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The Native American Sun Dance

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The Native American Sun Dance

Many Plains tribes still celebrate the annual Sun Dance.

Image © Getty Images

Sun worship is a custom that has gone on nearly as long as mankind itself. In North America, the tribes of the Great Plains saw the sun as a manifestation of the Great Spirit. For centuries, the Sun Dance has been performed as a way to not only honor the sun, but also to bring the dancers visions. Traditionally, the Sun Dance was performed by young warriors.

According to historians, Sun Dance preparation amongst most of the Plains peoples involved a lot of prayer, followed by the ceremonial felling of a tree, which was then painted and erected at the dancing ground. All of this was done under the supervision of the tribe's shaman. Offerings were made to show respect to the Great Spirit.

The Sun Dance itself lasted for several days, during which time the dancers abstained from food. On the first day, prior to beginning the dance, participants often spent some time in a sweat lodge, and the painted their bodies with a variety of colors. Dancers circled the pole to the beat of drums, bells, and sacred chants.

The Sun Dance was not held solely to honor the sun -- it was also a way of testing the stamina of the tribe's young, unblooded warriors. Among a few tribes, such as the Mandan, dancers suspended themselves from the pole with ropes attached to pins that pierced the skin. The young men of some tribes lacerated their skin in ritualized patterns. Dancers kept going until they lost consciousness, and sometimes this could go on for three to four days. Dancers often reported having a vision or a spirit walk during the celebration. Once it was over, they were fed, bathed, and -- with great ceremony -- smoked a sacred pipe in honor of the Great Spirit's manifestation as the sun.

Today, many Native American tribes still hold Sun Dance ceremonies, many of which are open to the public as a means of educating non-Natives about the culture.

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