The Meaning and Purpose of the Sun Dance Ritual

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The changing of the seasons on the planet are important developments that represent the cyclical patterns of the world, the various stages of human life, and the ability of the world and man to stimulate dramatic change. Because seasonal changes entail distinct realities and powerful symbolic values, most cultures throughout human history have established rituals to commemorate or instigate the successful changing of the seasons. The Sun Dance ceremony is one of the most important seasonal rituals among the various Great Plains’ indigenous tribes. The essential features of the Sun Dance ritual serve the crucial function of celebrating the beginning of summer, stimulating the rejuvenation of the world, and solidifying the connection between the participants, the spiritual world and their fellow tribe members.

The Sun Dance ceremony among indigenous American Indian tribes originated during the 18th and 19th centuries, and the powerful effect and symbolic appeal of the ritual soon enabled the Sun Dance ceremony to spread and become performed by many of the tribes that dwelled Great Plains area. The Great Plains territory generally refers to the extensive stretch of land residing between the Rocky Mountains and the Mississippi River, and the land covers the modern US states of Montana, Wyoming, North Dakota, South Dakota, Colorado, Nebraska, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Texas. Several different and distinct Native American tribes dwelled on these territories, and during the 18th and 19th centuries, the vast majority of the tribes began participating in the Sun Dance ritual. The largest and most populace tribes that performed the ritual included the Cheyennes, Arapahos, Blackfoot, Sioux, Kiowas, Comanches, Crows, Pawnees, Ojibwas and Utes (Wishart). Thus, during the 18th and 19th centuries, the Sun Dance ritual accumulated widespread popularity and became a commonly practiced ritual among the majority of Native American tribes that occupied the Great Plains territory of the US.

However, in 1904 the United States established laws to officially prohibit the practice of the Sun Dance ritual. Scholars and historians often contend that the US banned the ritual for many reasons. The government most likely banned the ritual because of the self-inflicted torture customs that are often performed during the ceremony, because the ritual was a revered celebration conducted by many Native American tribes, and because restricting the practice could more effectively impel the members of the tribes to abandon their tribal ancestral cultural traditions and instead assimilate into the customs and values of the US (Sun Dance). Although the prohibition against the Sun Dance ritual successfully diminished the frequency and popularity of the ritual, in the mid 20th century the Crows tribe reinstated the ritual, and soon many other tribes of the Great Plains resumed performing the beneficial ritual as well. Therefore, the Great Plains’ tribes eventually dismissed the arbitrary ban placed on the ceremony by the US, many tribes began performing the ritual again during the middle of the 20th century, and many Native American tribes still conduct the ceremony in our modern era.

The Sun Dance ceremony consists of many elements or features that are all crucial to the proper execution and effective fulfillment of the ritual. Although each tribe might demonstrate slight variations and modifications of the primary features and themes, certain elements are universally practiced by almost all tribes that conduct the Sun Dance ceremony. The ritual is typically a four-day ceremony that is performed once a year either during the spring or during the early portion of the summer, as the ritual is a seasonal tradition that celebrates the end of the dark and cold days of the winter and the beginning of the warmer and brighter days of the summer. The ceremony is also usually performed during a four-day period in which the sky displays a full moon, as the roundness and brightness of the full moon symbolize the qualities of wholeness and enlightenment that the ceremony is intended to fulfill.

The center pole is an essential feature of the Sun Dance ceremony. In the days preceding the scheduled ritual, certain leaders of the tribe or participants of the ceremony are responsible for utilizing a tree trunk to erect a long pole that is fixed on the ground and that raises its top-up to the sky. Then smaller poles are erected at consistent increments to radiate outward from the central pole, which forms a perimeter, establishes a dancing lodge within the area, and leaves adequate space around the central pole. The pole at the center of the lodge represents a profound symbolic value in that the pole reflects an Axis Mundi or an embodiment of the center of the world. Many indigenous cultures demonstrate reverence for the concept of an axis Mundi, for the central pole represents the central pillar of the world and the powerful divine force that is responsible for the creation of the universe, the sustaining of the world and the perpetuation of all of the movements in the world. (Crystal). Additionally, the position of the pole standing erect and piercing its head up through the sky symbolizes the ritualistic endeavor and the tribe’s desire to connect with the spiritual powers of the cosmic world. Thus, the central axis Mundi pole represents the attempt to connect with the God force, as the God force is the central pillar that created the universe, established the laws and patterns of existence, and dictated all of the motions of the world.

Because an eagle is also an essential aspect of the ritual, an actual eagle’s nest or the artificial creation of an imitative nest is often placed in the dancing lodge and beside the central pole. This is important because the eagle is one of the most sacred animals for many Great Plains indigenous tribes. The eagle is symbolic because its ability to fly at enormous heights enables the bird to fly close to the sun, which establishes the eagle as a link between the physical and spiritual worlds. The eagle also possesses very admirable characteristics and beneficial qualities that represent virtuous qualities in men as well, such as sharp sight, enhanced wisdom, superior power, and unbridled courage. However, the ability of advanced flight is one of the most significant symbols of the eagle, for the eagle symbolizes limitless flight and reflects the ability of Shamans and participants of the Sun Dance ritual to also exercise limitless intellectual flights as their minds enter a deep trance, travel to distant realms of the spiritual world, and come back to the physical world with beneficial wisdom that can help them as individuals and the tribe as a whole (Crystal). Thus, eagle feathers and nests were an essential feature of the Sun Dance ritual because the eagle symbolized limitless intellectual flight, virtuous animal or human qualities, and a connection between the physical world and the cosmic spiritual world.

The buffalo was also an important sacred animal that was typically represented throughout the Sun Dance ritual. The tribes worshipped and appreciated the immense powers of the Buffalo for providing them with the resources required to survive, including food, clothing, and tools. As a result, the Sun Dance ritual often included many elements of the Buffalo. Although the specific details varied among different tribes, many tribes placed Buffalo skin on the central pole, used the skin to create an altar, and placed a buffalo phallic at the bottom of the pole. The phallic is symbolic because it represents the fertile powers of the gods to create the world and the generative powers of the sun to create a new life. Many rituals also included a buffalo skull being placed in the dancing lodge while ritual participants placed grass in the skull. Because grass is what the buffalo ate to ascertain its superior power, providing grass demonstrated gratitude towards the buffalo for its sacrifice, and the grass also was believed to literally or symbolically stimulate the rebirth of the buffalo to help sustain the survival of the tribe (Crystal). Therefore, tribes often incorporated buffalo features into the Sun Dance ritual to demonstrate an appreciation of its life-giving powers, to stimulate the rebirth of the buffalo, and to help ensure that the buffalo would continue to sacrifice its powers for the tribe in the future.

When the four-day Sun Dance ritual begins, the Shaman of the tribe is often responsible for directing the ceremony. The Shaman was a spiritual leader who was obligated to perform many essential tasks for the tribe, such as healing injured or sick people with medicinal herbs and prayers, entering extensive trances to communicate with the spiritual world and obtain wisdom for the tribe, and helping to develop and implement political decisions that had consequential impacts on the tribe. However, the Shaman also acted as a priest who was capable of effectively guiding the successful fulfillment of various ceremonies, including the Sun Dance ritual. Thus, the shaman would often delegate leadership orders for the ceremony, determine when the ritual commences, instruct the participants according to the appropriate requirements of the ritual, establish the order of ritualistic events, and direct all of the developments of the ceremony (Hare). As a result, the Shaman of the tribe performed the lead role of conducting the Sun Dance ritual, determining the order and duration of ceremonial events, and instructing the participants to ensure that they fulfill the various traditions of the ritual correctly.

Dancing is the fundamental and universal tradition of the Sun Dance ritual. Although not every member of the tribe is required to dance, usually a member of each family participates as an official dancer to represent the family and to generate spiritual enlightenment for the entire family. A member of the family was selected as a candidate to dance when he or she had received a spiritual vision during a meditative trance or during a dream sequence, as the vision would indicate that the member of the tribe has been elected by the spiritual world to dance and that he possesses the potential to acquire a beneficial spiritual vision during the dancing ritual. When the ceremony begins, the people who have been selected as dancers emerge into the center of the lodge and dance around the central pole. Although other members of the tribe can join the dance and withdraw from the dance according to their preferences, official dancers of the ritual often must remain dancing throughout the entire duration of the ceremony. While the tribal members dance in circles around the axis Mundi central pole, the family members and the rest of the tribe gather in a circle around the perimeter of the lodge to watch and support the dancers. Multiple drummers often strike steady and rhythmic beats on their drums to simulate the pace and actions of the dancing, and the rest of the tribe often sings many different songs that are well-known songs of the tribe and that often address themes such as the world, the gods, heroic human virtue and the buffalo. The combination of the drumbeat, the singing and the dancing is very symbolic, for the steady and consistent beat on the drums reflects the steady and rhythmic motions of the universe, and just as the motions of the universe are perpetual and constant, so too the drums must continue beating throughout the entire ceremony to represent the constant motions of the world (Sun Dance). Furthermore, while the beat represents the god-like force that stimulates the steady and rhythmic motions of the universe, the singing often represents nature’s developments according to the motions of the universe, and the dancing represents man’s ability to also function and moves in accordance to the motions and patterns of the natural world. Thus, the music and constant dancing of the Sun Dance ritual symbolizes and celebrates the consistent motions of the universe and man’s appreciation for being able to thrive within those motions.

Sacrifice is also an important symbolic aspect of the Sun Dance ritual among the Great Plains indigenous tribes. The participants who are selected as official dancers of the ceremony must display wounds while dancing, and the wounds must be dramatic and severe enough to stimulate extreme injury to the flesh and the rapid gushing of blood from the wound. As a result, many tribes impel the dancers to pierce their skin with very sharp weapons to create large and distinct wounds and to stimulate extensive bleeding. Other forms of sacrifice that the members of the tribe might also fulfill include fasting and refraining from eating during the entirety of the four-day ceremony. Although the sacrifice and self-mutilating torture that permeates through many Sun Dance ceremonies seemed excessively gruesome and astonishingly barbaric to the generally white and Christian American culture, the self-torture elements of the rituals serve a very profound symbolic function. A common symmetrical feature that persists in the universe and that solidifies the balanced harmony of our world is the dichotomy of destruction and creation, for every aspect of the world in which we live demonstrates the cooperation of destructive forces and creative forces. For instance, the death of an old star transfers the energy to generate the birth of a new start, the death of the crops during winter stimulates the rebirth of the crops during the spring, and every moment of existence in the universe requires the death of the old for the birth of the new and the death of the past for the birth of the future. Thus, death and destruction of the old are perceived by many indigenous tribes as a necessary obligation to facilitate the birth and creation of new life. As a result, the dancers would often mutilate their flesh and trigger intense wounds on their bodies while dancing to offer a sacrifice of destruction and symbolic death to the spiritual world, for this offering can, in turn, generate divine creation, the birth of new life, and the spiritual rejuvenation of the dancers and of the tribe (Hare). The sacrifice, in turn, maximizes the impact of the dancing ritual by enabling the participants to assert a solid connection with the divine forces, to enter a spiritual trance, and to communicate more effectively with the sun and with the powerful cosmic spirits. Additionally, because the Gods seem to relish and enjoy destruction for the sake of creation, many tribes also performed the flesh-piercing sacrifices to placate and satisfy the violence of the Gods, for the placating sacrifice would encourage the divine powers to rejuvenate the world, provide a prolific summer, and ensure the survival of the tribe.

After the dancing portion of the Sun Dance ritual has concluded, the Shaman often conducts a healing session for various members of the tribe. The specifics can be different for each tribe and for each annual ritual, but the Shaman often utilizes plants, herbs, powders, animal instruments, eagle feathers, and incessant prayers to cure the physical or spiritual ailments of the tribe members. The Shaman often heals the many wounds of the dancers who have mutilated their skin as a sacrifice to the Gods, and then the shaman often heals the illnesses and injuries that are inflicting pain and suffering on the many other members of the tribe (Hare). When this healing session has concluded and the four-day dancing ceremony is complete, the dancers often lay down to recover and to reveal the many spiritual visions that they experienced during their deep trance and during the intense dancing ritual.

The final event of the Sun Dance ritual is often a sacred meal ceremony. After four days of fasting, the completion of the ritual enables the tribe to reward themselves with a huge meal that often consists of buffalo. However, instead of being an ordinary meal, most tribes initiated a sacred meal that is replete with a symbolic appreciation for the buffalo. Rather than arrogantly asserting a sense of superiority over the buffalo, indigenous tribes of the Great Plains often perceived the buffalo with a powerful sense of awe and often revered the buffalo as godlike forces of a divinity. The reverence for the buffalo as gods was stimulated by the awareness that the buffalo was far superior to mere humans in many ways, for the buffalo was much larger, faster, more powerful, better armed with natural weapons, and better clothed with warm fur than humans. As a result, the tribes considered the buffalo as powerful gods that were exceptionally superior to humans. Furthermore, the tribes were very appreciative of the buffalo during meals, for the meals enabled the tribe to eat and ingest the divine powers of the buffalo to sustain life and to enhance the energy of the tribe members (Crystal). Thus, during the sacred meal the tribe members would often eat the buffalo, and then the Shaman would often wear the skin and dance around to represent the buffalo, demonstrate appreciation for the sacrifice of the buffalo, and celebrate that the buffalo has allowed the tribe to utilize its godlike powers to ensure survival. Thus, the sacred meal at the end of the Sun Dance ritual featured a deep reverence for the buffalo and for the divine life-giving powers that were provided to the tribe by the buffalo.

The Sun Dance ritual served a very profound symbolic purpose for the indigenous tribes of the Great Plains. As summer approached, the ritual commemorated the creative powers of the sun, stimulated the cosmic spirits to generate those creative powers, and encouraged the gods to provide a prosperous summer. The ritual also served to facilitate the rebirth and rejuvenation of life, the world, and the spiritual condition of the tribe. During the winter, all of the crops that were created in the previous year are killed as the ground becomes barren and devoid of life during the cold and dark winter season. However, the summer represents the powerful ability of the world to generate the rebirth of the sun, the rejuvenation of the crops, and the stimulation of the warm and bright days of summer. Thus, the Sun Dance ritual helped the tribe demonstrate appreciation for the rejuvenation of the world, generate the successful rebirth of the crops, and facilitate the spiritual rebirth for the various members of the tribe.

The ceremony also solidified various relationships among the tribe. The ritual fulfilled a unifying bond in which the dancers represented their families and sought spiritual enlightenment for them as individuals, for their families, and for the entire tribe. The indigenous tribes did not perceive distinct divisions separating a man from the spiritual world and from the other members of the tribe, but instead believed that each member of the tribe was connected to each other and to the cosmic spiritual world (Crystal). Thus, the Sun Dance ceremony provided the tribe members with an opportunity to establish and solidify the unifying connection between the tribe members and the spiritual world, their families and the entire tribe as a whole.

The popularity of the Sun Dance ritual has enabled the ceremony to be addressed and perpetuated through the literature of many Great Plains indigenous tribes. The tribes often developed literature by forming stories, telling those stories orally, and perpetuating those stories to succeeding generations to maximize the preservation and continuation of the stories. Because the Sun Dance ritual serves such an important symbolic value and cultural function, many indigenous literary stories address the important qualities and essential features of the ritual. For example, Gertrude Simmons Bonni was an indigenous member of the Lakota Sioux tribe (, and during the early 20th century Bonni wrote an abundance of stories, music, and poems regarding the various Sioux traditions. Bonni wrote an opera titled the Sun Dance Opera and collaborated with Utah composer William Hanson to create the music that accompanied the plot of the story and the dialogue of the characters in the opera. The story addresses a romantic triangle in a traditional Dakota village that was preparing for an impending Sun Dance ritual after it had been prohibited by the US government. The action and dialogue of the play were revered for accurately depicting the various customs and beliefs pertaining to the Sun Dance ritual. Bonnin also modified and adjusted traditional songs of the Sioux tribe to most effectively accommodate compelling melodies that could be played in the scales of western music (Lukens). Thus, Bonnin was one of the most prolific and revered indigenous writers of the early 20th century, and one of her biggest works was an opera that portrayed and celebrated the many important qualities of the Sun Dance ritual, which is indicative of how essential the ritual was for the tribes of the Great Plains.

The common themes that were symbolized by the Sun Dance rituals were also consistently expressed in the literature of the tribes that performed the rituals. Many indigenous literary works, stories and poems emphasized the important themes of connecting to the spiritual world, solidifying the unity of the tribe, appreciating the creative powers of the sun, and generating the process of rebirth and rejuvenation. Likewise, several popular indigenous stories demonstrate intense reverence for the sun and for the immense powers of the universe, including The Earth Only; The Sun Still Rises in the Same Sky; The Sky Tree; and The House Made of Dawn (Elements of Native American Literature). In the poem, The House Made of Dawn, the narrator addresses the central themes of the Sun Dance ritual, including the importance of sacrifice as a means of stimulating the powers of the sun and the rejuvenation of life. For instance, the narrator remarks that “In the house made of dawn,/In the house made of evening twilight,/…Where the dark mist curtains the doorway,/The path to which is on the rainbow,/…I have made your sacrifice./I have prepared a smoke for you./My feet restore for me./My limbs restore for me./My body restore for me./My mind restore for me./My voice restore for me/…Happily, my limbs regain their power (Elements of Native American Literature).” Thus, this poem and many other literary works of the Great Plains tribes depict the Sun Dance ritual and the primary symbolic functions of the ritual, for the literature of the tribes dramatically emphasized the importance of connecting to the spiritual world, facilitating the creative powers of the sun, and celebrating the rejuvenation of the world.

The annual rejuvenation of the world during spring and summer is a phenomenon that is celebrated and commemorated by almost every culture. However, each culture also tends to develop different celebrations and traditions that most effectively align with the particular values and customs of the given society. Although some cultures perceive the springtime or summertime rituals as an entertaining opportunity to celebrate, release any inhibitions, and enjoy a fun holiday with their friends and family, the annual Sun Dance ritual served a much more sober and consequential function. The intense four-day Sun Dance rituals often included an axis mundis central pole, several dancers mutilating their flesh while dancing incessantly around the pole, multiple drummers beating steady rhythms on the drums while the tribe sang, a healing session conducted by the Shaman medicine man, and then a sacred meal to celebrate the buffalo. An impressive aspect of the ritual is that each element of the ceremony was performed for a specific purpose and to fulfill a crucial function, for the essential features of the Sun Dance ritual commemorate the beginning of summer, stimulate the rejuvenation of the world, and facilitate the powerful unifying connection between the participants, the spiritual world and the entire tribe.

Works Cited

Crystal, Ellie. "Sun Dance." Crystalinks. N.p., n.d. Web. 12 Dec. 2013. <>.

"Elements of Native American Literature." Nexus. N.p., n.d. Web. 12 Dec. 2013. <>.

Hare, John. "The Sun Dance." Internet Sacred Text Archive. N.p., n.d. Web. 12 Dec. 2013. <>.

Lukens, Margo. "Dreams and Thunder: Stories, Poems, and The Sun Dance Opera, and: Native American Women's Writing 1800-1924, an Anthology, and: Sarah Winnemucca (review)." Project MUSE. N.p., 2 Oct. 2002. Web. 12 Dec. 2013. <>.

"Sun Dance." Native Americans Online. N.p., n.d. Web. 12 Dec. 2013. <>.

Wishart, David. "Sun Dance." Encyclopedia of the Great Plains. N.p., 1 July 2011. Web. 12 Dec. 2013. <>.