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The Sundance Ceremony

There has been much controversy whether I should put this on the site. After much prayer and meditation, I have decided to include it. The only way to overcome fear is with knowledge.

Sundance is a traditional Lakota ceremony that represents life and rebirth. It was once exclusivly Lakota, but has become a ceremony employed by many other American Indian tribes. Each tribe has it's own variation of Sundance, but I will only describe the Lakota Sundance here.

Sundance is a new years ceremony celebrated in the summer, usually on a full moon. The actual Sundance lasts 28 days, but the last four days are the ones in which the dancing and most of the ceremony take place. A person who is invited to Sundance (you must have an invitation) must spend a year in preperation. This year is spent in sweats, meditation, and perhaps vision quests. You never know what to expect on your first Sundance, and nothing but the experience gives you this knowledge.

When the last four days of Sundance arrive, a dancer will go to where the ceremony is held. Once the sun rises on the first day, the day of the full moon, food and drink other than sage tea are relinquished until the ceremony is over. On each of the four final days, the day begains and ends with a sweat, or purification.

On tree day, the day before Sundance begains, a scout is selected to find the cottonwood tree that would stand at the center of the sundance circle. A cottonwood tree is always chosen because it it extrordinarily sacred. It is sacred for two reasons. One, because it was the tree that taught the Lakota how to make a tipi. It's leaves are shaped in the conical pattern of the tipi. Children made play houses from the leaves, which was seen by adults, and so they made their houses in the same pattern. Another reason the cottonwood tree is so sacred is because if you cut an upper limb crosswise, inside will be a perfect five pointed star which represents the presence of the Great Spirit.

When the scout returns with the information about the location of the tree, that evening the people involved in the ceremony go to the tree and offer it prayrs. A piece of rope is tied to the top of the tree. Then a honored person is chosen to count coup on the tree. Three other men are chosen and each of the four stand around the tree at one of the sacred directions. They each take turns cutting down the tree untill finally it is cut loose. The tree is then slowly lowered to the ground where it is caught by those men who pledged to pierce.

Blankets are placed on the ground where the tree would land, and as the tree is carried back to the Sundance circle, the blankets are retrieved from where the tree has passed and placed before it by the women, so the tree never touches the ground.

The tree is brought into the circle from the west. Bundles of sage and tobacco are then tied to the top of the tree by Sundancers to represent prayrs that they have. The tree is then carefully placed in the hole in the center of the circle that had been prepared for it.

Such ends tree day

The next three days are spent in dance, prayer, and meditiation. The men and women enter the circle each morning, and dance without food or water. The people dance in a clockwise motion, men on the inside, women on the outside. This goes on for the first two days, the dancers resting only when really nessasary, and only are allowed to drink sage tea. On the third day, which is commonly piercing day, the heyoka (sacred clowns, backwards people, and very spiritual people) come out to dance and raise the spirits of the dancers. They dance counter clockwise and traditionally wear black and white. The heyoka often are dressed in ridiculous clothes, and spend much of their time trying to make the dancers laugh.

The third day is also the day that most men pierce. Piercing is the most sacred part of the sundance ceremony. It is representitive of the sacrifice that the individual makes for the good of the tribe. As far as I know, the Lakota are the only tribe that has piercing in their Sundance. This was explained to me once by a Ute Sundancer to be because the Lakota pierce for the entire native people: they are the warriors of the American Indians, and thus sacrifice for the whole. I have no idea if this is a widely accepted reason, but it is a flattering one.

On this third day, all of the sundancers that have pledged to pierce (and haven't already) lie down together. The presiding Medicine Man(Men) then go to each person and cut two incisions in that person's chest. Then pegs are inserted into the holes and the sundancer is blessed. This goes on for each man who pledged to pierce. The dancers then go to the tree where there are ropes attached to the top, and attach these ropes to the pegs. Then traditionally they dance to and back from the tree three times, and then yank back with all of their stregnth, breaking the skin where the pegs are held in. The skin is then cut off, and placed at the base of the tree, and the sacrifice is made.

There are many variations on piercing: a dancer can be pierced in the back, and have buffalo skulls attached by ropes to the pegs, then he dances around the circle until the pegs break; a dancer can hang from the cottonwood or a Sundance lodge by his pegs until they break; or a person can be pierced both front and back, and have the pegs attached to four stakes placed in the four directions.

At dusk on the third day, the dancers close the circle and get a great feast that has been prepared for them. Hoka! This is the Lakota sundance ceremony as I have experienced it, but it has been a while, so if I have made any errors, PLEASE tell me, and I will briskly correct them.