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Communication Patterns Observed in the Dakota Sun Dance Ceremony

Carol A. Lindberg

Volume 1, 1987.

The study of communication patterns among American Indians is not a common academic pursuit. Although the sensitivity toward Native American culture and an awareness of the history is growing, there still remains a distinct gap in the amount of knowledge and literature available regarding the nonverbal communication patterns of the American Indian.

The purpose of this paper is to examine some of the communication patterns of the Dakota Indians of South Dakota. More specifically, the paper focuses upon the dimensions of nonverbal communication utilized during the annual Sun Dance ceremony of the last half of the nineteenth century. This study is limited to the latter part of the nineteenth century because the ceremonies of today are influenced by the assimilation of Christianity into the Dakota culture, whereas the ceremony of a hundred years ago was based on the tenants of Siouan theology.

The Sioux people of a century ago were a diverse group; a nation composed of seven major divisions: the Oglala, the Sichangu, the Miniconjou, the Hunkpapa (or Uncpapa), the Sihasapa, the Itazipcho, and the Oohenonpa. The Dakota Indians, a smaller division of the larger Oglala system, were in turn divided into three separate groups: the Santee, the Yankton, and the Teton. These divisions were based upon linguistic differences. Although the Siouan language was common to all tribes of the seven major divisions, dialectic variances accounted for the differences in nomenclature. According to Ella Deloria, these three groups--the Teton, the Yankton, and the Santee--were all known as Dakota, even though they spoke different dialects of the same Sioux language. The word Dakota, or Dahcotah, derives from the Sioux people's own word for themselves, and means "friends" (Medicine 1978).

The fundamental social unit of the Dakota was the biological family, but it was common for several families to travel and live together in what was known as a tiyospaye. This Dakota word denotes the core of Dakota tribal life; a small band bound together by blood or marriage ties (Deloria 1941). The chief and his family were central to the tiyospaye, with all the other members related through it. The bands usually camped separately during the winter-time, but came together at a common meeting place for the annual Sun Dance, which typically took place in early- to mid-June.

In order to more fully understand the cultural framework of the Sun Dance, it is necessary to first provide an insight into the gender roles of the Dakota people. The Dakota social structure was primarily a male-dominated society, where the men took active roles in the participation of most of the ceremonies, the Sun Dance in particular. The women of the tiyospaye were held in lesser status, although they too played an important part in the daily operation of the camp circle (Medicine).

The Sun Dance is perhaps the best known of all Dakota ceremonies. The self-inflicted torture that amazed missionaries and awed anthropologists seemed to represent the epitome of Dakota masculinity. The origin of the ceremony was founded in religion. The Dakota religion was based upon a belief in a great supernatural power--called Wakan'tanka--which lived in the sky, the earth, and the four cardinal points or the four winds. Since life depended on this power and from it came all good and necessary things, the Dakota believed that this Great Spirit must be invoked for the welfare of the tribe and for individual success in daily life. The Dakota believed that were they not to lead right and moral lives and express friendship for one another, the elements of the supernatural power would visit upon them sickness, starvation and other tribulations. Therefore, a series of rituals was developed to show reverence to the Great Spirit, invoke its strength, and atone for misdeeds.

The Sun Dance took place during three four-day periods in the summer, usually during June when the earth was fertile. It was during the Sun Dance ceremony that the mens' societies performed their rituals and elected new members who had achieved honors during the past year. Members also took part in the general ceremony. Men went through the Sun Dance for any one of the four reasons. Most common was the fulfillment of a vow in return for a favor granted by the Great Spirit in time of need or distress. Men promised, for example, that if saved in battle, or if a child's life were saved, to offer themselves in the Sun Dance. Failure to carry out a vow meant tragedy (Macgregor 1957).

Sometimes, men danced to secure supernatural aid for someone else, but usually it was for themselves. A man might have danced as a preliminary requirement for shamanism (priesthood). Finally, a man might have simply been requesting a vision; his participation in the Dance would have been favorably looked upon by the great Wakan'tanka (Macgregor 1957).

The Sun Dance ceremony lasted twelve days. The first four days were a festival period devoted to the preparation of the campsite. During this time, honored women were selected to locate and chop down the sacred cottonwood tree which would ultimately serve as the central focus for the dance. The next four days were spent giving special instructions to the dance participants (or candidates, as they were called if they were preparing for a life of shamanism.) These candidates were isolated within the central council lodge with their own shamans, to whom they had first revealed their intentions to dance. Often one shaman was responsible for the whole group, and this shaman became the central Mentor. This Mentor had complete authority over the ceremony, including the administration of the whole Sun Dance camp (Hassrick 1961).

The final four days were Holy Days. The ceremonial camp was officially set up on the first day, including the Sacred Lodge, where the candidates received their final instructions. On the second day, the ceremonial cottonwood tree was placed in the center of camp and was painted red, yellow, green and blue, to correspond with the four winds. The next few days were reserved for fasting and praying. The most severe form of torture occurred during this last phase. This was when the candidates were suspended from the dance pole by thongs attached to wooden skewers thrust through their backs and chest muscles. The bravest and most honored dancers were those who ripped their flesh and freed themselves without assistance.

Throughout this tortuous final phase of the Sun Dance, the dancers gazed directly into the face of the sun. This torture or sacrifice of one's body was the characteristic means of gaining favor with the Great Spirit and entering a direct relationship with Him. The dancers wanted not only to gain power from the sun (the manifestation of the Great Spirit), but also to fulfill a vow to dance made earlier in the year, when they had invoked supernatural power to combat war, sickness, or some similar crisis (Olden 1956).

Although the Sun Dance was a personal experience for each candidate, it was also an experience for all the spectators of the tribe, who identified with the participants. The people knew the dancers suffered for the group, so that everyone could receive the benefits that came directly from Wakan'tanka.

The Sun Dance ceremony publicly rewarded types of behavior which were sanctioned by Dakota culture; but more than this, the ritual sanctioned the great Dakota virtues of bravery, fortitude, generosity and wisdom by calling upon their practice during the ceremony. In the Sun Dance each member of the tribe saw in actual function or in ritualized imitation all the approved conduct and major social institutions and the rewarding of those who adhered to Dakota life. In this highly emotional and intense atmosphere the adults rededicated themselves to the cultural precepts, and the children received a vivid education in the meaning and objectives of the life they were to follow.

The Sun Dance of the Dakota Sioux was much more than simply an excuse to come together, visit with old friends and neighbors, and incidentally celebrate the rituals of a ceremony. The Sun Dance became the epitome of religious expression, ending in supplication by everyone and active sacrifice by the more zealous. The quality of the participation exhibited by the Dakota was characteristic of their religious fervor--of what some men were willing to give of themselves in order to find the true way of life (Gill 1983). In enacting the Dance, the individual voluntarily subjected himself to physical suffering for the benefit of others.

The dancer publicly demonstrated his selflessness by submitting to torture and captivity. Only after enduring excruciating suffering could he expect release. Unlike Christians, who passively respect Christ's example of self-denial through crucifixion and yet profess a comprehension of that denial, the Indian who would purport to understand the implication must himself experience sacrifice physically, mentally, and spiritually (Gill 1983). To be a Dakota, to live life on the best and highest plane, participation in the Sun Dance was a requisite.

At this point, an analysis of the research done in nonverbal communicology is examined, to determine what, if any, nonverbal behaviors appear in the context of the Sun Dance. The nonverbal categories are: Proxemics (communicating through the use of space); kinesics (communicating through body action and facial expression); paralinguistics (the nonverbal aspects of voice production and articulation); objectics (the use of objects to communicate meaning); and chronemics (the use of time to communicate meaning.) The basic question here is, Were the actions and behaviors of the participants of the Sun Dance "saying" anything? Was the Dance a loosely organized impromptu, or was there a deeper meaning.


Proxemic behaviors
Proxemics played an important part in the overall design of the Sun Dance. While Edward Hall (1958) characterized proxemics as the unconscious structuring of microspace, for the participants of the Sun Dance, the use of space was consciously structured, for the movements and ritualistic phases of the Dance were performed according to the rules which had been dictated in detail through oral tradition (Gill 1983). This implies that the participants' use of space still communicated meaning, but the proxemic behavior was learned, rather than an instinctive, unconscious act.

The context of the Sun Dance in relation to proxemics was that of public distance (12 to 25 feet or more from the spectators). The primary participants, i.e., the dancers themselves, maintained a distance from the others, because they were considered pure. After undergoing the preliminary ritual and instructions from their shamans, the bodies of the dancers were, at that point designated as purified and sacred, and could not be contaminated by association with the rest of the gathering (Brown 1953). This aspect of purification and perfection also related to the notion of status. Because the dancers had undergone purification rites in preparation for the Dance, they were deemed high-status persons, as were the shamans and the Mentor.

These people, because of their purified conditions and association with the supernatural, were seen as "holy" and could not associate with the "unclean" laity. The physical space which separated the clergy and dancers from the general population communicated the status of the dancers. The public distance, as defined by Hall (1958) was maintained because of the formality of the situation. The use of space regarding the arrangement of the camp circle during the Sun Dance also followed certain specifications and rules. Unlike a formal gathering, where a group congregates in a typically rectangular space with leader at front, the Sun Dance encampment was formed in a circle, with the Inipi lodge (Sun Dance lodge) in the center (Brown 1953). Circular spatial arrangements were of great significance to the Dakota, because Wakan'tanka, the Great Spirit, was personified by the sun. As the sun was thought to be the center of the universe, so the Inipi lodge was the center of the camp. In the center of the dance area, was the sacred cottonwood tree, which also signified the Great Spirit as the center of all creation. In comparison to the principles put forth by Hall (1958), the Dakota participants of the Sun Dance observed the spatial category of public distance; and as in Hall's observations, this distance was dictated by the status differences in the people. Hall's principles do not apply to the spatial arrangement of the camp, however. For the Dakota, instead of meeting in a rectangular area with the leader at the front, the camp was arranged in a circle, with the leader taking his place in the middle (Brown 1953).


Kinesic behavior
As in all public ceremonies, the use of body movements played a significant role. In the Sun Dance, the body movements were a necessary, albeit subtle element of the ceremony.

Before the beginning of the Dance, when the dancers had pierced the flesh of their chests but had yet to be tied to the rawhide thongs, the Chief or Mentor stood in the middle of the Inipi, near the a sacred pole, and invoked the presence of Wakan'tanka. As the Mentor gazed into the face of the Sun, he stretched out his arms, with the fingers of each hand spread apart (Robinson 1904). The significance behind this behavior was that the open arms symbolized the Mentor accepting the spirit of Wakan'tanka into his own body. The outstretched fingers symbolized the rays of the sun as a means of transferring this divine spirit. This ritualistic body movement could be considered an emblem (Ekman and Friesen 1969), since the Mentor's behavior was essentially saying to the sun, "Come into my body, so I may make your presence known to my people" (Brown 1953). The use of illustrators in the ceremony is not as clearly indicated in the historical texts, as those representing emblems. However, according to one historian (Meyer 1967), at one point in the dance, as the dancers were tied to the pole through the skewers in chests, the Mentor asked each individual if he felt he needed to endure further suffering. At that point the dancer "nodded his head three times and cried, 'O Wakan'tanka, be merciful to me! I do this that my people may live!'" (216-217). Because affect displays are a more universal type of behavior than emblems and illustrators, they were almost certainly present in the context of the Dance. While the historical accounts tend to emphasize the meaning of the Dance in symbolic terms, the writers were prone to omit from their texts the physiological aspects of the ordeal. It is true that the main emphasis is placed on suffering is not clearly indicated in the texts. It may be claimed that facial expressions of agony and fear must have al surely occurred sometime during the ordeal. As the dancers attempted to attain a level of super-human stamina and endurance, it must not be forgotten that they were human, and consequently were subject to human physical and emotional responses.

Regulators control the speaking activity of others. The nonverbal cues from one person to another are communicated by eye movements, changes in the pitch in the voice, or other gross body movements (Ekman and Friesen 1969). The primary function of regulators are to regulate or control the speaking activity of another individual. This category of nonverbal activity is found mainly within the context of a conversation. Since the speaking activity of the dancers consisted of ancient songs and chants, the chances of regulators being used to control conversation within the Sun Dance is probably quite slim. Indeed, there was no spontaneous, creative conversation among the Mentor, shamans, or participants per se. Their lines were sung or spoken according to the traditional script" and left no room for improvisation. Each speaker took his cue from the Mentor at his designated time (Robinson 1904). Therefore, since there were no conversational exchanges within the ceremony--at least in the conventional way--it is unlikely that regulators were used to any great extent.


Paralinguistic behaviors
Paralanguage, the vocal sounds of nonverbal communication, had a prominent place in the performance of the Sun Dance. Ancient cries and chants, preserved through centuries of oral tradition, were the constant accompaniment for the dancers as they underwent their ordeal. The major communicator through paralanguage was the Mentor. The Mentor had the responsibility of keeping the Great Spirit's essence within his body (Brown 1953). In relation to this, he was required to encourage and instruct the participants.

The dancers sang and chanted throughout the ceremony as well. One, who wished power over his enemies, may have cried, "Great Spirit, have mercy on me! Give my enemy to me with his horse" (Olden 1956). Much of the emotional affect of language is conveyed by pitch--the highs and lows of speech melody (Trager 1958). The Siouan language depends heavily on pitch for lexical meaning (One Feather 1972). Vocal qualities, such as pitch and tone, were recognized in the songs as being high-pitched and quite loud. The pitch was a means of communicating not only the intensity of the ceremony, but the solemnity of it as well (Brown 1953). Apparently, the Great Spirit was addressed in shrieks and loud cries, as opposed to the Christian manner of addressing God in hushed tones. Vocal characterizers, such as yelling, crying and moaning, were a part of the ceremony. The dancers wept at certain intervals, not exclusively because of their physical pain, but because of the enormous weight they took on in the form of everyone else's sins (Macgregor 1957). The women and other spectators also cried and moaned. Their moaning and weeping communicated the fact that they were keenly aware of the meaning of the self-sacrifice being made for them by the dancers and others affiliated with the Sun Dance. These characteristics consisted mainly of the use of volume and pitch, which, as observed by Trager (1958), communicated a heightened emotional level, due to the heightened level of excitement generated by the ceremony.


Objectic behaviors
The use of physical objects to convey meaning is perhaps the most obvious use of nonverbal communication observed in the Sun Dance. The appearance of the Mentor, shamans and dancers, arrayed in buffalo skins and adornments of bone, communicated through the use of these objects the significance of the buffalo to the Dakota. The buffalo was considered essential to the survival and preservation of the Dakota way of life. The beast was a direct gift from Wakan'tanka, so the use of the assorted parts of the animal was, in part, a tribute to the generosity of the Great Spirit (Brown 1953).

Eagle feathers were worn by the dancers, for the eagle was considered a holy messenger from the Great Spirit sent down from the sun. It was a great honor to be able to wear eagle feathers. Only the bravest men who completed the Sun Dance ordeal in all forms were allowed to wear the sacred bird's feathers. The Mentor, typically a great chief, was permitted to wear several eagle feathers fashioned into what has become known as a "war bonnet" (Hassrick 1961). In addition to the ceremonial eagle feathers, there were many other physical props used during the dance. These included sweet grass (to wipe the blood away and to provide moisture to the constantly-thirsty dancers); paint (to adorn the sacred pole and the dancers' bodies); rawhide throngs (to connect the dancers to the pole through the wounds in their bodies); and a buffalo skull, which was placed atop the sacred pole. The grass, used to wipe the blood away and to provide moisture, signified that through the grass, the blood would pass back into the breast of the earth (Brown 1953). The paint used to adorn the pole and the dancers' bodies represented the four winds, since the four primary colors (red, blue, yellow, and green) were used. In Dakota mythology, the earth was the Mother of all men; the winds, the buffalo, the eagle etc., were all considered Brothers (Gill 1983). The Dakota, by their use of physical objects, paid tribute to their Father, the Great Spirit; their Mother the earth; and their Brothers: The beasts, birds, and winds. The rawhide thongs were used in the Dance to secure the dancers from the wounds in their chests to the sacred pole. The thong was all one piece, cut in a spiral from a single buffalo hide. This was done to symbolize the oneness of the ceremony. Black Elk said this represented "The truth of the oneness of all things we understand a little better by participating in this rite, and by offering ourselves as a sacrifice." (Brown 1953).

The use of objects in the Sun Dance was symbolic of the Indians' close ties and association with the earth, wind, and sky. They used the byproducts of the earth, wind, and sky to pay tribute to the Great Spirit, Wakan'tanka--the Father of all Things.


Chronemic Behaviors
For the Dakota Indians, time was reckoned by the sun. The moon, which was considered a sister to the Great Spirit, was also a means of noting time. Although the Dakota did not possess watches or clocks, they kept a very strict sense of time.

The beginning of the Sun Dance was always at the onset of the first full moon in June. Had the face of the sun been clouded, the Dance would have been postponed until the sun's face was clear again (Hassrick 1961). The number four was of great significance to the Dakota during the time of the Dance. This has been traced to the yearly division of four seasons, the four phases of the moon, and even the directions of the four winds (Meyer 1967). The Dance itself was divided into three sections of four days, with each section of time allotted to one phase of the Dance.

The Dakota communicated their reverence for the sun through the use of time. All earthly activity was gauged in accordance to where the sun was. Days were only counted as those spans of time in which the sun shone. Therefore, a cloudy day was not considered a day (Gill 1983). Although the concept of time was somewhat unusual by the white man's standards, when the sun shone and time was being counted, each minute was accounted for during the Sun Dance (Brown 1953). The day began at sun-up, and the activities, which always occurred in groups of four, continued through the day until the sun had set. Then all activity ceased and the people retired to their tipis.


It may be determined, through this synthesis of information on the Dakota Sun Dance and nonverbal communication principles, that some behavioral categories were indeed found in the Sun Dance. The area of objectics (the clothing and other artifacts used in the ceremony) was perhaps the most obvious use of nonverbal communication; the use of space (proxemics) communicated the status of the dancers, and the spatial arrangement of the camp circle was examines. The symbolism of the body movements (kinesics) was found to be mostly emblematic, in that the motions, being in the context of Indian sign language, were substitutes for the actual words being communicated. The nonverbal category of chronemics was not found to be applicable to the behavior of the Dakota Indians of the late nineteenth century. Since the Indians had a very different concept of time, the principles cannot be applied with any objectivity.

It appears that some nonverbal communication norms can function similarly in different cultures. For example, affect displays and adapters seem to communicate emotional states, and are the result of an unconscious need to convey sadness, anxiety, fear, and so forth. Likewise, pitch and tone of the voice are also found to communicate the same meanings across cultures, whether it is Dakota Indians performing the Sun Dance ceremony or an excited fan at a football game, the voice tends to get louder and the pitch goes up as excitement increases. Some nonverbal principles are culture-bound, and cannot be applied to other cultures. For example, since the Indian's concept of time was so completely different from what is considered the norm now, it does not seem possible to be able to apply the principles of chronemic behavioral norms to the Dakota of the late 1800's.

The study of communication patterns among the American Indians entails more than simply having a working knowledge of sign language. The total picture requires the researcher to go beyond the stereotypes and work toward a fuller appreciation and sensitivity of these cultural differences.


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