The Symbolic Role of Animals in the Plains Indian Sun
Atwood Lawrence 1
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. Generally held
in late spring or early summer, the rite celebrates renewal
the spiritual rebirth of participants and their relatives
a; well as the regeneration of the living earth with all its
components. The sun dance reflects relationships with nature
that are characteristic of the Plains ethos, and includes
symbolic representations of various animal species, particularly
the eagle and the buffalo, that once played vital roles in
the lives of the people and are still endowed with sacredness
and special powers. The ritual, involving sacrifice and supplication
to insure harmony between all living beings, continues to
be practiced by many contemporary native Americans.
many tribes of Plains Indians whose buffalo-hunting culture
flowered during the 18th and 19th centuries, the sun dance was
the major communal religious ceremony. Although details of the
event differed in various groups, certain elements were common
to most tribal traditions. Generally, the annual ceremony was
held in late spring or early summer when people from different
bands gathered together again following the dispersal that customarily
took place in winter. The sun dance, a ritual of sacrifice performed
by virtually all of the High Plains peoples, has been described
among the Arapaho, Arikara, Assiniboin, Bannock, Blackfeet,
Blood, Cheyenne, Plains Cree, Crow, Gros Ventre, Hidatsa, Kiowa,
Mandans, Ojibway, Omaha, Ponca, Sarsi, Shoshone, Sioux (Dakota),
and Ute (Spier, 1921, p. 459; Liberty, 1980, pp. 165-66). Today
many of these tribes still carry out the sun dance, sometimes
in altered form. The overall significance of the sun dance involves
renewal the spiritual renewal of participants and their
relatives as well as the renewal of the living earth and all
its components. In its broadest aspects, kinships within both
the social and natural realms are reaffirmed. This regenerative
theme is evidenced by the Cheyenne, for example, through naming
the structure in which the ritual takes place the New-Life-Lodge.
This term expresses the idea that the sun dance is supposed
to "re-create, to re-form, to reanimate the earth, vegetation,
[and] animal life" and hence is a "ceremony of rebirth or renaissance"
(Dorsey, 1905a, p. 57).
reasons for participation vary among individuals and tribes.
Motivations for the sacrifice include thankfulness for blessings
received, the fulfillment of a vow previously made in return
for the beneficial outcome of a certain crisis, and the desire
to insure the safety of a person in the armed forces or to obtain
a cure for a sick relative. Less specifically, the ordeal may
be undertaken to promote the general welfare of the dancers
people. Historically, Crows held the dance to seek aid in obtaining
vengeance for kin killed in warfare (Lowie, 1935, p. 297). Some
tribal traditions include the transfer of sacred medicine bundles
in the context of the ceremony.
each sun dance has a sponsor or pledger, usually the main dancer,
who bears the expenses of the ceremony. The event ordinarily
involves about a week or more of activity consisting of an early
private period, during which preparations are made and instruction
and prayer take place, followed by the public phase of dancing.
Construction of the sun dance lodge is accompanied by complex
rituals in which a special tree is cut for use as a center pole,
with the dance enclosure erected around it. The entrance faces
east, and in some tribes sunrise ceremonies mark each days dawn
during the dance. Inside, an altar is constructed, usually featuring
a decorated buffalo skull. Dancers fast and abstain from drinking
during the three or four days of dancing. While special songs
are chanted by drummers near the lodge entrance, each participant
moves rhythmically back and forth from the periphery of the
lodge to the center pole. Dancers continuously blow on eagle-
bone whistles, fixing their eyes on the crotch in the center
pole that is typically known as the Thunderbirds Nest or eagles
nest. Periods of rest alternate with intervals of dancing. At
the end of the sun dance, purification rites are held and the
participants may drink water and break their fast. The lodge
is then abandoned, its components remaining briefly as a reminder
of the ceremony before returning to the elements.
former times, voluntary torture was part of the climax of the
sun dance in certain tribes such as the Sioux and Cheyenne.
In those cases, the dancers were pierced through the breast
or shoulder muscles by skewers which were tied to the center
pole, and they danced by pulling back until their flesh tore
away. Sometimes the thongs inserted in the sufferers bodies
were attached to a varying number of buffalo skulls rather than
to the center pole (Spier, 1921, pp. 474-75; Walker, 1917, pp.
116-19; Laubin, 1977, pp. 291- 92).
dance participants strive to obtain supernatural aid and personal
power through their sacrifice which will not only assure the
accomplishment of desired outcomes but which will bring them
a richer and more meaningful life as a member of their society.
The sacred ritual reaffirms tribal membership and cultural identity
and ensures that the people will prosper for another year. Following
the sun dance, there is a renewed feeling of social harmony.
And because of a world view that includes nature and all living
beings within the realm of kinship, that sense of harmony extends
beyond human relationships to include the entire creation. As
one contemporary native American explains, the sun dance "is
the ritual reenactment of the relationship the Plains people
see between consecration of the human spirit and Wakan Tanka
[God] as manifested as Sun, or Light, and Life-Bestower. Through
purification, participation, sacrifice, and supplication, the
participants act as instruments or transmitters of increased
power and wholeness . . . from Wakan Tanka." The purpose of
the ceremony is "to integrate: to fuse the individual with his
or her fellows, the community of people with that of the other
kingdoms, and this larger communal group with the worlds beyond
this one. . . The person sheds the isolated, individual personality
and is restored to conscious harmony with the universe." The
community "is the bedrock of tribal life" and it "necessarily
includes all beings that inhabit the tribe's universe" (Allen,
1986, pp. 61-63).
many in-depth studies of the sun dance have been made by anthropologists,
the inclusion of symbolic animals in the ceremony has received
only passing mention. I first became interested in the role
of animals in the ritual when attending a Crow Indian sun dance
during my field research on the Crow Reservation in June 1980.
During that ceremony, everyone in attendance was requested not
to kill any animals or birds on or near the grounds where the
sun lodge had been erected for the duration of the sun dance.
This prohibition was part of the effort to maintain a sense
of harmony between people and nature essential to the
promotion of healing and regeneration of life that is the central
focus of the ceremony.
with the rest of creation is expressed throughout the sun dance
by symbolic objects that represent attributes of various animal
kin. For example, Sioux participants may wear the skins of rabbits
on their arms and legs, for "the rabbit represents humility,
because he is quiet and soft and not self-asserting a
quality we must all possess when we go to the center of the
world" (Brown, 1967, p. 85). The wearing of strips of rabbit
fur by the Cheyennes who build the sun dance lodge may refer
back to the time when the tribe lived in the north and subsisted
chiefly on rabbits (Grinnell, 1923, vol. 2, p. 218). The Arapaho
sun dance involves a rabbit-tip), whose name originated from
the myth in which rabbits conducted the secret ceremonies of
the sun dance lodge. Those who still perform the rites are called
Rabbit-men (Dorsey, 1903, p. 37). Weasel and otter hides, because
they come from "tough little animals", are linked to the Crow
sun dance (Vogel, 1984, p. 253), probably conferring endurance.
For the Lakota, these two animals are especially "wakan"' meaning
akin to sacred (Walker, 1980, pp. 101, 168).
eagle, a highly important sacred animal in Plains belief, plays
a major role in the sun dance. Most obviously, the bird partakes
of the ritual by having his nest represented at the fork of
the lodge. In Arapaho mythology, this nest symbolizes the thunderbird,
or eagle, who built his nest in a cottonwood tree. "Just as
[these] birds fly about overlooking the earth, so does the Father.
He is in the form of a bird" (Dorsey, 1903, p. 114). Some tribes,
notably the Crow and Shoshone, fasten an actual mounted golden
eagle to the rafter over the entrance or near the nest. Considered
"chief of all the creatures of the air," and "powerful in battle,"
the bird acts as "guardian protecting the people from evil."
The eagle is admired for courage, swiftness, and strength. Sometimes
identified as the thunderbird, he is distinguished by his extraordinarily
high flight, bringing him nearer to the sun and in closer proximity
to the Great Mystery than any other creature (Laubin, 1977,pp.279,315;Grinnell,1923,vol.
1, p. 188). "Eagle is the primary servant of the Sun and in
his spiritual manifestation takes the form of Thunderbird."
Eagle is a bearer of messages from spirit to man, and from man
to spirit" (Vogel, 1984, pp. 307-308). Thus, in the sun dance
the eagle exerts his power as a facilitator of communication
between people and the supernatural forces. Crows shed light
on the eagle's symbolic role in the sun dance ritual, explaining:
"Thunderbird in his earthly manifestation of eagle epitomizes
the dynamism of thunder and lightning. He is the awakener of
earth and of its greening; he is the servant of the Sun, the
giver of heat and light." The eagle is associated with success,
for "prosperity and wealth follow the eagle, who may bestow
the gift of curing" (Vogel, 1984, p. 312). Eagles "have sharp
eyes and know everything" (Brown, 1967, p. 77). As expressed
by a contemporary Sioux medicine man, "in an eagle there is
all the wisdom of the world" (Lame Deer and Erdoes, 1972, p.
Crow who is dancing intensely may focus on the eagle at the
top of the pole. The eagle may "finally move and show itself
to the person," and "may begin to dance alongside one as he
'charges' and dances back from the center pole." The eagle may
then accompany that person in a vision, dancing beside him and
instructing him about the medicine acquired through the vision.
On the second day of the dance, a participant may see the eagle
soaring above the lodge. "The eagle is alive with a beauty and
strength unmatched anywhere, having been endowed with keen eyesight
as well as foresight." The bird carries the Creator's messages
and symbolizes forthcoming blessings (Frey, 1987, pp. 108-109,
118). In unison, each dancer constantly blows upon a whistle
fashioned from an eagle's wing bone, making sounds like the
cry of an eagle, keeping time with the drum. This activity symbolizes
the force of prayers which rise high like eagles to reach the
Great Mystery. According to Black Elk, the sound made by the
whistle "is the voice of the Spotted Eagle; our Grandfather,
Wakan-Tanka, always hears this, for ... it is really His own
voice" (Brown, 1967, p. 71). The whistle is painted with colored
dots and lines to represent the remarkable perception of the
eagle. The fluffy down feather at the end of the whistle is
blown back and forth, representing breath and life (Mails, 1972,
pp. 165, 167; Laubin, 1977, p. 279). The plume is "taken from
the breast of the eagle, for this is the place which is nearest
to the heart and center of the sacred bird" (Brown, 1967, p.
71). Under certain conditions, when a dancer suffers greatly
from thirst, water may come to the eagle-bone whistle (Frey,
1987, p. 140).
of the eagle's special capacities, his feathers have supernatural
and curative functions. An observer recorded that once when
the thirst of some Arapaho dancers became intense, a participant
used an eagle feather to bring a refreshing rain (Shimkin, 1953,
pp. 449-50). During the sun dance, a medicine man may direct
his eagle-feather fan toward the bodies of people who seek healing.
The feathers are first touched to the center pole and then to
the patient, transmitting power from the pole to the sufferer.
The sun dance leader brushes away illness with a feather. Fanning
motions directed to the body may withdraw and whip away causes
of sickness. Feathers are held upward toward the sky to reach
the eagle so that the bird may bear the prayers for curing upward
to the Creator (Frey, 1987, p. 134; Shimkin, 1953, p. 448; Voget,
1984, p. 240).
is the buffalo, however, as the very source of life for the
Plains tribes, who occupies the central role in the sun dance.
From that animal, Plains people once derived not only meat for
sustenance, but skins for tipis, fur for robes, and virtually
all materials for the tools and objects necessary for everyday
living. Crows still commemorate the buffalo's fulfillment of
their needs in former times. "Even today, Crows view the buffalo
as a provider of good things for living. 'It represents plenty
to eat, plenty to wear, and a peaceful wholesome life.'" The
buffalo symbolizes the "necessities without which life would
be hazardous and wearisome," and "also bestows great curing
powers." In the contemporary sun dance, it still "radiates power"
(Vogel, 1984, pp. 307, 312).
of buffalo herds as influenced by their migrations indeed determined
the time and locality chosen for the great ceremonial (Roe,
1970, p. 664). The preeminent status of the buffalo is illustrated
by the fact that in certain tribes, the origin of the sun dance
is traced to the buffalo. The inception of the ceremonial involves
a visionary encounter between a person and a buffalo emissary
with supernatural power. Ute and Shoshone myths, for example,
reveal that the buffalo helped the individual who began the
tradition, giving him instructions as to how to carry out the
dance and revealing the benefits that would follow from proper
performance of the ritual (Jorgensen, 1972, p. 26). For the
Lakota, it was a deity in the form of a White Buffalo who brought
the Sacred Pipe through which all ceremonies and rituals are
empowered (Allen, 1986, p. 16). The Cheyenne sun dance was taught
by the Creator to a medicine man, later known as Erect-Horns
because of the buffalo horn cap he wore. He journeyed to a high
peak in the company of a woman and when the couple came forth
from the mountain to return home, "the whole earth seemed to
become new, and there came forth buffalo that followed them"
(Dorsey, 1905, p. 48).
relating to the buffalo consistently occur throughout the sun
dance. Historically, various ceremonies relating to the animal
have taken place as a preliminary to the climactic dancing.
A sacred song of the Oglala Sioux that followed certain rituals
pertaining to the buffalo skull expresses the participants'
desire for blessings and its association with the buffalo's
be merciful to me. We want to live!
That is why we are doing this.
They say that a herd of buffalo is coming;
Now they are here.
The power of the buffalo is coming upon us;
It is now here! (Brown, 1953, p. 87)
the Cheyenne sun dance progresses, buffalo songs change in tempo.
"The rattle beat becomes slow and ponderous, as if a great herd
of buffalo was moving across the prairie." A Cheyenne who was
present the first time these buffalo songs were sung in the
sun dance lodge related that "as they were chanted, a herd of
buffalo bulls ran over the hill and down into the camp" (Powell,
1969, vol. 2, p. 658).
ceremonies, buffalo dances, and feasts of buffalo flesh were
sometimes included as preliminaries to prayers that the Great
Mystery would "heed the words of the Buffalo which He will speak
that night in commendation of the people." A Sioux shaman dedicated
food to "the God of generosity, the Buffalo God." In buffalo
dances, participants "imitate the pawing of a buffalo bull in
rage or defiance and ... manifest a defiant bravery of the dancers
equal to that of the buffalo bull." While dancing, they "gaze
continually at the ornamented buffalo head." Those who complete
"four periods of this dance become buffalo men" (Walker, 1917,
pp. 104, 115). After the tree to be used as the center pole
had been chosen, Sioux Buffalo Cult members carried out a ceremony
to honor the buffalo and bring his spirit to the dance (Laubin,
1977, p. 279).
of the animal was utilized in various ways. Prior to inserting
the center pole into the ground, the Sioux placed buffalo fat
into the hole. Before the dancing began, the sacred sun dance
pipe was filled and sealed with fat from a buffalo's heart.
A buckskin bag containing a piece of buffalo hump, the choicest
of all parts, was suspended from the bundle of branches above
the pole. A feast of buffalo flesh often followed the termination
of the sun dance. Buffalo tongues, as "the most sacred part
of the most sacred animal"' were an important feature of the
sun dance in many tribes. In preparation for the Blackfoot sun
dance, one-hundred tongues were gathered and prepared according
to proscribed rituals and consumed as sacramental food during
the ceremony. The tongues were "prayed and sung over" and were
consecrated to the sun. A feast of buffalo tongues preceded
the onset of the dancers fasting among the Lakota and Blackfoot
(Laubin, 1977, pp. 278, 282, 283; Frey, 1987, p. 121; Melody,
1976; Harrod, 1987, p. 125; Wissler, 1918, pp. 235-39; McClintock,
1910, p. 305).
the Hidatsas, Arikaras, and Shoshones prepared the head of a
buffalo killed in a special hunt so that it looked alive during
the sun dance. Today the Shoshones and Crows use a mounted head
that is kept from year to year for that purpose. The stuffed
buffalo head is tied near the fork of the center pole during
the ceremony. Representing the great herds upon which the tribes
once depended, it remains as a symbol of abundance (Frey, 1987,
p. 105; Laubin, 1977, pp. 313-14). In earlier times, some form
of a buffalo calf or its hide was placed at the top of the center
pole. The initiator of a Sisseton Sioux sun dance would prepare
a life-like stuffed calf or yearling for this purpose which
in later years was replaced by a small rawhide buffalo effigy
(Skinner, 1919:383). While placing the skin of a young buffalo
at the top of the tree, the Oglala pledger would say
It is from this
buffalo person that our people live; he gives to us our homes,
our clothing, our food, everything we need. O buffalo calf,
I now give to you a sacred place upon the tip of the tree.
This tree will hold you in his hand and will raise you up
to Wakan-Tanka. Behold what I am about to do! Through this,
all things that move and fly upon the earth and in the heavens
will be happy! (Brown, 1967, pp. 78-79)
some tribal sun dances, a pair of rawhide effigies, one in the
shape of a buffalo and one in the shape of a man, were suspended
from the center pole under its fork. The Oglala offered these
figures to the six directions with a prayer stating that the
buffalo which had been provided is "the chief of all the four-leggeds
upon our sacred Mother; from him the people live, and with him
they walk the sacred path. Behold, too, this two-legged, who
represents all the people.,' Wakan-Tanka was asked to bestow
upon "these two chiefs ... all the favours that they ask for"
(Brown, 1967, p. 79). In the ceremony the buffalo represents
the people and the universe and should always be treated with
respect, for was he not here before the two-legged peoples,
and is he not generous in that he gives us our homes and our
food? The buffalo is wise in many things, and, thus, we should
learn from him and should always be as a relative with him.
(Brown, 1967, p. 72)
Eastman, a Sioux, states that the man was painted red and the
buffalo black. "The paint indicated that the man who was about
to give thanks publicly had been potentially dead, but was allowed
to live by the mysterious favor and interference of the Giver
of Life. The buffalo hung opposite the image of his own body
in death, because it was the support of his physical self' (1970,
pp. 59-60). In J. R. Walker's account, both the buffalo bull
and the man were painted black and were depicted with exaggerated
genitals. Incantations were made to impart potency to the figures
(1917, p. 108). Formerly, as a preliminary to the Teton Sioux
sun dance, warriors shot at the rawhide effigies to represent
"the overcoming of enemies and the success of many buffalo hunts"
(Laubin, 1977, p. 283).
parts and products of the buffalo are incorporated into the
sun dance. The officiating Sioux priest wore buffalo horns upon
his head. He might attach bands of buffalo skin with loosening
hair to his ankles and wrists, and his robe came from a buffalo
who was shedding. Special power was attributed to the shed hair
of the all- important animal (Laubin, 1977, p. 286). The thongs
used by the Sioux in the self-torture ritual were made of buffalo
rawhide (Brown, 1967, p. 95). Among the Cheyenne "in earlier
times, the buffalo rawhide was used as the drum throughout the
ceremonies, thus continuing the principle that all essential
sacred items in the sun dance are related to the buffalo" (Powell,
1969, vol. 2, p. 660). At a certain point in the Lakota ritual,
a dried buffalo penis was placed against the center pole. This
was done to "give increased virility to the dancers," so "they
could get more children" (Walker, 1917, p. 110; 1980, p. 36).
The center pole is viewed as a conductor of life, and therefore
leaning the buffalo phallus against it confirms the pole's association
with fertility and reinforces the symbolic meaning of the ceremony
as a celebration of the generative power of the sun. The cottonwood
pole, as "the conduit of life for the dancers and for the people"
could be "understood to be the sun's phallus" (Melody, 1976,
pp. 454-55). A rattle made of buffalo scrotum once played a
role in the Shoshone sun dance ritual (Shimkin, 1953, p. 444).
Sioux dancers undergoing the self-torture phase of the ceremony
were given buffalo tails for use as fly brushes and fans (Laubin,
1977, p. 291).
burning of buffalo chips was also practiced. After the site
for the sun dance lodge had been chosen, buffalo chips were
lighted on the sacred spot where the holy tree was to be erected
(Laubin, 1977, p. 280). Lakota belief held that smoke from the
buffalo chips was "an incense to propitiate the Buffalo God."
Pieces of dry buffalo excrement "have a wakanla, or spirit-like
of themselves" and this spirit-like is released by burning,
as the smoke, and this ascended to the Buffalo God as an intermediary."
Prior to the dancing, a fire of buffalo chips on the altar (with
sweetgrass incense) insures that "all will be harmonized with
the potency of the Buffalo God that should prevail during the
ceremony" (Walker, 1980, p. 37; 1917, pp. 101, 113-14).
objects that are sacred in themselves are molded into the image
of the buffalo. On the second day of dancing, Sioux participants
sometimes added to the wreathes of sage they wore on their heads
"two eagle primary feathers inserted straight up in the wreathes,
one on each side of the head." These looked "much like long
horns, symbolizing the plenty of Buffaloes and buffalo power"
(Laubin, 1977, p. 289). Horns made from the sacred sage adorned
the head of a dancer who had vowed to drag four buffalo skulls,
and the form of the buffalo was worn on his chest (Brown, 1967,
most dramatic representation of the buffalo in the sun dance
is the animal's skull. Painted and decorated in various symbolic
ways and resting on a bed of sage generally facing toward the
east, it becomes a sacred altar during the ceremony. The Oglala
directed prayers to Wakan-Tanka indicating the chief of all
the four-leggeds is tatanka, the buffalo. Behold his dried skull
here; by this we know that we, too, shall become skull and bones,
and thus, together we shall all walk the sacred path back to
Wakan-Tanka. Here on earth we live together with the buffalo,
and we are grateful to him, for it is he who gives us our food,
and who makes the people happy. For this reason I now give grass
to our relative the buffalo. (Brown, 1967, p. 90) Offerings
were then presented: balls of sacred sage were placed in the
eye sockets, a bag of tobacco was tied on to one hoary, and
a piece of deer hide attached to the other horn to represent
a robe for the buffalo. The skull was painted with red lines,
signifying "You, O buffalo, are the earth!" (Brown, 1967, pp.
90-91). Oglala belief held that the Buffalo God, or Relative
God, resided in the skull (Walker, 1917, pp. 130-31).
the Cheyenne stuffed the eyes and nasal cavity of the buffalo
skull with grass which "represents the earth's vegetation, especially
that which grows near the water. Its use continues the prayer
that the plants, trees, and grasses will be plentiful, in order
to supply the needs of both men and animals" (Powell, 1969,
vol. 2, p. 636). Symbols were applied to the skull indicating
the road to the spirit world, day and night, and the sun and
moon. Offerings were made to the skull along with prayers for
favor and protection (Dorsey, 1905a, pp. 96-97, 113-14). The
Arapaho, too, saw the buffalo skull on the sun dance altar as
"the dwelling-place, during the ceremony, of Man-Above." The
"various black and red dots on the skull indicate prayers, while
the grass knobs placed in the eye- sockets and in the nasal
cavities were said to indicate the times when the Indians used
grass garments, before the appearance of the buffalo." The grass
balls also represent a deity who owns the rivers and creeks.
His body is represented by the water grass, or flat grass, and
when these balls of grass are inserted, "the buffalo is then
complete, ie., the life is restored," for "the animal lives
on grass" (Dorsey, 1903, pp. 118-19).
pipe which was to be used in the Sioux sun dance was first placed
upon the buffalo skull, "being careful to have its stem point
toward the east." The prayer to Wakan-Tanka which followed linked
the pipe with the powerful animal, for the sacred pipe would
"soon go to the center of the universe, along with the buffalo,
who has helped to make strong the bodies of the people" (Brown,
1967, p. 83).
mentor of an Oglala sun dance candidate decorates the buffalo
skull on the altar with "stripes of red paint, one across the
forehead and one lengthwise on each side of the skull." At the
same time, he paints a red stripe across the forehead of the
Candidate. The stripes across the forehead indicate that the
Buffalo God has adopted the Candidate as a hunka, or relative
by ceremony. The red stripes on the sides of the skull indicate
that the Buffalo God will give especial protection to the Candidate.
The horns of the skull should be adorned with any ornaments
that the Candidate may apply. Then the mentor should fill and
light a pipe and he and the Candidate should smoke it in communion,
alternately blowing the smoke into the nostril cavities of the
skull, thus smoking in communion with the Buffalo God. This
should be done in order that the potency of the pipe may harmonize
all those communing. (Walker, 1917, pp. 69-70) The candidate
must observe many rituals with regard to the altar because "it
is a sacred place occupied by the potency of the God, the Buffalo,
and should be reverenced as the God is reverenced" (Walker,
1917, p. 70).
the end of the original Sioux sun dance, all objects such as
fur, feathers, and wreaths and other symbols used in the ceremony
were piled up in the center of the lodge. "These things were
too sacred to be kept and should be resumed to the earth. Only
the buffalo robes and the eagle-bone whistles were kept....
On top of the pile of sacred things the buffalo skull was placed,
for this skull reminds us of death and also helps us to remember
that a cycle has been completed" (Brown, 1967, pp. 98-99).
buffalo skull served numerous functions. The Sioux dance leader,
when resting, "threw himself prone on the ground, west of the
sacred place, pressing his head against the sacred buffalo skull"
(Laubin, 1977, p. 288). When a Crow dancer offered a portion
of himself during the sun dance by slicing off the tip of a
finger, he performed this sacrifice "steadied on a buffalo skull
whenever possible" (Vogel, 1984, p. 307).
a much more dramatic way, buffalo skulls were used to implement
the supreme sacrifice of the sun dance that was made in the
voluntary torture phenomenon enacted in some tribes. The practice
resembles and may have originated from procedures in the
"O-Kee-pa" ceremony, as described by the artist, George Catlin,
in 1832 (1967, pp. 39-100); it probably spread to the western
tribes from that locus (Hultkrantz, 1973, p. 17). In the self-inflicted
torture process, participants were suspended from the top of
the lodge by thongs attached to skewers passing through back
or chest muscles. Additionally, from incisions made in various
areas of their bodies, buffalo skulls were hung from skewers.
In another form of this sacrifice, instead of being suspended,
a man would volunteer to "carry four of his relatives on his
back, meaning he would drag four buffalo skulls." An Oglala
who made that vow spoke of it as bearing "my closest relatives,
the ancient buffalo" (Brown, 1967, pp. 86, 95). Two to eight
skulls might be attached, and as the dancer moved, in addition
to tearing his flesh by means of the skewers, the skull and
especially the horns dug into his body.
the Buffalo Skull
explains that the buffalo skull that is dragged after the dancer
represents "the grave from which he had escaped" (1970, p. 60).
It is relevant to the understanding of this practice that "among
hunting peoples bones represent the final source of life, both
human and animal, the source from which the species is reconstituted
at will.... The 'soul, is presumed to reside in the bones and
hence the resurrection of the individual from its bones can
be expected." For hunters, "bone represents the very source
of life. ... To reduce a living being to a skeleton is equivalent
to re-entering the womb of this primordial life, that is, to
a complete renewal, a mystical rebirth." The idea that "the
inexhaustible matrix of life of the species" is found in the
animal's bones is characteristic of the "mystical relations
between man and his prey" that are "fundamental for hunting
societies." Plains tribes such as the Dakota "believe that the
bones of those bisons which they have slain and divested of
flesh rise again clothed with renewed flesh, and quickened with
life, and become fat, and fit for slaughter the succeeding June"
(Eliade, 1974, pp. 63, 159, 160-61). Thus the theme of rebirth
is expressed through the role of the buffalo skull in the sun
dance and this concept of universal regeneration infuses with
transcendent meaning the participants' suffering of ritual pain
in association with the skull of the sacred animal.
buffalo plays a significant role in the visionary experience
that is sought in the sun dance. A Crow dancer may be guided
by a buffalo during a vision. In the contemporary sun dance
ceremony, "dancers challenge his [the buffalo's] attention by
'running at it,' suffering and praying that the Buffalo Person
will take notice and 'run over them,' bringing a dancer what
he desires and perhaps something more the gift of a power
to cure" (Vogel, 1984, p. 307). A Crow who is dancing intently
may see the buffalo on which he is focusing move. "The buffalo
may 'chase' a dancer, knocking him down. When this happens,
the dancer is said to have taken a 'hard fall.'" It has come
about "with the force of the Buffalo." As a climax, "he realizes
he has the ears and horns of the Buffalo; he's looking about
through the Buffalo's eyes. He and the Buffalo are one." After
relating these events to the medicine man, "he's told of the
vision's significance, and cautioned 'never to eat of the buffalo"'
(Frey, 1987, pp. 118-21, 125). Ute and Shoshone participants
reach a point in the ceremony "where they believe that they
are indeed 'knocked down' by Buffalo." When a dancer is unconscious
for a short time, it is assumed that "he is afraid of Buffalo
and has rejected his power." Elder shamans then shout encouragement,
telling him "You can get what you're looking for.... If you
want to be a doctor [shaman] you've got to work for it. You've
got to take it away from that buffalo. He wants to give it to
you, but it isn't going to be easy." The participant usually
attempts to dance again, desiring to be one who "made it," who
did not "collapse in front of Buffalo and then fail to muster
the courage to get up to dance and again to meet Buffalo head
on." It is believed that "Buffalo knocks down those who violate
customs, or pursue power too fast, or who cannot withstand the
hot-dry force." Those who get up and dance again after being
knocked down show they "have the courage to withstand Buffalo's
jolts of hot-dry power." Fellow participants may catch a falling
dancer and "send him back to 'fight Buffalo"' (Jorgensen, 1974,
pp. 213-14). Shoshones and Utes believe that
snorts fire out of his nostrils, that his eyes roll, and that
he becomes alive, just like an enraged bull in a bull ring.
He challenges those who would accept his power to come and
get it. If a person goes down and is knocked unconscious but
does not receive a vision, it takes great courage to face
Buffalo again. It is believed that, when a person receives
his vision, he is "knocked down" as if he were hit by a thunderbolt
from above, and it is a foregone conclusion that the dancer
will not only dance again but that his dancing will be effortless.
(Jorgensen, 1974, p. 214)
a vision, the dancer is usually unconscious for several hours,
and in that interval he "may learn new songs, new curing techniques,
and a new dance step." He is in the company of the supernatural
forces and may talk to the spirits and perhaps to Buffalo. He
is instructed about his power and about new aspects and interpretations
of the dance. Spectators may "see Buffalo's eyes roll and turn
red" when the dancer has been "hit" (Jorgensen, 1974, pp. 214-15).
visions regarding buffalo may be granted to sun dancers. One
Sioux related that he saw "a herd of buffalo heading north.
He saw white people killing buffalo until they were all gone.
So he knew what was coming, but the things foretold in a vision
could not be prevented." Later, during the great drought of
1930, with its disastrous dust storms, a more optimistic vision
indicated that "the buffalo had returned to 'hook up the ground"'
(Laubin, 1977, p. 293).
in the Plains Indian World View
with animals, particularly the eagle and the buffalo, are inextricably
interwoven with the sun dance of the Plains Indians. The roles
assigned to them relate to the animals place in the world view
of the society in which this ritual is a major event, and reflect
intimate human relationships with the natural world that differ
from those typical of the Judaeo-Christian tradition. The animals
who share the Plains environment are viewed as wise and powerful.
They possess most of the same capacities human beings have and
in some ways exceed them. Beliefs about creation indicate that
certain animals existed before people did, and were in communication
with the Creator. They advised the Creator and helped in bringing
humankind and even the earth itself into existence. Animals
are intermediaries between human beings and the supernatural
forces. All living creatures are part of a single interrelated
community. Each one has its own part in this web of life, which
is envisioned as a circle rather than as the linear hierarchy
with humankind at the top that pervades western thought. Jamake
Highwater, a writer of Blackfeet heritage, emphasizes the "sympathetic
undertone" of the native Americans' relationship to the
world around them, and explains their belief in the solidarity
of life as an expression of kinship (1981, p. 69).
this view of animals as relatives, a hunter/gatherer society
that places strong valuation on obtaining animals for food generally
possesses cultural resources for dealing with the inevitable
inconsistencies between an attitude of mutuality and kinship
with living beings and the antagonism involved in killing and
eating them. In his recent study of Plains Indian religion and
morality, Howard Harrod points out that the sun dance ritual
is an important factor in the resolution of this conflict. Killing
animals violates kinship relations, but the ceremonies of world
renewal that focus on the buffalo serve to bring about a symbolic
reconciliation. Through the process of elevating the buffalo
to a sacred status that is not conferred upon any other animal
and by showing it great respect and reverence in the sun dance
ritual, the potentially disruptive practice of feeding upon
its flesh is somehow mitigated. There is a resultant deepened
sense of kinship that helps to restore harmony between people
and the buffalo (1987, pp. 116, 133, 165, 171-72).
of traditional Plains Indian society define themselves not as
separate entities, but as part of a whole. They see themselves
primarily as partaking of a kinship network, emphasizing their
membership in family, clan, and tribe. The contrast between
this mode of viewing the self as subordinate to the whole and
the strong individualism of modern Western society has been
well established (see Leach, 1982, pp. 139-40). In the same
way that Plains tribespeople experience their broad communal
ties to other human beings, this ingrained way of relating is
extended to the wider society, including non-humans (Hughes,
1983, pp. 16-17, 61). Thus land, essential to all life
animal and human could not be imagined as individually
sense of reciprocity permeates Plains ideology. Dynamic interrelationships
between people and nature require giving as well as taking.
Hence the sun dance ritual includes all of nature in its scope,
but places an emphasis on those creatures and forces that are
most beneficially related to human welfare. The sun lodge represents
the whole universe where the drama of cosmic renewal is played
out, and all elements of nature including the sun, moon,
and stars are praised. The strictly spiritual tie to the
eagle is well represented and his ceremonial role is focused
upon religious perceptions regarding his conscious awareness,
his role as messenger, and his powers of flight.
with the buffalo are more complex and intricate. As the major
animal represented in the sun dance, it has both spiritual and
physical ties to humankind. It is, quite simply, acknowledged
as necessary for bodily existence. Without it, there would be
death, or at least an impoverished life. Since humankind has
a spirit as well as a body, the buffalo is seen as answering
all the needs of people those manifested by the spirit
as well as the flesh. When it is stated that "all the good things
of Cheyenne existence are fulfilled in the buffalo" (Powell,
1969, vol. 2, p. 635), this assertion includes the full range
of human experience. It has been well established that the native
ethos does not include a religion separate from other aspects
of daily life as in the Western concept, but rather encompasses
a world in which all of life is permeated by spiritual forces
(Harrod, 1987, p. 6).
dependence upon the buffalo for food, the animal literally becomes
"flesh of our flesh" for the consumers. In this sense, as in
many other important ways, the great animal entered the Plains
Indians, psyche. Lame Deer extols the power and wisdom of the
buffalo and explains
We Sioux have
a close relationship to the buffalo. He is our brother. We
have many legends of buffalo changing themselves into men.
And the Indians are built like buffalo, too big shoulders,
narrow hips. According to our belief, the Buffalo Woman who
brought us the peace pipe, which is at the center of our religion,
was a beautiful maiden, and after she had taught our tribes
how to worship with the pipe, she changed herself into a white
buffalo calf. So the buffalo is very sacred to us. You can't
understand about nature, about the feeling we have toward
it, unless you understand how close we were to the buffalo.
That animal was almost like a part of ourselves, part of our
souls. (1972, p. 130)
goes on to point out that without the buffalo, "we were nothing,"
enumerating the many ways its flesh, skin, horns, organs, and
bones were used to benefit people. Further, "his mighty skull,
with the pipe leaning against it, was our sacred altar. The
name of the greatest Sioux was Tatanka Iyotake Sitting
Bull. When you killed off the buffalo, you also killed the Indian
the real, natural, 'wild' Indian." The natives, close
identification with the buffalo is expressed by Lame Deer's
praise of the animal as smart, playful, possessed of a sense
of humor, hardy, and well suited to its harsh environment. The
buffalo seems specially fashioned for the Indians, because Lame
Deer says "White hunters used to call the buffalo stupid because
they were easy to shoot, weren't afraid of a gun. But the buffalo
was not designed to cope with modern weapons. He was designed
to deal with an Indian's arrows" (1972, pp. 13-31). Regarding
the buffalo as "the closest of all animals to human beings,"
Plains Indians saw parallels between the great beast and their
own species. "The buffalo evidently had a religion, for they
were seen to purify their 'children' by washing them and made
'offerings' of hair when they rubbed against trees" (Hughes,
1983, p. 325).
The Sun Dance:
Sacrifice, Integration, Reciprocity, and Regeneration
very important consideration in understanding the Indian's perception
is that the buffalo is a highly social animal, innately gregarious.
That is a trait with which the Plains people could identify,
finding similarities to the broad allegiances and communal relationships
characteristic of their own social organization. Unlike more
solitary species, the buffalo, as a herd animal, is often referred
to by the natives as a "tribe" or "nation." And, as mentioned,
the movements and whereabouts of that "buffalo nation" influenced
Plains Indian tribal structure and location at a given season.
Generally, the Plains Indian interactions with buffaloes do
not involve personal contact with individual animals, but rather
the whole species or population. Calling the animal "Buffalo"
always implies reference to the group or at least a member who
represents that group. One specific buffalo is rarely, if ever,
singled out or named as is often the case in many societies
with any animal who is to be eaten. This practice helps in combating
the revulsion that may accompany the consumption of flesh from
a familiar individual being. Thus communal ritual reconciliation
is made with the species as a whole: human society propitiates
the buffalo nation.
to relieve the guilt resulting from killing and eating sentient
creatures, too, is the pervasive belief that animals willingly
offer themselves to hunters. This idea is reflected in the observation
that "the Plains Indians spoke of their hunt not as 'driving'
the buffalo but as 'leading them'; not 'chasing,' but 'calling'"
them. Certain men among the Cheyenne and Blackfeet possessed
"the power of charming the buffalo into a corral or over a cliff."
They accomplished this feat by disguising themselves in buffalo
robes and imitating the animals' movements and sounds (Hughes,
1983, p. 30). The conviction that the buffalo voluntarily give
themselves to be killed for the benefit of human beings is closely
associated with Plains people's sense of identification with
the animal and with the force of reciprocal obligations toward
it. As expressed by members of one tribe, "Since buffalo allowed
themselves to be used in order that the Crow people could live,
it seemed fitting . . . to offer a part of themselves to the
sun and other spiritual persons" (Vogel, 1984, p. 307).
the sacrifice of the dancers through fasting, thirst, and self-inflicted
pain reflects the desire to return something of themselves to
nature, with special reference to the life- sustaining buffalo,
in exchange for past and future benefits. It is relevant that,
as mentioned, the Mandan O-kee-pa (Okipa) ceremony, from which
elements of the Plains sun dance are almost certainly derived,
features the self-torture of participants by means of buffalo
skulls. In addition to that practice, there were certain animal-oriented
rituals included within the O-kee-pa that shed light on the
meaning of the sun dance. For example, Catlin described a bull-dance
"to the strict observance of which they [the Mandans] attributed
the coming of buffaloes to supply them with food." The colorful
event was enacted by men dressed as buffaloes, wearing buffalo
head masks, who imitated the motions and behavior of the animals
(1967, pp. 54-57). The name Okee-pa means "look alike" and refers
to the bull dancers, who were all of the same stature and who
were identically dressed and painted (Bowers, 1950, p. 111).
men disguised as other animals including grizzly bears, eagles,
antelopes, swans, rattlesnakes, beavers, vultures, and wolves,
imitated the sounds and behaviors of their respective species.
In this spectacle, the players enacted interrelationships involving
struggle between various forms of life. Animals growled and
chased each other and meat-feeding scenarios took place (Catlin,
1967, pp. 54-57). This performance represents the expression
of a theme dealing with predator-prey relationships. Evidently,
the ambiguities of carnivorous behavior were being explored
through ritual. Early in the twentieth century, as a preliminary
to the Blackfoot sun dance, similar figures dressed to resemble
wolves and grizzly bears interacted with dancers in the guise
of buffaloes (McClintock, 1910, p. 300), indicating a preoccupation
with the same theme. Such rituals provided an overt expression
of the tensions involved in the dilemma of one form of life
feeding upon another that underlie the sun dance ceremony.
a greater or lesser degree depending upon the tribe, the sun
dance includes the elements of sacrifice and pain on the part
of participants. The ultimate gift is the offering of one's
own body. In a deep sense, this phenomenon of undergoing physical
agony relates the supplicants to the rest of nature; it is an
atonement in the true meaning of "at onement," with reference
to the unity of the cosmos. For all living creatures are subject
to suffering and share a common capacity for pain. According
to Oglala tradition, "This truth of the oneness of all things
we understand a little better by participating in this rite,
and by offering ourselves as a sacrifice" (Brown, 1967, p. 95).
Eliade explains the Mandan O-kee-pa as a rite of "initiatory
torture" inflicted for the purpose of "spiritual transmutation
of the victim." Death, represented by undergoing torture, signifies
that the profane man has been killed and the participant has
come to life regenerated in body and soul. The person must "die"
through the ordeal of "being cut to pieces" in order to bring
about his symbolic resurrection ( 1975, pp. 206, 207, 208).
As Eastman analyzes the meaning of the cutting and bleeding
of the Sioux dancer who is pierced, the pain that results is
"the natural accompaniment of his figurative death" ( 1970,
p. 61). The flesh that is tom away when the thong breaks loose
"represents ignorance," which "should always be behind us as
we face the light of truth which is before us" (Brown, 1967,
p. 86). Thus the sun dancer is reborn, mentally and spiritually
as well as physically, along with the renewal of the buffalo
and the entire universe.
great sun dance ritual establishes the tenet that there is no
final death, for all living things can be renewed. Human beings,
however, like all their fellow creatures, must cooperate in
order to bring about universal regeneration. By feeding grass
to the buffalo skull, the cycle of life is symbolically perpetuated.
To appease the buffalo who gives so much to people, appreciation
and good intentions must be shown, and deferential behavior
is mandated. By significant acts like refraining from eating
buffalo flesh after the animal has provided a vision, leaving
some of the meat to propitiate the animal's spirit after a buffalo
is slain, and planting a piece of sacred buffalo tongue back
into the ground during the ceremonial feast (Frey, 1987, p.
121; Walker, 1917, p. 130; McClintock, 1910, p. 305), honor
is given to the spiritual presence of the buffalo. Because the
animal's spirit still remains when the buffalo is killed, death
is not final; eternal return is assured for both buffalo and
humankind through reciprocal actions that maintain the harmony
of the natural world. Thus at the close of the Oglala sun dance,
Wakan-Tanka is addressed: "You have taught us our relationship
with all ... beings, and for this we give thanks... May we be
continually aware of this relationship which exists between
the four-leggeds, the two-leggeds, and the wingeds. May we all
rejoice and live in peace!" (Brown, 1967, p. 98).
Direct all correspondence to the author at P.O. Box 35, Adamsville,
RI 02801. The author is an anthropologist and veterinarian on
the faculty of the Department of Environmental Studies, Tufts
University School of Veterinary Medicine.
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