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The Native American Sun Dance

1886 engraving showing Cree Indians performing a Sun Dance

Written and compiled by George Knowles 

During the 19th-century the Sun Dance was one of the most important ritual ceremonies practiced by the Native Plains Indians of North America.  It was normally performed after the last of the season’s great buffalo hunts, which usually occurred about the same time as the Summer Solstice.  For many of the tribes, the Sun Dance is a ritual calling on the Sun’s powers of regeneration, and for those taking part, is a time of personal renewal, dedication and spiritual rebirth.  This however could only be achieved through a “vision quest” which included:  three or four days of seclusion, fasting, purification and other trials involving pain and suffering. 

Some of the tribes who performed the Sun Dance included:  the Arapaho, Arikara, Asbinboine, Bannock, Blood, Cheyenne, Crow, Gros Ventre, Hidutsa, Mandan, Sioux, Cree, Plains Ojibway, Sarasi, Omaha, Ponca, Ute, Shoshone, Kiowa, and Blackfoot tribes.  Each tribe held its own annual celebration, and while some of their practices may differ, in common with each was that the main Sun Dance ritual was performed by the tribe’s younger men. 

In 1895 however, the Canadian government followed by the United States in 1904, banned the more torturous aspects of the ritual on humanitarian grounds.  As a result, and under the threat of prosecution from the Department of Indian Affairs, for many years the full ritual was only practised in secret.  Today with a better understanding of Native Indian beliefs and traditions, both governments ended their restrictions.  In the United States, legislation in the form of the American Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1978 was signed into law by President Jimmy Carter.  This granted Native American Indians the right to freely practice their own traditional religious ceremonies. 

Today the annual Sun Dance is a great social occasion lasting from four to eight days, during which, the whole community takes part in its preparation.  Once the tribe has gathered, a Sun Dance leader (usually one of the Elders) is selected to organise the event.  A large circular area is cleared on which the ritual itself will later take place, and around this a large temporary lodge is constructed.  This consists of a double row of wooden posts that are covered to create a shaded area from where spectators can watch the proceedings. 

The tribe’s most senior Chief or Medicine Man is then sent out to locate a suitable forked sapling tree to be used as a central pole within the circle.  Younger men from the tribe, particularly those who had distinguished themselves in some way, are then given the honour of cutting the tree down.  After being trimmed, the tree is taken back to the dance site where scared and symbolic objects are secured between its forks.  Under the direction of the Sun Dance leader the tree is then ritually erected in the middle of the dance area.  Once erected, the tree symbolically connects heaven and earth where the tribe’s Guardian Spirits reside, and to where all further prayers and devotions during the event will be directed.

The next day at sunrise the tribe’s Chiefs and Elders, dressed in all their finery, take their places around the dance site and the ceremonies begin.  Before the main ritual, anyone wishing to dance can do so.  Many do so wearing costumes representing important leaders or animal spirits; others wear body paint indicating honours and achievements symbolic of their family lineage and position in the tribe.  Throughout the day dancing, drumming and traditional songs are sung, while in between, old legends are retold by Elders, thus maintaining the tribe’s history as passed down by oral tradition.  This social part of the celebration can go on for as many as four days, during which gifts are exchanged, tribal disputes are discussed and traditional pipes are smoked. 

In the meantime those who have pledged to dance in the main ritual would have been undergoing supervised preparation by a mentor, usually someone who had already been through the ordeal.  Each would have been fasting for several days prior to the event, and before the dance will undergo a spiritual purification ritual in a specially constructed sweat lodge.  For many of the participants the Sun Dance is an opportunity to give thanks to the tribal Gods for blessings received, to fulfil a vow or pledge, or to petition help for specific purposes, be it protecting loved ones or for aid in healing a sick family member or friend.  It is hoped that during the ritual and through enduring its sacrificial pain and torture, they would be rewarded with a vision from the Gods containing answers.

Before the start of the main ritual, the Sun Dance leader prepares the centre Sacred Tree with

When all the participants had been prepared, the tribe’s drummers start a slow rhythmic drumbeat and the Sun Dance begins.  As the participants dance to the drumbeats, they keep their gaze firmly fixed on the Sun while reciting prayers and singing praises; at the same time, they continually pull backwards against their tethers in efforts to tear themselves free.  Those who haven’t managed to free themselves by sundown are allowed help from their mentors, who by adding their own weight pull and jerk them backwards in a final effort to tear them free. 

When the ordeal of the Sun Dance is over, the participant’s wounds are tended to by a Medicine Man before being led away by their mentors to rest and recuperate.  Later, whatever visions they may have experienced while enduring the pain of the Sun Dance are discussed with their mentors who help in their interpretation. 

While not everyone experiences a life changing vision, all those taking part in the dance bring away some kind of reward.  And for the tribe as a whole, the end of the Sun Dance brings a sense that the relationship between their people and the Guardian Spirits has once again been reaffirmed.



Man, Myth and Magic  - Edited by Richard Cavendish


Sioux Sun Dance at Spring Creek, South Dakota 1960

(Copyright © 2005 David Zimmerly)

  First published in The Controversial Cauldron (Litha 2010) - the group newsletter of Email Witches

© George Knowles

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