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Native American Ritual Dancing”It has often been said that the North American Indians dance out’ their religions” (Vecsey 51). There were two very important dances for the Sioux tribe, the Sun Dance and the Ghost Dance. Both dances show the nature of Native American spirituality. The Ghost Dance and the Sun Dance were two very different dances, however both promote a sense of community. “The Sun Dance was the most spectacular and important religious ceremony of the Plains Indians of 19th-century North America” (Lawrence 1). The Sun Dance became a time of renewal and thanksgiving for Native Americans.
Everyone had a role to play either in the preparation leading up to the dance, or within the dance itself. The entire tribe was expected to attend the ceremony. There were also some social aspects to the dance, such as powwow dancing in the afternoon and evening.The Sun Dance was an important ceremony, which was held once a year. Turner states that ritual stresses unity of (the) group, and that is exactly what was done in the Sun Dance.
Different tribes held the ceremony at different times of the year. Generally, “The Sun Dance was performed in either the late spring or the early summer, when all the bands of the tribe were reunited after the winter” (“Dance”). The Sioux tribes celebrated the Sun Dance ceremony for four days.
Other tribes are reported to extend the ceremony over eight days. This dance, like other Indian rituals and ceremonies is not rehearsed. There are many provisions that need to take place in order to prepare for the ceremony. In the week prior to the dance, the Sun Dance chief arrives early to set up his campsite and oversee the raising of the ceremonial tipi that the dancers dress and prepare in (McGaa 85). The Sun Dance chief is said to be the most respected holy man with in the tribe.
The men of the tribe then join in the preparations for the dance by construct sweat lodges, which are used in the ceremony. They also collect other necessities, which are needed for the dance. The first day before the Sun Dance is a very significant day. In the early morning hours a group of men “known for their eminence in their tribe were chosen to look for a (cottonwood) tree with a fork in the top” (“Dance”). Along with this select group went a chosen woman.
She took the first chop at the tree. She then held a conversation with the tree. The Sioux’s belief is that when they cut down the tree they are killing’ it. In the conversation the Sioux woman has with the tree she explains why they are killing’ it, and what their plans for the tree are. After the tree is cut down, it is not allowed to touch the ground. McGaa states that the men can only set the tree down four times to rest on the way back to the reservation (86).
There is an arena set up where the dancing and other activities will take place. Once the cottonwood is brought back, the men place it in the center of this arena. Some fifty men then join the group and raise the tree with rope. Four songs are sung four times to the each of the four winds.
Cloth banners representing the four directions are tied to the branches, and then two hides are tied above the cloth (one in the shape of a human and the other of a buffalo). “The cutouts represent thankfulness. Twelve chokecherry branches are tied crosswise beneath the buffalo and the human images. The branches symbolize the twelve moons, the twelve months of the year” (McGaa 86). The same evening the dancers who will be pierced in the ceremony participate in a Sweat Lodge ceremony. On the first actual ceremonial day of the Sun Dance another Sweat Lodge is held for those men and women who are going to participate in the dancing.
A Sweat Lodge is believed to help heal a person spiritually. Groups that participate in Sweat Lodges are supposed to gain empowerment.The dancers then dress and prepare him or her self in the tipi. There is a traditional dress that is followed by the dancers. McGaa describes this as the men wearing a kilt; all the dancers wear sage wreaths around their wrists and ankles. A sage wreath is also worn around the head, but this wreath contains eagle feathers, which are placed vertically. This is one of the few times that women are allowed to wear eagle feathers in their hair.
The dancers carry certain things with them, including an eagle’s bone and peace pipe. A rawhide sunflower cutout is also placed around the dancer’s neck. The women dancers are dressed in a plain white cloth dresses. There are four men playing drums on the outside of the circle. The men are positioned in the four directions of the earth (North, South, East, and West).
At the beginning of the actual dance they begin to beat their drums, and a woman is chosen to be the first to enter the dancing arena. She dances in a circle around the decorated cottonwood tree to the beat of the drums. The rest of the dancers join starting at the eastern point, going on clockwise. The dancers move around in the circle east, south, west and finally north. Songs are sung to each of the four points. The holy man then addresses the crowd while the dancers are resting. The dancers return and present their pipes to whoever is accepting them.
The group of dancer’s split up into four groups, and each is standing at one of the cardinal points honoring the Four Corners. Each dancer then has a turn to dance by him or her self with the holy man around the circle. After this part of the ceremony is complete the dancers are given another rest while the Sun Dance chief addresses the crowd on spiritual values. After his speech is complete he once again summons the dancers who stand at one of the cardinal points. Each point has a special blessing, and they rotate clockwise and pray at each of the four positions.
This concludes the first ceremonial day of the Sun Dance. You may have noticed that during the ceremony, and the things surrounding it, things were often done four times, or in the four directions. Four to the Sioux, is a very ritualistic, and spiritual number. In an interview with Jean Holmes, Ed McGaa sheds some light on why the four directions are important to the tribe. “We could see that Creator has made four directions.
It’s obvious. The north and south are totally different. East and west are totally different directions. Look what happens, everything” (Holmes 1). McGaa goes on in the interview to tell the power that is seen to come from each of the four directions such as the Life-giving rain from the west, and the endurance teaching snow from the north.
This dancing ceremony is repeated until the fourth day, which is piercing day. Those men, who have pledged to be pierced, are pierced on this day. Only men are pierced in Sioux tribe. The women don’t need to because of the pain they go thorough during childbirth. After the men have completed their piercing, they are better able to understand a woman’s pain. The piercing is done with the entire tribe looking on.
The men lay at the bottom of the cottonwood tree, which is covered in sage. The holy man then comes around and pierces the men one at a time. The men are pierced on their chest with just a sharp blade. There are two cuts made on the skin. A wooden peg is slid underneath the skin on one side of the cut, coming back out the cut on the other side. It is very important to the men that while being pierced, they don’t move or jump.
This action shows that they are brave and can take the pain. “The dancers give their pain so that others may live (McGaa 94). Once the wooden peg is inserted, a rope is tied to the two ends of the peg.
The other end of the roped is tied to the cottonwood tree. This symbolizes being attached to Mother Earth. In awe the men get up, a wreath of sage and eagle feathers is placed on their head symbolizingHonor. The dancer then leans back and put all of his weight on the rope. He begins to dance back and forth to the beating of the drums.
Each man does this until all of the men are pierced. Once all of the dancers have been pierced a dance inward is begun. The object of this dance is to touch the tree.
Once the tree is touched whistles are blown, this dance is repeated four times. The fourth touching of the tree is the most powerful for both the dancers and the on looking tribe members. The tribe enters into deep prayer when the tree is touched for the fourth time.
Their prayers are funneled through the dancers, then through the cottonwood tree which then sends it to their “God” Wakan Tanka. After the fourth touching of the tree, the dancers then lean back against the ropes in search for their Sun Dance vision. After receiving their vision the dancers lean back in efforts to break the tie with the tree, or Mother Earth. At this time, the peg is ripped out of the skin of the dancer. Once all the dancers break free from the tree they gather in a straight line and leave the arena, and the Sun Dance is over. “The Sun Dance is a ceremony of new creation, the lodge is the world, and it’s center post of the world-tree, the communications channel between man and the powers above This central idea practically explains the whole Sun Dance” (Vecsey 57).
In the times after the Civil War, the Sun Dance and other such religious rites were outlawed, made illegal, saying that they were barbaric’ (Irwin 301). A change in the Sun Dance came when the Native Americans had to adapt to reservation life. The Christian missionaries were suppressing the religions of the Native Americans. In the 1890’s there was a reformulation of the Sun Dance, and it began to move north. “After the Indian Reorganization Act (1934) there was a new resurge of Sun Dance celebrationmore people than ever took part in the Sun Dance” (Vecsey 243). In more recent years there has been tremendous controversy over the commercialization of the Sun Dance. Vecsey points out in his book Belief and Worship in Native North America that the restructuring of the Sun Dance took place when the people had lost faith in another revitalization movement, that of the Ghost Dance.
It is to be understood that the Ghost Dance was not merle just a dance, but instead a religion. The Native American Indians felt as though the white man was repressing them. Then the prophet, holy man Wovoka had a vision on New Year’s Day of 1889, during an eclipse.
Through this vision, he was able to bring the Indian people new hope. Wovoka claimed to have died and went to heaven. In this revelation Wovoka was given power over different elements, such as rain and snow. “Wovoka was told by God that Native Americans who lived in the United States were to perform a traditional dance lasting three or five nights in succession” (Hittman 64). He told his people that if they danced night and day, and did no harm to anyone, then the buffalo and their dead relatives would both return.
He was also given a word of peace, which he was told to share with all people. In his vision he also saw the white man being erased from the earth when she violently shook and collapsed upon herself.There were certain rules that Wovoka was given that the people had to follow. One of the principles of the newfound religion was that all men were brothers. Therefore, they were to be good to each other. The other principles were that they were not to steal, lie, or to be involved in wars.
There are not that many actual accounts of the Ghost Dance, as it was performed. However, I was able to find a few resources that had an overview of how the dance was carried out. The first actual Ghost Dance was held in January of 1889. Shortly thereafter, delegates from Utah sent representatives to meet with Wovoka because of the uproar the dance had caused. Both men and women performed the actual Ghost Dance. They would stand in a circle holding hands, with their fingers locked together.
In the center of the circle was an immense fire; other accounts recall a planted tree in the center of the dancers. The tree’s dead leaves and the scared articles that were tied to it were painted scarlet. The dancers shuffled towards the left, some in a trance-like frame of mind. Everyone chanted to the beating of the drums. Occasionally members fell and went into somewhat of a seizure. During the dancing, many people claimed to have seen those in their family who had died. They kept dancing and chanting and singing until all the members were lying on the ground unconscious.
There is one important part of the Ghost Dance that seems to run identical in all the accounts of the dance, this being the ghost shirts. The ghost shirts were sent to the Indians through a vision that Black Elk had. The days after having the vision were he saw these shirts; Black Elk began making them for his men. These shirts were said to be bullet proof, they guarded their wearer from harm (Miller 80). The shirts were made from unbleached muslin, or sheeting, and each had individualized symbolized patterns. Each shirt had the common eagle painted in blue on the back of the shirt.
There were also suns and crosses painted in red all over them. Eagle feathers were tied randomly on the shirt’s fringes. After a day of dancing with the shirts, Black Elk had another vision. This time he saw what would he said were ghost dresses for the women of the tribe. He also saw the women wearing eagle feathers in their hair. From that day forward the ghost dancers wore the ghost shirts and dresses with eagle feathers in their hair (Miller 81).
It is important to note that the Sioux did not wear any metal on their ghost shirts, unlike many of the southern tribes (Mooney 915). Many of the Indian tribes came to hear Wovoka talk about his new religion. Most of the tribes that came to listen to Wovoka began their own Ghost Dance.
However, there were some tribes who decided that Wovoka was insane, and didn’t follow his teachings. One of these tribes who did so was the Navajo. The United States government doubled the Navajo’s reservation size. “Comfortably off, most Navajo had no reason to want the present world destroyed” (Kehoe 103). Yet, other tribes had already adopted a religion of their own.This so-called “Ghost Dance” was highly intimidating to the white man, they feared of an Indian uprising. On December 29, 1890, the United States government massacred the Sioux Indians who lived on Pine Ridge Reservation.
This was the governments attempt to disarm the Indians, and end the Ghost Dance movement. This massacre was called the battle of Wounded Knee. The Ghost Dance was said to be almost dead among the Sioux even before the battle of Wounded Knee (Mooney 927). In early December of 1890, the white men became terrified over the Sioux dancing the Ghost Dance. The leaders of this dance were to be arrested; the first one was to be Chief Sitting Bull. The soldiers that tried to capture Sitting Bull killed him.
The soldiers were then to arrest Chief Big Foot. After Sitting Bull was killed, Chief Big Foot moved his tribe to Pine Ridge Reservation. The Army cut the tribe off by the Wounded Knee camp (“Massacre” 1). The soldiers captured many of the Sioux Indians, and attempted to take their weapons. However, the majority of the weapons had been hidden. Some of the young tribes’ men kept their guns hidden under their blankets, and preceded to fire them into the air. They then fired into the crowd of soldiers.
The gunfire started, and ended with around three hundred Sioux dead, including some women and children. Native American spirituality is often misunderstood, and persecuted. The Ghost Dance and Sun Dance were two very important dances to the Sioux. The main focus of both dances was to bring the tribe together, to be able to have a sense of community in the tribe. The sacredness of these dances will never be fully understood, for now they are extinct. Bibliography”Dance.” 10 Feb.
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