The Sun Dance is an annual Plains Aboriginal cultural ceremony performed in honour of the sun, during which participants prove bravery by overcoming pain. The ceremony took place at midsummer when bands and tribes congregated at a predetermined location. The Sun Dance was forbidden under the Indian Act of 1885, but this ban was generally ignored and dropped from the Act in 1951. Some communities continue to celebrate the ceremony today.
The ceremony was arranged by a shaman, either as a request for supernatural aid or in response to a vision. Among the Siksika (Blackfoot) and Tsuut'ina (Sarcee), women took the initiative. Following four days of preliminary ritual, the Sun Dance lasted another four days focus on erecting the sacred dance pole and sacred lodge. On the final day different versions of the same dance took place. The Sun-Gaze Dances symbolized capture, torture, captivity and escape, and involved self-torture. Dancers enjoyed prestige from that time on. The Sun Dance was an emotional experience and an opportunity to renew kinship ties, arrange marriages and exchange property.
Banning the Sun Dance
The Indian Act of 1885 banned a number of traditional Aboriginal ceremonies, dances and festivals, including the Sun Dance. While some communities continued to perform the ceremony in secrecy, others upheld the prohibition in fear of government persecution. In 1951, amendments to the Indian Act no longer prohibited celebration of the Sun Dance.
Circle of the Sun
In the late 1950s, filmmaker Colin Low was permitted to film the Kainai (Blood) Nation in Alberta as they celebrated the Sun Dance. This was the first time that the Sun Dance was captured on film. In 1960, the National Film Board of Canada released Low’s film, Circle of the Sun, which explored the band’s connection to their culture and to the environment. It also showed the difficulties of the younger generation in connecting to their heritage and finding their place in the world.
The Sun Dance Today
Some Aboriginal societies continue to perform the Sun Dance. In 2007, World Council of Elders, a non-profit organization, established the International Sundance, which gathers Indigenous communities (primarily from across Canada, the United States and Australia) to perform the sacred ceremony.