By Jose Barreiro
The purpose was to pray, by dancing, by receiving each other in a good way. In a place where wild horse herds roam relatively free and is properly isolated, a ceremonial arbor set into the Four Directions is flanked by a large “shade” on poles and a dozen large tipis. This is home for four and more days to over sixty dancers, there to don the ceremonial skirt, red-tied bracelets of prairie sage on ankles and wrists, crown of sage tied in red cloth, dual eagle feathers, (“spikes” are favored) placed on the head, set to carry the ceremony as dancers of the sun. Below, “downstairs,” a second plateau half-mile away is camp for some two hundred family supporters of specific and groups of dancers, where more tipis and tents, an occasional RV, many trucks and cars, circle around a communal kitchen, staffed completely by volunteers, cooks and helpers.
There are many sundances each summer, perhaps fifty or more just at the Oglala-Lakota Reservation of Pine Ridge; hundreds, maybe thousands, across the Northern and Southern Plains, many more in Sun-appreciation ceremonies in the hemispheric Native Americas. While foundational precepts and structures are manifested wherever Native peoples salute or celebrate the sun, each sundance has its history, its specificity of culture and practice over its own ceremonial trajectory.
With the long history of Christianizing efforts in the area, I wouldn't have guessed Native religions were so active. Good to see that they are.
We had a hint of Sun Dance activity during my visit to South Dakota. We were scheduled to see the Thunder Valley ceremonial grounds, the location of a Sun Dance. It wasn't clear whether we were going to see the ceremony itself or just the grounds before or after the ceremony.
That didn't happen. I don't know if it was because June 25 turned out to be an official holiday on Pine Ridge and no one was available to escort. Or if the whole idea was more like wishful thinking than a solid plan.
At the end of the day, we stopped at the Pine Ridge home of Tony, one of our Lakota guides. I wasn't sure why, but someone said something about getting a glimpse of a Sun Dance, miles away, from his backyard. A storm came up and ruined any chance of that happening, though we may have seen a light from the Sun Dance.
On the way to the Wind Cave National Park the next day, we passed the place where Russell Means held a Sun Dance in previous years. In 2010 the rangers harassed him for holding the ceremony on public land. Holding the ceremony there was probably illegal, but Means claimed a First Amendment right to dance wherever he wanted. In 2011 the rangers changed their tune for some reason and helped Means.
Anyway, we couldn't see the actual site. It was around a bend.
For more on the subject, see Christian Flyer Calls Lakota Rite "Satanic" and Indians Had No Way to Worship God?!
Below: "After the Sundance: Looking east at the Tree of Life."