The Sun Dance
Before it was forbidden the annual Sun Dance was held by many
American Native tribes, practically all of the Plains Indian tribes.
It was performed in the summer, usually in late July or early August,
After the buffalo hunts. The Christian missionaries along with the
Federal government sought to prohibit the dance after seeing of the
Practices that were executed in the ceremony, especially the piercing
Of the young men's chests. This to them was brutal torture because
They failed to comprehend the spiritual significance of the practices
And the dance. Some of the practices were banned in Canada in 1880
And the dance in the United States in 1904.
The Sun Dance ceremony has both spiritual and physical significance
For the individual dancer, traditionally male but presently females
Are included in some tribes but do not undergo piercing, and his
Community. Some ceremonies include a Sweat Lodge ceremony usually the
Night before the dance. The dance ceremony itself lasted from eight
To four days, currently fours days is the custom. Sometimes there was
Fasting before the dance, now this fasting from food and liquid
Typically occurs within the four days of the dance. The dance may be
Performed indoors or outdoor depending on tribal tradition. Dancers
Dance to drum beat and singing in a circle while facing a center
Pole, often a tree such as the cottonwood. This is just the physical
Description of the ceremony.
The spiritual aspect of the Sun Dance ceremony is the most important
Part both for the dancer and the community. For the dancer his
Participation represents a quest for spiritual power, a purification,
And a communion, or at least an attempted communion, with the Great
Spirit. For instance, this is the reason the cottonwood tree is
Freshly cut prior to some ceremonies and ceremoniously raised in the
Center of the dancing circle; the tree represents the Great Spirit,
The Provider of All. All of the suffering and pain which the
Individual dancers endure during the ceremony is not dedicated to the
Tree itself, but to the Great Spirit. Each participating dancer seeks
His own "medicine power" sometimes with only a minor direction from
The Sun Dance Chief or leader. This is so because during the dance
The spiritual relationship, which includes the power, purification,
And communion, between the dancer and the Great Spirit is purely
Individualistic. Therefore the individual seeks through his efforts
To be purified so his communion with the Spirit will be more intense.
Frequently visions are seen which help the individual during the
Dance and throughout his life. These visions can be very powerful
When having special meaning for the individual.
Usually the piercing of the individual dancer, those choosing to be
Pierced, takes place on the fourth or last day, this is a most
Grueling experience. As previously mentioned this piercing activity
Was one reason why the Sun Dance was prohibited. The act itself has
Changed from the way it was formerly done. The following describes a
Sioux piercing ritual witnessed in the 1800s:
Each young man presented himself to the medicine man, who took
Between his thumb and forefinger a fold of the loose skin of the
Breast-and then ran a very narrow-bladed but sharp knife through the
Skin-a stronger skewer of bone, about the size of a carpenter's
Pencil was inserted. This was tied to a long skin rope fastened, at
Its other extremity, to the top of the sun-pole in the center of the
Arena. The whole object of the devotee is to break loose from these
Fetters. To liberate himself he must tear the skewers through the
Skin, a horrible task that even with the most resolute may require
Many hours of torture.
For those not understanding the ritual a common answer rendered was
That this was a flesh offering given as a part a prayer.
The Sun Dance is again legal through the passage of the American
Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1978*, which President Jimmy Carter
Signed into law. This legislation granted the American Natives the
Right to practice their traditional religious ceremonies.
A Sweat Lodge ceremony is usually held for the male dancers on the
Evening previous to the Sun Dance. Generally the ceremony brings
Forth a reinstatement of the pledgers who are to be pierced on the
Fourth day. The female dancers hold their Sweat Lodger ceremonies the
Morning of the dance.
Currently the first of several rituals that comprise the total Sun
Dance ceremony is the tree cutting and raising ritual, as previously
Mentioned, on the day before the dance. The tree is ceremoniously
Decorated before being placed in the hole in the center of the Sun
Dance arena which had been dug for it. Preceding the placement of the
Tree, a peace pipe is placed in the hole representing the buffalo
Tallow that was once placed there acknowledging the rich provisions
Given by the buffalo to the people. Now the tree is raised.
The ceremonial procession is led by the Sun Dance chief, followed by
The holy men, and then a man carrying a buffalo skull. This begins
the Sun Dance. There is no rehearsal because the Sun Dance is an
annual thanksgiving to the Great Spirit and to all of the powers
between the breathing ones and Wakan Tanka.
In the opening ritual a woman usually enters the arena and dances
full circle around the tree and then rejoins the rest of the dancers
who then may enter the arena, stopping at each direction, east,
south, west, and north, to pay homage to the powers of the four
directions. Then a holy man or woman addresses the crowd to tell the
way of the Sun Dance and to impart a message of tribal morals and
values. Then there is the summoned for the dancers to present their
pipes. These events are generally finished during the morning.
Afterwards the dancers rest and fast in their tipis. While they do
this the second important part of the ceremony occurs, the
socialization of the tribe: fancy dancing and powwow dancing occurs
in the afternoon and evening, especially on the third night when
powwow dancers dressed in their traditional costumes fill the arena.
Usually the first three days of the dance are similar except each day
the audience increases so by the fourth day it may number hundreds or
thousands of people.
If piercing takes place it occurs on the fourth and final day. The
day normally begins as the previous three have: following the facing
of the four directions and serious contemplation on the six powers of
the universe, the four directions or winds, Mother Earth, and Father
Sky (Sioux tradition), those who are to be pierced are led to a bed
of sage beneath the cottonwood tree. The holy men have drawn signs on
their chests and backs. As the men lay on the sage looking up at the
tree ceremoniously decorated they strain not to quiver or move a
muscle as the blade or sharp skewer pierces the chest sensing the old
warrior linage is still in them. The holy man bends over the man,
both know this will hurt him just as much as it will the participant
because his is the medicine way, to heal, not to hurt someone. The
holy man makes two parallel cuts on the chest and thrusts the awl
into the first and out the second.
In a Sioux ceremony, women dancers are never pierced because
according to the Sioux religion the woman is recognized as already
having endured her pain in childbirth. This pain is considered
greater than any faced during the Sun Dance because bearing children
may cause women to die and certainly facing death is considered the
Before the incisions are made the man holds up the wooden peg which
he is holding to signify to the holy that he is ready. During the
piercing the man thinks of the tree, realizing that it is a tee of
life, without it and others like it man could not live on Earth. He
also concentrates on its decorations symbolizing the powers of the
four directions, the red, yellow, black, and white banners, plus the
green and blue ones for Mother Earth and Father Sky. This
concentration also takes the man's attention off of the excruciation
pain that he is enduring and will endure when the holy man inserts
the peg, which is more painful that the insertion of the awl. To the
protruding end of the peg the holy man attaches a rope fasten by a
thong. This signifies the umbilical cord which attaches the man to
his mother, Mother Earth.
The man is then helped to his feet by an assistant and a wreath of
sage with two spiked feathers is placed on his head. The man adjusts
the wreath fully realizing the badge of honor which has just been
bestowed upon him. Carefully holding onto the rope he takes his
position again in the Sun Dance, and gradually eases the weight of
the rope onto the pain in his chest as he begins dancing again.
The final movements of the Sun Dance include the inward dancing of
the dancers. At the direction of the Sun Dance chief the dancers,
including those who were pierced, moved toward the tree four times,
each time touching the tree with their palms. This is the powerful
moment when the tribe is deep in prayer; the prayers becomes a
spiritual wind sweeping down and over the backs of the Sun Dancers
penetrating in them, trough their arms and hands, into the tree and
upward to the ultimate powers and to Wakan Tanka.
Following the fourth touching of the tree, the dancers lean back
against the ropes. They are now free to seek their Sun Dance vision.
Simultaneously the tribe, the entire audience, is seeking its vision.
This is the essence, the heart, of the Sun Dance, which is the
gathering of the tribe, the band, the gathered Tiyospaye,
acknowledging the spiritual and physical relationship to all that is
the cante, that is, the essence of survival.
After all the dancers have finished their connection with the tree of
life they gather by the Sun Dance chief who leads them from the
circle which ends the dance. Then they are met by the shaking of
their hands by the people who shower the men and women their
appreciation for they know their spiritual tradition had once again
been renewed. A.G.H.
*American Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1978