The Sun Dance is a religious ceremony practiced by Indian tribes that lived in the so-called Great Plains of the United States and Canada, that is, from the grassland that spans the Mississippi River and the Rocky Mountains, and from Alberta and Saskatchewan in Canada through Texas in the United States.
For the Great Plains Indians, the Sun Dance ceremony is the most important religious event of the year and serves as an occasion for different groups to gather to celebrate their central beliefs about the Universe and the supernatural. Plans are made one year in advance, and the event is held either in late spring or early summer when herds of buffalo gather in the Great Plains after winter. In other words, it is held during the time when large groups of people have access to plentiful sources of food.
During the ceremony, a select group of men dancers for several days around a central pole for days, only stopping for short breaks. It is a test of physical endurance that the dancers are willing to make for the sake of their tribe. Aside from fasting for a few days during the dance, the dancers are fastened to the central pole through a piercing on their chests.
It is said that one of the reasons why the US and Canadian governments banned the Sun Dance was because of the piercing, which settlers from Europe found offensive. While this is partly true, the ban was meant to wipe out the cultural and religious identity of the vanquished Indian tribes. In Canada, the Sun Dance was outlawed in 1895 and the prohibition was only lifted it in 1950. In the United States, the ban was in place until the 1970s.
Because of the ban, this tradition almost became extinct. As a matter of fact, the Indians had to relearn it in the 1930s.
Since it became legal again, there have been many efforts by different Plains Indian tribes to preserve the Sun Dance. And there have also been moves to ban non-Indians from watching the ceremony. Spectators can join the community camped around the area of the dance but they cannot approach the altar.
Although it has its origins among the Great Plains Indians, other Indian tribes have also adopted the dance as a form of community prayer for life, thanksgiving, world renewal. The individual dancers have their own intentions for dancing though, like praying for a friend or a family member or praying for guidance.
Central to the Sun Dance is the belief that the planet will lose its connection to the Universe if the dance is not performed every year, thereby affecting Earth’s ability to regenerate itself.
The Sun Dance is only one of thirteen dances that are traditionally performed by the Indian tribes. Preparation for it is very detailed. It involves making a lodge from a cottonwood tree. The tree chosen must be large and have a forked branch in the middle. Twelve poles are then placed upright around a central pole in a circular manner. The poles are set 13 paces away from the central pole. From an aerial view, it would like a wagon wheel with a central hub.
The dance lasts for three to four days. During this time, tribe members dance to the beat of a drum. They fast for the duration of the dance. The result is brutal as many dancers collapse but this collapse is followed by a vision. It is said that the collapsed dancers share a similar vision, thus giving group guidance for the good of the tribe.