Native American Sun Legends: The Great Medicine Dance

Published on January 7, 2013 by Casey

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The Great Medicine Dance
The Great Medicine Dance

Native American Sun Legends: The Great Medicine Dance

Told by Josie Limpy and Mrs. Medicine Bull, with the help of an interpreter, at Birney, Montana, in 1972

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The sun dance was the most important, solemn, and awe-inspiring ritual of the prairie tribes west of the Missouri. Sun dance is its Sioux name; the Cheyenne called it the new-life lodge, while for the Ponca it was the mystery dance. Closely related to the sun dance was the Okapi ceremony of the Mandans. The dance took place once a year, at the height of summer. It lasted four days — longer, if the elaborate preparations are taken into account.

In some tribes, such as the Sioux, the ritual involved the “piercing” of the dancers: the passing of sharpened skewers through the flesh of their chests and the performance of other kinds of self-torture. This is still the custom during Sioux sun dances today. In other tribes the ritual involved fasting and “looking at the sun” throughout the four long days.

The most extreme form of self-torture occured during the Okapi ceremony of the mandans, painted in great detail by Catlin in the 1830s. Dancers suffered — “they gave of their flesh so that the people might live.” They underwent piercing in obedience to a vow, or help a sick relative recover, or to bring a beloved son back unhurt from the warpath. The dance was a celebration of the renewal of all life, “to make the grass grow and the buffalo and the people increase and thrive.” It was the one occasion when all the small hunting bands of a tribe came together, a time for old friends to talk and for young men to find wives.

The Tsis-tsistas people have danced the great medicine dance for a long, long time, longer than anyone can remember or even imagine. The dance represents the making of this universe and was concieved and taught to the people by the Creator, Maheo, and his helper, Great Roaring Thunder. It portays the making of the sun, moon, and stars; of rain, wind, and snow; of Grandmother Earth and the blue sky above her; of the mountains and rivers; of all living things, big and small. The dance is performed especially in tinmes of starvation, distress, and widespread death. This, our most sacred ceremony, was brought to us by the Sutai medicine man Horns Standing Up, under the guidance of the Creator himself.

Long ago, when the earth and the people dwelling upon it were young, our tribe was starving. the earth itself was starving, for no rain was falling. Plants and trees wilted. Many rivers dried up. The animals were dying of hunger and thirst. The Cheyenne had nothing to eat except some old, dried corn and their dogs, which used to carry their packs in those days before we had horses. There were not many dogs remaining, and very little corn. So the people left their old hunting grounds, left the land which had nourished them for generations, and started off in search of food. They went north, where the drought was less severe, but found little game and no buffalo at all.

One evening they came to a stream in which water still flowed. The leaders and old chiefs sat down beside this stream and sadly watched the thin, weary people pitching their tipis. Then it came to the chiefs, as in a vision, what ought to be done. They ordered all the men to go to the women, each man to the woman he felt most attracted to, and beg her to give him something to eat. The men did as they had been directed, and each chose the woman who was to feed him.

Among the warriors was a young medicine man. He went up to a beautiful woman who happened to be the wife of the head chief. She set a bowl of dog soup before him and waited for him to finish eating. Then he said: “I have chosen you from among all the women to help me save our people. I want you to go north with me, as the medicine spirits have commanded. Take your dog teams and bring supplies for a long journey — now, right away!” Though she was the chief’s wife, the woman did what the medicine man had asked. She was ready to travel in no time, and the two left unobserved in the dark of night.

Two days and one night they travelled without stopping, urging on the dogs who carried the travois with the tipi poles and hides and other things needed for survival. At last they rested. The man told the woman to put up the lodge and to prepare two beds of soft, fragrant sage for them to sleep on. He said: “Make the tipi face the rising sun.” He also told her that Maheo, the Creator, had sent him a vision revealing that the two of them must go north and bring back the great medicine lodge, Maheo‘s symbol of the universe, and with it a sacred ceremony which they would teach to the Cheyenne. “In my vision,” he said, “Maheo promised that if the people accept and perform this holy ritual, the rains will fall again and the earth rejoice, the plants will bring forth green leaves and fruit, and the buffalo will return.”

And so they traveled, the woman every evening pitching the tipi facing east and preparing the beds of sage on opposite sides of the tipi, the man sleeping on his bed, the woman on hers. One night she said: “How is this? You made me run away with you, but you never approach me as man approaches woman. Why did you make me go with you, then?” He answered: “We must abstain from embracing until we enter the great mountain of the north and recieve the sacred medicine dance. After we emerge from the mountain, I shall embrace you in a renewal-of-all-life ceremony by which people will continue to be born, generation after generation, through the woman-power of perpetuation.”

At last they came to a vast, dark forest from whose center rose a cloud-wreathed mountain reaching far into the sky. Beyond the mountain they saw a lake of unending waters. They came to a large rock at the foot of the mountain, rolled the rock aside, and discovered an entrance. They went inside the mountain and, closing the opening behind them, found themselves in the mountain’s great medicine lodge, which was wonderful to behold.

Today the medicine tipi which the Cheyenne put up for their sun dances at Bear Butte is an imitation of that sacred mountain lodge. The young man and the woman heard voices coming out of the mountaintop — the voices of Maheo the Creator and his helper Great Roaring Thunder. Instructing them in the holy ways to perform the special sacred ceremony, Maheo spoke for four days. When they had learned all there was to know about the dance, the Creator, said: Now you will leave and teach the people what I have taught you. And if they perform the ceremonies in the right way, they will be favored for generations to come. The sun, the moon, the stars will move again in harmony. Roaring Thunder will bring soothing rain and winds. Corn and chokecherries will ripen again. Wild turnips and healing herbs will grow once more. All the animals will emerge from behind this mountain, herds of buffalo and antelope among them, and follow you back to your village and your people. Take this sacred hat, Issiwun, and wear it whenever you perform the sun dance. With Issiwun you will control the animals — the buffalo, the antelope, the elk, the deer — who give themselves to the people for food. The Tsis-tsistas shall never be hungry again, but live in plenty. Put on this sacred buffalo hat as you leave, and Grandmother Earth will smile upon you forever.

And so the young medicine man of the Sutai and the good-looking woman left the mountain through the secret passage. As they rolled the rock aside and emerged, buffalo without numbers streamed out of the mountain behind them, and the earth brought green shoots. Herbs and plants sprouted under a gentle rain, and the earth was like new, glistening in freshness. Thus the man and the woman walked sacredly, clad in buffalo robes painted red, and the medicine man wore his horned cap. Their dogs walked before them, dragging their travois poles, while behind them followed a thundering herd of buffalo, and after these came all manner of animals, male and female, big and small. At the day’s end the man and the woman put up their tipi and lay down on their beds of sage to rest, and all the animals settled down to rest also.

And at some time during this journey back to their village, the man and the woman did lovingly what was necessary to ensure renewal and continuation of life through woman-power. Each morning during their travels, the man sang the sacred songs which the voice of Maheo had taught him. At last one evening they arrived near the stream where the people were still camped, awaiting their return. The medicine man and the woman did not go into the village at once, but spent the night outside.

In the morning the medicine man put on Issiwun and entered the camp, accompanied by the woman. He told the people of all that had passed, told them that he had brought them the knowledge of the great medicine lodge and the great sacred dance, the songs and ceremonies that went with it, and above all, Issiwun, the sacred buffalo hat which had the power to control the wandering of the animals. He told the people that if they performed the sacred sun dance, they would have plenty of buffalo to eat and would never suffer hunger again. The people put up the medicine lodge according to the young man’s instructions, painted their bodies in a sacred manner, and sang the right songs. The children made clay figures of buffalo, antelopes, and elk and brought them into the lodge as a symbol of life’s renewal.

Since then, whenever the little figures are placed inside the Medicine lodge during the dance, some of those animals will come near to gaze upon the sacred tipi, and some of their animal power will linger on. In the same way, our old friends, the Sioux people, fasten the figures of a man and a bison, both cut from buffalo hide to their sacred sun dance pole. Then an eagle will come in and circle above the dancers to bless them. Thus the Tsis-tsistas people performed the great medicine ceremony for the first time, and all was well again. And the people named the young medicine man Horns Standing Up, because the sacred hat has two horns at each side.

Some say that Horns Standing Up did not touch the beautiful woman until well after the sun dance was finished. And from this belief comes the custom that men refrain from having relations with women from the time of making the vow to dance until after the ceremony is over. Josie Limpy was an old, chain-smoking lady belonging to the Sutai division of the Cheyenne tribe. She was, at the time, keeper of Issiwun, the sacred buffalo hat, at the Northern Cheyenne Reservation. This story was actually related inside the tipi in which Issiwun was kept.

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