| By the late nineteenth century the Teton Sioux faced challenges from the white man to every aspect of their lives, including their religious practices.
Their religion consisted of many ceremonial dances one of which was the Sun Dance. As the white man became familiar with this dance, the self-torture it involved, it became one of the many features of Sioux religion he sought to erase.
The ancient Sun Dance was one of the Sioux nation's greatest ceremonial rites. It was so sacred and dear to the Sioux that little of its real significance became known by the whites, and so it has ever been clothed in mystery and romance (Spindler, 1955, 65p).
To understand the importance of this rite in the life of Sioux, one must know the basics of the Sioux religion.
All Siouan gods merged to become Wakan Tanka, the Great Mysterious, who was at the same time many beings and one all-inclusive being.
Each of the constituent beings possessed distinct powers and commanded a particular form of ritual from those who would invoke his power; and all, while individual gods in their own right, collectively constituted Wakan Tanka.
All the gods that made up Wakan Tanka were benevolent gods.
The Teton did not worship them as the white man worshiped his God but rather appealed to them for help and personal power.
Of the benevolent gods, Wi, the Sun ranked as Chief. He appeared in the material form each day to span the heavens, then rested at night in the underworld.
Patron of the four principal Sioux virtues – bravery, fortitude, generosity and fidelity – his power might be solicited through certain offerings and ceremonies.
Chief among these was the Sun Dance, in which a dancer might communicate directly with Wi (Utley, 1963 12-13p).
The Sun Dance was held on an annual basis. The Teton held the Sun Dance in the full moon of June or July, when the world was green and nature and men were rejoicing.
The hunting season was by then concluded but the preparation for the winter months had yet to commence.
The dance festivities lasted from eight to fifteen days.
The first four days were devoted to a number of ceremonies that reinforced various ideals and customs of Sioux society.
For the women, fertility and chastity found expression in rituals.
For the men, there were rites to dramatize hunting, scouting, raiding, and victory over the enemy.
During the last four days men who had so vowed danced one of the four grades of the Sun Dance – worshipping, supplicating, and communing with the chief god, Wi, the Sun.
The fourth grade, danced on the fourth day, required the greatest self-torture (Utley, 1963, 16-17p).
Each dancer was suspended from the center pole by rawhide thongs [that] were attached to wooden skewers [that] had been inserted into incisions made in the breast and back. Dancers could also be pierced in both the breast and back as well.
The dancer was then expected to dance until he was able, by physical force, to rip free from the attachment, tearing the skewer from his skin.
In addition to the piercing a dancer may also offer strips of flesh cut from his body, usually from the arms.
The Sun Dance appalled missionaries of various Christian faiths and government officials alike because of its spectacular offering of flesh as a sacrifice. It was the severity of this self-torture, of course, which horrified and shocked the white observers.
They did not understand the Indian attitudes, or know that according to ancient belief it was a poor sacrifice indeed to offer material possessions as a token of gratitude for delivery from great stress or as an appeal for supernatural help.
Possessions all came from the Great Mystery in the first place; to offer them to God was only to give him back his own.
So the only sincere sacrifices a man could make was of his own body and blood (Laubin, 177, 76p).
It is told that only in sacrifice is sacredness accomplished; only in sacrifice is identity possible and found (Dooling, 1989. 245p).
The piercing a dancer endured was not to prove one's courage or endurance, but one's obedience to a vow and to give thanks to the Great Spirit for help in battle or sickness. A dancer suffered by his own free will to help others and to show his selflessness (Erodes, 1972, 106p).
As the late nineteenth century approached government officials began to do more than just voice their dislike of the Sun Dance that brought large groups of Indians together and led them to ignore their own new found purpose in life which the government had given them.
For if the Indians were away from their cattle and farmlands how were they expected to “conquer” their new livelihood and become “civilized” members of society?
By 1881, the Sun Dance had been banned from the reservations. Reformers had compiled a list of Indian offenses earmarked for eradication.
In 1882, the Commissioner of Indian Affairs proclaimed this list of Indian offenses, in effect proscribing just about every Sioux tradition or ritual he could identify.
Rooting out paganism to make way for civilization, the government outlawed holding feasts or dances. The government proclamation struck at the heart of the Indians spiritual strength, forbidding the healing and religious practices of the medicine men and banning the Sun Dance (Lazarus, 1991, 100-101p).
Secretary of the Interior, Henry M. Teller, in December of 1992, called attention to “a great hindrance to the civilization of the Indians, viz, the continuance of the old heathenish dances, such as the Sun Dance, scalp dance, etc.”
Such practices he insisted led to a warlike spirit and demoralized the young. “It will be extremely difficult to accomplish much towards the civilization of the Indians, while these adverse influences are allowed to exist” (Prucha, 1984, 218p).
Government regulations stated: “Any Indian who shall engage in the Sun Dance, scalp dance, or war dance, or any other similar feast, so called, shall be deemed guilty of an offense and upon conviction thereof shall be punished for the first offense by the withholding of his rations for not exceeding ten days…” (Josephy, 1982, 85p).
With proscription of the Sun Dance, the social and religious framework of the Sioux began to give way beneath the pressure to adopt the white man's religion.
No longer could they appeal to Wi for personal power and assistance.
No longer could the Sun Dance strengthen such values and institutions of Teton society as it still existed.
The Sioux had been dealt a shattering emotional blow, and their lives began to seem like a great void (Utley, 1963, 33p).
Contrary to what is written, the Sun Dance never became extinct.
From oral tradition there is evidence of people on numerous Sioux reservations having sneaked off to the badlands or to hidden places in the hills where these formal ceremonies took place in as close to their original form as they could be (DeMallie, 1987, 76p).
However, the Sun Dance continued to be discouraged and few felt the freedom and independence to partake or the desire to pay the price for partaking.
The harassment persisted as the 1920's arrived. After much complaint from the Indian Rights Association and missionaries, the Commissioner of Indian Affairs, Charles H. Burke, issued a special circular on dances in which he asserted that they were inherent in human nature but the Sun Dance, which involved self-torture, and which would bring Indians together from remote points to the neglect of their crops, livestock, and home interest was not acceptable.
He said that if the Sun Dance was practiced, it would be punishable under the Indian Offense Laws (Prucha, 1984, 275p).
Burke issued assorted literature on Indian dances and it was obvious the concern was about interruptions in the Sioux work routine [that] was of utmost importance to him.
John Collier, a one time social worker and eventually Commissioner of Indian Affairs, was to be the instigator of the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934, and with that the savior of Indian religion and culture.
By a circular of January 3, 1934 entitled “Indian Religious Freedom and Indian Culture”, he demanded “the fullest constitutional liberty, in all matters affecting religion, conscience, and culture” for all Indians.
He also demanded that employees of the Indian Service show an “affirmative, appreciative attitude toward Indian cultural values.”
He directed unequivocally: “No interference with Indian religious life or ceremonial expression will hereafter be tolerated. The cultural liberty of the Indians is in all respects to be considered equal to that of any non-Indian group.” (Prucha, 1984, 320p).
Collier saw beauty and mystical experience in the Indian dances. He accused the government of destroying the Indian culture in its effort to Americanize and civilize the Indians (Prucha, 1984, 276p).
In six months, with the passing of the Indian Reorganization Act the noose was completely loosened on the religious freedom of the Sioux.
The Sun Dance revival began slowly and on a small scale, with few dances.
The important dancers, obviously, were the older men who instructed the younger generation in the old ways.
Many were not interested in dancing and it took the persistence of a few to keep the dance alive.
As time passed interest in this ceremony grew and by 1950 the Sun Dance began to emerge.
In 1963 it began to function as a revitalization movement among the Sioux (DeMallie, 1987, 163p).
Today, the dance has assumed an almost intertribal, nativistic movement.
Many tribes feel the need to participate in the Sun Dance to be a complete “Indian.” The lack of religious rites and historical culture in tribes other than the Sioux attracts many to be pierced.
However, many Sioux themselves believe that of those who participate, few are knowledgeable enough to integrate the values an norms of the ceremony into their everyday life throughout the year (DeMallie, 1987, 164p).
Regardless of the controversy, the Sun Dance is a strong religious link to the past for young Native Americans.
It is a phenomenon that will occur more and more in the future as young Native Americans search for a deeper and more profound understanding of their contemporary culture by studying written records of the past (DeMallie, 1987, 75p).