sun dance

sun dance

sun dance, ceremony typical of the Plains Indians of North America. The ceremony was performed in the summer and lasted from two to eight days. Some of the ceremony was secret. Smoking, fasting, and other rites were part of the ceremony. Penance through self-torture was practiced to achieve communion with the forces of the universe. Among some Native Americans, a bison skull was pulled around the lodge by means of a thong and peg inserted through the skin of the participant's chest. Missionaries and the U.S. and Canadian governments prohibited the ceremony.
The Sun Dance is a ceremony practiced by a number of Native Americans. This ceremony was one of the most important rituals practiced by The North American Plains Indians. Each tribe has its own distinct rituals and methods of performing the dance, but many of the ceremonies have features in common, including dancing, singing, praying, drumming, the experience of visions, fasting, and in some cases piercing of the chest or back. Most notable for early Western observers was the piercing many young men endure as part of the ritual. Frederick Schwatka wrote about a Sioux Sun Dance he witnessed in the late 1800s:

Each one of the young men presented himself to a medicine-man, who took between his thumb and forefinger a fold of the loose skin of the breast—and then ran a very narrow-bladed or sharp knife through the skin—a stronger skewer of bone, about the size of a carpenter's pencil was inserted. This was tied to a long skin rope fastened, at its other extremity, to the top of the sun-pole in the center of the arena. The whole object of the devotee is to break loose from these fetters. To liberate himself he must tear the skewers through the skin, a horrible task that even with the most resolute may require many hours of torture.

In fact, the object of being pierced is to sacrifice one's self to the Great Spirit, and to pray while connected to the Tree of Life, a direct connection to the Great Spirit. Breaking from the piercing is done in one moment, as the man runs backwards from the tree at a time specified by the leader of the dance. A common explanation, in context with the intent of the dancer, is that a flesh offering, or piercing, is given as part of prayer and offering for the improvement of one's family and community. Though only some Nations' Sun Dances include the piercings, the Canadian Government outlawed some of the practices of the Sun Dance in 1880, and the United States government followed suit in 1904. However, the ceremony is now again fully legal (since Jimmy Carter's presidency in the United States) and is still practiced in the United States, Canada and in New Zealand. Women are now allowed to dance but do not pierce their skin in the same manner as men. A woman's piercing is in her upper arm, and an eagle feather is attached until the piercing is removed. Some men do not do pierce at all, such as the Shoshone in Wyoming. They may pierce if they desire to. A Sundancer must commit to dancing for four years, for the four compass directions.

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 Sun 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, but these were non-essential components of the ceremony. 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 starting in 1882 until the 1940’s. Despite the subjugation, 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 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 forbade flesh-sacrificing and gift-giving (Brown, 1996: pp. 34-5; 1994 Mandelbaum, 1975, pp. 14-15; & Pettipas, 1994 p. 210).

In Canada, the Sun Dance is known by the Plains Cree as the Thirst Dance, the Saulteaux (Plains Objibwa), as the Rain Dance and the Blackfoot (Siksika, Kainai,& Piikani) as the Medicine Dance. It was also practised by the Canadian Siouxs (Dakota and Nakoda), the Dene, and the Canadian Assiniboines.


  • Brown, Randall J.(1996). A Description and Analysis of Sacrificial Stall Dancing: As Practiced by the Plains Cree and Saulteaux of the Pasqua Reserve, Saskatchewan, in their Contemporary Rain Dance Ceremonies. Master thesis, Winnipeg: University of Manitoba.
  • Mandelbaum, David G. (1979). The Plains Cree: An ethnographic, historical and comparative study. Canadian Plains Studies No. 9, Regina: Canadian Plains Research Center.
  • Pettipas, Katherine. (1994). Severing the ties that bind: Government repression of Indigenous religious ceremonies on the prairies. Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press.
  • Weekes, Mary (1939). An Indian Sun Dance. In: The Last Buffalo Hunter (As told by Norbert Welsh). Chapter 18, p. 132-138 Fifth House Publishers.
  • Black Elk, Joseph Epes Brown, Phyllis Ed. F. Ed. Phyllis Ed. F. Brown (1953) The Sacred Pipe: Black Elk's Account of the Seven Rites of the Oglala Sioux. Chapter V, Wiwangyang Wacipi: The Sun Dance. University of Oklahoma Press.


  • Native Spirit and the Sun Dance Way, World Wisdom 2007. Thomas Yellowtail, a revered Crow Medicine Man and Sun Dance Chief for over thirty years, describes and explains the ancient ceremony that is sacred to the Crow tribe.
  • Although not performed, many Native Americans shown shirtless in Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman have scars which are identified as Sun Dance scars by Dr. Quinn's love interest Byron Sully, who has adopted the Cheyenne way of life.
  • A romanticized and Hollywood-influenced version of the Sun Dance ceremony appears in the film A Man Called Horse (1970 film) starring actor Richard Harris, in the title role. However, the scene is criticized for its depiction of Sun Dance as a initiation ordeal rather than a religious ceremony, despite being based on historical accounts.

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