Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Festivals - Then and Now by Ginger Simpson

Photo courtesy of 
Anyone like county fairs?  Carnivals?  Amusement parks?  I think most of us looked forward to all of these events when we were children, and maybe even as adults.  I shudder when I think about some of the ritualistic festivities that the plains Indians, especially, the Sioux, excitedly such as The Sun Dance.  Believe it or not, this twelve-day event ended in a ritual ceremony to celebrate the Great Spirt or Wakan Tanka as their God was called.

Imagine girding yourself for a ride on a roller coaster  or being brave enough to try something even scarier.  At Disneyland, even It's a Small World scares me, but then I'm a wimp.   I've already been stuck in a dark 'fun-house' when our watercraft bumped against the wall and stayed there.  Turned out, it wasn't quite so fun, but then I digress.

  Moving back to the topic at hand...picture yourself as a Sioux warrior, eager to show your bravery and endurance through a ritual of self-mutilation and torture.  Quite a contrast isn't it?  The Summer Sun Dance was a yearly get-together enjoyed by most of the plains Indians, the Sioux included.  For twelve days devoted to the Sun Dance  tribes gathered at an appointed area and communed with the Great Spirit and one another.  Although the gala wasn't a given, it was rare for a Sun Dance to be missed.

For the first eight days, Women socialized, children played, courtships began, and the men sat and swapped stories while Shamans of the tribes picked assistants for the last sacred four days of the ritual.

 On the first of the four final days, a brave from the masses located a forked-top cottonwood tree of proper dimensions.  This tree served as the centerpiece of the ceremony around which volunteers would spend the last day dancing.

On the second of the last four days, appointed women went in search of the selected tree, but for three times pretended not to find it.  Of course, since everything sacred was performed in "fours", their last try was a success.

The third of the last four days was spent painting the tree in four different for each of the four sacred directions.  With a buffalo cutout atop the "pole", it was raised and the men performed a war dance while shooting arrows at the mock buffalo.

Photo courtesy of
The fourth and final day began at dawn with the Shamans preparing the dancers for their parts in the dance.  Some had volunteered to merely dance around the pole as long as they could, while others were tethered to the pole by having skewers implanted through flaps in their chest skin and danced through the pain which they believed enhanced their communion with their Great Spirit.  The dancing continued until the last of those attached to the tree broke free.

All of these festivities were performed inside a special lodge where an audience gathered and witnessed the dance.  The resounding of eagle-bone whistles filled the air, as the dances blew throughout their dancing ordeal.

Why a cottonwood you ask?  To the Sioux, the leaf resembled a tepee, and the buffalo provided almost everything the tribal Indians needed to survive.  There were many other rituals that took place during the Sun Dance, including a Buffalo Dance and the piercing of the ears of the children.  The ear piercing was considered an initiation to the faith of the Sioux customs.  Oh, what a boring life we lead in comparison, but as for me...I love to dance, but I'd skip right over the skewing part.  If I get scared on "It's a Small World," you can bet I'd never survive the first tinge of pain.  *smile*

Cover by Michelle Lee
Since Destiny's Bride is on Amazon now, I'd like to share an excerpt, dealing with the Sun Dance:


With the changing of the seasons came time to move back to the plains.  Cecile gathered their belongings to secure to a contraption Singing Sparrow and other women would help her build.  They called it a travois and from the description, sounded like a buckboard without the wheels and seat. She couldn’t fathom making anything, let alone this travois thing, but her mother-in-law assured her it wasn’t as difficult as it sounded.  Once the tepee was disassembled, the long support poles would provide the structure.  Even taking apart their lodge posed an overwhelming task. Try as she might, Cecile couldn’t understand the need to move from this place she loved.

“Lone Eagle, I don’t understand why we have to leave here. This is our home. The mountains give us safety that wide open land doesn’t provide.”

“Green Eyes, I know you have come to feel secure and happy in this place, but we must go where the herds of buffalo graze.  The fruit, grains, fish and other food we need are there, as well.”
“Why? You’ve done well on your hunts here. Deer are plentiful.”

“Yes, our hunting has been good, but there is more to our survival than food. The buffalo provides far more than meat. Nothing is wasted when a kill is made. What we don’t eat, we use for coverings for the lodges, blankets, robes, cooking utensils, sinew for our bows… too many things to count.”
“I had no idea. How many will you slay to make all of those things?”

“The Sioux respect every living thing and never take an animal’s life needlessly. We will kill only what we need to survive.”

“When does the buffalo hunt take place?”

“When we are settled on the plains, many tribes will join us in celebration of the Sun Dance. Afterwards, we will hunt together.”

Cecile’s thoughts were suddenly filled with the remembrance of Rain Woman’s description of a buffalo hunt. Daring braves dart in and out of the charging herd, forcing the buffalo into a circle. Other braves wait to shoot until the animals are close enough. Once they’ve slain a sufficient amount, the women are expected to help butcher.

When Rain Woman first told the story, Cecile couldn’t imagine handling the entrails of a dead animal. So far she managed to escape butchering anything, but she supposed the deer hides she’d been scraping were good preparation for what was to come.

“What is the Sun Dance?” There was still so much she didn’t know.

“During the twelve-day celebration, tribes gather to honor the Great Spirit. We dance to thank him for his many blessings. Many braves will participate. Their bodies will be painted in symbols and colors, and they will go without food and water.   Those like me who have already participated in communing with Wakan Tanka will only fast and dance, while others will have their chests pierced with skewers and hang from the sacred Sun Dance pole until their skin breaks free.  It is during this time those men will receive direction from the Great Spirit.

Lone Eagle bore the scars on his body to prove his day of the dance, and by the way his chest puffed with pride while describing the festivities, he'd been a worthy participant. She couldn’t imagine what would drive someone to go through such a test, and her body shivered at the thought of hanging from a pole by her skin. “Isn’t there more to the Sun Dance than that?”

“Of course,” Lone Eagle continued. “The ceremony is an opportunity to visit with those from the other tribes who we see only once a year. Just think of the new friends you will make. The Sun Dance is a festive time enjoyed and revered by the entire tribe.”

 Thinking ahead to summer proved difficult. Cecile’s mind meandered back to the move and the changes coming in her life. She worried about being responsible for reconstructing their lodge in their new camp, but then reasoned that with help anything was possible. She counted all the things she’d already learned. Laundry was among them, and she had even more to do now because of the baby.
“Before we leave, I will wash our clothing one more time.” 

“While you tend to that, I will go check with my father to see when we are going to leave.”  Lone Eagle left before she had a chance to inquire about him watching the baby.

You can find Destiny's Bride with all my other works at
My thanks to Books We Love for giving this story another chance in an improved format.

Aside from the excerpt, all Information for the article provided by America's Fascinating Indian Heritage published by Reader's Digest.


Jacquie Rogers said...

I'm a wimp, too. I wince every time I read about the Sun Dance, but it must work because the participants find spiritual connection. Otherwise, it wouldn't continue on. Best of luck with Destiny's Bride!

Ciara Gold said...

Oh, yeah, roller coasters were made for watching others scream their heads off but not me. LOL. And think of all the young folks now who like to pierce everthing from their nose to their ... okay, nevermind. You get the idea. I think in some ways, piercing today is a sort of ritual to the coming of age. I can almost see why the Sioux did this dance -- almost.

I'm going to have to get this book. I've read so many of your stories, but I don't think I've read this one.

Ginger Simpson said...

Jacquie, I've got you beat in the wimp department though. I spent nights in the parking lot years ago when I drove the seniors to their graduation trip at Disneyland. They play It's a Small World all friggin night long, and I couldn't get that out of my head for months. I think that's why that ride scares me. :)

True about the spiritual connection. It must work if people want to go through the pain and agony. Reminds me a little of the people who belong to those churches who handle snakes. Yuk!

Ginger Simpson said...

I actually used to love roller coasters until a fat woman flew out of one because she couldn't snap her safety harness tight enough. I don't even like to fly in a plane, so flying without one is out of the question. :)

I think this is one of my better stories, but it's because there is an unexpected twist in it that even I didn't see coming until my characters led me there. :) Hope you do read it. If you want, I can send you a copy. Just let me know.

Lyn Horner said...

Hi Ginger. Super article! Do you remember the old movie, A Man Called Bear? There was a graphic depiction of the Sundance in it that has stuck with me all these years. Ugh! Grizzly to watch, let alone endure.

The book I'll soon be publishing is set largely among the Kiowa Indians during early reservation days. Amid all my research, I read somewhere that the Kiowa also celebrated the Sundance, but they didn't include the torturous ritual of piercing the young men's chests. Sounds a lot more pleasant. :-)

Lyn Horner said...

Oops! My hubby informed me the movie was A Man Called Horse, not bear. Sorry!

Meg said...

Ooooh I don't do roller coasters! Can't handle it, too stressful. I like solid ground, and have just gotten used to plane trips. LOL As for Native American ritual of piercing, ugh. Alpha males. Sigh. Best wishes with your books, Ginger!