The Sun Dance

The Sun Dance

The Sun Dance is an annual Plains Aboriginal cultural ceremony performed in honour of the sun, during which participants prove bravery by overcoming pain. The ceremony took place at midsummer when bands and tribes congregated at a predetermined location. The Sun Dance was forbidden under the Indian Act of 1885, but this ban was generally ignored and dropped from the Act in 1951. Some communities continue to celebrate the ceremony today.

The ceremony was arranged by a shaman, either as a request for supernatural aid or in response to a vision. Among the Siksika (Blackfoot) and Tsut'ina (Sarcee), women took the initiative. Following four days of preliminary ritual, the Sun Dance lasted another four days focus on erecting the sacred dance pole and sacred lodge. On the final day different versions of the same dance took place. The Sun-Gaze Dances symbolized capture, torture, captivity and escape, and involved self-torture. Dancers enjoyed prestige from that time on. The Sun Dance was an emotional experience and an opportunity to renew kinship ties, arrange marriages and exchange property.

The Sun Dance was also a ceremony of supplication and sacrifice for supernatural aid and spiritual power. The call goes out to all neighboring tribes and thousands come to feast, give presents and form alliances.

Edward Curtis wrote in his book Sacred Legacy:

“It is wild, terrifying and elaborately mystifying. The first time I witnessed it I sat in the hallowed lodge with my friend George Bird Crinnell, who was called the “father of the Blackfoot people”.  The placing of tribes and dignitaries, the herding of the common people, all this is arranged by masters of ceremony and criers carrying tufted, beaded wands.

Participation in the dance was entirely voluntary. One of the most dramatic aspects of the Sun Dance involved the self-torture of your braves, beginning at sunup and lasting till sundown. In the center of the tribal circle a “mystery tree was secured in the ground. The Indian brave was brought out of confinement and the medicine man prepared him for the test of strength.
Incisions are made on each breast, the skin loosened between the parallel slits and bone skewers slipped under the strips of skin. Another set of cuts is made at the shoulder blades and another pair of skewers inserted. He is then led to the pole and placed to face the sun. Long thongs have been attached to the willoy tip of the pole and the lover ends now fastened to the breast skewer. From the ones at his back the heavy buffalo skull is suspended.

The ceremony was accompanied by drumming, chanting and singing. Then the circle was occupied by dancers whose presence brought the singing to a crescendo. The young brave is moving his legs in time to the music, his body arched back in agonizing pain as the pole is bowed and the skull jerks up and down.

Does the youth endure the torture, until the sun has crossed over the heavens and sunk below the burning prairie? That is the test. It is the supreme bending of fates to the will of man or the domination of the gods. Either a new warrior has been made or a lesser man found wanting. It is a moving spectacle, a never to be forgotten experience.”

Sacred Legacy, book by Edward Curtis

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