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The Sun Dance is a ceremony practiced by some Indigenous Peoples of North America and Canada, primarily those of the plains cultures. After contact with European colonists, and with the formation of Canada and United States, both countries created laws banning ceremonies and even outlawed Indigenous people from speaking their native languages. Those that continued to practice their culture were imprisoned or even killed for doing so. As a result and in order to preserve Indigenous culture for future generations most ceremonies went underground and were practiced in secret.
In very general terms, there are features common to the ceremonies of the sun dance cultures, such as dances and songs passed down through many generations, the use of a traditional drum, a sacred fire, praying with a pipe, fasting, and in some cases the ceremonial piercing of skin. Certain native plants are picked and prepared for use during the ceremony. Natural medicines are used for health and well being, as are traditional foods. Wood is harvested for a sacred fire, and a firekeeper must tend the fire that burns for many days and nights.
Typically, the sun dance is an agonizing ordeal for those who participate in it. According to the Oklahoma Historical Society, young men dance around a pole to which they are fastened by "rawhide thongs pegged through the skin of their chests."
Although not all sun dance ceremonies include dancers being ritually pierced, the object of the sun dance is to offer personal sacrifice as a prayer for the benefit of one's family and community. The dancers fast for many days, and the ceremony takes place over a four day period. The ceremony is held outside in the summer time, in the open air, not fully sheltered from the wind, sun, or rain. Some groups use the same site each year, while others will move from place to place.
At most ceremonies, family members and friends stay in the surrounding camp and pray and support the dancers. People camp at the site for many days, with some arriving from far away places. In preparation for the sun dance, wood, food, and medicines are gathered in the traditional manner, the site is set up, offerings made, elders consulted, and feast food prepared. There are sweat lodges and other ceremonial preparations. Much time and energy by the entire community is needed for the sun dance to work. Communities plan and organize for at least a year to prepare for the ceremony. Usually there is one leader or a small group of leaders in charge of the ceremony, but many elders help out and advise. A group of helpers do many of the tasks required to prepare for the ceremony.
There is a reluctance to talk about the subject in any great detail. Those who know a lot are not willing to share with someone who might abuse the traditional ways. There are concerns about the ceremony not being passed along in the right ways. The words used at a sun dance are often in the native language and not translated. There is a great attempt to have the utmost respect for the ceremony, and this is often done with speaking few words about it. The detailed way a respected elder talks, teaches, and explains is unique and not easily quoted or intended for publication.
In 1993, responding to increasingly common desecration of the sun dance and other Lakota sacred ceremonies, "the Lakota Summit V, an international gathering of US and Canadian Lakota, Dakota and Nakota Nations, about 500 representatives from 40 different tribes and bands of the Lakota unanimously passed a 'Declaration of War Against Exploiters of Lakota Spirituality'." In 2003, the 19th Generation Keeper of the Sacred White Buffalo Calf Pipe of the Lakota asked non-Native people to stop attending the sun dance (Wi-wanyang-wa-c'i-pi in Lakota); he stated that all can pray in support, but that only Native people should approach the altars. This statement was supported by bundle keepers and traditional spiritual leaders from the Cheyenne, Dakota, Lakota, and Nakota Nations, who issued a proclamation that non-Natives would be banned from sacred altars and the Seven Sacred Rites, including and especially the sun dance, effective March 9, 2003 onward:
The Wi-wanyang-wa-c'i-pi (Sundance Ceremony): The only participants allowed in the center will be Native People. The non-Native people need to understand and respect our decision. If there have been any unfinished commitments to the sundance and non-Natives have concern for this decision; they must understand that we have been guided through prayer to reach this resolution. Our purpose for the sundance is for the survival of the future generations to come, first and foremost. If the non-Natives truly understand this purpose, they will also understand this decision and know that by their departure from this Ho-c'o-ka (our sacred altar) is their sincere contribution to the survival of our future generations.
Though only some Nations' sun dances include the piercings, the Canadian Government outlawed that feature of the sun dance in 1895. It is unclear about how often this law was enforced or how successfully, and, in at least one instance, police gave their permission for the ceremony to be conducted. Many ceremonies were simply done quietly and in secret. With better understanding of and respect for Indigenous traditions, the government has ended its prohibitions. The full ceremony has been legal in Canada since 1951, and in the U.S. since passage of the 1978 American Indian Religious Freedom Act. The sun dance is practiced annually on many reserves and reservations in Canada.
Although the Government of Canada, through the Department of Indian Affairs (now Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada), persecuted sun dance practitioners and attempted to suppress the dance, the ceremony itself was never officially prohibited. 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 from 1882 until the 1940s. Despite this, sun dance practitioners, such as the Plains Cree, Saulteaux, and Blackfoot, continued to hold sun dances throughout the persecution period. Some practiced the dance in secret, others with permissions from their agents, and others without the piercing aspects. 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 prohibited the practices of flesh-sacrificing and gift-giving.
In most sun dance cultures, it is forbidden to film ceremony or prayer, so few images exist of authentic ceremonies. Many feel that when money or cameras enter, the spirits leave, so any photo taken does not depict an authentic ceremony. However, in Alberta, the Kainai Nation permitted their sun dance to be filmed in the late 1950s. The result was the 1960 National Film Board of Canada documentary Circle of the Sun. Manitoba archival photos clearly show that the ceremonies have stayed quite similar since at least the early 1900s.
To protect, honour, and keep the ceremony sacred, there is a reluctance to relate many details about the event. Decades of disrespect and ridicule are partly to blame. In some cases the elders think that the whole process is best experienced instead of described with mere words. There are too many details to fully explain the whole process in a proper way. Some experience is needed to fully understand what the ceremony is about, what it means, and how it takes place over many days. Greater respect and protection is required to preserve the traditional ways, places, native plants, languages, and to not abuse what was passed down over many generations.