Plains Indians For many tribes of Plains Indians whose bison-hunting culture flourished during the 18th and 19th centuries, the sun dance was the major communal religious ceremony . .
. the rite celebrates renewal – the spiritual rebirth of participants and their relatives as well as the regeneration of the living earth with all its components . . . The ritual, involving sacrifice and supplication to insure harmony between all living beings, continues to be practiced by many contemporary native Americans. -Elizabeth Atwood Lawrence As the most important ritual of the nomadic Plains Indians, the Sun Dance in itself presents many ideas, beliefs, and values of these cultures.
Through its rich symbolism and complicated rituals we are able to catch a glimpse into these peoples’ view of the world. A Sun Dance is held when a man feels the need to be a dancer to fulfill certain wishes, primarily “for his deliverance from his troubles, for supernatural aid, and for beneficent blessings upon all of his people.” (Welker) It is this dancer who usually bears the expenses of the Sun Dance (Atwood), including a feast for all that comes to the celebration. (Welker) Motivations behind the Sun Dance varies slightly between tribes. The Crow held the ceremony to seek aid for revenge for family members killed in warfare. The entire event surrounding the Sun Dance generally lasts from four to seven days, though longer events exist.
On the first day a tree is selected to serve as the sun-pole, the center pole for the Sun Dance Lodge, or New-Life-Lodge, as called by the Cheyenne. (Atwood) The selection of the tree is usually done by the eldest woman of the camp, who leads a group of elaborately dressed maidens to the tree to strip off its branches. On the next morning, right as the sun is seen over the eastern horizon, armed warriors charge the sun-pole. They attack the tree in effort to symbolically kill it with gunshots and arrows. Once it is dead it is cut down and taken to where the Sun Dance Lodge will be erected.
(Schwatka) “Before raising the sun-pole, a fresh buffalo head with a broad centre strip of the back of the hide and tail (is) fastened with strong throngs to the top crotch of the sun-pole. Then the pole (is) raised and set firmly in the ground, with the buffalo head facing ! toward the setting-sun.” (Welker) The tree represents the center of the world, connecting the heavens to the earth. (Smart p. 527) The lodge is then built by the main dancer and his clansmen. The fork of the lodge represents the eagle’s nest.
The eagle plays a large part in the Sun Dance for it is one of the Plains Indians’ most sacred animal. The eagle flies high, being the closest creature to the Sun. Therefore it is the link between man and spirit, being the messenger that delivers prayers to the Wakan-Tanka (god). (Atwood) In addition to being a messenger, the eagle also represents many human traits.
We can see what values and traits these cultures saw as being important in a person by those traits imposed upon such a sacred animal. The eagle is seen as courageous, swift, and strong. He has great foresight and knows everything. “In an eagle there is all the wisdom of the world.” (Atwood) During the Sun Dance the eagle is the facilitator of communication between man and spirit.
The Crow may be accompanied by a dancing eagle in his visions, the eagle “instructing him about the medicine acquired through the vision.” (Atwood) The eagle’s feathers can cure illnesses. During the Sun Dance a medicine man may use his eagle feather for healing, first touching the feather to the sun-pole then to the patient, transferring the energy from the pole to the ill. It is the buffalo, however, that makes up the main theme of the Sun Dance. In various stories it was the buffalo that began the ritual. The Shoshone believe that the buffalo taught someone the proper way to carry out the dance and the benefits in doing it.
Buffalo songs, dances, and feast commonly accompany the Sun Dance. You can see from the symbolic influences of the buffalo in the Sun Dance how important the animal was to Plains Indians’ day-to-day life. It was the buffalo that symbolized life for it was the buffalo that gave them quality of life. Plains Indians relied on buffalo for their food, clothing, shelter, and most all utensils from fly swatters to children’s toys. These peoples’ lives were intertwined with the buffalo’s.
And this relationship was praised and blessed with the Sun Dance. The buffalo was incorporated in many ways in the Sun Dance. The Cheyenne held a principle that “all essential sacred items in the sun dance (be) related to the buffalo.” (Atwood) The Lakota would place a dried buffalo penis against the sun-pole to give virility to the dancers. This “reinforces the symbolic meaning of the ceremony as a celebration of the generative power of the sun.” (Atwood) The buffalo skull is used as an alter during the Sun Dance.
Offerings are presented to the skull, the Cheyenne stuffing the eye and nose sockets with grass, representing bountiful vegetation for the buffalo, which in turn meant healthy buffalo for the people. For others the grass represents bringing the buffalo back to life for grass is what gives the animal life. The Dakota believe that the bones of bison they have killed will rise again with new flesh. The soul was seen to reside in the bones of people and animals, “to reduce a living being to a skeleton is equivalent to re- entering the womb of this primordial life .
. . a mystical rebirth.” (Eliade p.159) When a Crow sliced the tip of his finger off on the buffalo skull, he was offering a piece of himself to give life to the buffalo who died to give life to him and his people. During the dance the buffalo also has a great role in the visions. The buffalo may knock down a dancer, or the dancer may challenge the buffalo by charging at it.
Passing out for too long means one was too afraid to face the buffalo. One must show courage and stand up to the buffalo before the buffalo finds him worthy to give him what he desires. At a certain point the Crow will notice he is seeing through the buffalo’s eyes, that he has become one with the buffalo. (Atwood) The Sun Dance symbolizes a resolution with the conflict between being a people that view the buffalo as wise and powerful, even closer to the creator than humans, and having to kill and eat them to survive.
Making the buffalo sacred, symbolically giving new life to it, and treating it with respect and reverence acts a s a sort of reconciliation. Without the buffalo there would be death, and the Plains Indians saw that the buffalo not only provided them with physical well-being, but kept their souls alive, too. They also believed that the buffaloes gave themselves to them for food, so the natural course to them would be to offer a part of themselves in return out of gratitude. “Thus the sacrifice of the dancers through fasting, thirst, and self-inflicted pain reflects the desire to return something of themselves to nature.” (Atwood) Depending on the tribe, the dancers may go through self-inflicted torture.
The gift of one’s own body is seen as the highest form of sacrifice. Dancers would have pieces of bone or wood skewered into their skin tied to the sun-pole. They would then tug and pull until the skin broke free. Frederick Schwatka wrote about a Sioux Sun Dance he witnessed in the late 1800s: Each one of the young men presented himself to a medicine-man, who took between his thumb and forefinger a fold of the loose skin of the breast . .
. and then ran a very narrow-bladed but sharp knife through the skin . . . a stronger skewer of bone, about the size of a carpenter’s pencil was inserted .
. . This was tied to a long skin rope fastened, at its other extremity, to the top of the sun-pole in the center of the arena . . . The whole object of the devotee is to break loose from these fetters.
To liberate himself he must tear the skewers through the skin, a horrible task that even with the most resolute may require many hours of torture.” This self-inflicted torture has also come to symbolize rebirth. The torture represents death, then the person is symbolically resurrected. (Eliade p. 208) “The sun dancer is reborn, mentally and spiritually as well as physically, along with the renewal of the buffalo and the entire universe.” (Atwood) After the dancers all tear free, or after four days, the Sun Dance ends. The dancers are laid down on beds of sage to continue fasting and to recite their visions to the priest. These visions may hold new songs, new dance steps, or even prophecies of the future.
Whatever the outcome, the overall feeling for everyone present is of renewal and balance, the relationships between people and nature once again reaffirmed. (Atwood) When the camp is ready to leave all sacred items is left in a pile by the sun-pole for they are too sacred to keep for personal use. The Sun Dance Lodge is then left standing for nature to do with it as it wills. (Kehoe p. 318) >From looking at all the symbolism and ritual involved with the Sun Dance we can more fully understand the character of the Plains Indian cultures. The Sun Dance shows a continuity between life.
It shows that there is no true end to life, but a cycle of symbolic and true deaths and rebirths. All of nature is intertwined and dependent on one another. This gives an equal ground to everything on the earth. “Powerful animals exhibit both physical and spiritual powers, just as the medicine man and shaman do, and as do the grains of tobacco in the sacred pipe.” (Smart p. 527) However, just like the rest of nature, humans must give of themselves to help keep the cycles of regeneration going.
Sources Atwood-Lawrence, Elizabeth. The Symbolic Role of Animals in the Plains Indian Sun Dance. http://www.envirolink.org/arrs/psyeta/sa/sa1.1/law rence.html (Feb 3, 1997) Eliade, M. (1975). Myths, Dreams, and Mysteries. New York: Harper and Row Kehoe, Alice B.
(1992). North American Indians A Comprehensive Account. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall Schwatka, Frederick. (1889-1890).
The Sun-Dance of the Sioux. Century Magazine. Pp. 753-759.
Welker, Glenn. The Sun Dance http://www.indians.org/welker/sundance.htm (Jan 7, 1996).