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Lakota Rites

Wiwanyag Wachipi
(The Sun Dance)


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The Wiwanyag Wachipi (dance looking at the sun) is one of our greatest rites and was first held many, many winters ago after our people received the sacred pipe from the White Buffalo Cow Woman. It is held each year during the Moon of Fattening (June) or the Moon of Cherries Blackening (July), always at the time when the moon is full, for the growing and dying of the moon reminds us of our ignorance which comes and goes; but when the moon is full, it is as if the eternal light of the Great Spirit were upon the whole world.

“This dance will be an offering of our bodies and souls to Wakan Tanka, and will be very wakan. All our old men should gather and a large tipi should be built and sage should be placed all around inside it. You must have a good pipe, and also tobacco, bark of red willow, sweetgrass, a bone knife, a flint axe, buffalo tallow, a tanned buffalo calf hide, rabbit skins, eagle plumes, red earth paint, blue paint, rawhide, a buffalo skull, a rawhide bag, eagle tail feathers, eagle-bone whistles with an eagle plume tied to the end, and a large buffalo hide drum.

“You should prepare a necklace of otter skin, and from it there should hang a circle with a cross in the center. At the four places where the cross meets the circle there should hang eagle feathers which represent the four Powers of the universe and the four ages. At the center of the circle you should tie a plume taken from the breast of an eagle. This plume is for Wakan Tanka.

“A crescent moon should be cut from rawhide, representing the person and all things, for everything created waxes and wanes, lives and dies. A five-pointed star should be also cut from rawhide. This will be for the Morning Star who stands between the darkness and the light, and represents knowledge. A rawhide circle painted red should be made to represent the Sun. At the center there should be a circle of blue representing Wakan Tanka as our Grandfather. Another rawhide circle painted red will represent Earth. You should also cut from rawhide another circle and paint it blue for the heavens. Finally, you should cut from rawhide the form of Tatanka, the buffalo. He represents the people and the universe, and should always be treated with respect.

“Each man should wear one of these sacred symbols on his chest, and he should realize their meanings. In this great rite you are to offer your body as a sacrifice in behalf of all the people, and through you the people will gain understanding and strength. Always be conscious of these things. It is all very wakan!”

The next day it was necessary to locate the sacred rustling tree (cottonwood) which was to stand at the center of the great lodge. So the scouts all dressed as if they were going on the warpath, and they left the camp as if to attack an enemy. When they came to the chosen tree, they all gathered around it and the pipe was smoked in ceremony. The chief then did a little victory dance around the tree, singing their chief’s songs. A man of good character, who has shown himself to be brave and self-sacrificing on the warpath, was chosen to have the honor of counting coup on the tree. He motioned with his axe three times towards the tree, and the fourth time he struck it. The tree was then carried back to the camp.

“O tree, you are about to stand up. Be merciful to my people, that they may flourish under you.”

With much cheering and many shrill tremolos, the tree was raised very slowly. A little dance was held around the base of the tree, and then the surrounding lodge was made by putting upright, in a large circle, twenty-eight forked sticks, and from the fork of each stick a pole was placed which reached to the holy tree at the center.

The warriors all dressed and painted themselves, and after entering the sacred lodge they danced around the center tree, for in this way the ground was purified and made smooth by the dancing feet. Then they conducted an Inipi ceremony to purify themselves, and smoked the pipe. All the sacred tools were also purified with the smoke of sweetgrass.

All the people of the band gathered around outside of the sacred lodge. Then the dancers arrived, walking very slowly around outside of the lodge in a sun-wise direction, and all the time they were crying most pitifully.

“O Wakan Tanka, unshimala ye oyate wani wachin cha!” (O Wakan Tanka, be merciful to me that my people may live!)

After chanting a song the people all cried, and then, for the rest of the day and all that night, they danced. This dance, during the first night, represents the people in the darkness of ignorance. Just before dawn the dance stopped, and at this time the dancers and their relatives placed offerings outside the sacred lodge at each of the four quarters.

At dawn the dancers entered the lodge, and with them was the keeper of the sacred pipe. A sacred altar was made, and offerings were presented to the buffalo. Then the dancers all chanted in a sacred manner, and they all danced to the four quarters of the universe, finally facing towards the sacred tree at the center. All the dancers were painted, after which they purified themselves in the smoke of sweetgrass and put on the various symbols described before.

When all the preparations were finished, the dancers stood at the foot of the sacred tree, at the west, and gazing up at the top of the tree, they raised their right hands and blew upon the eagle-bone whistles. As the singers chanted, the dancers moved around in the four directions.

As the singers and drummers increased the speed of their chanting and drumming, the helpers rushed up and, grasping one of the dancers roughly, threw him on the ground. The helper then pulled up the skin of the dancer’s left breast, and through this loose skin a sharp stick was thrust. In the same manner the right breast was pierced. A long rawhide rope had been tied at its middle, around the sacred tree, towards its top, and then the two ends of the rope were tied to the pegs in the dancer’s chest. The helpers stood the dancer up roughly, who blew upon his eagle-bone whistle and, leaning back upon his thongs, he danced and continued to dance in this manner until the thongs broke loose from his flesh. The medicine man put a healing herb on his wounds, and they carried him to a place in the shade where he rested for a few moments. Then, getting up, he continued to dance with the others.

Just before sundown, a pipe was taken to the singers and drummers as an indication that their work had been finished and that they may now smoke. All the dancers then sat down, and the pipe was lit. After offering it to the six directions and taking a few puffs himself, the keeper of the pipe handed it to the dancers, passing it around in a circle.

“O Wakan Tanka, this sacred place is Yours. Upon it all has been finished. We rejoice!”

The dancers, however, had not finished, for they now took off their clothes and they all entered the Inipi lodge to be purified once more.

“By your actions today you have strengthened the sacred hoop of our nation. You have made a sacred center that will always be with you, and you have created a closer relationship with all the things of the universe. It is good! It is finished! Hechetu welo!”

The men then went back to the sacred tipi, where much food was brought to them, and all the people were happy and rejoicing, for a great thing had been done, and in the winters to come much strength would be given to the life of the nation through this great rite.

From The Sacred Pipe. Black Elk's Account of the Seven Rites of the Oglala Sioux,
recorded and edited by Joseph Epes Brown.


Lakota rites:
Nagi Gluhapi (The Keeping of the Soul)
Inipi (Rite of Purification)
Hanblecheyapi (Crying for a Vision)
Wiwanyag Wachipi (The Sun Dance)
Hunkapi (Making of Relatives)
Ishna Ta Awi Cha Lowan (Preparing for Womanhood)
Tapa Wanka Yap (Throwing of the Ball)

Other ceremonies

In concepts  ||  In natural beings
In dwellings  ||  In tools and objects

Complete list

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