The Sun Dance was a religious ceremony held by many Plains Indian tribes.
It lasted for three or four days, during which young men sang and danced to the sound of drums. The dancers did not eat or drink. Exhausted and hungry, they began to see visions.
The ceremony got its name from one part of the dance, in which dancers circled around a high pole stuck in the ground. Each dancer tied one end of a hide-string to the pole and attached the other end to wooden skewers inserted through holes punctured through the skin in their chest. Leaning back until the string was taut, the dancers stared into the sun.
Eventually the string broke through their flesh and they fell to the ground. The ritual caused pain but no long-term physical damage. Through the Sun Dance, the Plains Indians felt they were able to communicate with the Creator and ask for the strength that would make them great warriors and leaders.
Plains Indians kept calendars called winter counts. Drawn on a hide or piece of cloth, a winter count featured pictures that represented battles, disease outbreaks, and other important events in a tribe’s history.
An unusual 1892 photograph captured part of the Sun Dance ceremony. These celebrants are Blackfeet Indians from Canada. The young man in the center is circling the striped pole at left.