From 1881 to 1934, Sun Dances were held secretly because they had been banned in both Canada and the United States. The Canadian Indian Act made it illegal in that country, and in the United States it was proscribed under the Court of Indian Offenses after 1883. Even prior to government prohibition, Sun Dances had been discouraged by other means. The agent among the Blood band of the Blackfoot withheld rations and rendered other food ceremonially useless as well as preventing a traditional leader from getting employment to discourage the ceremony. Sun Dances without piercing began to be held more openly after the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934 with its Circular No. 2970 on American Indian religious freedom, and those including piercing became less secret in the late 1950s. The tribal council at Pine Ridge even advertised a Sun Dance to tourists for a Fourth of July Fair.
The Sun Dance has been practiced the longest by the Arapahos, Cheyennes, Crows, and Sioux, having come later to the others who practice it. For the Lakotas, the Sun Dance was brought by White Buffalo Calf Woman; for the Suhtai, by Erect Horns. For the Tsis-tsis-tas, Sweet Medicine brought the dance from the teachings given to him by the spirits inside Bear Butte. Sun Dances are traditionally held among these peoples in the summer, usually either around the end of June or beginning of July or around the end of July and beginning of August. This is the time of year when berries ripen or chokecherries darken to fullness, the time the buffalo was traditionally hunted and preserved.
The Sun Dance arbor is constructed each year anew around a central pole, the Tree of Life, often ritually hunted and brought in by one of the warrior societies. Shades made of tarps or other cloth cover the beams that fan out around the center pole, creating the sacred circle in which the dancers will make their sacrifice. Around and on the central pole are highly sacred objects and sometimes prayer cloths. Buffalo, the lifeblood of the Plains, are essential to the ceremony for most participating tribes, at least in some way. The Blackfoot include the use of Sacred Tongues in the food blessed in the ceremony. Buffalo skulls are used both for prayer and for a piercing weight.
Some peoples who hold the Sun Dance do not pierce for various reasons. The Tsis-tsis-tas, who once engaged in this Sun Dance practice, no longer do so because, as Eugene Blackbear, Sr., oldest living Tsis-tsis-tas Sun Dance leader, says, "Once a way has been lost, we cannot bring it back without someone who is qualified to do it," to act as an instructor who has engaged in the practice as a dancer. For the Kiowa, piercing would violate a prohibition against shedding blood during the time of the ceremony. Among peoples who pierce, skewers are put under the flesh and either tied to the central pole, to scaffolds, or to the buffalo skulls some supplicants drag behind them. Dancers who pierce often have to ultimately remove the piercing through a flesh offering, by dancing up to and away from the pole until the skin rips and the skewer flies free. During the ritual, dancers often do without food and water for up to four days. Led by their instructors, they dance intermittently for days on end, blowing sacred eagle bone whistles at times. They may not leave the arbor except when given permission by their instructors for a break to urinate or for ceremonial purposes. In some tribes, only men dance. In others, dancing is done by both male and female supplicants. Among the southern Cheyenne, women may fast but do not dance.
The dance's central purpose is for the renewal of life for the next year for the people, so that they might overcome the obstacles to their survival and have plentiful food for the next year; it is a thanksgiving, a giving back to the Creator for the blessings of the past year. The ceremony commemorates the creation of the world and acts to recreate it and the relationships within it annually. However, preparation for an individual Sun Dance supplicant begins with a vow to undertake the ceremony. Often, a vow is taken so that a relative might be healed from an ailment or safely returned from war or other separations. This vow might vary from one year to four years of Sun Dancing. The dancer, or faster, in the case of a female, must find an instructor qualified to lead him or her in the ceremony. The instructor gives up some of the medicine given to him or her in their years as a dancer or faster.
According to Blackbear, Cheyenne instructors keep back "one paint" or transfer for themselves. Because of the notion of reciprocity in ceremony and in life that is an ideal in many tribes, those taking vows offer gifts to the instructors, both upon taking the vow and in the ritual itself. Often, the entire extended family of the dancer spends nearly a year gathering and making the gifts; these include blankets, shawls, guns, horses, moccasins, and enamel-ware dishes and pots, among other items. A dancer often has to find someone to cook during the ceremony for him as well, often several female relatives. Elaborate meals are given to the instructor and his or her family several times a day during the ceremony itself, and a larger feast is held after the dance ends, including both the dancer's and the instructor's families. In other tribes, cooking for those encamped and the instructors is done on the community level, with women from various families chosen or volunteering to prepare food for all who attend.
Dancers often abstain from sexual activity for a period of time before the ritual; in some tribes, celibacy is practiced for a month to four months. In traditional Tsis-tsis-tas ways, the period at one time was four years. Moreover, some peoples acquire a pipe for praying and observe taboos that they must follow for the rest of their lives that accompany the medicine they are given through the dance. Often, dancers and instructors pray prior to the dance in a sweat lodge for the purpose of purification. Another sweat follows in some tribes at the dance's conclusion. In some nations and tribes, the Sun Dance is preceded by other bundle ceremonies, such as Arrow Worship among the Tsis-tsis-tas, a men's ritual that women know nothing about. In others, such as the Lakota, individual supplicants go out on the hill seeking a vision prior to dancing.
For many who take part in the ceremony, the Sun Dance is a homecoming, just as it was a gathering of the bands in the prereservation era. The camp life of the ceremony provided time for traditional games, council meetings, and the passing of information to those one seldom saw. Young people traditionally and today see the Sun Dance as an opportunity for courtship. Tents and recreational vehicles today help form the outer circle along with the teepees and bough-covered cooking shades that once formed it alone. Those about the camp who support dancers, visit old friends and relatives, and engage in various preparatory activities often must observe taboos as well, such as not wasting water or tossing it out carelessly. Drug and alcohol use is strictly prohibited and constitutes a major violation of the ceremonial space and the camp.
Menstruating women might be sent to a "moon lodge" in some ceremonies, while in others they should avoid the campground entirely as their power can interfere with that of the instructors. In some tribes, the Sun Dance is a time to bring those born during the year into tribal life formally, some piercing children's ears and others conducting formal naming ceremonies. Despite the changes brought by time and colonization, the Sun Dance religion remains vitally important to all aspects of life for the tribes that practice it. It perpetuates life and ideals such as generosity, bravery, and honesty, weaving the tribe together as a people and sustaining them.
Blackbear, Eugene Sr., 2004. Personal interview.; Hirschfelder, Arlene, and Paulette Molin, eds. 2000. Encyclopedia of Native American Religions, updated ed. New York: Facts on File.; Hoxie, Frederick E., ed. 1996. Encyclopedia of North American Indians: Native American History, Culture, and Life from Paleo-Indians to the Present. Boston: Houghton-Mifflin.; Markowitz, Harvey, ed. 1995. Ready Reference: American Indians. Vol. 1. Pasadena, CA: Salem Press.