The human spirit longs for connections to the natural world, for ways to acknowledge, greet and say thank you to the life spirits behind the world perceived by human senses. It has been so for millennia with Native peoples, and with other cultures as well. The Sun Dance of the Lakota and other Plains tribes is one way this is done.
Anything spiritual needs a physical carrier, and this is what the Sun Dance provides. The procedures, formations, prayers and songs of the ritual connect the spirits of the dancers with the spirit world within, around, and beyond themselves. Along with the rigors of the dance movements, deprivation of food and water make it intense.
Last year on Pine Ridge there were 96 Sun Dances across Pine Ridge, contrasting from the early reservation period when there was only one. The Code of Indian Offenses, published in 1883, criminalized the ceremony “for having been associated with former hostilities against the U.S. government.” The criminalization of societies and ceremonial associations led directly to the dismantling and underground continuance of Lakota life.
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By the late 1890s when the Pine Ridge shamans and holy men were dying, debate arose among those still living over whether to keep their knowledge to themselves, or share it. Long Knife (George Sword) argued to the holy men that soon they would go from the world and all their sacred lore would pass with them unless they revealed it so that it could be preserved in writing; that future generations of Oglalas should be informed as to all that their ancestors believed and practiced; and that the Gods of the Oglalas would be more pleased if the holy men told of them so that they might be kept in remembrance and that all the world might know of them. The Sun Dance is central to the practices referred to; and if more and more of the world knows of the Oglala Gods, it’s only another step to address them.
Beyond various contemporary traditions, we find foundational words from direct ancestors of the 1800s stating their hope that all the world may know of the Oglala Gods, of which Wakan Tanka means all of them.
Some Sun Dances on Pine Ridge forbid whites because this is Lakota religion and “not for just anyone.” But, on September 14, 1896, American Horse said ‘Anyone may dance the Sun Dance if he will do as the Oglalas do.” And in that same time period, Afraid Of Bear said about whites participating in ceremonies “I can perform the Hunka (adoption) ceremony for anyone who is chosen in the right way. I can do it for a white man… A white man would be my brother if he became a Hunka.”
It is wonderful to see so many Sun Dances going on. It’s spiritual resilience and generosity among a people deeply traumatized by historical oppression and severe poverty. “I want to live,” “Make the people to live,” are refrains in the songs. The people pray hard, but the children are suffering horribly.
The Lakota people need the help of goodhearted allies to sustain the path to better living conditions. Something good must happen in this generation.
Tom Cook is a field coordinator for Running Strong for Indian Youth.