Friday, April 8, 2016

About the Native American Sioux Sun Dance

About the Native American Sioux Sun Dance


The Sioux or Dakota Indians are one of the largest tribes left. They live at present chiefly in the states of North and South Dakota. There are a number of divisions or sub-tribes of them—the Santee, Sisseton, Wahpeton, Yankton, Yanktonnais, and Teton Sioux. The Tetons in turn are divided into several bands each with its own name. These are all Sioux proper, but there are many other tribes that speak languages that are related to the Sioux. Among these Siouan—but not Sioux—tribes are the Winnebagoes, Mandans, Ponkas, Assinaboines, Omahas, and Otoes.

The Sioux are tall, finely built Indians, with large features and heavy, massive faces. They are a good type of the Plains Indians who until lately lived by hunting buffalo. There are now nearly thirty thousand true Sioux and about ten thousand Siouans of related tribes.


Among all peoples of the Siouan family it is probable that the terrible sun dance was practiced. It differed somewhat from tribe to tribe. It was seen and described by a number of whites, but to-day it has been forbidden by the United States government, and it is some years since it last took place.
The sun dance was made to please Wakantanka, the sun. If there were a famine or disease, or if one wished success in war, or to have a good crop, a young man would say, “I will pray to Wakantanka early in the summer.” The man at once began to prepare for the event. He took sweat baths, drank herb teas, and gave feasts to his friends, where herb teas were used. He had to be careful of what things he touched; used a new knife, which no one else might use; must not touch any unclean thing. He could not go in swimming. He and his friends gathered together all the property they could, that he might give many gifts at the time of the dance.
At his house every one had to treat him kindly and not vex him. An umane was made near the back of the tent. This was a space dug down to the lower soil. Red paint was strewn over it, and no one might set foot upon it. Any of those who were to take part in the dance, after he had smoked would carefully empty the ashes from his pipe upon this spot. The spot represented life as belonging to the earth.
Invitations to neighboring tribes were sent early, and long before the dance parties began to arrive. Some of these would spend several weeks about the village. At first they pitched their camps wherever it best suited them. A little before the dance orders were given, and all the visitors camped in one large camp circle, each tribe occupying a special place. The space within this circle was carefully leveled and prepared. A special building was erected in the center of this circle in which the young men made their preparations. In it were buffalo skulls,—one for each dancer,—a new knife and ax, and couches of sage for the dancers to lie upon.
A sacred tree was next secured and set up. This was an important matter. Men of consequence were first sent out to select it. When they had found one they announced it in the village, and a great crowd rode out on horseback to the spot. Many strange things were done in getting it, but at last it was cut down. A bundle of wood, a blanket, a buffalo robe, and two pieces of buffalo skin—one cut to the shape of a man, the other to that of a buffalo—were fastened in the tree. It was then carried in triumph back to the camp and set up.
A dance house was built around this tree. It was like a great ring in shape, and the space between it and the tree was not roofed. The dance house was built of poles and leaves. In it all the more important parts of the ceremony were performed. After the tree was set up and the dance house built, all the town was in excitement; men, dressed in all their finery, went dashing on horseback around the camp circle, shooting their pistols and making a great noise. The old men shot at the objects hung in the sacred tree. At evening the young men and women rode around, singing.


During all this time the young men had been preparing for the dance. They were especially dressed, they had sung, drummed, and smoked. When the evening came that has been described, the dance really began. The young men danced from the lodge, where they had been making preparation, to the dance lodge.
The leader carried a buffalo skull painted red. All cried as they went. On entering the dancing house they saluted the four cardinal points and seated themselves at the back of the lodge, singing. A spot, shaped like a crescent, was then cut in the ground, and the dancers placed in it the buffalo skulls they carried. Shortly afterward began the tortures, which have made this dance so famous. They were intended to test the bravery of the young men and to please the sun. Sometimes a man stood between four posts arranged in the form of a square. His flesh was cut in two places in the back, and thongs were passed through and tied to the post in front. Another had a buffalo skull hung to the thong passed through his back, and danced until the weight of the skull tore out the thong. From a pole hung eight thongs; one man took two of these and passed them through his cuts and fastened them; he then hung back and looked upward at the sun. Other men, who did not take part in the dance itself, sat near the sun pole, and with new knives cut bits of flesh from their shoulders and held them up to the sun pole. Sometimes a man took his horse with him into the dancing lodge. His chest was pierced in two places and thongs from the pole were inserted; he was then tied to his horse, and the animal was whipped up. The thongs were thus suddenly jerked and the flesh torn.
Tortures of the Mandan Sun Dance. (After Catlin.)

These are only a few of the dreadful things that have been told of sun-dance tortures. They are taken from a description given by an Indian named George Bushotter. He not only described the dance, but drew a curious lot of rude pictures showing it.
Years before, George Catlin saw the sun dance of the Mandans, and left four terrible pictures of
it. The celebration at that time among the Mandans exceeded in the horror of its tortures that which we have described.
While these tortures were going on in the dancing lodge, all sorts of things were being done outside. The old women danced. Songs were sung in honor of the young men. Children were gathered together and their ears were pierced. Presents were given away. A double fence of poles connected the house of preparation and the dance house, and upon it objects of all kinds were hung. These were free gifts to any one who chose to take them.
From the time the sacred tree was set up until the dance was over, the young men taking part fasted and took no drink. While they suffered, and as they gazed at the sun or lifted up their hands toward it, they continually prayed, saying, “Please pity me; bring to pass the things I desire.” When all was over, the young men were taken home, and each was given four sips of water and a bit of food. A little later they might eat all they liked. Then they went into the sweat lodge. They were now through, and ever after might boast of having danced to Wakantanka.