The Sun Dance O, Wakan Tanka, be merciful to me that my People may live. It is for this that I am sacrificing myself. The Sun Dance is held every year in the month of June or July when the moon was full.
It was first uncovered in a vision to a Lakota Indian called Kablaya. Wakan Tanka told him that his People had become way to sluggish in their prayers, so he sent them a new way of praying-the Sun Dance. In a Sun Dance, dancers present their bodies as a sacrifice on behalf of all the Lakota people. Through their sacrifice, the people gain strength and understanding.
In the beginning, a large tipi was built and a number of ritual objects gathered or where made. One of these was a round rawhide circle, which represents the sun. It was painted red, with a smaller blue circle in the center, which represented Wakan Tanka. Many singers came to sing the sacred songs, and a drum (its roundness representing the universe, its steady beat the pulse of the heart) was brought.
Central to the ceremony was a cottonwood tree, a “rustling” tree, which was placed at the center of the tipi. This represented all of the enemies who have been attacked and conquered. A group of people go out to find the cottonwood, and when they did, a sacred Pipe was smoked. One person was selected to make the first cut on the tree.
This symbolized counting coup on the tree, or enemy. Others then helped cut it down, but it was not allowed to touch the ground. The tree is then carried back to the dance place and put into the earth at the center of what became the sweat lodge. Then all of the ritual objects and the tree were purified with the smoke of sweetgrass.
A sweat lodge was built around the tree and the chosen dancers entered it and were purified in an Inipi. The Pipe is smoked and the sacred songs were sung. One of them was: The Sun, the Light of the world. I hear him coming.
I see his face as he comes. He makes the beings on earth happy And they rejoice. O, Wakan Tanka, I offer to You this world of Light. — Black Elk’s The Sacred Pipe.
Wreaths of sage were placed on each dancer’s head. Then each described what s/he would sacrifice. The sacrifice was either pieces of flesh or piercing of the flesh. Flesh represents ignorance one has, so the tearing or cutting of the flesh represented freeing the body from the grasps of ignorance.
On the final day of the Sun Dance, some dancers had their flesh pierced, and rawhide thongs were threaded through the flesh and tied to the tree. Wreaths of sage were placed on each dancer’s head and around their wrists and ankles. As they danced, they blew eagle bone whistles. As singing and drumming continued throughout; they danced until the thongs break free.
Other offered pieces of flesh to Wakan Tanka, to the Earth or the four powers of the four directions. When the dance was done, the dancers went into the sweat lodge and smoked a Pipe. Then all returned to the tipi and a feast was held.