• Notes From The Frontier

The Sun Dance Sacred Ceremony

The Sun Dance is the most sacred ritual of Plains Indians, a ceremony of renewal and cleansing for the tribe and the earth. Primarily male dancers—but on rare occasions women too—perform this ritual of regeneration, healing and self-sacrifice for the good of one’s family and tribe. But, in some tribes, such as the Blackfeet, the ceremony is led by a medicine woman. It has been practiced primarily by tribes in the Upper Plains and Rocky Mountain, especially the Arapaho, Arikara, Assiniboine, Cheyenne, Crow, Gros Ventre, Hidatsa, Sioux, Plains Cree, Plains Ojibway, Omaha, Ponca, Ute, Shoshone, Kiowa, and Blackfoot tribes.





























Usually the ceremony was practiced at the summer solstice, the time of longest daylight and lasts for four to eight days. Typically, the Sun Dance is a grueling ordeal, that includes a spiritual and physical test of pain and sacrifice. This ritual usually—but not always—involves piercing rawhide thongs through the skin and flesh of a dancer’s chest with wooden or bone skewers. The thongs are tied to the skewers then connected to the central pole of the lodge. The Sun Dancers dance around the pole leaning back to allow the thongs to pull their pierced flesh. The dancers do this for hours until the skewered flesh finally rips. The Sun Dance is also a rite of passage to manhood.

The dance is practiced differently by each tribe, but basic similarities are shared by most rituals. In some instances, the Sun Dance was a private experience involving just one or a few individuals. But many tribes adopted larger rituals that involved the whole tribes or sometimes many tribes gathered to celebrate the Sun Dance together. Lodges or open frames built of trees, rawhide or brush are prepared with a central pole at the center.

Though the dance is practiced differently by different tribes, the Eagle serves as a central symbol in the dance, helping bring body and spirit together in harmony, as does the buffalo, for its essential role in Plains Indian food, clothing, and shelter. Sometimes an eagle’s nest or eagle would be mounted at the top of the center pole. Holy men might also place a dried buffalo penis at the top of the pole to give the dancers virility. And buffalo skulls were placed at the perimeter of the lodge to honor their power and courage. (Some dancers choose to have their flesh pierced through their backs and the rawhide ropes from the skewers are attached to the heavy buffalo skulls. Then the dancers dance on rocks and brush as they drag the heavy skulls. This usually takes longer to rip their flesh.)

Dancers also blow a whistle made from the wing bone of an eagle that makes the sound of an eagle cry. The whistle is painted with colored dots and lines to represent the keen and precise perception of the eagle. There is also a beautiful eagle feather attached to the end of the whistle that blows back and forth to represent the breath of life.

Many tribes smoke sage and burn smudge pots of sage, which is believed to conjure spirits and help the dancers. Some tribes also wear wreaths of sage on their heads and wrists. Ancient dances and songs passed down through many generations are offered accompanied by traditional drums, smudge pots of sage are burned over a sacred fire.

The entire tribe prepares for a year before the ceremony and the dancers fast for many days in the open before the dance. The Sun Dance ceremony involves all the tribe. Family members and friends (only Native people are allowed to attend) gather in the surrounding camp to chant, sing and pray in support of the dancers.

If sun dancers have not released themselves from their bloody tethers by sundown, holy men remove the skewers and reverse the piercings to help rip the flesh. In the 1918 definitive book, “The Sundance of the Blackfoot People,” by leading American anthropologist Clark Wissler, he states: “When all thongs are torn out, the lacerated flesh is cut off as an offering to the sun... The author has seen some men extremely scarred from repeated Sun Dance ceremonies...The offering of flesh is called the Blood Sun Dance.” Exhausted dancers would be cared for afterward in a medicine lodge, where holy men and women sung and prayed above them.

The ceremony was extremely arduous and not without its risks. Clark Wissler also wrote: “It is said that all who take this ceremony die in a few years, because it is equivalent to giving one’s self to the sun. Hence, the sun takes them for its own.”

In 1883, the U.S. Secretary of the Interior and the Bureau of Indian Affairs criminalized the Sun Dance and other sacred religious ceremonies in an effort to discourage indigenous practices and enculturate Native Americans into white society. The prohibition was renewed in 1904 and remained illegal until 1934 when Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s new administration reversed the decision. During the fifty years the Sun Dance was prohibited, many native tribes defied the law and continued to perform their most sacred dance, usually as part of Fourth of July celebrations!

The Sun Dance is extremely sacred and only native people are allowed to participate. In most Sun Dance cultures, it is forbidden to film the ceremony or prayer. Few images exist of authentic ceremonies. Some First Nations people believe that if money or cameras enter, the spirits leave. But the Kainai Nation in Alberta allowed filming of their Sun Dance in the late 1950s. The footage was made into an extraordinary 1960 documentary, “Circle of the Sun,” produced by the National Film Board of Canada.


In 1993, US and Canadian Lakota, Dakota and Nakota nations held "the Lakota Summit V" in response to what they believed was a frequent desecration of the Sun Dance and other Lakota sacred ceremonies. The international gathering of about 500 representatives from 40 different tribes unanimously passed a 'Declaration of War Against Exploiters of Lakota Spirituality' prohibiting non-natives from participating in the ceremonies and prohibiting exploitation, abuse, and misrepresentation of their sacred ceremonies.

In 2003, the 19th-Generation Keeper of the Sacred White Buffalo Calf Pipe of the Lakota asked non-Indigenous people to stop attending the sun dance (Wi-wayang-wa-c'i-pi in Lakota). He stated that all can pray in support, but that only Indigenous people should approach the altars. This statement was supported by keepers of sacred bundles and traditional spiritual leaders from the Cheyenne, Dakota, Lakota, and Nakota nations, who issued a proclamation that non-Indigenous people would be banned from sacred altars and the Seven Sacred Rites, including and especially the sun dance, effective March 9, 2003 onward. “Our purpose for the Sundance is for the survival of the future generations to come, first and foremost. If the non-Natives truly understand this purpose, they will also understand this decision and know that by their departure from this Ho-c'o-ka (our sacred altar) is their sincere contribution to the survival of our future generations.”


PHOTOS: (1) Photograph by Edward Sheriff Curtis of Crow native performing the Sun Dance in 1908 Montana. (2) Lakota Sun Dancers. Photographer/date unknown. From the Colorado College Indigenous Religious Ceremonies Site. (3) A photograph of a Lakota brave participating in the Sun Dance from “The Book of Shadow,” by Raven Coleman. (4) A Sun Dancer wearing a sacred sage wreath. Sage is considered a sacred herb by many Plains Indians tribes, believed to conjure the spirits to come and speak to the dancers. From the 1971 book, “Sun Dancer,” by Myron Thompson. (5) Sage is also used in sacred “smudge pots” at Sun Dance ceremonies. (6) Sun dance scars on the Oglala Cane Young Man Afraid of His Horse, at Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. There are different ways to string the rawhide ropes through the chests of Sun Dance participants. This young man’s scars indicate five scars on each side of his chest where rawhide was pierce through the skin and muscle and wrapped around a wooden or bone skewer, which was then attached to the central Sun Dance pole. (7) A 120 mm scale model of the Sun Dance ceremony created by Stephen Jamison of the Sun Dance ceremony illustrates the skewer method also shown in photograph #6. This model depicts a Sioux native blowing on his eagle bone pipe. (8) A Sun Dance scene from “Dances Sacred and Profane,” a 1985 film by the very controversial figure Fakir Musafar (born Roland Loomis), that in part documents the ritual of the Plains Indians’ Sundance, as well as other body piercing rituals. (9) The cover of the 1918 definitive book, “The Sundance of the Blackfoot People,” by leading American anthropologist Clark Wissler, who specialized in the study of the Plains Indians at the turn of the century and authored many important books especially focusing on the Dakota, Gros Ventre, and Blackfoot, including the 1926 “The Relation of Nature to Man in Aboriginal America.” Although he was a product of his time and contributed to the Eugenics movement and early scientific-based racism, many of his studies still provide valuable and well-documented information about native ceremonial ritual. (10) Cree Indian sun dancers, probably Montana, c. 1893. Photograph by Frank La Roche. (11) Piegan Sun Lodge in 1911. Collection of University Press, Cambridge, MA (12) Raising the clan poles in a Cheyenne Sun Dance lodge. 1910 by Richard Throssel Collection, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming. An eagle is mounted at the top of this lodge as a central symbol in the dance, helping bring body and spirit together in harmony, (13) 1907 Cheyenne Sun Dance Lodge. 1907. By Edward Curtis.


© 2019 NOTES FROM THE FRONTIER

Posted September 10, 2019

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  • Notes From the Frontier