|John Fire Lame Deer used to say, "White Christians
let Jesus do the suffering for them, but Indians give of their own flesh,
taking the suffering upon themselves, making a sacrificial altar of their
own bodies. If we offer the Creator a horse, tobacco bundles, food for
the needy, we are making him a present of something he already owns. Everything
on this Earth has been created by Wakan Tanka and is a part of him. It
is only our flesh, our blood, our pain, that is a real sacrifice, a real
giving of ourselves. How can we give anything else?"
Wiwanyank Wachipi is dedicated to Ptesan Win
(White Buffalo Calf Woman) and to women in general. It is also a dance
in which Indians suffer and pray for the renewal of all life. We pierce
and offer our suffering for our families and for the life of the Sacred
Hoop. An Indian undergoes the pain of piercing because it may take pain
away from someone he loves. He may also feel and understand the pain of
The Sun Dance has been grossly misunderstood
throughout the past. It is not a dance of initiation or a rite of passage.
It is not done to prove courage. Wiwanyank Wachipi is a matter of a few
giving an extra measure in prayer for the good of the people.
The cottonwood tree is used for the ceremony
to stand in the center of the circle to represent the Tree of Life. The
white fluff from its seeds represents the eagle's plumes and its heart
shaped leaves are like the heart of our nation. A group of scouts is sent
out to find the perfect tree. A young virgin who represents White Buffalo
Calf Woman, chops the chosen tree once at each directional point. After
that, anyone may take 'four licks' at the tree. In the old days, a war
party would count coup on the tree before it was chopped down. Smoke from
the Chanunpa (sacred pipe) is offered to the tree in thanks. A group of
strong, brave men catch the tree which must never touch the ground, and
carry it to the camp.
All but the top branches are removed. Pieces
of the removed branches are often kept by people as symbols of prayer and
prosperity. The top branches always end in a fork representing the connection
of the people on the Earth to the sky and the Creator. Tobacco offerings
and medicine bundles may be hung from the top branches to be blessed. Offerings
of cloth in the six sacred colors are tied to the trunk as well. Small
figures of a man and a buffalo hang from the tree, often with exaggerated
male parts, because Wiwanyank Wachipi is a rite of renewal, a prayer for
more children and buffalo to be born.
A large hole is dug in the center of the circle
in which to plant the tree. Food for the tree - buffalo fat, corn and kidney
wasna (pemmican), chokecherries and water - is put into the hole. This
food is offered in thanks fr what we have already and as a prayer for future
With four ropes and the strength of all the
people, the tree is raised from its bed of sticks and sage to an upright
position. A cry of triumph is raised to its glory.
To the west of the tree is a sacred place called
Owanka Wakan. Its made of earth smoothed over with an eagle feather and
a buffalo skull altar. The Sun Dance ground is a huge circle formed by
twenty eight poles with a "shade" formed of pine boughs along the sides.
Twenty eight is a sacred number related to
the lunar cycle which formed the Indian month. Two days represent the Great
Spirit, two are for Mother Earth, four are for the four winds, one is for
the Eagle, one is for the sun, one is for the moon, one is for the Morning
Star and foour for the four ages, seven are for our seven great rites,
one is for the buffalo, one is for the fire, one is for the water and one
is for the rock and the last day is for the two legged people. It is also
significant that the buffalo has twenty eight ribs and most war bonnets
use twenty eight feathers.
The circle stands open to the east where the
dancers enter and no one may so much as pass by this door. There is a special
Sun Dance tipi where the leaders and elders counsel before and after the
dance, and there are as many as twelve large Sweat lodges for the dancers
with a couple of special Initis (sweat lodges) for the women as well.
Each dancer wears a sacred symbol, a circle
with a cross to represent the powers of the universe, a crescent
to represent the moon, a five pointed star to represent Morning Star who
stands between the darkness and the light and symbolizes knowledge,
a red circle with a blue circle in the middle to represent the sun which
is the symbol of Wakan Tanka, a red circle to represent the Earth who is
our mother and grandmother, a blue circle to represent the sky nations
(the clouds, the stars, the winged beings) who are closest to Wakan Tanka,
and finally, the form of tatanka, the buffalo who is our brother and teaches
the people respect and generosity.
Black Elk explains that the flesh represents
ignorance, and as we dance we break loose from the bonds of flesh and submit
to the Great Spirit. To do this, dancers are pierced. Most dancers are
pierced while on their backs, but may prefer to have it done standing up.
In the old days the knife was made of buffalo bone or a well cleaned eagle
claw. Today holy men use ordinary pocket knives honed to a point. Leonard
Crow Dog grabs the skin between his teeth and bites down hard to numb the
spot and make any veins go back so that all he is holding is skin and sinew.
This minimizes the bleeding. Then he runs his knife through very
quickly so that the dancer doesn't feel anything. Skewers of chokecherry
wood are inserted into the flesh to which the rope is attached.
Before the dance begins each dancer must declare
which method of piercing he is going to undertake. The most common is to
be pierced in two places on the chest above the nipples. The men are attached
with rope to the Sacred Tree and dance back from it three times until the
flesh is stretched far out almost to breaking. They tear themselves free
on the fourth try.
A dancer may choose to drag buffalo skulls.
In this case he is pierced twice on the back and connected with cords to
two, eight or even twelve skulls. The dancer will dance around the circle
four times dragging his heavy load. Sometimes his friends will grab him
under the arms and help pull him along if he is completely exhausted.
A dancer may vow to hang from the Tree of Life.
They are pierced in two places on the back with cords attached. These cords
are thrown over the crossbar of the Sacred Tree and attached to a horse
on the other side. The horse is used to slowly hoist the man aloft. If
a dancer hangs to long the horse may be made to trot to and from the tree
to jerk the dancer free or friends may grab his legs and pull him down.
Lame Deer reports watching a man hang for as long as two hours.
Leonard Crow Dog was pierced in four places,
two in his chest and two in his back. Ropes were tied to the skewers and
attached to four horse which galloped away in four directions.
A very brave dancer may vow to dance 'standing
tied". This man is pierced in four places and attached to four poles with
very short cords which leave him very little room to move. While the other
dancers can jump or run to tear themselves loose, a man who is standing
tied has to work himself free slowly.
Dancing with the Sacred Tree has the dancer
attached to the tree and pulling so hard that the top of the tree sways,
but never breaking the cord. In the evening they remove the ropes, but
keep the skewers in their chest to be reattached the next day when they
continue dancing for the entire four days.
In the old days, piercing was only done on
the final fourth day. Now there are so many dancers that some piercing
is done each day. As the dancers enter the circle, each raises his arms
to the Sacred Tree, saying a prayer. They each wear an eagle bone whistle,
the sound of which is a prayer for wisdom and further understanding of
Wakan Tanka. The dancers blow their whistles intermittently throughout
the dance. How much a dancer suffers depends on his state of mind, the
strength of his belief in Wakan Tanka and such things as wi-ihanbla (sun
dreaming) which is akin to being in a trance of receiving a vision.
When a woman chooses to dance, she is pierced
at her arms or wrists. Only recently have some women started piercing at
the collar bones. Mary Brave Bird, who was married to Crow Dog, was pierced
in four places and attached to four horses. The next year, she was hanging
from the Sacred Tree. One of the two skewers in her back tore through and
she spun wildly, suspended at one side only. She told Lame Deer that she
hadn't minded at the time because she was busy having a beautiful vision.
Whenever a dancer pulls free, the women watching
call the tremlo, the high pitched "li-li-li" sound of triumph. The
dancer then runs once around the circle, together with friends and relatives
who have supported him through his ordeal.
We are not sun worshippers. The sun is not
God. It was created for the rest of creation and we respect it. We pray
to it because it watches over the world and sees everything that is going
on. It also serves Wakan Tanka by bestowing special gifts upon the world.
Lakota believe in only one true Creator which is many things in one. Anyone
who believes in the Christian Trinity should have no problem understanding
this Lakota concept.
Indians do not stare continually at the sun
while they dance. Dancers do face the sun part of the time, and pray to
God through it asking for strength to complete the Sun Dance and that all
our prayers will be heard. But part of the time the dancer's back is to
the sun as he looks at the cloth banners that are tied to the top of the
Flesh offerings may be made by anyone, even
spectators. To do this, one must come barefoot into the circle. Fools Crow,
who was intercessor for the Pine Ridge Sun Dance for many years, was told
in a vision to take his offerings from his forehead, the palms of his hands,
and the soles of his feet. First he puts herb medicine on the places
where he intends to cut, then he lifts the flesh with a needle and cuts
the pieces of with a razor blade. Each offering is wrapped in a piece of
cloth and buried at the base of the Sacred Tree. Once the offering has
been taken, each person should go around the tree clockwise and exit the
circle. Children may also be brought to the dance ground to have their
ears pierced by a wichasa wakan. In the old days, this was done with
a sharp, pointed bone, but now we use awls. Having this done during
the Sun Dance brings good luck, and a little girl undergoing this ceremony
is honored just like a pierced adult.
To begin the dance, the intercessor, a wichasa
wakan, leads the dancers into the circle and to the west cardinal point
which is marked with two black flags. Everyone stops at this point and
prays to the west wind and its powers, specifically Wakinyan (Thunderbeings).
They move to the the north which is marked by two red flags and pray
to the north wind and its powers. This is repeated for the east and
south winds and their respective powers. At this time the dancers turn
back to face the sun and the Sacred Tree where four songs are song
and the dancers dance in place and offer their pipes to the sun while
the Intercessor makes up the altar.
The altar consists of a two foot square of
loose dirt divided into four equal parts. The grooves marking the
divisions are filled with sacred tobacco which has been offered to
Wakan Tanka, Unci Maka (Grandmother Earth) and the four cardinal
directions. Powdered red paint and shiny white mica dust is sprinkled over
the tobacco and sage is spread over the entire altar square. A buffalo
skull is placed in the center facing the east, the rising sun. This skull
should be painted, one half red to symbolize the Lakota people and
fire, one half green to symbolize fertility and growth. Balls of
sage are placed in the mouth and eye openings for purification. A small
pipe rack made of cherry wood sticks is set up to the immediate west of
the altar square where the dancers lean their pipe stems with the
bowls even with the western-most line of the square. The pipes
of the intercessor, assistants and the dance leader are leaned against
the buffalo skull on its south and north sides.
When the altar is finished and the pipes
all properly in place, three more songs are song. These seven songs
are in memory of the seven bags of seven powers which were
given to the Lakota by Ptesan Win (White Buffalo Calf Woman). We
have seven sacred ceremonies.
To dance, the Intercessor takes the sage wristband
of the lead dancer and leads him in a circle around the altar with
the other dancers following in a single line. They start at the west,
walking past the north and going to the flags at the east. Four more songs
are sung at this point while the dancers dance in place. Then the dancers
move to the south and again dance in place at this place. At this point
the Intercessor will give the lead dancer his pipe which he presents to
one of the singers. When the dancers leave the circle to rest, the singers
smoke the pipe. This completes the first circle. In this way, the
dancers will continue to circle throughout
the day, changing direction toward or away from the sun pole with each
circle until all of the dancers' pipes have been presented and smoked.
It is at least 3pm by the time they are done,
depending on the number of dancers. Dancers may not eat or drink during
the entire Sun Dance. Fools Crow tells of a Sun Dance at Green Grass which
had seventy two dancers. Even with four men taking their pipes forward
at a time, the circle was not complete until 9pm. To end for the day, the
dancers dance in place at the west cardinal point while the Intercessor
picks up the flags and the buffalo skull. The dancers are then led out
of the mystery circle and to the tipi stopping four times before reaching
the east entrance and twice thereafter. The singers
continue until the last dancer has left
the circle. An Inipi ceremony will be held at sunset, but the dancers remain
in their camps otherwise.
After piercing, the wound is sealed with sage
or the purest of tobacco to purify and stop the bleeding. Lame Deer reports
of some wichasa wakan who sealed wounds with a special soil taken from
gopher holes. Gophers are a sacred symbol of Unci Maka (Grandmother Earth).
It is thought that sundancers have a certain healing power immediately
after the ritual has ended. Those who want to be healed will pray with
the dancers and be fanned with a feather or a sprig of sage. Often times,
dancers will point their pipes at the spectators so as to include all people
in their prayers and offer blessings to the crowd.