The Amerindian Sun Dance


There was a time, more than a hundred years ago, when the Plains Indians used to have a joyous festival to welcome the onset of the summer solstice. It was often held for a whole week, often culminating on July 1. Its intent was to celebrate the renewal of life, to affirm the cycle of life and death, to recognize the rebirth of nature, and to express hope for a new year. Seasonal changes remind us of the cycles through which everything must go to be sustained and to continue.

A great many tribes, of which the Arapaha, the Cheyenne, the Crow, and the Ute were only a few, practiced the Sun Dance festival all over North America which once belonged to them in its entirety.

As in many ancient cultures, the jubilation involved the hunting of animals. Some traditions sacrifice lambs, others slaughter  cows, yet others offer bleating goats to the Almighty as part of their reverence. The Amerindian tribes often hunted buffaloes and bisons to offer to their god (Wakan Tanka) along with their prayer for peace and harmony in their lives. The buffalo was believed to have special powers and some tribes regarded it as the source of certain types of knowledge.

There are symbolic meanings in the sacrifice of the buffalo: the animal is considered sacred because it is the source of nourishment for the people. Offering it to God is a gesture of gratitude for this gift. But the participants in the festival also sacrifice part of themselves through fasting and even self-torture sometimes. It has also been suggested that the self-torture symbolizes death, and at the end of it the person is re-born, not only physically but also spiritually. One late 19th cnetury observer of the festival wrote: “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 but 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.” Not all these practices are continued in our own times.

All this may sound strange to those not of the culture, but every movement and practice has an underlying meaning. This is the key to appreciating different cultures: Unfamiliarity always stands as a barrier. But it is important to recognize that one’s own culture, however normal and reasonable it may seem to the practitioner, could seem just as strange and unnatural to an outsider. Moreover, just as every aspect of one’s own traditional practices has a historical root and metaphysical inner meaning, so it is with other cultures as well. In the words of Lame Deer, an Indian leader, “We Sioux have… have many legends of buffalo changing themselves into men. And the Indians are built like buffalo too, ­ big shoulders, narrow hips. According to our belief, the Buffalo Woman who brought us the peace pipe, which is at the center of our religion, was a beautiful maiden, and after she had taught our tribes how to worship with the pipe, she changed herself into a white buffalo calf. So the buffalo is very sacred to us. You can’t understand about nature, about the feeling we have toward it, unless you understand how close we are to the buffalo. That animal was almost like a part of ourselves – a part of our souls.” [Quoted in John Fire and Richard Erdoes, Lame Deer, Seeker of Visions.]

February 23, 2011

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