Sun Dance
 
 
Traditionally, the Plains Indians of North America had numerous sacred ceremonies.  Perhaps most frequent were visits to a sweat lodge, a ritual that some devout individuals performed daily.  “Sweating” purified not only the body, but more critically the spirit.  In this, the sweat lodge served as something like a church.   Other ceremonies were seasonal, such as the Thunder Pipe ceremony of the Blackfeet Indians, celebrating the arrival of spring, signaled by the first thunderstorm.  
 
Arguably, the most important Plains Indian ceremony was the Sun Dance.  Indeed, those individuals that mainstream society has called “medicine men” might more appropriately have been called “Sun Singers” because of their focus on the sun as a symbol of Creator  (Wakan Tanka, in the Sioux language) -- a trait shared by many other cultures worldwide.
 
So central was the Sun Dance to Plains Indian culture that it was forbidden by the US Government (e.g., Indian Religious Crimes Code of 1883).  It was not allowed again until passage of the American Indian Religious Freedom Act (1978).  Even then, years passed before most Tribes resumed this ceremony.  
 
Although the Blackfeet Indians of Montana had continued to attend Sun Dances in Canada* during the intervening years, it was not until 1993 that the Blackfeet resumed holding their own Sun Dances.  The first took place on the property of Buster YellowKidney on the outskirts of Browning, the Tribe’s capital city.  The dance was presided over by Buster and other elders, especially medicine chiefs George and Molly Kickingwoman.
 
During good weather, a Sun Dance occurs in an outdoor arena.  Wooden posts about 10 ft high are erected in a circle -- in this case a circle roughly 50 ft in diameter.  The walls are thatched with leafy branches.  Then an awning is built out roughly 10 ft around the inner rim of the arena.   It is separated from the inner arena by another wall about waist high.  The inner arena was about 30 ft in diameter.  That’s where the main dancing occurred.  
 
Only Tribal members were allowed to dance in the central arena.  However, anyone in the Tribe or living on the Reservation was allowed to dance in the outer rim, under the awning.  I was one of these.  
 
Only the inner circle dancers were allowed to “pierce” their flesh.  Women cut a sliver of flesh from one or both arms.  Men had two wooden pegs inserted through the flesh of the chest or back, to which was attached a rawhide rope.  In some cases, the other end of the rope is attached to an overhead pole, allowing the dancer to lean back, pulling against the rope with his body weight.  However, as best I can recall in this case, each rope was attached to a buffalo skull on the ground, or to some heavier object, which the dancer dragged around with him.  This continues until the peg rips through the flesh and breaks free.
 
Contrary to the implication of mainstream movies such as “A Man Called Horse,” this is not intended as a test of courage and strength.  It is not a contest to see how much pain a man (or woman) can withstand.  Rather, the pain is a dancer’s gift to Creator.  It is the dancer’s self-sacrifice, begging Creator to accept the dancer’s suffering in lieu of the suffering of other people.  These other people may be a dancer’s loved ones, or simply the entire Tribe or all humanity.  The dancer asks to take on the suffering -- to pay for the sins, if you like -- of others, much as Jesus took on the burden of paying for humanity’s sins 2000 years ago.  That parallel is why the Christian story of Jesus on the Cross resonated with Plains Indians when the religion was first introduced to them.
 
This painting represents my own attempt to see into the soul of Blackfeet culture.  The design was not something I planned consciously.  It simply emerged “like magic” from the subconscious.  Yet, it’s meaning was immediately obvious.
 
You will notice the sun piercing the eye of a face in black -- representing a Blackfeet Indian, whose white eagle feather hangs down the side of his face.  The face itself is squared off, representing the way mainstream society tries to fit Native customs into our own conceptual boxes, and the way the society constrains the freedom of Natives to practice their customs.  At right, penetrating the black box and looking at the Indian and at the Sun’s image in his eye, is the face of a “White” man -- yours truly.  
 
Indigenous and mainstream cultures may approach spirituality from opposite directions; yet, however distorted either viewpoint, we all look towards the same fundamental truth.
Hopefully, a diversity of viewpoints will bring us closer to that truth than either viewpoint alone could achieve.  
 
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*  Montana’s Blackfeet Indians are one of four Tribes (First Nations) belonging to the Blackfoot Confederacy.  The other three Nations have long lived in Canada.  These include the Blackfoot, Blood, and North Piegan.
 
for further information on Traditional Blackfeet culture, see
http://www.utexas.edu/courses/wilson/ant304/projects/projects98/krochenskip/krochenskip.html