The Sun Dance is one of the seven sacred rites given to the Lakota people by White Buffalo Calf Woman, a legendary figure said to have lived some "nineteen generations ago." These rites represent the basic structure of Lakota ceremonies. The first two rituals usually involve the sweat ceremony, which prepares people for purification, both spiritually and physically. During the sweat ceremony, one can also prepare for the Vision Quest, which is undertaken for the purpose of acquiring power and seeking a vision that will inform or facilitate benevolent privileges to the seeker. The seeker of a vision will try to find a person to guide them in a spiritual sense through the visionary experience. For societies that practice the Sun Dance, it is often the most important ceremony within their set of regularly practiced rituals. Offerings or vows made by the people during the year are, through prayers, supplications, and rituals, fulfilled during the annual celebration. There might be variations in details from tribe to tribe and even within a tribe, yet the principle structure of the ceremony remains similar in terms of its function and rationale.
In the past, there are references that attest to the fact that the Sun Dancers maintained their spiritual relationships to the sun by praying, scarifying their bodies, and fasting alone on a mountain away from the people. They would seek signs from the Great Mystery, Wakantanka, through dreams or visionary experience. An experienced Sun Dancer would care for them periodically by bringing them water and checking on their well-being. Usually a pit was dug, and the dancer entered the pit unclothed and covered himself with a buffalo hide for protection against the weather. Members of different tribes would come together to participate in the ritual. As people arrived from different Native Nations, they were instructed as to where the ceremony would be held. Guests then set up tipis in an outer circle around the ceremonial area. In Ella Cara Deloria's description of the Dakota Sun Dance, a crier would tell the people to prepare. Then they would dismantle their tipis and move to the ceremonial area, with the people making four ritual pauses along the way for the purpose of honoring the four sacred directions, the Four Winds. Once all the tipis were together in a large circle, the people's consciousness was directed to the ceremonial process.
Today the Sun Dance requires selecting a sacred ceremonial place that is considered clean and in its natural state. The Sun Dance usually is held during the summer months. Prior to the ceremony, religious authorities known as wakasa wakan, or "sacred persons," are responsible for the performance of the ceremony, which lasts for four days. After the camp circle of tipis is in place on the first day of the ceremony, a person is elected to dig a hole in the earth for the sacred Sun Dance pole, which was selected earlier and will be erected as the central pivot of the ceremony. Soil taken from this hole is used to form a square mound of earth on the west side of the Sun Dance pole. A lodge or arbor is then constructed, which surrounds the sacred hole in the center of the camp circle. The person who digs the hole is then instructed by the Sun Dance leader, who walks from the hole in the center toward the east for the purpose of placing wood stakes in the earth at every four paces. After sixteen wood stakes have been placed in position, the last one designates the placement of the sacred tipi. A special sweat lodge is created on the north side of the sacred tipi in the center of the dance grounds. Here the Sun Dancers and their ritual accoutrement are then purified and prayed over.
Sage is used to cover the ground inside the tipi, where an altar is created on the west side and a buffalo skull is adorned with sage, facing to the west. Tobacco offerings are placed on the sixteen stakes by the dancers. The people know that they must not pass through the marked stakes, which mark the path that the sun makes as it moves across the sky. During the ceremony, prayers are made to the spirit of the buffalo for the sustenance of the people and to ensure that there will be no shortage of food in the year after the Sun Dance.
The next day, preparation begins for the selection of the sacred tree, and rituals involved in the cutting of the tree are begun. The ceremonial leader blesses the tree with the pipe and sacred tobacco. A ritually pure girl is prompted to "count coupe," or strike, the tree four times with a ceremonial hatchet. Then, while songs are sung in praise of it, the tree is felled onto a bed of boughs and carried to the center of the Sun Dance grounds, all the while never once being allowed to touch the ground.
The next morning the sacred pole is decorated and people place offerings on it. Then the pole is raised and the end is slid into the hole and firmed up by placing soil around it to hold it in place. During these first three days, the dancers, who have promised to sacrifice by piercing their bodies, are instructed and they pledge to make the sacrifice to the sun. They pledge to dance in one of four ways: gazing at the sun, pierced, suspended, or dragging buffalo skulls.
On the last day, the dancers leave the sacred tipi and prepare for their ritual sacrifice. They are again led by the ceremonial leader as they all leave the tipi circling sun-wise four times. As the first Sun Dance song is heard, they dance in place and blow eagle-bone whistles as the drums begin to play and they turn to the four directions of the winds, symbolically emulating the movement of the sun. During the ceremony, the dancers do not drink water and they fast. Periodically they are allowed to rest. The dancing continues for four segments and they, the singers, pray as they ritually smoke the pipe. As the singers finish the pipe ceremony, the dance begins again. As the time approaches for their ritual sacrifice, the dancers take turns lying on the buffalo robe as the Sun Dance leader prepares the dancers and pierces their skin. Others from the community may also ask to be pierced in symbolic support of the dancers.
As the dancers complete their sacrifice, the Sun Dance comes to its conclusion. The dancers have now gained the sacred power of the ceremony, and people step forward to be blessed by them. Some of them receive ritual objects that were used during the ceremony because they also contain power. The pole is left in place, as is the ceremonial arbor, until they erode or decay and return back to the earth.
Brown, Joseph Epes. The Gift of the SacredPipe: Basedon Black Elk's Account of the Seven Ritesof the OglalaSioux. 1982.
Deloria, Ella Cara. Waterlily. With a biographical sketch of the author by Agnes Picotte and an afterword by Raymond J. DeMallie. 1988.
Ines M. Talamantez
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.
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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.