sun dance

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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.

Sun Dance

Type of Holiday: Religious (various Native American)
Date of Observation: Late June-early July (full moon closest to the summer solstice)
Where Celebrated: North America
Symbols and Customs: Buffalo, Sage, Sun Pole, Willow
Colors: The Sun Dance is associated with the colors red (symbol of the sunset), yellow (forked lightning), white (light), and black (night).
Related Holidays: Summer Solstice


The Sun Dance is associated with many Native American tribes, whose cultures date back thousands of years into prehistoric times. According to many scholars, the people who became the Native Americans migrated from Asia across a land bridge that may have once connected the territories presently occupied by Alaska and Russia. The migrations, believed to have begun between 60,000 and 30,000 B . C . E ., continued until approximately 4,000 B . C . E . This speculation, however, conflicts with traditional stories asserting that the indigenous Americans have always lived in North America or that tribes moved up from the south.

The historical development of religious belief systems among Native Americans is not well known. Most of the information available was gathered by Europeans who arrived on the continent beginning in the sixteenth century C . E . The data they recorded was fragmentary and oftentimes of questionable accuracy because the Europeans did not understand the native cultures they were trying to describe and the Native Americans were reluctant to divulge details about themselves.

Seasonal and celestial cycles were very important to the nomadic Native Americans who at one time inhabited the Great Plains of North America. Most of the tribes, particularly the Sioux, participated in a common ceremonial event known as the Sun Dance, traditionally held at the time of the full moon closest to the SUMMER SOLSTICE . The entire ceremony lasted sixteen days: Eight days were spent in preparation, the performance itself took four days, and there were four days of abstinence. It was a time of renewal and healing, and it was crucial that it take place at midsummer, when the SAGE plant was succulent and when the sun was at its highest point in the sky.

The participants did not eat or drink during the dance itself. They took a sweat bath in the morning on the first day and painted their bodies in the symbolic colors of red, blue, yellow, white, and black (see "Colors"). They dressed in a deerskin apron, wristlets and anklets made of rabbit fur, and a feather in their hair. Members of tribes from many miles around would set up their tipis to form a circular dance enclosure around the SUN POLE , which had been cut and painted in advance. To the accompaniment of a large drum and special ceremonial songs, the dancers circled in procession and paid homage to the sun.

Pain and self-sacrifice were an essential part of life to many Native American tribes, and the Sun Dance provided them with an opportunity to renew themselves and give thanks to the sun by sacrificing their own flesh. Certain participants in the dance, known as "pledgers," would have wooden skewers (or sometimes eagle claws) inserted under the skin of their chests. The skewers were then attached to a strong rope and tied to the Sun Pole. The dancers formed a circle around the pole, and after going toward it four times to place their hands on it and pray, they would pull back as hard as they could until the skewers were torn free. An alternative method was to have two skewers inserted under the skin of the shoulder blades. Heavy buffalo skulls (see BUFFALO ) would be hung from the skewers by thongs and dragged around until their weight eventually tore the skewers loose. Yet another variation was for the dancers to suspend themselves from the pole with ropes attached to the skewers or tie the ropes to a horse. The dancers would continue this way until they fell unconscious from the pain or tore themselves loose, after which they believed they would receive a divine vision. Although such self-inflicted tortures sound barbaric today, at the time the participants had the moral support of the entire tribe. The ceremony was popular at one time among the Kiowa, Bungi, Mandan, Hidatsa, Arapaho, Cheyenne, Blackfoot, and Crow. The Shoshone, Ute, Comanche, and other tribes performed the dance without the self-torture.

Many Indian tribes believe that the sun "died" after the solar eclipse of August 7, 1869. The Sioux performed their last Sun Dance in 1881. The torture elements of the dance were widely misunderstood, which resulted in its being condemned in many areas. It survives, however, among some of the northern and western tribes, particularly the Southern Utes and the Arapaho, who hold their Sun Dance without any sacrifice of flesh.



The buffalo head is a symbol of plenty, because at one time Native Americans killed and ate the animals and used their skins for clothing. The buffalo also symbolizes strength and comfort. It was often featured in the Sun Dance because the buffalo feeds on SAGE and WILLOW , which means that it ultimately depends on the sun.

The buffalo figures prominently in the Sun Dance held by the Arapaho Indians on the Wind River Reservation near Fort Washakie, Wyoming. A huge center pole (see SUN POLE ) with a buffalo head on top and twelve outer poles surrounding it form a circular enclosure within which the dance is performed. The buffalo head faces west, toward the Rocky Mountains, and freshly picked SAGE is placed on its nose. The dancers approach the pole and then step back, always keeping their eyes on the buffalo head.


Sage was often placed on the nose of the buffalo head that surmounted the central SUN POLE in the dance enclosure. Since sage is known for its strong scent and was a common symbol for healing as well as breathing, placing it on the buffalo's nose made it seem as though the buffalo were still alive and able to breathe.

Sun Pole

The tall pole, usually cottonwood, that occupies the center of the circular enclosure in which the Sun Dance is performed is both a phallic symbol and a symbol of the sun. Among the Sioux, it represented Wakan-Tanka, the all-pervading power of the universe. The ceremonial cutting of the Sun Pole was conducted by four young virgins, two male and two female. Among some tribes, a sword or stick was substituted.


Both the Ute and the Cheyenne fastened a willow branch in the fork at the top of the cottonwood SUN POLE . In fact, the Northern Cheyenne refer to the ceremony as the Willow Dance, ignoring the sun worship aspect of the dance altogether. The willow is a symbol of water and of growing things.


Bellenir, Karen. Religious Holidays and Calendars. 3rd ed. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 2004. Dobler, Lavinia G. Customs and Holidays Around the World. New York: Fleet Pub. Corp., 1962. Heinberg, Richard. Celebrate the Solstice: Honoring the Earth's Seasonal Rhythms through Festival and Ceremony. Wheaton, IL: Quest Books, 1993. Henderson, Helene, ed. Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations of the World Dictionary. 3rd ed. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 2005. Leach, Maria, ed. Funk & Wagnalls Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology & Leg- end. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1984.
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