Details of the Sun Dance

Published on August 2, 2011 by Amy

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Dancers getting ready for the Sun Dance
Dancers getting ready for the Sun Dance


The buffalo head symbolizes plenty because Native Americans would kill the buffalo, eat it’s meat and use it’s skin for clothing. The buffalo also symbolized strength and comfort. The buffalo was often featured in the Sun Dance because the buffalo feeds on sage and willow. This meant to the Native Americans that the buffalo depended on the sun.

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The Arapaho Indians on the Wind River Reservation near Fort Washakie, Wyoming focus mainly on the buffalo in their Sun Dance. A huge center pole with a buffalo head on top and 12 outer poles surrounding it create a circular enclosure where the dance is performed. The buffalo head faces west, toward the Rocky Mountains. Freshly picked sage is placed on the buffalo head nose. The dancers approach the pole and then step back, never ever letting their eyes stray from the buffalo head.


Sage is known for its strong scent and was a common symbol for healing and breathing. This is why it was often placed on the buffalo head nose. By doing this, it made it seem as though the buffalo was still alive and able to breathe.

Sun Pole

The Sun Pole was usually made of cottonwood, very tall and was in the center of the circular enclosed dance area. This pole was a phallic symbol as well as symbol of the sun. Among the Sioux Indians, the Sun Pole represented a supernatural being called Wakan-Tunka, the all-pervading power of the universe. When it came time for the ceremonial cutting of the Sun Pole, it was done by 4 young virgins (2 male and 2 female). Some tribes substitute a sword or a stick.


The Ute and Cheyenne Indians would fasten a willow branch in the fork at the top of the cottonwood sun pole. This is why the northern Cheyenne call the ceremony the Willow Dance. To them the willow symbolizes water and growing things. So the Cheyenne somewhat ignore the sun worship part of this ceremony all together.

Self Sacrifice

Pain and self-sacrifice was a part of life to many Native Americans. Today, they feel the Sun Dance gives them an opportunity to renew themselves and give thanks to the sun by sacrificing their own flesh. Participation in the Sun Dance is done of one’s own free will as a way of offering oneself to the creator. The participants are called the “pledgers” who have wooded skewers (or sometimes eagle claws) inserted under the skin of their chests. These skewers were attached to a strong rope and tied to the Sun Pole. The dancers formed a circle around the pole and after going toward it 4 times to place their hands on it and pray, they would pull back as hard as they could until the skewers were torn free.

An alternative to this was to have the skewers inserted under the skin of the shoulder blades. Then heavy buffalo skulls would be hung from the skewers by thongs and dragged around until the weight of the skulls eventually tore the skewers loose.

Another variation is to have the dancers suspend themselves from the pole with ropes attached to the skewers; or, tie the ropes to a horse. The dancers would continue until they became unconscious from the pain or tore themselves loose. Afterwards they felt they would receive a divine vision.

To outsiders, the Sun Dance seems painful and perhaps barbaric? But, the Sun Dance continues to be supported by dedicated tribes who still observe this tradition.

It was the belief of many Indian tribes that the sun “died” after the solar eclipse of August 7, 1869. The Sioux performed their last Sun Dance in 1881. The painful elements of the Sun Dance were widely misunderstood, resulting it being condemned by the US Government . In 1904. But, many of the traditions of the Native Americans are being reclaimed, including the Sun Dance. It survives today in many northern and western tribes (particularly the Southern Utes and Arapaho).

Source: brownielocks Unabridged
Based on the collective work of, © 2015 Native American Encyclopedia.
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