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Spirit Of The Sun Dance

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Each year in the Moon of Fattening (June) or the Moon of Cherries Blackening (July), members of the Plains tribes would gather to sacrifice themselves in one of the greatest power mysteries, wiwanyag wacbipi: The Dance Looking Into the Sun.

Some twenty or more nomad war tribes celebrated it. Of these the Arapahoe (who called it the Offering-Lodge Dance), the Cheyenne, and the Dakota developed what may originally have been simply a manhood test into a complex and sophisticated holy rite full of spiritual import far beyond its apparent masochistic savagery. The mystery spread over the plains in variant forms, from the Mandans to the Paiutes, and was most widely practiced in the late 19th century, when the U.S. Government attempted to kill it, along with everything else Indian. lts spirit survived in the messianic Ghost Dance; and has revived, with bloody mutilations forbidden, in our own time. At Wind River in summer 1965, Ed Dom reports, "a Sun Dance was performed for peace in Viet Nam, whatever that means."

Whatever that means. It is of crucial importance that young white people interested in revolutionary reorganization attempt to understand tribal ceremonies, particularly this one, as best we can, for instruction how to build a new universe/tribe out of the rubble of "civilization" our elders have bequeathed us.

Each tribe had its own myth of the origin of the Dance. Here is the Oglala Dakota ("Sioux") version as told by Black Elk:

"Our people were once camped in a good place in a circle, of course, and the old men were sitting having a council, when they noticed that one our men, Kablaya (Spread), had dropped his robe around his waist, and was dancing there all alone with his hand raised towards heaven. The old men thought that perhaps he was crazy, so they sent someone to find out what was the matter; but this man who was sent suddenly dropped his robe down around his waist too and started dancing with Kablaya. The old men thought this very strange, and so they all went over to see what could be the matter. Kablaya then explained to them: Long ago, Wakan-Tanka told us how to pray with the sacred pipe, but we have now become lax in our prayers, and our people are losing their strength. But I have just been shown, in a vision, a new way of prayer; in this manner Wakan-Tanka has sent aid to us."

It is always so: one Crazy senses the need for change, has the Vision, begins the Dance, others join him, it becomes the Tribe's. The Sun Dance was usually undertaken in fulfillment of a vow made by an individual man or woman in trouble. "Thus there was at the foundation of the rite a factor, not of tribal pressure but of personal initiative. " The essential movement of the Dance is from this individuality to the collective accumulation of energy for the whole tribe, for the whole universe; the essence of the Dance is this strengthening. The Teton opening prayer of the Sun Dance is:


A voice I am going to send,

Hear me!

All over the universe

A voice I am going to send,

Hear me,


I will live!

I have said it.

Yet, as Kablaya is reputed to have told the Oglala, "O Grandfather, Father, Wakan-Tanka, we are about to fulfill Thy will as You have taught us to do in my vision. This we know will be a very sacred way of sending our voices to You. Through this, may our people receive wisdom; may it help us to walk the sacred path with all the Powers of the universe! Our prayer will really be the prayer of all things, for all are really one, all this I have seen in my vision. May the four Powers of the universe help us to do this rite correctly; O Great Spirit, have mercy upon us!"


If we are to gain strength as a revolutionary tribe m the new universe, we must learn to dance gazing into the sun.

The Sun Dance is not theatre. It is a trip in which one's own flesh is offered as mere ritual or spectacle. It is serious,  it is painful, it is laying one's body and blood on the line between earth and heaven. (The U.S. Amerika Government has reduced the Sun Dance to a mere endurance-dance, weakening it to the point of mere theatre.) In its original form, the trip could not be taken without months of preparation on the part of the tribe. These preparations were the physical accumulation of great nerve and the spirit-centering necessary to offer one's own flesh for the tribe, as well as the personal, good. The ceremony comprises four preparatory days and four Sacred Days, culminating in the Sun Dance proper. The preparatory days are for the assignment, and instruction in, the roles that various men and women will play: for clarification of the nature of the ceremonies; and for the purification of all participants. Those who vow to dance choose their leader, officials, marshalls; lesser participants such as mothers of children whose ears are to be pierced, children who will join the cottonwood procession, maidens who will attend the dancers, are instructed.

On the third preparatory day, the whole tribe celebrates the Feast of the Buffalo, to represent the tribe's complete dependency on the bison for food, clothing, shelter. Musicians, scouts, tree-bearers, escorts, hole-diggers, and others are instructed in ways that have to do with this ecology; and each dancer consumes an entire buffalo tongue, that he may attain the voice of the creature on which the whole tribe depends; the buffalo is the medium of the ceremony, for the tribe, just as the dancer 's own body is the medium of the dance for himself.

On the fourth preparatory day, in most variants, four women are honored by being chosen to fell the tree, while the dancers' maiden-attendants are required to prove their purity under verbal challenge from the tribe. Women could, but did not often, participate directly as dancers; in fact Black Elk says in the original Oglala dance, a woman dancer led the men into the Lodge and offered her entire body, "one piece of flesh," to the Spirit. On this day, the Feast of the Maidens, each woman dances choosing her own male partner. The preparation closes as it began, with a smoke-offering to the departing Sun, and the camp becomes quiet as death. All is ready, expectant, on the verge; no movement through camp is allowed. this period is a tribal centering device to pray for full Sun on the following Sacred Days, for if any of those days is not clear and bright, the ceremony must be held in abeyance. The Sun must be present if one is to dance into it. On the first sacred day, a scout is sent forth to find and mark the cottonwood tree which will be the centerpole. The cottonwood leaf shows a tipi design , and this "rustling tree" as Black Elk says, represents the way of the people. Does it not stretch from the earth here to heaven there? "The way of the people into the cosmic connection.

On the second sacred day, a party of war-scouts goes out to find the tree, returns to report it; and warriors charge out to capture the tree as if it were an enemy. An extremely honored warrior counts coup on the tree, four respected women fell it, and the designated persons strip the cottonwood of bark and branches to the fork at the top, above which a panache of foliage is left, amidst war-whoops and the peculiar keening falsetto wail of tense emotion. Men carry the tree into camp, crying like the coyote to give to give warning that a captive is being brought in, while young braves race and and the tribe moves along in joyous procession.

During these two days, the Sun Dance Lodge is erected and a special vigil lodge for the dancers is erected to the east of it; between the two runs the Sun Trail. All three areas are purified, and the dancers therefore reside in the vigil lodge apart from the tribe. The Sun Dance Lodge itself is mandala of holiness, not really complete until the pole is erected on the third sacred day, but before that the camp must be ready, so once again it shuts down completely the night of the second sacred day, holding hidden deep within itself any chaos, licentiousness, or explosive energy. Buffalo-hide images of a buffalo and a man, tied to the tree, symbolizes this energy.

On the third sacred day, the tree-hole is dug and purified, and in it beneath the tree is placed a bag of fat:

"O Grandfather, Wakan-Tanka, behold this sacred fat, upon which this sacred tree-person will stand; may the earth always be as fat and fruitful as this.

"O tree, this is a sacred day for you and for all our people; the earth within this hoop (lodge) belongs to you, O tree, and it is here underneath you that I shall offer up my body and should for the sake of the people..." Bundles of sweetgrass, sage, and shed buffalo hair are also tied onto the tree-person, and a red Sun Banner is placed at the summit in the foliage remaining.

With much cheering and many shrill tremulos, the tree leading from heaven to earth is raised, very slowly, with four distinct pauses, and songs are sung to the beating drums :

At the center of the Earth

Stand looking around you!

Recognizing the tribe

Stand looking around

Now the Sun Dance lodge is completed by putting twenty-eight forked sticks in a large circle, with twenty-eight more sticks from the fork of each running to the centerpole. The entrance is at the east, from which the Sun enters along the Sun Trail. There is no roof of course, but protective shady boughs are stacked around the walls outside the Lodge.

At the center of the earth, Black Elk explains: "In setting up the sun dance lodge, we are really making the universe in a likeness; for, you see, each of the posts around the lodge represents some particular object of creation, so that the whole circle is the entire creation, and the one tree at the center, upon which the twenty-eight poles rest, is Wakan-Tanka, who is the center of everything. Everything comes from Him, and sooner or later everything returns to Him."

Divisions of four, in American Indian as in so many other mythologies, are magically significant of the four winds inhabiting the space between earth and heaven; the sun-pole, reaching up and down, completes the six directions. Twenty-eight (4 x 7) poles are used because "the moon lives 28 days" (the ceremony is always conducted at the time of the full moon), the buffalo has 28 ribs, war-bonnets have 28 feathers, and 28 things have special significance in Dakota religion. Thus, in all dimensions of space and time, the Sun Dance Lodge is the universe; a quaternary mandala (as are, for instance, most Tibetan mandalas), centered on the tree running from Grandmother earth to Grandfather sky and the Sun. To attach oneself to the pole is to connect directly with the whole universe. The dancers make this connection for the tribe and thereby strengthen it.

At this point all hell breaks loose. Men and women run amok in a sexual frenzy, laughing, dancing, screaming bawdy jokes at each other, taunting, going crazy! This libido-loosening goes on until the best warriors of the tribe are summoned by the dance leader, dance a war dance, and shoot the hide images of buffalo and human off the centerpole. The images of brutality, chaos, antagonistic energy, and indecency are trampled underfoot, thus expelling licentious spirits from the tribe and purifying the site so that the sacred altar, made of earth, mica, tobacco, and eagle-down, may be set up along with the sacred pipe, its stem aimed sunwards, and the drums and rattles of the musicians. Then the people- all except the dancers and their mentors-close the day with a quiet feast, ready for the climax the next day.

But for the dancers, this is the crucial night. The leader and mentors explain the secret purposes of the Dance, revealing its significance, going over the sacred songs and legends in infinite detail.

"Very soon I shall suffer and endure great pain with my relatives here, in behalf of my people. In tears and suffering I shall hold my pipe and raise my voice to You, O Wakan-Tanka. I shall offer up my body and soul that my people may live. In sending my voice to you, Wakan-Tanka, I shall use that which connects the four Powers, Heaven, and Earth, to You. All that which moves on the universe- the four-leggeds, the insects, and the wingeds-all rejoice and help me and all my people!"

The Sun, the Light of the world,

I hear Him coming.

I see His face as He comes.

He makes the beings on earth happy,

And they rejoice.

O Wakan-Tanka, I offer to You

This world of light.

An elaborate Inipi (steam-bath) purification of all the dancers is made. This so purifies their flesh that it is taboo not only to others in the tribe, but even to themselves; they may not touch themselves, if they itch they must scratch with a stick, and when they paint themselves they must daub with sticks rather than their fingers.

"When we go to the center of the hoop we shall all cry, for we should know that anything born into this world which you see about you must suffer and bear difficulties. We are now going to suffer at the center of the sacred hoop, and by doing this may we take upon ourselves much of the suffering of our people."

Each dancer then declares which of the several (see page 27) (Sun Dance From page 5) kinds of sacrifice he will undergo. Some will drag buffalo skulls attached beneath the shoulder blades; some will dance with thongs attached to four posts and the breast and shoulders; some will be suspended from or attached to the Sun Pole itself, by thongs piercing either the chest or back, and some will merely dance for endurance, for the prolonged and trying period of the dancing. (The last is the only form now allowed by the Government.) Similarly, each dancer may vow to cut off even more pieces of flesh after the dancing, to leave at the center pole as offering to the universe.

Purified, painted, and pledged, the dancers are led along tbe Sun Trail, beside which the tribe has assembled. Circling the Sun Lodge, the dancers sing:

O Wakan-Tanka,

Be merciful to me,

That my people may live!

It is for this

That l am sacrificing myself.

They proceed into the Sun Dance Lodge wher the musicians are assembled, while behind them the vigil lodge is torn down so that it may never be used profanely. Within the dancing is a buffalo skull deposited on the earth-altar, the pipe is smoked, a fire is built, and each dancer is given a whistle made of eagle-bone. Each is painted with special signs signifying the kind of vow he has made; each wears a wreath of sage on his head which represents "the things of the heavens-the stars and planets, which are  very mysterious and Wakan."

The fourth sacred day begins with a preliminary Buffalo Dance in imitation of an enraged bull bison, with the dancers staring at the  buffalo skull on the altar (sometimes on the pole) as after they will stare into the sun-, those who undeviatingly carry through this part become Buffalo Men and may expect a direct vision from the Sun.

Then comes the ear-piercing ceremony, which  serves to initiate and consecrate small children into the tribe. It is the first bloodletting.

 Then the dancers stand to the west of the centerpole, staring towards the early sun in the east at the entrance to the lodge. Shifting their feet slowly, chanting and singing, they begin the Dance Gazing-into-the-sun. They move round to the east,  foreseeing the sun in the west and the end of the dance, singing "Our Grandfather, Wakan-Tanka, has given to me a path which is sacred!" Then to the South, looking North, blowing their eagle-bone whistles, "A buffalo is coming they say; He is here now, the Power of the buffalo is coming! It is upon us!" And round to the west, emotionless faces, whistling shrill as the eagle's attack to the North to face South, dancing more swiftly and once again to the west to face into the threatening Sun.

Suddenly mad warriors attack! They throw the dancers to the ground and scream in terror. Officials rush out to pin the dancers down as incisions are made in each dancer's breast or back-shoulder muscles by pulling up the skin and sticking a sharp stick deeply through the flesh. Long rawhide ropes, attached to the centerpole, or to buffalo skulls, or to four smaller posts, are tied to the sticks in the dancer 's body; and each dancer is stood up roughly, a captive of the Spirit. Blowing on his eagle-bone whistle, leaning back on this thongs, he dances, and continues to dance until the sticks pull loose through his flesh. He must dance constantly facing the sun, and he must move on the ground or suspended in cruel space, at all times except for brief formal rest periods when the attendants may wipe his bleeding flesh with water and medicines. He must dance at least four times before he may struggle to break free, tearing the flesh sundering the bindings. The drumming, shrilling, singing, and dancing never stop all day. If a dancer faints, the Leader may order him cut down, or, after the fourth dance, he may add the weight of his weapons and shield to his body's pull, or a friend may be allowed to assist by clasping him around the waist and pulling back.

Usually all dancers have torn loose or been cut loose by the end of the day, though it is of record that dancers have been held captive all day and all night, to be cut down at the leader's command only when a new day dawns. Those not too exhausted often danced on even after they had pulled themselves free.

At the conclusion, a pipe is taken to the singers and drummers to indicate their work is finished; a holy woman sits with the dancers at the west of the Lodge, offering the pipe to Wakan-Tanka; the tribal pipe-keeper or the dance leader concludes with a prayer to Wakan-Tanka..."ln suffering they have sent their voices to You; they have even offered to You their flesh, which is now here at the foot of this sacred tree. The favor that they ask of you is that their people may walk the holy path of life and that they may increase in a sacred manner."

 The camp and the lodge of the Sun Pole are destroyed and only the tree itself, with its emblems, is left to stand until the Powers should wipe it, and the Dance, from memory. 


The dancers retire to an Inipi lodge. Here soothing barbs are applied to their wounds, water is given their parched lips, and they they may ponder the Vision vouchsafed by the Sun. Each dancer has let himself submitto the extreme dangers faced by warriors on the Plains, captured by an "enemy", torture, grinding unbearable pain, extreme hunger and thirst, blinding pain suffered alone in the face of the universe. Each has borne it the best he could; each has struggled to finally release himself. And, hopefully, each understands.

The Leader may speak. "This day you have done a sacred thing, for you have given your bodies to the Great Spirit. When you return to your people always remember that through this act you have been made holy...You have strengthened the sacred hoop of our nation. You have made a sacred center  which will always be with you, and you have created a closer relationship with all things of the universe..."

Each dancer has had the experience; and each dancer has his own engagement with, his own Vision of that experience. Each has danced out of his flesh, gazing into the energy-source of all life. Black Elk says;

The flesh represents ignorance, and, thus, as we dance and break the thong loose, it is as if we were being freed from the bonds of the flesh. It is much the same when you break a young colt; at first a halter is necessary, but later when he bas become broken. the rope is no longer necessary. We too are young colts when we start to dance, but soon we become broken and submit to the Great Spirit."

But why the gift of the body? Why the self mutilation, the willing torture? Could not the warrior give something else? Chased-by-Bears, a Yankton Dakota, says: "A man's body is his own, and when he gives his body or his flesh he is giving the only think that really belongs to him. I might give tobacco or other articles in the Sun Dance, but if I gave these and kept back the best no one would believe that I was in earnest. I must give something that l really value to show that my whole being goes with the lesser gifts; therefore I promise to give my body."

This, then, is the Vision-, to give one's own dearest flesh to the Sun, to the Cosmos. In so doing, the interdependence of all life, the translation of all energy from sky to earth and back again, the renewal of the life-vision, are undergone personally by the dancers for the sake of the tribe. By their sacrifice, their strength and the interconnected power of the tribe must increase. This makes the act a sacrament, its thought a Vision.


"The Sun Dance is a technique for living." -Ed Dorn

The revolution is our Sun Dance.

A state of war exists in Amerika, and if we are to survive we must learn how to build revolutionary strong free tribes. We must learn to discipline ourselves to cast out mere chaos and dissipated energy, to endure an unbearably hard struggle; we must learn how dependent we are on each other, we must learn bow to struggle with our lives on the line, we must learn how to elevate and understand the revolution as a translation from earth to heaven, from ignorance to understanding, from captivity to liberation. These things we must learn from the original Viet Cong of Amerika, the red brothers and sisters whom we call Indians.

In our time, the Sun Dance has been watered down almost beyond recognizability. Whites have committed cultural as well as literal genocide against the tribes; the few Indians who dance these days wear sun-glasses, and do not their pierce their flesh: the buffalo-skull of old is now a stuffed head. We must recognize these facts-the incredible weakness of the tribes-as a first step. The next step is to recognize there are now millions of new Indians, new Blacks, new Whites, new Tribespeople of whatever hue, who are begging to learn how to become strong. We must understand the vow, commit our flesh, learn to dance TOGETHER.

Significantly, one of the few non-lndians to have danced the Sun Dance in recent times was Black photographer Leroy Lucas, whose pictures of the the dance may be seen in The Shoshoneans. Ed Dorn, who wrote the text in that book, says: "I was away at the time of the dances, late July, and when I returned to Pocatello, Leroy had just been through it. He seemed at first the same as ever-large clear brown eyes, disarmingly easy manner-straight out in front of me, who had returned  with the Troubles of the Great World in a bag. But he had, I gradually saw, changed. There was a subtle clarity and calm permeating his being."

Clarity and calm. Even in the rite reduced to spectacle there is strength.

 Which is not to say, machismo. A recent article on revolutionary affinity groups (cadre, tribes) in the Berkeley Tribe, by a daughter of the Amerikan Revolution," got it right on"

We were all of us, men and women, scared by what the revolution means. We still are-it isn't that easy to overcome Amerikan consciousness and seize control of our lives. Not only women, but men too are fucked over by bourgeois roles. Like a man who thinks he has to live up to this big tough guy image, Amerika's image of a white male isn't an image of a real person-how can be grow, love, feel in that role? Macho is a false strength-it doesn't deal with our fears, our feelings. And unless we can learn to come to terms with ourselves there's no way we can survive."

Every revolutionary young person in this fucked-up country is hanging by his/her pectoral muscles from the Sun Dance pole. And every oppressed person in the mother-country-whether oppressed because of dope laws, political views, the school prisons, white supremacy, male supremacy, capitalism, religious intolerance , or whatever- is struggling to gain freedom from that captivity. We must learn the ritual which will increase our strength; the rituals of doing, the acts of being. We must dance-dance or die, and if we die, connected to the Cosmos. I think the planet dies with us, this time.

But we must not die; we must give everything we have short of death-and many of us individually must give death.We must be ready for that, in order that the tribe and the planet may live.

"I must give something that I really value, to show that my whole being goes with the lesser gifts; therefore I promise to give my body."

That is the Sun Dance we are undertaking.