Plains Indians



For many tribes of Plains Indians whose bison-hunting culture flourished during the 18th and 19th centuries, the sun

dance was the major communal religious ceremony . . . the rite celebrates renewal - the spiritual rebirth of

participants and their relatives as well as the regeneration of the living earth with all its components . . . The ritual,

involving sacrifice and supplication to insure harmony between all living beings, continues to be practiced by many

contemporary native Americans.

-Elizabeth Atwood Lawrence

As the most important ritual of the nomadic Plains Indians, the Sun Dance in itself presents many ideas, beliefs, and

values of these cultures. Through its rich symbolism and complicated rituals we are able to catch a glimpse into

these peoples' view of the world.

A Sun Dance is held when a man feels the need to be a dancer to fulfill certain wishes, primarily "for his deliverance

from his troubles, for supernatural aid, and for beneficent blessings upon all of his people." (Welker) It is this dancer

who usually bears the expenses of the Sun Dance (Atwood), including a feast for all that comes to the celebration.

(Welker) Motivations behind the Sun Dance varies slightly between tribes. The Crow held the ceremony to seek aid

for revenge for family members killed in warfare.

The entire event surrounding the Sun Dance generally lasts from four to seven days, though longer events exist. On

the first day a tree is selected to serve as the sun-pole, the center pole for the Sun Dance Lodge, or New-Life-Lodge,

as called by the Cheyenne. (Atwood) The selection of the tree is usually done by the eldest woman of the camp, who

leads a group of elaborately dressed maidens to the tree to strip off its branches. On the next morning, right as the

sun is seen over the eastern horizon, armed warriors charge the sun-pole. They attack the tree in effort to

symbolically kill it with gunshots and arrows. Once it is dead it is cut down and taken to where the Sun Dance

Lodge will be erected. (Schwatka) "Before raising the sun-pole, a fresh buffalo head with a broad centre strip of the

back of the hide and tail (is) fastened with strong throngs to the top crotch of the sun-pole. Then the pole (is) raised

and set firmly in the ground, with the buffalo head facing !

toward the setting-sun." (Welker) The tree represents the center of the world, connecting the heavens to the earth.

(Smart p. 527) The lodge is then built by the main dancer and his clansmen.

The fork of the lodge represents the eagle's nest. The eagle plays a large part in the Sun Dance for it is one of the

Plains Indians' most sacred animal. The eagle flies high, being the closest creature to the Sun. Therefore it is the link

between man and spirit, being the messenger that delivers prayers to the Wakan-Tanka (god). (Atwood)

In addition to being a messenger, the eagle also represents many human traits. We can see what values and traits

these cultures saw as being important in a person by those traits imposed upon such a sacred animal. The eagle is

seen as courageous, swift, and strong. He has great foresight and knows everything. "In an eagle there is all the

wisdom of the world." (Atwood)

During the Sun Dance the eagle is the facilitator of communication between man and spirit. The Crow may be

accompanied by a dancing eagle in his visions, the eagle "instructing him about the medicine acquired through the

vision." (Atwood) The eagle's feathers can cure illnesses. During the Sun Dance a medicine man may use his eagle

feather for healing, first touching the feather to the sun-pole then to the patient, transferring the energy from the pole

to the ill.

It is the buffalo, however, that makes up the main theme of the Sun Dance. In various stories it was the buffalo that

began the ritual. The Shoshone believe that the buffalo taught someone the proper way to carry out the dance and the

benefits in doing it. Buffalo songs, dances, and feast commonly accompany the Sun Dance.

You can see from the symbolic influences of the buffalo in the Sun Dance how important the animal was to Plains

Indians' day-to-day life. It was the buffalo that symbolized life for it was the buffalo that gave them