The Sun Dance (or Sundance) is a religiousceremony practiced by a number of Native American and First Nations peoples, primarily those of the Plains Nations. 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, tobacco offerings, praying, fasting and, in some cases, the piercing of skin on the chest or back for the men and arms for the women.
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, and to pray while connected to the Tree of Life, a direct connection to the Creator. A common explanation is that a flesh offering, or piercing, is given as a part of a prayer 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 followed suit in 1904 with their own laws and enforcement. With better understanding of and respect for indigenous 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. 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, 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, Saulteaux, and Blackfoot, 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 practised by the Canadian Dakota and Nakoda, and the Dene.
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 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 documentary Circle of the Sun.
In Manitoba, Canada, there are many Sun Dances done each year throughout the province, by the Anishinaabe 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 there are many family members and friends that come to watch and support the dancers. People camp out at the site for many days. In preparation for the Sun Dance there needs to be wood gathered, medicines picked, the site planned, offerings made, elders consulted, trees chosen, trees cut, and feast food made. A lot of time and energy by many is 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 sundance clearly show that the ceremonies have stayed quite similar since at least the early 1900s.