The Sun Dance has been one of the most sacred ceremonies for thousands of years and is still practiced today by the Lakota, Shoshone, Arapaho, Crow, and Cheyenne tribes. To witness a Sun Dance ceremony as an outsider, you must have an invitation. I have had the opportunity to not only watch a Sun Dance, but learn about the sacred ceremony in its entirety.
A Sun Dance actually lasts 28 days, but preparation is a yearlong process. The Sun Dance is performed in the summer, starting on a full moon; usually the hottest week of the year. The performer begins his preparation meditating, praying, and spends time in the sweat lodge. A particular group of people begin setting up the Sun Dance grounds during this time. A scout will go out to look for the best Cottonwood tree, when one is found, a ceremony will take place to bless and thank that tree before it is taken down and used as the center pole for the Sun Dance. The center of tree represents the tree of life and sage and tobacco is tied on to the top of the tree before placing it in the ground. A circle is then formed around the pole of other trees.
Once the circle is finished, the performers will go into the sweat lodge to pray, then enter the circle. Once they enter the circle, all eating and drinking stops for four days. The performers will then sing and dance around the center pole, clockwise, for the first two days. On the third day those that choose to pierce their skin will be pierced and sing and dance for the final two days.
In old times the Sun Dance required the warrior to dance around a pole they were attached to by a rope. On the end of the rope were wooden skewers that pierced under their chest muscles. They would dance while pulling the rope, causing the wooden skewers to cut and pull on their pierced skin and muscle. Today, not all tribes pierce their skin.
On the fourth and final day the dancers must dance until their skin has been ripped, this completes the sacrifice and the performers become reborn. The performers will then finish the ceremony by sitting in the sweat lodge in prayer.