Of all the ceremonies practiced by the Lakota and most of the Plains Indians, the Sun Dance was the most important.
The Sun Dance was the major communal religious ceremony for many tribes of Plains Indians whose bison-hunting culture flourished during the 18th and 19th centuries.
The rite celebrates spiritual renewal of the participants and their relatives, as well as the regeneration of the living Earth with all its components.
The ritual, involving sacrifice and supplication of the tribe to insure harmony between all living beings.
Ceremonial Preparation of the Center Pole
A tree is selected by courageous men.
It was attacked as if it were an enemy.
One man cut it down, but the tree is not allowed to touch the ground.
The tree is brought back to the arena where it is prepared by the women.
The women strip it of its branches, decorate it and erect it in the center of the arena.
It becomes the first pole and the center pole.
Jesuits in Native Ministry
Meet Paul Grubb sj, scholastic that works with Lakota every summer during Sun Dance.
The Sun Dance Begins
After the preparation of the Center Pole, the dancing would begin at sunrise of the next day.
The bodies and spirits of the dancers would be purified by way of a ‘sweat’ before the dance.
Each would have a mentor (holy man or experienced dancer) to help them through the ordeal.
The dancers were usually men who sought good hunting skills, better fighting skills, or some blessing on their family, like the curing of a sick relative.
The dancers looked at the sun as they danced. No food or drink was taken.
The dance would go on for four to eight days.
The Tree / Center Pole
The tree represents the center of the world, connecting the heavens to the earth.
Placed in the center of the circular arena and becomes the center of the circular lodge.
Tree has a fork in the top of it for the nest of the eagle.
The fork of the center-pole/lodge represents the eagle's nest.
MESSENGER : During the Sun Dance the eagle is the facilitator of communication between man and spirit.
The eagle is one of the Plains Indians' most sacred animal. It flies high, being the closest creature to the Sun. Therefore it is the link between man and spirit and is the messenger that delivers prayers to the Wakan-Tanka (god).
In addition to being a messenger, the eagle also represents many human traits. We can see what values and traits these cultures value in a person by those traits assigned to such a sacred animal. The eagle is seen as courageous, swift, and strong. He has great foresight and knows everything.
Main theme of Sun Dance
The buffalo that symbolized life.
Plains Indians relied on buffalo for their food, clothing, shelter.
These peoples' lives were intertwined with the buffalo's.
This relationship was praised and blessed with the Sun Dance.
Symbolism of the Ceremony
The Sun Dance symbolizes a reconciliation ceremony by Natives to the Buffalo.
Tension, for the native people, resided in being a people that view the buffalo as wise and powerful and even closer to the Creator than humans, and having to kill and eat them to survive.
Making the buffalo sacred, symbolically giving new life to it and treating it with respect and reverence, acts as a reconciliation. Without the buffalo there would be death for the Plains Indians. They saw that the buffalo not only provided them with physical well-being, but kept their souls alive, too.