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John Bravehawk can barely walk to the bathroom without support.

“My knees just buckle,” he said, rubbing his left knee and wincing.

It’s a far cry from the time when he was running the Mt. Hood Sundance, dancing—a kind of march in place—from sun up to sun down and fasting for four days straight, praying at night and sleeping on the ground.

John, 74, is Sicangu Lakota. He has long, salt-and-pepper hair, usually braided and hanging down his back, and leathery skin that looks like paper that’s been crinkled over and over, deeply tanned and soft to the touch. His eyes are dark and almond-shaped, dancing with laughter, lined at the edges from smiling all those years. Although he used to stand taller when he was younger, he radiates a strength that his body belies.

John is a Sundance chief, meaning that he advises the other leaders running Sundances across the country on how to perform the various ceremonies that make up the Sundance.

John Bravehawk, 74, Sicangu Lakota, is a Sundance chief. He advises the leaders across the country on performing the various ceremonies that make up the Sundance. “People take care of you,” he says. “A Sundance chief doesn’t have the time to have a job. That is your job—ceremony.” Photo by Jarrette Werk (Underscore News / Report for America)

Four days to give back to the earth

Sundance is a type of Native American ceremony that, at its root, centers on participants giving back to the earth. The ceremony’s premise is that we—as humans—take from the earth all year, and there are just four days that we give back to the earth through the Sundance.

Sundancers, the primary participants, commit to dancing for four years. The ceremony is usually held during the late spring or summer, when the sun is in its annual prime. Dancers go from sun up to sun down and usually fast from food and water during the ceremony. They prepare by cleansing and praying for four days before the ceremony and four days afterwards. Spectators participate by praying and dancing outside the primary circle in an arbor. Although the ceremony originated from Plains tribes, it is now prevalent across the United States, and members from many different tribes participate.

John got his start as a ceremony leader for a Sundance that is still held every year at Mt. Hood. At the time, he was in his 30s.

He wasn’t raised in Oregon, though. John was born in the middle of a field in Scottsbluff, Nebraska, to Louise Eastman Farmer and John Bravehawk Sr.

“My mom was out in a field topping beets,” John said. “She delivered me right there, on the spot. It was a different way of life out there. I never went to a hospital and got a birth certificate or ID or nothing.”

Louise and John Sr. (both Lakota), grew up together and went to a boarding school in their hometown. John had eight brothers and only one sister growing up (two more of Louise’s children—a boy and a girl—died at childbirth). Out of all of his siblings, only John and his sister are still alive.

John’s family moved to South Dakota when he was very young. Then, when his grandmother passed away, John’s father left South Dakota and swore he would never return, taking John with him to Los Angeles when he was just 4 or 5.

Since John had never learned English, he was very lonely. He didn’t have anyone to talk to, so he had to learn. He lived off and on in L.A., shipped back and forth between his mother and father. He was also in and out of foster homes until he was about 17.

This is why John is passionate about helping young people, particularly those facing challenges similar to his own. He believes ceremony can do potent healing work for everyone, but especially young people who are just at the edge of discovering who they are and where they come from. John wants to help them discover where they are going.

John Bravehawk poses with an old rifle he traded a drum for. Behind him, photographs of loved ones adorn the walls of his home in Northeast Portland. Photo by Jarrette Werk (Underscore News / Report for America)

‘You learn by doing’

John is the founder of the Portland-area nonprofit Medicine Bear, which connects Native youth to ceremonies, mentoring and cultural activities. Medicine Bear works with youth in the Multnomah County Juvenile Detention Center, as well as various projects in schools and community centers, such as a youth sweat lodge and youth mentoring

“Medicine Bear is named after my granddaughter,” John said. “Her Indian name is Medicine Bear Woman.”

Due to John’s ailing health, he’s turned the nonprofit over to Executive Director Rudy Serna, an Indigenous artist, muralist, and community mentor. In addition to mentoring and ceremonies, Rudy connects Indigenous artists to teaching and mentoring opportunities.

Medicine Bear’s mission was inspired by John’s experiences as both an inner city and rural Native youth. After a young adulthood of drugs, alcohol and failed relationships, John started really connecting with the ceremonies he attended since he was a kid. Growing up, he attended Lakota sweatlodge and yuwipi ceremonies, but didn’t really take to Sundances until he was in his 20s.

“You learn by doing,” he said.

During that time, two of John’s brothers—Kenny and Jim—started Sundancing. John was drinking in his young adulthood, so he didn’t feel like he was ready. Sundancers are supposed to lead a clean and sober lifestyle. Regardless, when his brother Jim wanted John to join him at a new Sundance at Mt. Hood, John traveled with Jim to Oregon. However, Jim violated his parole and had to go back to prison. So John’s uncle asked him for help with getting the Sundance going.

John let his uncle know he was still drinking.

“Well, sober up,” the uncle said.

“They gave me a pipe and had me pray,” John said. “And I haven’t drank since then. I have 45 years clean and sober.”

In order to get the Mt. Hood Sundance started, leaders had to get instructions and sanctions from ceremony leaders in South Dakota.

After John’s first four-year commitment as a Sundancer, he was asked to help lead the Mt. Hood Sundance for another four years. After that, he started helping his brother Kenny run a Sundance in Rosebud, South Dakota.

John has run 77 Sundances so far. For a while, he was running five every year.

“My chest felt like a pin cushion,” he said.

During the ceremony, dancers give flesh offerings. These most commonly involve removing just the very top layer of skin and “giving it to the tree”—a tree in the center of the ceremony arbor that symbolizes the earth, spirits and ancestors. Some dancers choose to give offerings using other methods, such as piercings, which can be tied to the tree and broken when a dancer runs backward very quickly or torn via an action called “dragging skulls.” All of these methods are forms of sacrifice and are intended to give increased intent and potency to dancers’ prayers.

Maybe it’s all those years of dancing that caused the pain in John’s hip. His doctor told him he needs a hip replacement.

“I don’t want to do that,” John said, adding that it would take several years to recover.

“I don’t have that kind of time,” he said.

John Bravehawk, 74, sits with his son, John Bravehawk III, 28, on the front porch of their home in Northeast Portland. John said he has watched the city grow around him during 40 years living there. (Photo by Jarrette Werk Underscore News / Report for America)

‘People take care of you’

With eight children (one passed away) and 42 grandchildren, John is a family man who enjoys his time with relatives, especially now that he is feeling his age.

On top of the bum hip, John also has breathing issues from nearly 20 years as a welder and a fabricator.

“Breathing that smoke is bad for you,” John said. “I wore two masks, but I still have trouble breathing.”

John uses a wheelchair and a cane to get around.

“It’s about time I slowed down, anyways,” he said.

He lives a humble life, making jewelry to supplement his social security income. His doctor had him on opiates for pain, but four years ago he started weaning off of them. He told his doctor he didn’t want to take anymore pills, so his doctor said to try medical marijuana.

“That’s my medicine now,” he said. “Without it, I couldn’t get out of bed.”

Luckily, you don’t have to dance to be a Sundance chief. You just have to attend and be available to pray, dole out advice and grant permission when called upon.

It doesn’t pay the bills.

“People take care of you,” John said. “A Sundance chief doesn’t have the time to have a job. That is your job—ceremony. But in an urban setting, it’s more difficult to make ends meet.”

John’s ceremony family back in Rosebud made him Sundance chief just four years ago, right before the pandemic.

“Ceremony is the only thing the white man can’t take away,” John said. “That’s between us and God. Can’t get any higher than that.”

Lead photo: John Bravehawk, 74, Sicangu Lakota, is a Sundance chief and the founder of the Portland-area nonprofit Medicine Bear, which connects Native youth to ceremonies, mentoring and cultural activities. Photo by Jarrette Werk (Underscore News / Report for America)

Note: an earlier version of this story incorrectly identified John Bravehawk's son in a photo caption. His son's name is John Bravehawk III.

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Leah Altman, Oglala Lakota, is a Native American adoptee and was raised in the Portland area. She has written for local and national publications, including Portland Monthly, Oregon Humanities, Portland...

Jarrette is a multimedia journalist with experience in digital news, audio reporting and photojournalism. He joined Underscore in June 2022 in partnership with the national Report for America program....