Sun Dance
The Sun Dance is a religious
Religion is a collection of cultural systems, belief systems, and worldviews that establishes symbols that relate humanity to spirituality and, sometimes, to moral values. Many religions have narratives, symbols, traditions and sacred histories that are intended to give meaning to life or to...

A ceremony is an event of ritual significance, performed on a special occasion. The word may be of Etruscan origin.-Ceremonial occasions:A ceremony may mark a rite of passage in a human life, marking the significance of, for example:* birth...

 practiced by a number of Native American
Native Americans in the United States
Native Americans in the United States are the indigenous peoples in North America within the boundaries of the present-day continental United States, parts of Alaska, and the island state of Hawaii. They are composed of numerous, distinct tribes, states, and ethnic groups, many of which survive as...

 and First Nations
First Nations
First Nations is a term that collectively refers to various Aboriginal peoples in Canada who are neither Inuit nor Métis. There are currently over 630 recognised First Nations governments or bands spread across Canada, roughly half of which are in the provinces of Ontario and British Columbia. The...

 peoples, primarily those of the Plains Nations
Plains Indians
The Plains Indians are the Indigenous peoples who live on the plains and rolling hills of the Great Plains of North America. Their colorful equestrian culture and resistance to White domination have made the Plains Indians an archetype in literature and art for American Indians everywhere.Plains...

. 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 traditional drums, the sacred pipe
Calumet (pipe)
A Calumet is a ceremonial smoking pipe used by some Native American Nations. Traditionally it has been smoked to seal a covenant or treaty, or to offer prayers in a religious ceremony.- Etymology :...

, tobacco offerings, praying, fasting
Fasting is primarily the act of willingly abstaining from some or all food, drink, or both, for a period of time. An absolute fast is normally defined as abstinence from all food and liquid for a defined period, usually a single day , or several days. Other fasts may be only partially restrictive,...

 and, in some cases, the piercing of skin on the chest or back for the men and arms for the women.

In 1997, responding to increased desecration of the ceremony, Arvol Looking Horse, 19th Generation Keeper of the Sacred White Buffalo Calf
White Buffalo Calf Woman
White Buffalo Calf Woman , a sacred woman of supernatural origin, is treated as a prophet or a messiah and is central to the Lakota religion. Oral traditions relate that she brought the extended Lakota nation of the Teton Sioux their "Seven Sacred Rituals".- Story :The traditional story is that,...

 Pipe asked non-Native people to stop attending the Sun Dance, or Wi-wanyang-wa-c'i-pi in Lakota
Lakota language
Lakota is a Siouan language spoken by the Lakota people of the Sioux tribes. While generally taught and considered by speakers as a separate language, Lakota is mutually understandable with the other two languages , and is considered by most linguists one of the three major varieties of the Sioux...

. On March 8 and 9, 2003, some bundle keepers and traditional spiritual leaders from Arapaho
The Arapaho are a tribe of Native Americans historically living on the eastern plains of Colorado and Wyoming. They were close allies of the Cheyenne tribe and loosely aligned with the Sioux. Arapaho is an Algonquian language closely related to Gros Ventre, whose people are seen as an early...

, Cheyenne
Cheyenne are a Native American people of the Great Plains, who are of the Algonquian language family. The Cheyenne Nation is composed of two united tribes, the Só'taeo'o and the Tsétsêhéstâhese .The Cheyenne are thought to have branched off other tribes of Algonquian stock inhabiting lands...

, Cree
The Cree are one of the largest groups of First Nations / Native Americans in North America, with 200,000 members living in Canada. In Canada, the major proportion of Cree live north and west of Lake Superior, in Ontario, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta and the Northwest Territories, although...

, Dakotah
The Sioux are Native American and First Nations people in North America. The term can refer to any ethnic group within the Great Sioux Nation or any of the nation's many language dialects...

, Lakota, and Nakota
The term Nakota is the endonym used by the native peoples of North America who usually go by the name of Assiniboine , in the United States, and of Stoney, in Canada....

 Nations met and 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.


Although not all Sun Dance ceremonies include dancers being ritually pierced, the object of the Sun Dance practice is to make a sacrifice to the Great Mystery
Great Spirit
The Great Spirit, also called Wakan Tanka among the Sioux, the Creator or the Great Maker in English, and Gitchi Manitou in Algonquian, is a conception of a supreme being prevalent among some Native American and First Nations cultures...

, and to pray while connected to the Tree of Life
Tree of Life
The tree of life in the Book of Genesis is a tree planted by God in midst of the Garden of Eden , whose fruit gives everlasting life, i.e. immortality. Together with the tree of life, God planted the tree of the knowledge of good and evil . According to some scholars, however, these are in fact...

, a direct connection to the Creator
Creator deity
A creator deity is a deity responsible for the creation of the world . In monotheism, the single God is often also the creator deity, while polytheistic traditions may or may not have creator deities...

. A common explanation is that a flesh offering, or piercing, is given as a part of a prayer
Prayer is a form of religious practice that seeks to activate a volitional rapport to a deity through deliberate practice. Prayer may be either individual or communal and take place in public or in private. It may involve the use of words or song. When language is used, prayer may take the form of...

 for the benefit of one's family and community.

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 United States government
Federal government of the United States
The federal government of the United States is the national government of the constitutional republic of fifty states that is the United States of America. The federal government comprises three distinct branches of government: a legislative, an executive and a judiciary. These branches and...

 followed suit in 1904 with their own laws and enforcement. With better understanding of and respect for indigenous
Indigenous peoples of the Americas
The indigenous peoples of the Americas are the pre-Columbian inhabitants of North and South America, their descendants and other ethnic groups who are identified with those peoples. Indigenous peoples are known in Canada as Aboriginal peoples, and in the United States as Native Americans...

 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
American Indian Religious Freedom Act
The American Indian Religious Freedom Act, Public Law No. 95-341, 92 Stat. 469 , codified at , is a United States federal law and a joint resolution of Congress that was passed in 1978. It was enacted to protect and preserve the traditional religious rights and cultural practices of American...

. The sundance is annually practiced on many reserves and in other areas. Often the ceremony is done in the spring or early summer, with preparations going on for the entire year before the ceremony.

The Sun Dance in Canada

Although the Government of Canada, through the Department of Indian Affairs
Indian and Northern Affairs Canada
The Department of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development is the department of the government of Canada with responsibility for policies relating to Aboriginal peoples...

, officially persecuted Sun Dance practitioners and attempted to suppress the 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. 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
The Cree are one of the largest groups of First Nations / Native Americans in North America, with 200,000 members living in Canada. In Canada, the major proportion of Cree live north and west of Lake Superior, in Ontario, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta and the Northwest Territories, although...

, Saulteaux
The Saulteaux are a First Nation in Ontario, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta and British Columbia, Canada.-Ethnic classification:The Saulteaux are a branch of the Ojibwe nations. They are sometimes also called Anihšināpē . Saulteaux is a French term meaning "people of the rapids," referring to...

, and Blackfoot
The Blackfoot Confederacy or Niitsítapi is the collective name of three First Nations in Alberta and one Native American tribe in Montana....

, 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 Canada, the Plains Cree call this ceremony the Thirst Dance; the Saulteaux (Plains Objibwa) call it the Rain Dance; and the Blackfoot (Siksika, Kainai, and Piikani) call it the Medicine Dance. It was also practiced by the Canadian Dakota and Nakoda, and the Dene
The Dene are an aboriginal group of First Nations who live in the northern boreal and Arctic regions of Canada. The Dené speak Northern Athabaskan languages. Dene is the common Athabaskan word for "people" . The term "Dene" has two usages...


In most Sun Dance cultures, it is forbidden to film ceremony and prayer, so few, if any, images exist of authentic ceremonies. In Alberta, the Kainai Nation
Kainai Nation
The Kainai Nation is a First Nation in southern Alberta, Canada with a population of 7,437 members in 2005, and had a population of 9,035 members as of 9 February 2008...

 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
National Film Board of Canada
The National Film Board of Canada is Canada's twelve-time Academy Award-winning public film producer and distributor. An agency of the Government of Canada, the NFB produces and distributes documentary, animation, alternative drama and digital media productions...

 documentary Circle of the Sun
Circle of the Sun
Circle of the Sun is a 1960 short documentary film on Kainai Nation, or Blood Tribe, of Southern Alberta, which captured their Sun Dance ritual on film for the first time. Tribal leaders, who worried the traditional ceremony might be dying out, had permitted filming as a visual record.The film was...

In Manitoba, Canada,through out many Sun Dances are held each year throughout the province, by the Anishinaabe
Anishinaabe or Anishinabe—or more properly Anishinaabeg or Anishinabek, which is the plural form of the word—is the autonym often used by the Odawa, Ojibwe, and Algonquin peoples. They all speak closely related Anishinaabemowin/Anishinaabe languages, of the Algonquian language family.The meaning...

 and other First Nations. Dancers usually commit for four years. The lodge is built on the first day by the dancers and helpers, and they dance in a particular area or spot in the Sun Dance lodge. On the fourth day, near the end, there is a giveaway and then a feast. Some ceremonies can have close to 100 people dancing, and the lodge is built large enough to hold all of the dancers, elders, drummers, and helpers.

In some cases many family members and friends come to watch and support the dancers. People camp out at the site for many days. In preparation for the Sun Dance wood needs to be gathered, medicines picked, the site planned, offerings made, elders consulted, trees chosen, trees cut, and feast food made. Much time and energy by many are needed for the entire Sun Dance to work. There are many helpers. Usually there is one leader or a small group of leaders in charge of the ceremony, but many elders help out and advise. Manitoba archival photos of the Sun Dance clearly show that the ceremonies have stayed quite similar since at least the early 1900s.

See also

  • Cultural appropriation
    Cultural appropriation
    Cultural appropriation is the adoption of some specific elements of one culture by a different cultural group. It describes acculturation or assimilation, but can imply a negative view towards acculturation from a minority culture by a dominant culture. It can include the introduction of forms of...

  • Firekeeper
    Firekeeper or flametender describes a specific ceremonial role, common in the religious practices of a variety of cultures. A firekeeper or flametender tends the sacred fire in the manner specific to the religious traditions of that culture.-Overview:...

  • Medicine Man
    Medicine man
    "Medicine man" or "Medicine woman" are English terms used to describe traditional healers and spiritual leaders among Native American and other indigenous or aboriginal peoples...

  • Plastic shamans
  • Sweat lodge
    Sweat lodge
    The sweat lodge is a ceremonial sauna and is an important event in some North American First Nations or Native American cultures...

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