Plains Indians

This essay has a total of 1816 words and 6 pages.

Plains Indians

For many tribes of Plains Indians whose bison-hunting culture flourished during the 18th
and 19th centuries, the sun dance was the major communal religious ceremony . . . the rite
celebrates renewal - the spiritual rebirth of participants and their relatives as well as
the regeneration of the living earth with all its components . . . The ritual, involving
sacrifice and supplication to insure harmony between all living beings, continues to be
practiced by many contemporary native Americans. -Elizabeth Atwood LawrenceAs the most
important ritual of the nomadic Plains Indians, the Sun Dance in itself presents many
ideas, beliefs, and values of these cultures. Through its rich symbolism and complicated
rituals we are able to catch a glimpse into these peoples' view of the world. A Sun Dance
is held when a man feels the need to be a dancer to fulfill certain wishes, primarily "for
his deliverance from his troubles, for supernatural aid, and for beneficent blessings upon
all of his people." (Welker) It is this dancer who usually bears the expenses of the Sun
Dance (Atwood), including a feast for all that comes to the celebration. (Welker)
Motivations behind the Sun Dance varies slightly between tribes. The Crow held the
ceremony to seek aid for revenge for family members killed in warfare. The entire event
surrounding the Sun Dance generally lasts from four to seven days, though longer events
exist. On the first day a tree is selected to serve as the sun-pole, the center pole for
the Sun Dance Lodge, or New-Life-Lodge, as called by the Cheyenne. (Atwood) The selection
of the tree is usually done by the eldest woman of the camp, who leads a group of
elaborately dressed maidens to the tree to strip off its branches. On the next morning,
right as the sun is seen over the eastern horizon, armed warriors charge the sun-pole.
They attack the tree in effort to symbolically kill it with gunshots and arrows. Once it
is dead it is cut down and taken to where the Sun Dance Lodge will be erected. (Schwatka)
"Before raising the sun-pole, a fresh buffalo head with a broad centre strip of the back
of the hide and tail (is) fastened with strong throngs to the top crotch of the sun-pole.
Then the pole (is) raised and set firmly in the ground, with the buffalo head facing !
toward the setting-sun." (Welker) The tree represents the center of the world, connecting
the heavens to the earth. (Smart p. 527) The lodge is then built by the main dancer and
his clansmen. The fork of the lodge represents the eagle's nest. The eagle plays a large
part in the Sun Dance for it is one of the Plains Indians' most sacred animal. The eagle
flies high, being the closest creature to the Sun. Therefore it is the link between man
and spirit, being the messenger that delivers prayers to the Wakan-Tanka (god). (Atwood)
In addition to being a messenger, the eagle also represents many human traits. We can see
what values and traits these cultures saw as being important in a person by those traits
imposed upon such a sacred animal. The eagle is seen as courageous, swift, and strong. He
has great foresight and knows everything. "In an eagle there is all the wisdom of the
world." (Atwood) During the Sun Dance the eagle is the facilitator of communication
between man and spirit. The Crow may be accompanied by a dancing eagle in his visions, the
eagle "instructing him about the medicine acquired through the vision." (Atwood) The
eagle's feathers can cure illnesses. During the Sun Dance a medicine man may use his eagle
feather for healing, first touching the feather to the sun-pole then to the patient,
transferring the energy from the pole to the ill. It is the buffalo, however, that makes
up the main theme of the Sun Dance. In various stories it was the buffalo that began the
ritual. The Shoshone believe that the buffalo taught someone the proper way to carry out
the dance and the benefits in doing it. Buffalo songs, dances, and feast commonly
accompany the Sun Dance. You can see from the symbolic influences of the buffalo in the
Sun Dance how important the animal was to Plains Indians' day-to-day life. It was the
buffalo that symbolized life for it was the buffalo that gave them quality of life. Plains
Indians relied on buffalo for their food, clothing, shelter, and most all utensils from
fly swatters to children's toys. These peoples' lives were intertwined with the buffalo's.
And this relationship was praised and blessed with the Sun Dance. The buffalo was
incorporated in many ways in the Sun Dance. The Cheyenne held a principle that "all
essential sacred items in the sun dance (be) related to the buffalo." (Atwood) The Lakota
would place a dried buffalo penis against the sun-pole to give virility to the dancers.
This "reinforces the symbolic meaning of the ceremony as a celebration of the generative
power of the sun." (Atwood) The buffalo skull is used as an alter during the Sun Dance.
Offerings are presented to the skull, the Cheyenne stuffing the eye and nose sockets with
grass, representing bountiful vegetation for the buffalo, which in turn meant healthy
buffalo for the people. For others the grass represents bringing the buffalo back to life
for grass is what gives the animal life. The Dakota believe that the bones of bison they
have killed will rise again with new flesh. The soul was seen to reside in the bones of
people and animals, "to reduce a living being to a skeleton is equivalent to re-entering
the womb of this primordial life . . . a mystical rebirth." (Eliade p.159) When a Crow
sliced the tip of his finger off on the buffalo skull, he was offering a piece of himself
to give life to the buffalo who died to give life to him and his people. During the dance
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