Updated: May 3, 2022
People dance to the sun, praying for a vision, and historically the way someone does this is by sacrifice—to go into that lodge to give of yourself without food, without water, for four days. – Sundance Chief Patterson
Sundance is one the most time-honoured ceremonies of First Peoples across Turtle Island. It is where people gather to pray to the Great Spirit for healing, though not all Sundance ceremonies are the same. Each is diverse, rich in tradition and varies in protocol depending on the nation or territory.
“People dance to the sun, praying for a vision, and historically the way someone does this is by sacrifice—to go into that lodge to give of yourself without food, without water, for four days. During this time, dancers are expected to fast, and to validate your sacrifice is for the Creator to help you see that your prayer is worthy.” In contemporary times and in consideration of people’s health conditions, Patterson clarified there is often leniency on some of these protocols, depending on where the Sundance takes place.
As the Sundance is a sacred ceremony, it is important to respect and acknowledge the history and the impact of colonization on the practice of this rite. Post-European contact, the United States and Canadian governments passed laws that banned Indigenous Peoples in North America from practicing traditional ceremonies, from speaking their languages and, in many cases, from visiting sacred sites outside of their communities. Despite these laws, a lot of Sundances continued to take place in secret, allowing this and other important spiritual practices to be passed down. Canada lifted its ban in 1951 with the amendment of the Indian Act , but it wasn’t until the 1970s and the passing of the American Indian Religious Freedom Act when Indigenous Peoples in the United States could openly practice Sundance and other sacred ceremonies.
Today, Sundance takes place on sacred ground. The circular structure where the ceremony occurs is commonly known as the Sundance Lodge, and in the centre is the tree of life, symbolic of creation. It is important to remember every lodge is unique and may be called something different. Among Lakota people, the arbour itself is constructed of 28 trees, with 14 on each side, branches reaching across from left to right—the trees symbolic of the ribs of the buffalo. The 28 ribs of the buffalo speaks to the teaching of the White Buffalo Calf Woman, acknowledging the female life giver and the 28 days of a woman’s menstrual cycle, signifying fertility, procreation and birth.
Those allowed in the lodge are the Sundance Chief, Sundance Elders, special guests, healers, drummers/singers, helpers and, of course, the dancers. In many cases, men and women can dance among each other, sometimes separated on each side of the lodge.
The Sundance ceremony is both physically and mentally taxing. “You’re dancing so hard every day, while blowing your eagle whistle to connect with your grandmothers and grandfathers, to connect with the spirit world, asking them to be with you.” Breaks in between songs and ceremonies allow dancers a short repose. “You are exposed to all the elements, and you don’t eat or drink (other than a little bit of medicine) for four days and three nights,” explained Brown. “The hardest part for me was being thirsty.” Sleeping at night can also be very challenging, especially for unprepared first-time dancers. “In my first year, I didn’t bring the proper tarp, and on the first night it poured rain. It was awful, but I learned my lesson.”
Sundance, like many traditional ceremonies, typically ends with a feast, where everyone, including the families of the dancers, bring food to share in celebration and as an offering to Creator. “I can tell you that at the end of the four days when they have the feast and the giveaways, that first piece of watermelon is the best thing you’ve ever had in your life,” said Kent Brown of Fisher River Cree Nation. “My biggest take-away from the whole experience was utmost spiritual connection.”
The four-day ceremony is an act of spiritual expression and intention towards Creator that should extend beyond the four days into a person’s everyday life. “It’s important to continue to incorporate those values for the other 361 days of the year,” said Sundance Chief Patterson. “As a Sundancer, continue to live your life with those intentions towards the Creator—be a helper, help others in need, align your values to your teachings received in that lodge.”