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 greatest challenge.
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 <See: http://www.lookingbackwoman.com/PictureGG007.html>.
McGaa, Ed, “Eagle Man.” “The Sioux Sun Dance.”Mother Earth Spirituality. New York. HarperCollins. 1990
Sun Dance. < http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sun_Dance>.
The Ute Sundance. <http://www.southern-ute.nsn.us/culture/sun.html>.