Sun Dance

2012 Photo Credit:  Borrowed Light Photography, Travis Svihovec, for Friends of Scherr Howe

2012 Photo Credit: Borrowed Light Photography, Travis Svihovec, for Friends of Scherr Howe

Click on the audio clip below to hear an interview with Kevin Locke on this mural:

Sun Dance (Wiwanyang Wacipi)

Wiwanyang wacipi, known as sun dance in the English language, is often considered the most important rite of the Lakota and Dakota people. The ceremony is held during the summer when the moon is full and when the sun is the highest and the days are the hottest. In times past a number of Plains bands of the Lakota would gather at a prearranged location for the annual Hunkpapa, Minneconjou, Oglala, Santee, Sicangu, Sihasapa, Yankton. It was during this annual gathering that the sun dance ceremony was held.  Prior to the sun dance ceremony, elaborate preparations were made in advance of the annual summer gathering. The ceremony is overseen by a medicine man (yuwipi wapiye) who conducted the ritual aspects of the ceremony. Holy men (wicasa wakans) burned sweetgrass and offered pipes to the heavens, to mother earth, and to the four directions, praying for good weather and also praying for the sun dance participants. During the ceremony, dancers pledged to make offerings of their flesh to fulfill personal vows, to heal the sick and wounded, and to give strengthen to the people and the Buffalo Nation (Pte Oyate). An individual had chosen to participate in the sun dance for personal and spiritual reasons. In some cases, the decision to participate rested upon the results of a dream or the desire to seek assistance in healing a sick loved one. In the mural Oscar Howe illustrates four men, their chests pierced and each of the them holding bundles or eagle feathers, dancing in rhythm to the drumbeat and songs of those who watch the sacred ceremony being performed. A cottonwood tree is placed at the center of the dance area that symbolizes the center of the universe, or the sacredness of all things. The mural depicts the essence of Wiwanyang Wacipi in expressive form for Native and non-Native audiences to understand the ceremony. Later in his career, the sun dance would appear as a distinct subject dimensional works in a painting of the the form of prayer to the Great Spirit Wakan Tanka.

Suggested Readings

Amiotte, Arthur. “The Lakota Sun Dance: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives” in Sioux Indian Religion: Tradition and Innovation, Raymond J. DeMallie and Douglas R. Parks, eds. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1987. Brown, Joseph. The Sacred Pipe: Black Elk’s Account of the Seven Sacred Rites of the Oglala Sioux. Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1972. Delora, Ella Cara. “The Sun Dance of the Oglala Sioux.” Journal of American Folklore 42 (1929): 354-413. Deloria, Ella Cara. Waterlily. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1988. Walker, James R. Lakota Belief and Ritual. Edited by Raymond J. DeMallie and Elaine A. Jahner. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1991. Walker, James R. “The Sun Dance and Other Ceremonies of the Oglala Division of the Teton Dakota.” Anthropological Papers of the American Museum of Natural History 16, pt. 2 (1917): 55-221.

Mural essay by Dr. Edward Welch, Humanities Professor – Augustana College, December 2012


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