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Sun Dance

SUN DANCE

SUN DANCE. The term "sun dance" is an anthropological invention referring to a number of ceremonies on the Great Plains that were characterized by considerable internal complexity. The Lakota sun dance, wiwanyag wachipi, may be translated as "dance looking at the sun." By contrast, some have translated the Blackfoot Okan as "sacred sleep." The central ritual of the Mandans, the Okipa, was not a sun dance at all but rather a complex ceremony that took place in an earth lodge on the central dance plaza of the village and focused a great deal of its energy on animal dances and animal renewal. By the middle of the nineteenth century there were approximately twenty-five rituals identified as "sun dances" spread across the Great Plains.

On the Northwestern Plains, the development of these rituals was imbedded in a history of migrations that brought peoples with different cultural backgrounds into


closer proximity. These groups became the horse-mounted nomads that fired the imagination of Europeans and Americans alike. Among these groups the ritual known as the sun dance became richly developed and imagined.

As a consequence of increased cultural interactions, mid-nineteenth-century Plains sun dances featured a number of common elements. Almost all of the rituals included a lodge constructed around a specially selected center pole. There were preparatory sweat lodge rituals that often continued through the four- to eight-day ceremony. A central altar became the focus of many of the ceremonies, and a sacred bundle or bundles was transferred from a previous sponsor to an individual or family sponsor for the year. Male dancers were pierced on both sides of their chest and tethered to the center pole by means of skewers attached to leather thongs; during some point in the ritual they also might drag buffalo skulls tethered to skewers imbedded in the flesh of their backs. Participants actively sought and often experienced powerful visions that were life transforming. Animal-calling rituals and pervasive buffalo symbolism focused on ensuring that the buffalo would continue to give themselves to the people as food. Sexual intercourse sometimes took place between women who had ritually become buffalo and men who had also assumed this role, establishing a tie of kinship between the humans and the buffalo people. Dancing, body painting, and complex color symbolism created multiple symbolic references that interacted with the central symbols of the ritual. Finally, the ritual enactment as a whole was believed to renew the world, the animals, the plants, and the people.

Despite these similarities, when looked at from within, the rituals of the various groups were identified with symbolic boundaries that made them unique peoples. Important creator figures, such as the Sun (in the case of one Blackfoot tradition), special culture heroes, and other important predecessors were believed to have brought the sun dance to the people. From this perspective it was their special ritual pathway to powers that would sustain them and reinforce their identity in relation to others who had similar ceremonies. Because of the considerable cultural interaction on the Plains, cultural interchange became important in the development of these rituals, but traditions of origin tended to constitute them as unique to the experience of each people.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Holler, Clyde. Black Elk's Religion: The Sun Dance and Lakota Catholicism. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1995.

Mails, Thomas E. Sundancing: The Great Sioux Piercing Ritual. Tulsa, Okla: Council Oaks Books, 1998.

Spier, Leslie. "The Sun Dance of the Plains Indians." Anthropological Papers of the American Museum of Natural History. Vol. 16. New York: The Trustees, 1921.

Yellowtail, Thomas. Yellowtail: Crow Medicine Man and Sun Dance Chief. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1991.

Howard L.Harrod

See alsoIndian Dance ; Indian Religious Life ; Tribes: Great Plains .

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sun dance

sun dance, ceremony typical of the Plains Indians of North America. The ceremony was performed in the summer and lasted from two to eight days. Some of the ceremony was secret. Smoking, fasting, and other rites were part of the ceremony. Penance through self-torture was practiced to achieve communion with the forces of the universe. Among some Native Americans, a bison skull was pulled around the lodge by means of a thong and peg inserted through the skin of the participant's chest. Missionaries and the U.S. and Canadian governments prohibited the ceremony.

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"sun dance." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. 27 Apr. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

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"sun dance." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Retrieved April 27, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/sun-dance

sun dance

sun dance Important and spectacular religious rite of the North American Plains Indians. It was usually held annually in early summer, and performed around a totem pole. The sun dance was part of elaborate ceremonies held to reaffirm a tribe's affinity with nature and the universe.

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"sun dance." World Encyclopedia. . Encyclopedia.com. 27 Apr. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

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"sun dance." World Encyclopedia. . Retrieved April 27, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/environment/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/sun-dance