Cherokee Morning Song

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Sun Dance


The Sun Dance usually takes place in and around the Summer Solstice (June 21st) and is the most sacred ceremony of the Plains First Nations. The Europeans considered it a pagan and savage rite of passage. It was eventually outlawed for a time at the end of the nineteenth century. The original dance called for fixed gazing at the Sun while dancing, blowing bone whistles, fasting, self-torture by dragging buffalo skulls and/or being bound to the Sacred Tree with the insertion of a bone under the skin of the chest and then breaking the ties. 

"For many tribes of Plains Indians whose buffalo-hunting culture flowered during the 18th and 19th centuries, the sun dance was the major communal religious ceremony. Although details of the event differed in various groups, certain elements were common to most tribal traditions. Generally, the annual ceremony was held in late spring or early summer when people from different bands gathered together again following the dispersal that customarily took place in winter. The Sun Dance is a ritual of prayer and sacrifice performed by virtually all of the High Plains peoples, including the Arapaho, Blackfeet, Blood, Cheyenne, Plains Cree, Crow, Gros Ventre, Hidatsa, Kiowa, Ojibway, Shoshone, Lakota, and Ute. Today many of these tribes still carry out the sun dance, sometimes in altered form. The overall significance of the sun dance involves the spiritual renewal of participants and their relatives as well as the renewal of the living earth and all its components. In its broadest aspects, kinships within both the social and natural realms are reaffirmed." (Elizabeth Atwood Lawrence, Symbolic Roles of Animals in the Plains Indian Sun Dance.)

"A man who has danced [the sun dance] has a special compact with pain...and he’ll be hard to break....As the white-hot sun pours molten through your eyes into your inner being, as the skewers implanted in your chest pull and yank and rip at your screaming flesh, a strange and powerful lucidity gradually expands within your mind. The pain explodes into a bright white light, into revelation. You are given a wordless vision of what it is to be in touch with all being and beings....Every time a pin pricks your fingers from then on, that little pain will be but a tiny reminder of that larger pain and of the still greater reality that exists within each of us, an infinite realm beyond reach of all pain." (My Life is My Sun Dance, by Leonard Peltier, now serving time in Leavenworth Prison for a crime that has been proven he did not commit.)

Sun Dance

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Sketch of a Sioux Sun Dance by George Catlin
The Sun Dance (or Sundance) is a religious ceremony practiced by a number of Native American and First Nations  peoples, primarily those of the Plains Nations. Each tribe has its own distinct practices and ceremonial protocols, but many of the ceremonies have features in common, including specific dances passed down through many generations, singing of traditional songs in the tribe's native languages, prayingfasting and, in some cases, piercing of skin on the chest, arms or back.


While not all Sun Dance ceremonies include piercing, the object of being pierced in Sun Dance is to make a sacrifice to the Great Spirit, and to pray while connected to the Tree of Life, a direct connection to the Creator. A common explanation is that a flesh offering, or piercing, is given as part of a prayer for the benefit of one's family and community.
Though only some Nations' Sun Dances include the piercings, the Canadian Government outlawed some of the practices of the Sun Dance in 1880, and the United States government followed suit in 1904. However, the ceremony is now again fully legal (since Jimmy Carter's presidency in the United States) and is still practiced in the United States and Canada.

The Sun Dance in Canada

Although the Government of Canada, through the Department of Indian Affairs, officially persecuted Sun Dance practitioners and attempted to suppress the Sun Dance, the ceremony was never legally prohibited. The flesh-sacrifice and gift-giving features were legally outlawed in 1895 through a legislated amendment to the Indian Act, but these were non-essential components of the ceremony. Regardless of the legalities, Indian agents, based on directives from their superiors, did routinely interfere with, discourage, and disallow Sun Dances on many Canadian plains reserves starting in 1882 until the 1940’s. Despite the subjugation, Sun Dance practitioners, such as the Plains Cree, Saulteaux, and Blackfeet, continued to hold Sun Dances throughout the persecution period, minus the prohibited features, some in secret, and others with permissions from their agents. At least one Cree or Saulteaux Rain Dance has occurred each year since 1880 somewhere on the Canadian Plains. In 1951 government officials revamped the Indian Act and dropped the legislation that forbade flesh-sacrificing and gift-giving.
In Canada, the Sun Dance is known by the Plains Cree as the Thirst Dance, the Saulteaux (Plains Objibwa), as the Rain Dance and the Blackfoot (Siksika, Kainai, and Piikani) as the Medicine Dance. It was also practised by the Canadian Sioux (Dakota and Nakoda), the Dene, and the Canadian Assiniboines.

A Cheyenne Sun Dance gathering,  1909

Although the ceremony is not depicted, many Native men were shirtless in Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman have scars which are identified as Sun Dance scars by Dr. Quinn's love interest, Byron Sully, who has adopted the Cheyenne way of life.
A romanticized and Hollywood-influenced version of the Sun Dance ceremony appears in the film A Man Called Horse, starring actor Richard Harris in the title role. However, the scene is criticized for its depiction of Sun Dance as a initiation ordeal rather than a religious ceremony, despite being based on historical accounts.

Why did the Indians do the sun dance?

To summon the sun!
The Sun Dance of the Sioux tribe was a religious rite. Young warriors used the pain of having their muscles pierced to experience visions and feel closer to god, much the same reasons that modern suspension fans perform the same maneuvers. The Sioux rite was also a rite of passage - only the strongest warriors were able to last through the entire Sun Dance, and thus won great prestige with their tribe.

The Sun Dance

The sun dance is the predominant tribal ceremony of Great Plains Indians, although it is practiced by numerous tribes today as a prayer for life, world renewal and thanksgiving. On a personal level, someone may dance to pray for a relative or friend, or to determine their place in the universe, while on a larger scale, the sun dance serves the tribe and the earth. Indigenous people believe that unless the sun dance is performed each year, the earth will lose touch with the creative power of the universe, thereby losing its ability to regenerate.

The sun dance was outlawed in the latter part of the nineteenth century, partly because certain tribes inflicted self-torture as part of the ceremony, which settlers found gruesome, and partially as part of a grand attempt to westernize Indians by forbidding them to engage in their ceremonies and speak their language. Sometimes the dance was performed when reservation agents were lax and chose to look the other way. But as a rule, younger generations were not being introduced to the sun dance and other sacred rituals, and a rich cultural heritage was becoming extinct.

Then, in the 1930's, the sun dance was relearned and practiced once again. Michael Fitzgerald, an adopted member of the Yellow Tail family of the Crow tribe, and author of Yellow Tail Crow Medicine Man and Sun Dance Chief related this amazing story to me. A man by the name of John Trojillo was walking in the mountains while on a vision quest when he was struck by lightning. At that moment, the Spirit of the mountain came to Trojillo and carefully explained to him different healing ceremonies and medicines.

Three days later, Trojillo noticed himself walking through a rock, and then saw himself lying on the floor of the cave. He laid down in his body and awoke, realizing that he had been in his Spirit all this time, not his physical body.

Trojillo was given explicit instructions to follow for a year’s time. He was told to pray, to go on vision quests, and not to practice his medicine power. Afterwards, Trojillo was able to call upon the Spirits of the medicine fathers, whenever someone was in need of help, and was the vehicle for many miraculous healings. The first healing was especially dramatic, involving a man who had been shot twice, just above the heart. The doctors of this time were not skillful enough to perform such a delicate operation, but Trujillo prayed for the man, and sprinkled the wound with a sacred powder, called lightning root. The next day, the bullets worked themselves out and were lying beneath the man. The patient fully recovered and lived many more healthy years. While the herbs played a role, Trujillo credited the man’s survival to the Spirits who had responded to his prayers.

Trujillo became prominent in his tribe as a result of this incident and was asked to reinstate the sun dance on the Shoshoni reservation. Then in 1941, he was invited to the Crow reservation to teach the sun dance, which had also been lost due to generations of U.S. government Indian policy. Since this new version differed from the original dance, the Crows called the ceremony the Crow Shoshoni sun dance.

The tribes learned that the sun dance consisted of various elements. There was the ritual of the sacred pipe, the purification ceremony, monthly prayer ceremonies, and a yearly ritual. The sun dance chief offers the prayers from the sacred pipe to the four directions, as well as the earth and sky, on a daily basis. The purification ceremony is performed before the sun dance and again afterwards. Monthly sun dance prayer ceremonies take place 12 times a year, at the time of the full moon. During this ceremony, two medicine bundles are opened, and ritual objects are taken out and placed on an elk’s skin in the middle of the floor. Heated coals are brought into the lodge, incense is placed on the fire, and special songs are sung to help carry the prayers of the smoke to a subtler world.

At the end of the ceremony, people in the audience come forth to be healed. Animal instruments, such as eagle feathers and otter skins, are used. Fitzgerald notes that a great spiritual leader, Yellow Tail, used a hollowed out horn of a spiked horn elk as his primary method of healing. Blowing on a patient’s back with the horn created a terribly shrill sound, but resulted in many miraculous cures and protection against danger. In one instance, a prominent American Indian was sent to Viet Nam and shot at close range by the Viet Cong. Although the bullet tore through his tee shirt, it did not penetrate him.

During the healings, the medicine man prays over the patient, touching him or her with the animal instrument. The bad spirits are taken into the prop, and then cast into the wind. Sometimes herbs are given to the patient to alleviate simple symptoms, but as mentioned earlier, the essential cure is through prayer. The medicine man calls forth spiritual entities to enter the physical world in order to cure the patient.

In addition to the 12 monthly ceremonies, there is a three to four day sun dance that takes place each summer, usually in July. The preparation is too detailed to describe here, but involves building a lodge from a large cottonwood tree, with a forked branch in the middle. Twelve upright poles are placed about 13 paces from the center pole in a circular fashion, with rafter poles connecting the outside of the circle to the inner pole. From an aerial view, this appears as a wagon wheel with a hub in its center. This symbolizes the tribe (on the outside of the circle) trying to find their way straight to the center.

Fitzgerald told me about the preparations for the Crow sun dance, where the dancers greet each sunrise with sacred songs. Then the medicine man prays on behalf of the tribe, the world, and all creation. Throughout the day, 100 or more tribe members may dance to a drum beat, which represents the heart of the universe. The dancers fast for the duration of the ceremony. All their time is spent praying to the Creator and dancing toward and away from the center pole. The ceremony is brutal and causes many dancers to collapse, what Indians call taking a fall. This is followed by a vision, similar to what happens on a vision quest, only here many people are given guidance for the good of the tribe. In a sense, this is a community vision quest to renew the people and the bioregion.

On the second day, spectators from the tribe enter the lodge to be healed, bearing gifts of tobacco and incense. This is exactly the same process that takes place during the monthly prayer sun dance ceremonies, where harmful spiritual and physical manifestations are taken into an animal instrument and cast off to the wind, while prayers are said to heal the person.

Sun dance ceremonies typically end with a purification ceremony so that tribe members can re-enter the world refreshed and regenerated. Fitzgerald notes that this ritual is as concrete as it is symbolic, and related to me a time when he was in a purification lodge with Yellow Tail. While praying, Yellow Tail suddenly threw a scoop of water onto the very hot volcanic rocks. The force of the 212 degree steam knocked Fitzgerald down. He equated the feeling to that of an egg that sizzles when dropped onto a skillet. Yellow Tail continued to pray, and then asked Fitzgerald if he was alright. Fitzgerald leaned up onto his elbow to assure Yellow Tail that he was fine, feeling too embarrassed to admit that he was thrown onto the ground. At that moment, Fitzgerald realized that this was more than a symbolic death; there was an element of pure suffering accompanying this ceremony of death and renewal.

The dual meaning of this ritual is also expressed by Yellow Tail, who says, "When water is thrown onto the rocks, the heat does not merely cleanse us from the outside. It also goes all the way into our hearts. We know that we must suffer the ordeal of the heat in order to purify ourselves. In that way, we re-emerge from the sweat lodge at the end of the ceremony as new men who have been shown the light of the wisdom of our spiritual heritage for the first time. This allows us to participate in all of our daily tasks with the fresh remembrance of our position on earth, and our continuous obligation to walk on this earth in accordance with the sacred ways."

Sandra Frazier - Healed Through the Sun Dance

Sandra Frazier, from the Cheyenne River Reservation attributes her recovery from cancer to the power of traditional ceremonies: "In 1990, the doctors told me that I had female cancer. By the time it was diagnosed, the doctors thought that it had spread, and they scheduled me for surgery.

"I have a good friend, named Dorothy, living at Standing Rock Reservation. She asked me if she could sponsor, a sweat lodge ceremony for me, and I said that she could. So, she had a sweat lodge ceremony and prayed for me.

"Right after that, there was to be a sun dance on the Standing Rock reservation. Dorothy asked the sun dance leader if I could be taken to the tree. He said that I could, since my bleeding was not from a regular menstrual period. So, I went to the sun dance, and they took me up to the tree, where I prayed for my health. I prayed that I would be able to raise my children, and not be taken from them. I prayed that I would be able to be with my grandchildren.

"Afterwards, I went through the surgery, and there were no problems at all, absolutely none. I really believe it was because I had gone to the sweat lodge and that I had gone to the sun dance where the sun dancers prayed with me.

"A year later, I went back to the sun dance and did what we call a wopela, a thanksgiving. What I did was feed the people with traditional food.

"The next year, my youngest daughter was pregnant. She had a normal pregnancy, and delivered a baby girl. But the next day she had terrible, terrible pain in her chest, and was taken to a hospital, where she was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer. The placenta cells traveled and grew in her body cavity, her female parts, and her lungs, but fortunately, they hadn’t grown in her brain. She immediately started on chemotherapy.

"As soon as the cancer was diagnosed, I contacted my family, and they immediately went into ceremony. All the time that she had cancer, there were ceremonies for her. At the same time, there were prayers all around the world for my daughter. I sincerely believe that my daughter was cured of that cancer because of prayer and medicine. I sincerely believe in these ways. I know they work."


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