Hand color tinted photo of two Cheyenne Sun Dancers Native American Indians 1910
The Sun Dance 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. Many of the ceremonies have features in common, such as specific dances and songs passed down through many generations, the use of a traditional drum, praying with the pipe, offerings, fasting, and in some cases the ceremonial piercing of skin.
Although not all Sun Dance ceremonies include dancers being ritually pierced, the object of the Sun Dance is to offer personal sacrifice as a prayer for the benefit of one’s family and community.
Sun Dance in Contemporary Cultures
At most ceremonies, family members and friends come to pray and support the dancers. People camp out at the site for many days. In preparation for the Sun Dance, wood and medicines are gathered in the traditional manner, the site is set up, offerings made, elders consulted, trees chosen and cut, and feast food prepared. Much time and energy by the entire community is needed for the Sun Dance to work. Communities plan and organize for at least a year to prepare for the ceremony. Usually there is one leader or a small group of leaders in charge of the ceremony, but many elders help out and advise.
In 1993, responding to increasingly common desecration of the Sun Dance and other Lakota sacred ceremonies, “the Lakota Summit V, an international gathering of US and Canadian Lakota, Dakota and Nakota Nations, about 500 representatives from 40 different tribes and bands of the Lakota unanimously passed a ‘Declaration of War Against Exploiters of Lakota Spirituality’.” In 2003, the 19th Generation Keeper of the Sacred White Buffalo Calf Pipe of the Lakota asked non-Native people to stop attending the Sun Dance (Wi-wanyang-wa-c’i-pi in Lakota); he stated that all can pray in support, but that only Native people should approach the altars. This statement was supported by bundle keepers and traditional spiritual leaders from the Cheyenne, Dakota, Lakota, and Nakota Nations, who issued a proclamation that non-Natives would be banned from sacred altars and the Seven Sacred Rites, including and especially the Sun Dance, effective March 9, 2003 onward:
The Wi-wanyang-wa-c’i-pi (Sundance Ceremony): The only participants allowed in the center will be Native People. The non-Native people need to understand and respect our decision. If there have been any unfinished commitments to the Sundance and non-Natives have concern for this decision; they must understand that we have been guided through prayer to reach this resolution. Our purpose for the Sundance is for the survival of the future generations to come, first and foremost. If the non-Natives truly understand this purpose, they will also understand this decision and know that by their departure from this Ho-c’o-ka (our sacred altar) is their sincere contribution to the survival of our future generations.
Sun Dance in Canada
Though only some Nations’ Sun Dances include the piercings, the Canadian Government outlawed that feature of the Sun Dance in 1895. It is unclear about how often this law was enforced or how successfully, and, in at least one instance, police gave their permission for the ceremony to be conducted. Many ceremonies were simply done quietly and in secret. The Federal government of the United States government followed suit in 1904 with their own laws and enforcement. With better understanding of and respect for Indigenous traditions, both governments have ended their prohibitions. The full ceremony has been legal in Canada since 1951, and in the U.S. since passage of the 1978 American Indian Religious Freedom Act. The Sun Dance is practiced annually on many reserves and reservations in the US and Canada.
Although the Government of Canada, through the Indian and Northern Affairs Canada, persecuted Sun Dance practitioners and attempted to suppress the dance, the ceremony itself was never officially prohibited. The flesh-sacrifice and gift-giving features were outlawed in 1895 through a legislated amendment to the Indian Act. 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 from 1882 until the 1940s. Despite this, Sun Dance practitioners, such as the Plains Cree, Saulteaux, and Blackfoot, continued to hold Sun Dances throughout the persecution period, minus the prohibited features. Some practiced the dance 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 prohibited the practices of flesh-sacrificing and gift-giving.
In most Sun Dance cultures, it is forbidden to film ceremony or prayer, so few images exist of authentic ceremonies. In Alberta, the Kainai Nation permitted their Sun Dance to be filmed in the late 1950s, when tribal leaders were concerned that the traditional ceremony might be dying out. The result was the 1960 National Film Board of Canada documentary Circle of the Sun. Manitoba archival photos of the Sun Dance clearly show that the ceremonies have stayed quite similar since at least the early 1900s.