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The Sun Dance

The Sun Dance is the most solemn and important ceremony in the spiritual calendar of the peoples from the Plains such as the Arapaho, the Arikara, the Assiniboine, the Blackfoot, the Cheyenne, the Crow, the Gros Ventre, the Hidutsa, the Sioux, the Plains Cree, the Ojibway, the Sarasi, the Omaha, the Ponca, the Ute, the Shoshone, and the tribe of Kiowa.

According to some experts, the practice of the Sun Dance had started between the 800 and 1200 A.D. Wi Wanyag Whachipi translated means "Dancing watching the Sun" (Wi = Sun, wanyag = watching, wachipi = dance) and it requires participants, men and women, a precise formal commitment for the duration of four years, and they also need to meet four requirements: wachantognaka (generosity), woohitika (courage), wowachintanka (fortitude), and woksape, (moral integrity and wisdom). The Sun Dance horrified many Christian missionaries who first had occasion to watch it, and for this reason, the Canadian government outlawed the practice of this rite in 1880, followed by the United States in 1904. The American Indians were thus forced to practice it in absolute secrecy until 1928.

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Today, this sacred ceremony is legal again and practiced both in the US and Canada. Indeed, the natives have made a formidable means of re-appropriation of their culture and identity. The origin of the ritual has its roots in the Lakota tradition of the world’s origins; a being, Inyan, the first of the powerful spirits, offered his own blood to create Mother Earth, Maka, transferring its powers into it. A part of his blood solidified and became the earth's crust; the rest of its blood, flowing, formed the rivers and the waters that surround the land area. The ceremony took place over four days, during summertime, usually in June or July, coinciding with the full moon.

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In this occasion a kitchen to address the children, old, and sick people needs, and a number of camps were set up so that people could have little “fresh” and a shelter during the night. The ritual, while presenting some variations from one tribe to another, followed a common set of rules. A shaman oversaw the whole ceremony by providing the instructions for the preparation of the place where the rite would have taken place. The preparation involved the most influential men of the tribe who had to look for a 12-15 meters high poplar tree, called Can Wakan, whose top ended in the shape of an Y (to represent an eagle's nest, the bird that approaches the most to the sun). The tree was "captured”, by arrows and spears, through a special ceremony that simulated an act of war. Once the branches and leaves were cut and a bundle containing bushes, bison leather and tobacco was put at the top of the tree, and large colourful cloth bands symbolizing the geographical directions where attached to it, the tree was led to the place of the ceremony. Here a bison, whose head and skin were tied also on top of the pole, was sacrificed. The bison head was turned toward the sunrise. At the same time a dance called onast owank wacipi or "dance the flattening of the earth" began; during this dance the dancing warriors hit a series of templates and artefacts to propitiate a future of victories and great luck in hunting.

Once the extent of the camp circle, depending on the number of participants, was defined, the ritual could begin with the construction of two sacred dome tents (iyohanziglepi, "shadow"), in which there were two concentric rows of seats and at the centre of this circle there was a fork to hold the coals for the sacred fire, and an opening to the East; these tents could reach 25 meters in diameter.

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Starting from the centre of this circle, 16 other poles (one every 4 steps) were positioned; the last pole indicated the location of the sacred tepee where the men, who had committed to the Sun Dance, received instructions and remained for the entire ceremony. These instructions were necessary because there were four ways to interpret the dance. Wiwayang wacipi, "watching the sun": men had to dance looking toward the sun from the sunrise up to sunset; wicapaĥlokapi, "pierced": a piece of wood, which was then tied to a tree by a rope, was put under the skin, in the breast, of the dancers; okaške wacipi, "pending", the dancer was stabbed, always under the skin, in the breasts and shoulder blades in a piece of wood which was then tied to a tree by a rope; ptepa yuslohanpi, "dragging buffalo skulls", a piece of wood, connected by a cord to buffalo skulls, was put under the skin, in the shoulder blade of the dancer. In the last three forms, the dancers had to keep dancing until the flesh tore leaving them free from the ropes. During this rite of sacrifice, dancers bring with them a whistle made of eagle or buffalo bone that they played to avoid crying while pulling the rope in and had the sage sprigs in their hands in order to obtain strength and protection from evil spirits. On the third day sexual restrictions were temporarily suspended and young people could mate, bringing new life to the tribe. The fourth day, during which you could not eat or drink, was devoted strictly to the Sun Dance. The dancers prepare themselves leaving the sacred tent, walking through the way marked by the poles and turning around the hut, following the path of the sun for four times, then came into action, barefoot and wearing only their buckskin kilt around the waist, with crowns sage over their head and around theirs wrists. This was finally the moment that shows an act of self-sacrifice, devotion and gratitude to Mother Earth, a ritual for the soul to reconnect divinity and to purify themselves, and not, as it was erroneously believed, a raw ritual of violence, force, and brutality.

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