The Sun Dance

The Hidatsa Tribe were a part of the Siouan family, also related to the Crow Indians, who lived in Montana on the Missouri River. The Sun Dance of the Hidatsa is similar to that of other tribes. Primarily, it is a prayer to the Sun-God for a Dancer's secret wishes: for his deliverance from his troubles, for supernatural aid, and for beneficent blessings upon all of his people.

For many moons this particular Dancer had dreamed of the Chief's daughter becoming his wife. He had a vision of himself performing the Sun Dance in supplication for his secret wish. The vision prompted him to call his tribe together for a Sun Dance. Then the Dancer went to a high place alone, declaring to the Sun-God:

"In the coming summer, I shall build your lodge. I shall stand in the holy place. I shall kill buffalo and take the hides for you. I shall dance for you to be worthy of my beloved that I may have her for my wife. I shall dance for you so that I may have visions to help protect me from my enemies, so that my people may grow strong, so that no disease may come, so that the buffalo may be plentiful, so there will be an abundance of rain throughout the year."

The young Dancer called upon his Mother and his Grandmother saying, "Please tell all of your relatives that I shall perform the Sun Dance." They spread the news and the tribal men gathered buffalo hides. These they brought to the tribal women for curing. The Dancer provided the feasts for all who came to the celebration of his Sun Dance.

When everything was in readiness, the Dancer took a buffalo robe to the Priest, one of his Father's clansman who was experienced in presiding over the Sun Dance Ceremony. The Priest represented the Sun-God. Before him the Dancer placed his buffalo robe and offered his pipe, saying, "Wise One, I have come to you for guidance. I wish to obtain the blessings of the Sun-God."

The Priest accepted the pipe and replied, "I am glad, my son, that you have come to me. I will aid you in this ceremony."

When the public announcement was made that the Sun Dance was to be given, the clansmen of the Dancer's Father asked for a scalp and left hand taken from an enemy. Sometimes both of these items were offered freely by a relative or purchased for a high price.

Before raising the sun-pole, a fresh buffalo head with a broad centre strip of the back hide and tail were fastened with strong thongs to the top crotch of the sun-pole. Then the pole was raised and set firmly in the ground, with the buffalo head facing toward the setting-sun.

The sacred lodge was built by the Dancer and his clansmen. Men who owned medicine bundles brought them into the lodge of the Priest. The Dancer furnished each man with a buffalo robe upon which to lay his sacred bundle. The Dancer selected a favorite bundle that might be a red fox skin, for example, and for which the owner might ask the Dancer for a token.

The tribal Singer took the red fox skin and held it toward the burning incense. Then he touched it to the body of the Dancer and to that of his mother and Grandmother. Then he replaced it in front of its former owner. In this manner, the Dancer bought many of the medicine bundles and paid what the owners asked, in addition to his gifts of buffalo robes upon which rests each medicine bundle.

By this time, the Singer had learned the sacred songs and the manner of painting that each medicine required. The Singer taught the Dancer the secrets of each medicine that the Dancer bought. Some protect against enemies, some are good luck in contests, and some are for success in love and in hunting. When the Dancer had bought what he desired, the men went out, carrying his gift of the buffalo robe.

After construction of the Sun-Lodge, the Priest took the enemy scalp and left hand and raised them to the North Wind, South Wind, East Wind, and West Wind, saying, "I have often taken these in combat. May you have protection against your enemy always," giving them to the Dancer.

Young men, who are the Fasters and have their flesh pierced, arrived and went into the Sun-Lodge. Each carried his medicine bundle and an armful of sage. They crossed to the south side of the lodge, and each chose a place for his sage. They hung their medicine bundles on short sticks stuck in the ground in front of their sage.

The Dancer took the bundles that he brought and piled them on a buffalo skull. The Singer began the chants of mystery in a slow measured rhythm. The incense was then burned. The Dancer trembled from excitement. The Priest took white paint, holding it in the incense smoke for a moment and smeared it over the body of the Dancer and drew a white circle around his face.

To complete dressing the Dancer, the Priest hung a medicine hoop on his back, held by a cord around his neck. On his head, the Priest placed a band of jackrabbit skin, with the head dropping over his left ear. An eagle-down feather was tied to the Dancer's scalplock, pointing backward. A whistle made of eagle-bone was hung around the Dancer's neck.

Meanwhile, the Fasters opened their medicine bundles, burned incense, painted themselves, and adorned themselves as they were taught by their elders and Guardian Spirits. Those having no medicine smeared themselves completely with white paint. Each Faster had an eagle-bone whistle hung from his neck and carried a shield and a lance.

The Singer painted himself and placed raven feathers in his hair. He arranged himself in front of the buffalo skin suspended from the sun-pole. He extended his arms toward it, rubbing his body as if receiving some special power from the buffalo.

Medicine-men arranged themselves south of the entrance to the Sun-Lodge. The old women of the tribe who prepared the spot for the Sun Dance, together with the medicine-women, sat on the north side. All come to pray and to fast. The relatives of the young male Fasters entered, carrying food. Each Faster took a bowlful of the food to a clansman of his father.

Then came the challenge to the Fasters' bravery. They approached the Priest and the Singer. Two small slits were cut in the shoulder skin of each young man presenting himself. Through the slotted skin, a leather thong was threaded with a wooden pin attached to the end preventing the thong from pulling out of the slotted skin.

The other ends of these thongs were attached to the top of the sun-pole (similar to a Maypole). The Priest and Singer twirled each Faster four times, his feet barely touching the ground. Then the Faster swung free twisting and circling around the sun-pole. But he dared not touch the thong with his hands. Any attempt to break the taboos was frowned upon by all his people as a lack of courage and endurance.

When the Faster finally broke loose from the sun-pole, he fell to the ground. Priest and Singer placed him gently on his bed of healing sage. There he remained and fasted from two to four days.

Any Dancer must first have been a Faster in an earlier Sun Dance. The Dancer danced back and forth continuously toward the sun-pole in the circle as long as a Faster was attached to the sun-pole. The Dancer sprang from the ground with his legs rigid and his feet together, his eyes fixed upon the buffalo head, and blew his eagle-bone whistle in rhythm with the beating drum.

The Dancer's mind was intent upon his desire to win his secret wish, the Chief's daughter, and to become a strong leader of his tribe. During his dance he prayed silently for those visions. He continued his dance until he fell from exhaustion. There he stayed until his visions appeared, or until the fourth day of the fast, if necessary.

The young Fasters lay upon their beds of sage. They have dreams and visions, which they related to the Priest. If they were sufficient, the Faster left the Sun-Lodge, because his supplications were answered by the Sun-God.

Near the doorway, the medicine-men still fasted and sought visions. Some of the younger boys of the tribe dragged buffalo heads through the village for fun.

If it was seen that a Faster cannot break away from the sun-pole and might be in danger, he was cut loose honourably. At the end of the fourth day, only a few Fasters still seeking visions remained.

The exhausted Dancer was taken to his lodge. If he or any Fasters wished to continue the Sun Dance, the Sun-Lodge was permitted to stand for them. Otherwise, it was torn down. Only the sun-pole with the buffalo head on top was left to mark the spot of the traditional Sun Dance.

The Dancer and all of the Fasters recovered honourably from their sacred experience.

In due time, the Chief of the Hidatsa tribe declared that the Dancer had won his daughter in marriage.

The Dancer went to the high ground, and in gratitude prayed and praised the Sun-God for the many blessings bestowed upon him and his beloved wife, and upon his tribe.

Indigenous Peoples' Literature Return to Indigenous Peoples' Literature
Compiled by: Glenn Welker

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