Raising a Collective Prayer: The Sun Dance 2023

Jul 13, 2023

Wiwáŋyaŋg Wačípi (Sun Dance) is an ancient ceremony, and some might say the most important ceremony, of the Lakota (Sioux) and nearly all Plains Indians –  indigenous peoples that have historically resided in present-day North America. The Dance involves four days of dancing and fasting from sunrise to sunset. During the ritual, dancers offer their water and food fast as well as a piece of their own skin to the Great Spirit as part of their prayer for life. For the life that they are and the life that is all around them. 

The Sun Dance is also an initiation rite into adulthood as well as a rite of passage for those who want to lead the Inipi (sweat lodge) ceremony, sustain altars, and/or work with the sacred medicines. It is a way to strengthen our resolve and make payment to Spirit for the blessings and strength we are given.

This year I attended my second Sun Dance ceremony as a supporter at Ecoaldea Atlantida, which is located in the department of Cauca, in the South of Colombia, as part of my preparation to dance myself in a year’s time. I went there to support my good friend Jue Karollys who, together with his lovely partner Susanna, lead our Huachuma and Inipi Ceremonies. It was an honour to be part of this experience and I wanted to take the time to write about it and share it with you here. I hope you find the below account useful and an inspiration to learn more about the ancestral ways of living in beauty.

Returning to Atlantida

On this medicine path that I am on, working and learning with the sacred medicines, and spending a lot of time around altars and elders, I have had many very special and magical experiences that I am so grateful for. And arguably the most special one I have ever had is attending the Sun Dance.

I went to my first Sun Dance last year and I genuinely felt like I was in a fairy tale for 95% of the time and the remaining 5% felt like a movie. I felt I had to be there and my whole path until then had guided me to that place, to that moment. My heart was touched and I had dreams of dancing myself with my family supporting me. While I won’t go into full details about this experience in this article, things that left a mark on me were the unique and beautiful people that I met, the positive example of being a good person from the dancers and the supporters I met, the demonstration of will power and resolve, the feeling of family and community around beautiful prayers and wisdom about life; there were so many special moments that I experienced during the sweat lodges and throughout the time in Atlantida.

I had been looking forward to this for the entire year prior and I felt so deeply happy and grateful to be able to share it with people that I love, including my partner Cindy, my good friend Mags, as well as with Jue, Susy and their beautiful daughters Ayni and Araui. 

The Purification Days

The Sun Dance is preceded by four Purification Days. There are many events of significance and rituals that occur during these 4 days. There were moments when the leaders of the Sun Dance gathered and welcomed everybody. We smoked the sacred Chanupa (the Sacred Pipe) and were given guidance around the days to come including on the energy that we should connect with and uphold. Whatever you do, we were told, give it your best energy and effort. There were designated moments for the dancers to present themselves to the Sun Dance Chief, offer tobacco, and ask permission to participate in the ceremony. The purification days also allow time for the dancers to prepare all the materials they will need, including the sage crowns, bracelets and anklets, ropes, piercing pins, bone whistles, and prayer bundles among others. 

The purification days take place before the actual Sun Dance begins. Each day there is a sweat lodge and there are opportunities to meet with and connect with the other participants in the ceremony, including both supporters and dancers. Having experienced this the year before I made sure that we arrive on the first day of purification. We had some time to organise, register with the Atlantida team and set up camp before it was time to go into the first sweat lodge in the territory.

The first sweat lodge on the first purification day when still not everybody had arrived was very powerful as both dancers and supporters sweated together. It was a big sweat lodge and there were around 60 people who entered at the same time. It was very tight and we had to position ourselves in four rows inside the lodge so that everyone could fit in. We also could only sit with our knees close to our chest or on our knees. When the ceremony began and we received the opening prayers of the leader of this sweat – Mao Tatanka – they closed the door, started pouring water over the stones and the songs began. 

Just thinking about this moment still gives me goosebumps. We were 60 people singing together in unison the first sacred song for the first door, welcoming spirit, asking for blessings, and giving thanks for the ones we already have. The first song we sang was the one below: 

It was so loud and powerful, it felt like I re-entered the fairy tale I came to know the year before, and I attuned to that energy once more. It was like I had carried the memory of the Sun Dance in my mind and conscious awareness but in that moment, my heart remembered.  I felt so overcome with gratitude and joy.

It was the first of many moments during this Sun Dance that I cried out of joy. I felt so grateful I could be there, that I have the Sun Dance in my life, that I was able to participate and learn during this ceremony, that I was there with my partner, praying together for a good life and to live that good life well. I connected with the feeling of what an honour it is to participate, even if as a supporter, in the sacred ceremony of Wiwáŋyaŋg Wačípi. And in that moment I felt I arrived at the Sun Dance, I remembered all the insights and the connection I felt the year before. “Aaah, I know this, feels like home, it is good to be back. Thank you Great Spirit for allowing me to be here,” I felt and thought to myself.

The next days saw the camp growing bigger and bigger as people came and set up their tents, turning it into a hive of magic and mystery with participants from all over the world, with their unique stories, prayers, and paths converging for a brief moment for this sacred ritual. We united together as a family – the sons and daughters of Spirit – here on Earth to pray and take care of life. 

The last purification day is Tree Day, which is the moment when a tree is selected and cut down to be used for the ritual as the Tree of Life. The tree plays a central role in the ceremony as it is erected in the middle of the circle within which the dance takes place, as well as being where dancers and supporters alike tie their tobacco prayer bundles. It is also the focal point for attention and concentration during the dance. Upon reflection, I thought that the tree acts as an antenna through which the prayers are sent to the universe, amplified by the great number of people engaged in prayer together.

Part of the preparation for both dancers and supporters is to prepare the tobacco prayer bundles – bundles of tobacco that we invest our prayers into. Our prayers are our intentions to participate in this ceremony – why are we doing this, for what, and for whom? In the days before arriving at the camp, I had gotten together with my partner to do this sacred ritual. We started a ceremonial fire, with a prayer to the seven directions using tobacco and shared a moment to pray together for our individual lives, for each other, for the people that we love, for the projects and initiatives we care about, and for the health, growth, and blossoming of our relationship. It felt truly magical and heart-warming to place our prayers together on the Tree of Life, together with the prayers of our friends and all the relatives around us. 

The Sun Dance

The Sun Dance starts each of the four days before sunrise with two doors in the sweat lodge for the dancers and finishes after sunset with another two doors in the sweat lodge, completing the four moments of a full sweat lodge ceremony. During the day, participants in the ceremony dance within the sacred circle (Oshoka) praying to the four directions and the Tree of Life. There are several rounds of dancing during the day with breaks in between allowing the dancers to rest their bodies in the shade as well as to connect with each other and give each other support when needed. 

There is a big ceremonial drum and a team of drummers and singers that supports the ceremony with singing and playing. The drum is considered the heart of the ceremony as the songs and rhythm guide the dancers and the prayers during the different moments of the ritual. I found the below clip that shows a ceremonial drum team playing the song they would open every morning with at the Sun Dance I attended. 

I felt that my way to give the best support I could was to be outside the circle and dance with my shirt off, taking all the sun and heat together with the dancers. Being there first thing in the morning and staying present throughout all the rounds. The year before I had the chance to have a conversation with the spouse of a Lakota Chief who was at the ceremony, Hiroko. She said, When you are by the circle make sure to dance, or if you are not able to, at least stand upright – this is no picnic. The dancers will really appreciate your effort and it is a great contribution you can make. I took it upon myself, same as last year, to make sure I am there dancing, no matter what, and bringing the energy of joy, happiness, and honour to be by the side of all these men and women who were showing me a whole new level of commitment to living life in integrity. I had many moments when I was focusing on the tree, feeling overcome with emotion as I was giving thanks for the many blessings already present in my life and for the great fortune to be where I was, in front of the Tree of Life, engaged in this ancient sacred prayer.

Praying with the Chanunpa, the Sacred Pipe, was also part of the daily routine for the duration of the dance. There were several rounds per day when the dancers would come and hand over their pipes for us supporters to join in prayer and smoke them. It was so special to share these moments with all the people I got the chance to pray with. I felt every person connecting with their heart in a moment of communion with spirit, sending blessings to their loved ones and blowing smoke in the direction of their relatives around in the circle and their relatives far away. It was a great honour to pray with the pipe of my brother Jue Karollys, together with his wife and daughters, alongside my beloved partner Cindy and good friend Mags. I kept thinking ‘a family that prays together, stays together.’

The offering of flesh is also a very important moment in the ceremony. Whenever I speak to people about the Sun Dance, those listening are very impressed by this particular part of the ceremony. The indigenous consider that the only thing we truly own is our body, our flesh – we come with nothing to this world and we go with nothing, they say – so the biggest gift we can give the Great Spirit is a piece of our flesh. The fact that we voluntarily choose to put ourselves through this suffering is what makes this suffering sacred and what strengthens our spirit.

Depending on how experienced a dancer is, they get pierced earlier or later in the ceremony.  The more experienced ones get pierced towards the end of the ceremony when everybody is getting closer to the limit of their physical and mental strength. There are several ways that the offerings are done but generally, dancers get pierced in two or four places of their skin – usually, men pierce on the chest and women on the shoulders. The regular offering is done by cutting two openings into the skin for each piercing and placing bone or wooden rods through these openings. These two rods are tied to a harness that is then connected to a rope attached to the Tree of Life. The dancer is connected to the tree with the rope, as if with a symbolic umbilical cord. Each dancer doing their offering in this manner will then break open their skin by dancing with the tree, intentionally pulling away in key moments but also taking the time to dance. This is a moment of great concentration and focus on the prayer each person brings. It lasts roughly around 20-30 minutes. Experienced dancers say that if you are focused on why you are doing this and you have your clarity of purpose, the piercing and offering moment does not hurt, but if you are thinking about how to end it the quickest way possible you will have a hard time. Once the skin breaks and the dancer is released by the tree, they do a lap around the circle and finish by going to the tree for an elder to cut the flapping skin off and give the pieces of skin to the dancer so that they can offer them to the Tree of Life. The elders also tend to the wounds of the dancers by applying turmeric powder which speeds up the recovery process and protects the open wound from infection.

There are other ways of doing the offering that people who are more experienced on the path may choose. One is doing the piercings on the back and attaching a buffalo skull to the harness. The dancer then dances around the circle until the skin breaks off. This is an offering intended to connect the dancer with the strength of the spirit of the buffalo who helps us to be strong and sustain a family. Another way to do the offering is by being pierced on the back and suspended in mid-air, holding and waving eagle feather fans, flying like the all-powerful and sacred bird. This is a way to connect with the spirit of the eagle, and I am yet to investigate the exact significance of this type of offering. Yet another type of offering that I witnessed the year before but that was not done this year was using the help of a horse. The dancer in question was pierced and connected to the harness. However, the rope was not connected to the tree but passing over a lever it ended in the hands of a Lakota chief who in the decided moment would pull the reigns of the horse so that the horse would pull the rope and thus break open the skin of the person offering. 

And if that seems like a challenge, let me tell you about the Eagle Dancers… On the very first day, eight of the dancers were pierced and connected to the tree with their ropes to stay connected for the full four days, for the duration of each day of dancing. They were the first ones to be pierced and the last ones to do their offerings. These were dancers who sustain communities and medicine houses, forming together a symbolic Tipi (indigenous dwelling/temple structure) with their ropes. There were men and women Eagle Dancers and they were people of experience on this path. These dancers helped sustain the energy of the ceremony as well as the other dancers, as elders and guides, giving everyone strength to persevere in the challenging times. 

Supporters were also given the opportunity to make an offering. Having observed that moment and not participated the year before, I had gone into the ceremony with the decision made that I was going to do it when the moment came. I went to one of the elders who used a scalpel to cut three little pieces of skin from my right shoulder. I felt nervous and scared going to do my offering, and then I remembered what I had heard in relation to that moment – If you are clear on your intention and purpose, it goes without much pain. I sat on my knees, closed my eyes, and remembered my prayers for the Sun Dance, praying for my life and health, and the life and health of my family, the woman I love, and the people I am blessed to have as friends. It was another of the instances when I felt overcome with emotions of gratitude and joy, feeling part of something very special. It felt like I was saying to Spirit – Yes, I really mean it, I really want this, please help me. 

Living the Prayer

The Sun Dance finished and we came back home bringing all the magic, inspiration, and unforgettable memories with us. It was such an honour to participate in this ceremony and be amongst people who have my highest respect. It was inspiring and a reminder that there are many good people around the world, doing their best to spread love, healing, and blessings in the world. It was humbling to be among such an extraordinary group of true leaders who practice what they preach; people who carry great responsibility with pride, kindness, and smiles on their faces. 

I was once told that the Vision Quest (find the article on my VQ here) is a ceremony that helps us to get to know ourselves, and the Sun Dance is a ceremony that helps us understand what we can do for the world. Wiwáŋyaŋg Wačípi is a medicine of focused attention, resolve, decisiveness, integrity, and above all love for all life in existence. We were reminded in the closing sweat lodge on the last day of the Sun Dance that the real work was just about to begin – in the real world. We were reminded that it is easy to be patient and kind with the people at the ceremony, those who think like us, but the real test comes when we go back to our day-to-day and when we are challenged and we meet those who think differently – being kind and patient with them is one of the most important types of support to life we can give.

Aho Mitakuye Oyasin

Author: Ivaylo Govedarov

Ivaylo is an experienced sacred medicine retreat facilitator, integration coach, and founder of Colibri Garden.

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