For many tribes of Plains Indians whose bison-hunting culture flourished during the 18th and 19th centuries, the sun dance was the major communal religious ceremony . . . the rite celebrates renewal - the spiritual rebirth of participants and their relatives as well as the regeneration of the living earth with all its components . . . The ritual, involving sacrifice and supplication to insure harmony between all living beings, continues to be practiced by many contemporary native Americans. -Elizabeth Atwood LawrenceAs the most important ritual of the nomadic Plains Indians, the Sun Dance in itself presents many ideas, beliefs, and values of these cultures. Through its rich symbolism and complicated rituals we are able to catch a glimpse into these peoples' view of the world. A Sun Dance is held when a man feels the need to be a dancer to fulfill certain wishes, primarily "for his deliverance from his troubles, for supernatural aid, and for beneficent blessings upon all of his people." (Welker) It is this dancer who usually bears the expenses of the Sun Dance (Atwood), including a feast for all that comes to the celebration. (Welker) Motivations behind the Sun Dance varies slightly between tribes. The Crow held the ceremony to seek aid for revenge for family members killed in warfare. The entire event surrounding the Sun Dance generally lasts from four to seven days, though longer events exist. On the first day a tree is selected to serve as the sun-pole, the center pole for the Sun Dance Lodge, or New-Life-Lodge, as called by the Cheyenne. (Atwood) The selection of the tree is usually done by the eldest woman of the camp, who leads a group of elaborately dressed maidens to the tree to strip off its branches. On the next morning, right as the sun is seen over the eastern horizon, armed warriors charge the sun-pole. They attack the tree in effort to symbolically kill it with gunshots and arrows. Once it is dead it is cut down and taken to where the Sun Dance Lodge will be erected. (Schwatka) "Before raising the sun-pole, a fresh buffalo head with a broad centre strip of the back of the hide and tail (is) fastened with strong throngs to the top crotch of the sun-pole. Then the pole (is) raised and set firmly in the ground, with the buffalo head facing ! toward the setting-sun." (Welker) The tree represents the center of the world, connect...
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...mbolism and ritual involved with the Sun Dance we can more fully understand the character of the Plains Indian cultures. The Sun Dance shows a continuity between life. It shows that there is no true end to life, but a cycle of symbolic and true deaths and rebirths. All of nature is intertwined and dependent on one another. This gives an equal ground to everything on the earth. "Powerful animals exhibit both physical and spiritual powers, just as the medicine man and shaman do, and as do the grains of tobacco in the sacred pipe." (Smart p. 527) However, just like the rest of nature, humans must give of themselves to help keep the cycles of regeneration going.
SourcesAtwood-Lawrence, Elizabeth. The Symbolic Role of Animals in the Plains Indian Sun Dance. http://www.envirolink.org/arrs/psyeta/sa/sa1.1/lawrence.html (Feb 3, 1997) Eliade, M. (1975). Myths, Dreams, and Mysteries. New York: Harper and RowKehoe, Alice B. (1992). North American Indians A Comprehensive Account. New Jersey: Prentice-HallSchwatka, Frederick. (1889-1890). The Sun-Dance of the Sioux. Century Magazine. Pp. 753-759.Welker, Glenn. The Sun Dance http://www.indians.org/welker/sundance.htm (Jan 7, 1996)
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