The sun’s rays shine down, the air is thick, no clouds in the sky, and so there will not be any breaks from the sweltering heat. The sounds of songs is heard a mile around, along with the drums of the Aboriginal people. Upon closer investigation dancers are seen, tired and exhausted dancing under the scorching sun. They have been dancing for hours, and still they continue, for what reason you may ask, they dance because they wish to purify themselves. This dancing and singing is part of a traditional ceremony called the Sun Dance. Each year usually during the summer solstice or near that time many people gather to participate in this cleansing ceremony. Men and women are both involved, but it is men who truly sacrifice. Many if not most involved in the Sun Dance return each year to offer their bodies and souls to the Creator in repentance for the lives they lived the year prior.
The story of how the Sun Dane came to the people is a well known tale, details between tribes differ but the main aspects remain the same. A well known version of the story comes from a man who has held an integral part of keeping his culture alive. He is a consultant for the Sioux nation, he is also an Ambassador of the UN for the Lakota Sioux Nation, an ordained Sundance Chief, and he is also descended from Crazy Horse, a distinguished spiritual leader of the mid 1800s. Among all these prestigious roles he holds he also serves as Representative to Avrol Looking Horse, the one who currently holds the White Buffalo Calf Pipe (NASA).
As Joseph Chasing Horse tells the story of the first meeting with the White Buffalo Calf Woman, who appeared to two warriors, the first who approached had negative thoughts and so a cloud came over him and striped his bones of all blood and flesh. The second she left with a message about her return, she said when she returned to the people they should be ready for her. The next time she appeared she brought with her a sacred bundle, within this sacred bundle were seven ceremonies, one of which was the Sundance.
The Sun Dance was then passed orally from tribe to tribe throughout North America; “most Plains tribes except the Comanche” participated in the Sun Dance (Spier 1920). Before the Sun Dance begins with four men heading out in search of a tree, the tree should resemble a “Y”. An elder is generally the one who chooses the tree, once found is marked with a red cloth tied around it. The tree is a symbol of the connection to the earth, a brother spirit. It is used for sacrifice; people come and hang tobacco and cloths which represent prayers for the creator. Most fast for the entire span of the Sun Dance whether it is two days or four. Fasting is a way to cleanse the body.
Dancing which is an integral part of the Sun Dance is done by both men and women, the regalia they wear is generally consistent, some tribes do have small difference, the main aspect of their outfit is carrying whistles, usually made from eagle bone (Spier 1920). The whistles signify a sending of messages and/or prayers to the Creator (Harvey, Wa-Na-Nee-Che 1997). Some also carry fans made from feathers or tie feathers to their little finger. This is symbolic lightness and is thought to help the dancer from tiring easily. The feathers and whistles are a symbol of “prayer and power” (Voget 1984)
Sweats both in the morning and the evening are used to cleanse the spirit before entering into the Sun Dance arbour. In the arbour, which is branches forming a kind of tent like structure around the grounded tree, this is also where they pull buffalo skulls. Pulling of Buffalo skulls involves the person attaching real skulls to their bodies by skewers pierced through their backs and dragging them until the skewers release themselves through the flesh (Bird, Erdoes date). The pulling of skulls is only something the men are involved with; women do at times get eagle feathers sewn through their left arm or wrist.
Dancers follow a Sun Dance leader and dance as long as he dances, which can last up to two hours. Dancing does not stop because of weather; dancers must endure anything that may make it difficult to continue such as rain, intense heat, even hail. Songs are also exceptionally important; Sun Dance songs are reserved only for the Sun Dance and cannot be sung at other ceremonies or powwows (Wilson, Taylor 2005). Most singers also drum at the same time; singers begin the Sun Dance and continue singing as the dancers enter. Each round consists of a different song. “Drummer-singers” are just as essential as everything else if not more so because they are the tempo, they motivate the dancers and help them “communicate with the divine” or Creator (Voget 1984). There must be a minimum of four “drummer-singers” although seven is the ideal number (Voget 1984).
The goal of the Sun Dance is to connect the people with the Earth, with their lives and with the Creator. The people who come bring in all their negativity and through their suffering and prayer they leave it all behind, giving themselves unto the Creator asking him to have mercy on them and their lives. It is also how people repay the gifts of the Creator (Newell 2008).
The Sun Dance may not be as old as many spiritual traditions but it is important to many people for their personal lives and also to keep their culture alive. The splendour and intensity each year is something only fully understood by those who experienced it but with the help a select few we are allowed a glimpse into a deep connection between a person, their soul, and the Great Spirit around us.