September 15, 2014

The Ultimate Expression of Faith, the Lakota Sun Dance

Have your eyes ever been drawn to the heavens to bear witness to a star’s demise or a comet’s streak?   As a Lakota (an Indian), in the spirit world, we know that no form of prison or iron bars can ever imprison a strong spirit or will for long.   A spiritual person or soul is never defeated.   Throughout Lakota history our kinship and relationship with the eagle bespeaks the supernatural connection found within “mitakuye oyasin,” all my relations. We Lakota are the descendants of the eagle.  According to Lakota legend, the infant and the eagle once shared the same nest and fate. But the nest has now become desecrated due to nonspiritual “spiritual” people.

Within one of our Lakota origin legends, a young Lakota warrior scouted desperately for food as the Hohe (Flathead) closed in on him.  Beyond mortal help, he cried out with a prayer, “Great Mystery, allow my brothers and sisters to hear my voice before I am destroyed!”   As a traditional Lakota warrior, he recognized his impending death.  He cried out “Great messenger whose feathers extend beyond the heavens, remember me!”

The eagle hearing these cries responded, “Brother, I am your sister.  I will call upon our family’s strength to save you.”  Immediately thereafter, this proud Lakota warrior humbly saw fifty eagles descending.  Yet it took only six of the eagles to save this Lakota warrior. They flew him high up in the mountains to the Lakota and the eagles’ ancestral nest.  Few among the Lakota today realize the significance of the nest which represents the perfection of the Great Mystery.

We as a people are much like the feathers of an eagle.   Many feathers define a wing but victory is defined by the individual and unified successes of a people.  The relationships in the Sun Dance represent the life that we are bound to share within the same tree of life.  Differences within this sacred ceremony must be set aside for the greater good of the people.

When the great eagle’s command of the heavens is interrupted by the presence of a Sun Dance, it is because of the gravity of “mitakuye oyasin” (all my relations).  The eagle circling is a unanimous blessing from the four direction Thunderbirds.  My Heyoka son explained “I am of the last to know the truth and the sign of a holy man. A Sun Dance invites the eagle’s presence but a holy man commands the power of the clouds and the eagle’s attention. There is a vision and secret I keep of the symbol of a Sun Dance Intercessor. Not every spiritual person has this vision.”

In the old days when spirituality was the Lakota lifeblood, holy men were the heart of our people.  Each possessed his own unique vision, helpers and strength.  My Heyoka grandpa John Fire said “No one man dreams of all medicines.  You doctor where you know you have the power.”   Grandpa John also said  “The Sun Dance is a prayer and a sacrifice.  One does not take part in it voluntarily but as the result of a dream or a vision.”   My Heyoka son, Wiconi, explained “All holy men were Heyoka first and foremost. The humbling vision of the West, the Thunderbirds, signified a soul chosen for the extraordinary sacrifice.”

The venerable Lakota holy man, Chief Frank Fools Crow, also a Heyoka, was an Intercessor of over 75 Sun Dances.  He described the Sun Dance as very “sacred and the highest way to honor Wakan Tanka” and not a sideshow, a spectacle or a tourist attraction.  This supreme and foremost of the Lakota sacred ceremonies was about unselfishness and sacrifice for the benefit of all Lakota.  According to my Heyoka son, it is the willingness to make a personal sacrifice and unselfish act of giving of one’s self which is important.   He explained that “mitakuye oyasin”  (all my relations) recognizes two relationships, our identity and blood kinship with one another as well as our spiritual kinship with the Great Mystery. Lakota spirituality in the old days permeated every facet of the traditional Lakota’s life and little was of a secular nature.

According to Chief Fools Crow, in the old days, in making their intentions known, the Sun Dance “pledgers” purified themselves in a sweat lodge ceremony and as part of their sacred vows, would go on a vision quest before the Sun Dance.  This involved dedication and sacrifice.  It filtered out those who were serious about sacred vows from those who were not.  “It is the willingness to sacrifice for the people which is paramount,” according to Wiconi Was`te, my Heyoka son.

What has taken us so far from the time when most of our people walked the Red Road, when they prayed unselfishly for all Lakota first?  Followed by prayers for those who have gone on, then those in our own family and those yet to come before we made our own personal requests?   How many today would be willing to make a personal sacrifice when asked, “What would you give so that your people would live?”  Is it two ounces of sweat, twelve ounces of sweat, twenty four ounces of sweat or none at all?

It seems that instead of “all my relations” it has become “we are not related.”  We are losing our Lakota perspective, the sacred Sun Dance hoop, the sacred tree and our unity when we allow the destruction of our kinship system and Lakota identity.

Kinship has always been important for the Lakota.   One must know who his or her relatives are. Part of our identity is to belong to a tribe, a tiyospaye or a family which is really a circle of Lakota.  As a member of a family, you should appreciate that what benefits all including creation, will also benefit your own family.   If the Sun Dance is just about “me” or “I”  then you have lost sight of your history and blood kinship ties with the people and the spiritual kinship with the Great Mystery.

Today we have “Wal Mart” or “one size for all” medicine men or nonspiritual “spiritual” people who claim to have expertise in fixing all of our problems for a price, of course.  This “fakery” and exploitation is on such a grand scale that there is no shame anymore and our own Lakota are responsible for some of the erosion and loss of Lakota spirituality.  How is it possible that there could be 10 or 11 different Intercessors on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, all who supposedly have a very sacred “vision” that allows them to run a Sun Dance at the same time?  When was the last time our elders or spiritual leaders spoke out against exploitation and the charging of money for one of our most sacred of all Lakota ceremonies?

Sundancing involves, suffering, pain and sacrifice and was never meant to be “comfortable” or “easy.” It is about renewal, creation, procreation and for the benefit of all our people.  Human beings are totally selfish creatures.  We take up space, air, water, food, with unlimited wants and needs.  A baby cries and is demanding.   Men and women, despite their age difference, are just like the baby because they are as demanding. The Great Spirit hears the cries nevertheless and helps. How much is it worth when a prayer is answered?  Sadly today people think that one cigarette or a pinch of  tobacco is sufficient thanksgiving for all the help that has been given by the Great Mystery.

Soon I will join many other Sun Dancers and the sweat from our bodies, fasting, piercings, flesh offerings and prayers will be offered to the Great Mystery so that our people shall live.  One of our Sicangu (Rosebud) Intercessors, Roy Stone, Sr., has given so much in his lifetime to the people and many have seen the miracles worked through him by the Great Mystery but how much recognition or appreciation has been given to this humble spiritual leader?  There will never be another like him. 

The Sun Dance offers hope for renewal, restoration and forgiveness.  For all who walk the Red Road and those involved in the Sun Dance, take heart.  There is no “safety net” but your life is in the Great Spirit’s hands as the ultimate expression of faith.



Wambli Sina Win is currently an Associate Professor and Director of the Bacone College Criminal Justice Studies Department in Muskogee, Okla.

Her grandfather was John Fire, Chief Lame Deer Tahca Uste, a well known Lakota Holy Man from the Rosebud Sioux Indian Reservation in South Dakota.  One of her sons is also a Heyoka.

She has served as a Tribal Judge for the Oglala Sioux Tribal Court, as an Assistant U.S. Attorney, a Tribal Attorney and as a legal Instructor for the U.S. Indian Police Academy at Artesia, N.M.


You may contact Wambli Sina Win, J.D. at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.


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