Indians of the Plains - Sun Dance Ceremony

Production Date: 
Unknown male narrator
Run Time: 

Establishing shot: Plains Indian Chief using sign language (Tribal affiliation not specified)

Named locations:“Sun Dance Reservation” however, there is no such place
Major themes covered: This film offers a glimpse of the work involved during the preparation for the traditional Sun Dance Ceremony (Okan) of the Blackfeet Tribe

Native activities shown:  The New Robe family sets up their Tipi; religious men pray in a Sweat Lodge; A medicine woman prays for her people; young Blackfeet men honor the tradition of the Grass Dance.

Individuals Named: Joe New Robe, Victor New Robe, “Mrs. New Robe,” and Ted Lone Horn

Native language spoken: None; sign language

Noteworthy elements: In this film the narrator refers to the Sun Dance Ceremony (Okan in the Blackfeet language) as “ancient.” Although the makers of this film probably did not view the use of this term as negative, it is important to realize that the Blackfeet people would refer to the Sun Dance Ceremony as being traditional, and not “ancient.” The word “ancient” often is interpreted to mean something that is left in the past and that is no longer existing; something ancient is frequently viewed as archaic. However, the Blackfeet people still practice the traditional Okan every Summer on the Blackfeet reservation. Traditions are passed down from generation to generation and they are kept alive through the ages. This is the difference between tradition and the ancient.

Tipi frames are constructed from cut lodge pole pine trees that are specially stacked to form a cone-like shape. The narrator in the film states that the poles for the “Indian Tipi” are usually 25 feet long. The length of the poles depends on the desired size of the Tipi that is being built. In the Blackfeet03 video, Blackfeet elder Robert “Rice” Crawford explains that Tipi poles ranging from 24 – 27 feet long are intended to hold an 18 foot Tipi. It is also important to note that the narrator’s use of the phrase “Indian Tipi” generalizes American Indian Tipis. Not all American Indian Tribes used Tipis and the Tribes that did were of the Northern and Southern Plains Tribes. The Blackfeet are only one of several Plains Tribes that hold the Tipi tradition. Furthermore, not all Plains Indian Tipis are the same and they all require different methods of construction (e.g. The Crow Tribe uses 3 foundation poles for their Tipis, while the Blackfeet use 4, and they are both Plains Indian Tribes).

In the Blackfeet Tribe women were traditionally responsible for making the Tipis, which included tanning the hides, preparing the poles, and sewing the hides by hand with sinew. Women and their responsibilities in the Tribe were highly respected and not viewed as inferior to man and his responsibilities. Because the women were the builders of the Tipi they were thought of as the keepers of the home, i.e. head of the house-hold. Currently, Blackfeet men and women uphold the responsibility of Tipi building at social and ceremonial gatherings.

The following statement was made in the film, “like the Indians of long-ago he has decorated his Tipi by painting it with designs of animals and symbols of nature.” In the Blackfeet Tribe Tipis were painted for spiritual reasons rather than for aesthetic reasons. Traditionally, the symbols on a Tipi are specific to each family and the “designs” are equivalent to prayers rather than decoration. Each prayer on a Tipi is a sacred symbol that blesses the family of that Tipi, and these prayers are passed down from generation to generation.

The narrator states, “Indians always used an even number of poles,” which is questionable, however for the Blackfeet Tribe this is true. An even number of poles are used in a Blackfeet Tipi frame because even numbers symbolize the concept of balance; having balance is perceived as a sacred way of living.

The Sweat Lodge frame is traditionally built from willow boughs and is symbolic of Mother Earth’s Womb. Buffalo hides are usually draped over the willow frame to create an enclosed lodge. Hot stones are placed inside the center of the lodge and water is poured over them to create steam. Traditionally, only certain members of the Tribe, typically men, were responsible for carrying out the prayers in a Sweat Lodge. Modern Blackfeet Sweat Lodge ceremonies allow both genders to share responsibility in this ritual. A Sweat Lodge mainly serves the purpose of prayer, renewal, and spiritual cleansing, in which those inside pray for spiritual healing for the entire Tribe.

The Medicine Lodge is where the Sun Dance Ceremony is held. Some sources say the Okan lasts a day and a half, but most sources will say it spans 8 days.

The medicine woman mentioned in the film carries one of the most vital roles in the Sun Dance Ceremony. The medicine woman will fast for all 8 ceremonial days and pray for the Tribe as well as individual people who are ill. The medicine women prays directly to the Sun and is honored with her own prayer Tipi within the Ceremony.

The Grass Dance was typically reserved for the younger men of the Tribe. Traditionally, before the Sun Dance encampment was erected, tall grass would be stomped down by the Grass Dancers. Since tall grass is rarely present at Sun Dance locations today, stomping grass is not necessary, but the Dance is still preserved and practiced at the ceremony to pay homage to its traditional significance within the culture. It is crucial to know that the tradition of the Sun Dance Ceremony is past down to younger generations and that elders are not the only ones who have the knowledge of the Sun Dance.

The narrator often refers to the clothing worn by the Blackfeet dancers as “costumes,” but this is not accurate. The Blackfeet Sun Dancers and Grass Dancers wear traditional-style religious regalia. Wearing a “costume” implies trying to be something you are not or putting on an act. Every facet of traditional Blackfeet life is rooted in the sacred.

Other useful information: For more information on the origin story behind the Okan see the Blackfeet08 video.

Print sources: Read with caution: some of these books were first published in the late 19th - early 20th centuries and may contain some offensive racial language.

Ewers, John C. The Blackfeet; Raiders on the Northwestern Plains. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1958.

Linderman, Frank B, and Winold Reiss. Blackfeet Indians. St. Paul: Printed by Brown & Bigelow, 1935.

McFee, Malcolm. Modern Blackfeet; Montanans on a Reservation. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1972.

Wissler, Clark. North American Indians of the Plains. New York, N.Y: American Museum of Natural History, 1912.

Wissler, Clark. The Sun Dance of the Blackfoot Indians. New York: Published by order of the trustees, 1918.

Wissler, Clark. Social Organization and Ritualistic Ceremonies of the Blackfoot Indians. New York: AMS Press, 1975.

Wissler, Clark, Alice B. Kehoe, and Stewart E. Miller. Amskapi Pikuni: The Blackfeet People. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2012.

Wissler, Clark, and D C. Duvall. Mythology of the Blackfoot Indians. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1995.

Website resources:

This website contains information on American Indian sign language including, photos and videos.

This link contains an ebook of ‘The Indian Sign Language’ originally published in 1885 under the author W.P. Clark. Read with caution: this book was written in the later part of the 19th century and may contain offensive racial language.

This website contains information on the Blackfeet (Peigan or Pikuni) Sundance Ceremony.

This website contains general information on Sun Dance Ceremonies of several different Plains Tribes.

This digital book was written by Clark Wisser and originally published in 1918. Read with caution: this book was written in early 20th century and may contain some offensive racial language.

Web video resources:

Video of Peigan Blackfeet Chief using sign language

 ‘Sun Dance Ceremony: Lifestyle, culture, tipi, no op, Academy 1954.’ Time = 00:10:07

‘Indians of the Plains, Sun Dance Ceremony.’ Time = 00:10:34

--Sara Guzman, 2014