The Native American Sun Dance -
The Sun Dance, was an important form of sacrifice and Thanksgiving to many Native American tribes, as well as a ceremonial event attended by the entire tribe. The Native American tribes which practiced this dance were: The Arapaho, Arikara, Asbinboine, Cheyenne, Crow, Gros, Ventre, Hidutsa, Sioux, Plains Cree, Plains Ojibway, Sarasi, Omaha, Ponca, Ute, Shoshone, Kiowa, and Blackfoot tribes. Due to the fact that there are variations of the Sun Dance from tribe to tribe the following is a generalized description of the Sun Dance.
The Sun Dance was performed in either the late spring or the early summer, when all the bands of the tribe were reunited after the winter. Even though the dance was an annual event it depended on one of the tribesman's vow that he'll build the lodge and hold the dance for any of a number of reasons. An example of a reason would be that of wanting to take revenge upon a tribe that killed a close relative. This was a common motive for the Crow tribe to hold this dance. The dance was held during the time of the month when the moon was full so that the creators light would be shining upon the whole world. At the time of the dance everyone would assemble at an encampment where the Sun Lodge was to be built, and put their tipis around the clearing for the Sun Lodge. They formed a great circle. The people would come to this area from every direction visiting, laughing, and singing. They wore their best clothes, rode the best horses, and brought as much food as was possible for feasting. There was friendship and kindness shown and many favors were asked of the gods at this time. An example of a favor asked would be for the health of a sick child.
The most renowned priest who was also the best Lodge maker ran the entire ceremony. He would instruct the participant in building a preparatory tepee and give direction to the other tribesmen who would gather the items needed for the construction. Men known for their eminence in their tribe were chosen to look for a tree with a fork in the top. This was to be for the first and center pole of the lodge. When a suitable tree was located a special qualified person was called in to cut the tree down. The fallen tree was then treated just like a fallen enemy. Then, depending on the tribe a bundle was placed on the fork. In the Sioux tribe the bundle contained brush, buffalo hide, long straws with tobacco in them and other religious offerings.
A cleared area within the enclosure was the altar and upon it were placed painted buffalo skulls. A coal -which symbolized an eternal light - was burned through each night of the dance, but allowed to go out during the daytime.
The great warriors of the tribe gave a public demonstration of their military exploits before the main celebrants did the Sun dance. After the great warriors demonstrations the warrior dancers entered the lodge after being purified and painted in a special way by their sponsors. In preparation for the dance they had also fasted and gone without water. Finally they entered the lodge ready to dance and blow their eagle bone whistles for hours until the demands of the Sun Dance were met.
Most of the dancers were attached to the center pole by skewers and thongs, which were attached to the breast or back. The dancer then proceed to dance, fast, and thirst for several days until they tore themselves loose from the skewers or were released by the dance leader.
The actual Sun Dance step is simple. The attached performers rise on their toes while blowing on the whistles and pulling back on the thongs. Some people believe that the Dancers stared at the Sun, but since they would have gone blind fairly rapidly, it's now believed that they stared at the bundle or Sun Dance doll suspended from the central pole. On occasion a young women friend of one of the dancers was allowed to put a herb into his mouth, this was to ease his thirst and to give him strength. She would chew the herb before giving it to him. This was also done to help ease his pain.
Near the end of the Sun Dance ceremonies, time was set aside so those who to wished make public gifts or to reward someone for a special kindness could do so. Sometimes new names were given by the chiefs to those who earned them in battle, and new chiefs were chosen to replace those who had died or who could no longer carry on his duties. In the Sioux and Crow tribes, parents would offer the outgrown clothes of their children by hanging them on the center pole with a prayer for health and growth. There was a feeling of happiness, great will and hope for the next year among all the people when the Sun Dance was over.
The entire ceremony lasted about ten days and after it was completed the sacred objects would be wrapped and taken home for the next Sun Dance gathering. The offerings and the lodge were left as they were for the weather to deal to deal with in time. The settlers to America thought that the Sun Dance was a heathen ceremony were the Sun was worshipped in a gruesome way. Since the settlers saw so much self torture aspect and heathenism in the dance they prohibited it in the 1880's and from 1904 to 1935 the Sun Dance was banned. Now the Sun Dance is allowed in a much milder form.
©Copyright 1998 Elizabeth
Beckett, Holly Bernitt, and Vishwa Chandra.