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The Sun Dance
Wiwanyank Wachipi

The Sundance is not of Cherokee.
Still a story worth telling!

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 childbirth.

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 abundance.

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 Sacred Tree.

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.

Denise Vaughan
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