May/June 2002 Featured Stories
Lakota Healing: a Night of Spirit and Power

by Jim Martin

The cold water hisses and pops as it hits the red hot rocks in a tin bucket on the bare wood floor, engulfing me in purifying steam as I enter the ceremony room and take my place against the west wall with the other men. Meanwhile, the women enter and find seats on the opposite side of the room. Before me is a pile of sage, and beyond that a row of pots and dishes containing the ceremony food consisting of a stew, fry bread, wojape (plum pudding) and coffee, all blessed with a sprig of sweet smelling sage. The walls are bare except for a few canupas (pronounced cha-new-pah), the sacred pipes, hanging in deer skin pouches, and some ceremonial drums. The altar, to my left, is a slightly rounded pile of earth from a mole hill, brushed smooth with an eagle feather and inscribed with a sacred symbol. It is surrounded by tobacco filled prayer ties, small ‘flags’ and a hoop all made of choke cherry stems. Sacred rattles lie silently, awaiting their opportunity to perform. A long string of 405 tobacco ties which I have prepared defines the perimeter of the sacred space. I have attended many ceremonies with the Chipps family on the east coast as well as here on the plains of windswept South Dakota, but this night is special, for tonight the healing ceremony is for me.

The Yuwipi is one of the principal ceremonies of the Lakota Sioux people, along with the Inipi (sweat lodge), Hanbalecha (vision quest) and Sundance. It was a gift from spirit to the Chipps family generations ago and is practiced by family members to this day. The current ‘yuwipi man’, Godfrey, received the power to talk with spirits at the age of twelve and is considered one of the foremost healers of his kind in America today. We first met some years earlier in Massachusetts, and I was later invited to visit his family on the Pine Ridge Reservation near the spectacular Badlands.

At first meeting, I found Godfrey to be strikingly different from the image of the classic medicine man I had previously held. Here was man in his thirties, (younger than me), short, barrel-chested, wearing boots and blue jeans with a printed T shirt and long black hair cascading from a baseball cap bearing the inscription ‘Shit Happens.’ Godfrey, an extremely dedicated, focused and powerful healer, became one of my principal teachers and spiritual guides. Over the years, however, I have also come to see him as a warm and sincere human being with problems and shortcomings like all the rest of us. His role, as he explains it, is ‘spirit interpreter’. Godfrey relays information received directly from the animals, elders and other spirit beings on to those persons in need of healing. This is his unique gift and burden, and I approached him in the traditional manner, offering my canupa, requesting healing.

Once all attendees are seated, the canupa is filled with the smoking mix of tobacco, bark and osha root to the accompaniment of the sacred pipe loading song. It is then handed to Grandmother Vicki to hold and pray with.

Eventually Godfrey enters, removing his shirt and shoes. Assistants bind his hands behind his back, then wrap him entirely in a star quilt which is in turn bound with deer skin thongs. He is gently placed face down upon the bed of sage and we are ready to begin. My excitement soars as the flickering light of the lone kerosene lantern fades and we are left in absolute dark, the world of spirit, wonder and mystery.

A rapid burst of drumming accompanied by the voices of singers pierces the silence as ancient healing songs invite the spirits to enter and participate. I am directed to stand, offer prayer and request healing. Suddenly, the rattles lying at the alter are taken up by the unseen spirit beings and fly about the room, shaking and sparking against the ceiling before coming to me for ‘doctoring’ in which they rapidly but gently shake against my body from head to foot. Godfrey’s muffled voice can be heard as he speaks with the spirits, praying and receiving further instructions for herbs, further ceremonies to be performed, and so on. Next, the quilt is thrown against me, offering more healing and indicating that Godfrey has been freed from his bindings. After a few more songs the lamps are lit, revealing Godfrey untied and sitting up, recovering. The canupa is passed around the room and smoked by all. After prayers we feast, and the ceremony is complete. A thanksgiving ceremony follows some days later.

I have seen many incredible and wonderful things around the world and the Yuwipi ceremony, performed right here in America, ranks among my most remarkable experiences. I give thanks for the opportunity to share this healing and other spiritual practices with the Chipps family and all the Lakota people. Mitakue Oyassin - All My Relations.

Jim Martin, Lic. Ac, Dipl. Ac. (NCCAOM) is an acupuncturist with offices in Hillsboro (503-640-3668) and Scappoose (503-543-7266). He presents slide and lecture programs about travels in search of strange and wonderful people and places around the world. Email: For dates of upcoming programs please refer to the Connexion Calendar of Events.