The sun dance is a religious ceremony practiced by a number of Native American and First Nations Peoples, primarily those of the Plains Nations.
Each tribe that has some type of sun dance ceremony has their own distinct practices and ceremonial protocols. In most cases, the ceremony is held in a private, or even secret, location, and is not open to the public. Most details of the ceremony are kept secret out of great respect for, and the desire for protection of, the traditional ways.
In very general terms, there are features common to the ceremonies of the sun dance cultures, such as dances and songs passed down through many generations, the use of a traditional drum, a sacred fire, praying with a pipe, fasting, and in some cases the ceremonial piercing of skin. Certain native plants are picked and prepared for use during the ceremony. Natural medicines are used for health and well being, as are traditional foods. Wood is harvested for a sacred fire, and a firekeeper must tend the fire that burns for many days and nights.
Typically, the sun dance is an agonizing ordeal for those who participate in it. According to the Oklahoma Historical Society, young men dance around a pole to which they are fastened by “rawhide thongs pegged through the skin of their chests.”
Although not all sun dance ceremonies include dancers being ritually pierced, the object of the sun dance is to offer personal sacrifice as a prayer for the benefit of one’s family and community. The dancers fast for many days, and the ceremony takes place over a four day period. The ceremony is held outside in the summer time, in the open air, not fully sheltered from the wind, sun, or rain. Some groups use the same site each year, while others will move from place to place.
At most ceremonies, family members and friends stay in the surrounding camp and pray and support the dancers. People camp at the site for many days, with some arriving from far away places. In preparation for the sun dance, wood, food, and medicines are gathered in the traditional manner, the site is set up, offerings made, elders consulted, and feast food prepared. There are sweat lodges and other ceremonial preparations. Much time and energy by the entire community is needed for the sun dance to work. Communities plan and organize for at least a year to prepare for the ceremony. Usually there is one leader or a small group of leaders in charge of the ceremony, but many elders help out and advise. A group of helpers do many of the tasks required to prepare for the ceremony.
There is a reluctance to talk about the subject in any great detail. Those that know a lot are not willing to share with someone who might abuse the traditional ways. There are concerns about the ceremony not being passed along in the right ways. The words used at a sun dance are often in the native language and not translated. There is a great attempt to have the utmost respect for the ceremony, and this is often done with speaking few words about it. The detailed way a respected elder talks, teaches, and explains is unique and not easily quoted or intended for publication.