. You went to a dance. With a man. And then . . .?’

‘Well, they hold it in a circle, the Sun Dance, and they have a big sort of maypole thing in the centre, with cords coming down from it. The dance goes on for three days, and when we arrived it was at the beginning of the third day, and the dancers looked not quite there, if you know what I mean. Stripped to the waist, and sort of swaying backwards and forwards, and their eyes not quite focused – or focused beyond what they were looking at. And there was this constant drumming, three men sitting side by side, beating these big drums for all they were worth, and singing these strange guttural songs, and then the dancers all smoked a pipe that had burning sage in it, and they went off into a sort of tent thing, which was a sweat-lodge, like a sauna, with hot coals inside – and it was well over a hundred degrees outside, too, so you could only imagine the heat inside.’

‘Did you go into the sauna with these men?’

‘No. I wasn’t allowed to. It was for the dancers only.’

‘But you would have liked to?’

‘Yes, I suppose I would. To know what it was like in there. But it wasn’t really an option. Anyway, they came back out after a while and they arranged themselves around the edge of the circle, and the drums and the singing got louder and they began swaying forwards and backwards; and then one of the dancers crossed over into the circle and lay down on his back at the feet of an older man, who was the medicine man. The medicine man had a knife in his hand and he bent down and made four cuts in the dancer’s chest, two above each nipple, and then he took two skewers made of eagle-bone from a pouch at his waist and pushed them through the holes he had made, and attached them to two cords coming down from the pole. The dancer got up and began to dance backwards until the cords pulled tight. And then another dancer lay down, and another and another until they were all strung up to the pole. And you could see that some of them had done it quite a few times before, because of the rows of scars on their chests. And then they danced backwards and forwards, backwards and forwards to the music. And meanwhile an old man went into the circle and knelt down, and the medicine man made cuts in his back and attached cords to them to which he tied a buffalo skull; and then a small child climbed onto the skull and the old man stood up and began to drag the skull, with the child still on it, around the outside of the circle.

‘And the music got louder and louder and the dancers danced more intensely, pulling back harder against the cords with each pass, until at length one danced right up almost to the foot of the pole and then ran backwards, arms outspread, pulling with all his weight and snapping the skewers in his chest. Then it was the turn of the next dancer.

‘Meanwhile, I became aware of a queue forming over to one side of the circle, a line of people, young and old, male and female, all baring their shoulders. Up at the head of the queue stood a medicine man and his assistant, and as each person approached, they did something to each arm in turn, and the person came away with blood running down them.

‘I asked my companion what was happening and he said that the people in the queue were friends and relatives of the dancers, and they were each giving what he described as an “offering”.

‘And it struck me then that it would be only polite, only good manners, for me to do the same.

‘When I got to the front of the queue the medicine man’s assistant took hold of my arm with one hand, and with the other he pushed a pin or needle into my skin and lifted it up towards the medicine man, who took a small, sharp knife and ran it smartly up the needle, nicking the top of the skin, and causing the blood to flow. Then they did the same on the other arm. And then, using the same knife and the same pin, they did the same to the next person, and the next and the next.

‘And that,’ I said, ‘was why I came to have a blood test.’

There was a slight pause, during which the doctor appeared to shake himself slightly, as if waking from some private reverie. I was aware that I had been talking for quite some time.

‘Well,’ he said, ‘let’s say between ourselves that this was your reason for coming here. But really, in this day and age, you know, it is perfectly acceptable to have issues with your . . . personal orientation. Absolutely fine. Just so long as you take the appropriate precautions. You’ll find details in the leaflets you’ll get on your way out. Oh, and your test result is negative. Congratulations.’

Warwick Cairns ebook, ‘In Praise of Savagery’, was free in November, with the price increasing monthly after that until the print edition comes out. It’s a good read. Get your copy by following these links: Amazon UKAmazon US.

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