cheyenne sundance

View of the 1903 Cheyenne Sun Dance in Oklahoma. Photo by Charles Carpenter, The Field Museum.

Over time, our Arapaho tribe has adopted certain names from our Non-Native friends and the Sun Dance is one such example.  According to Wooden Leg, a Cheyenne Elder, both the Cheyenne and the Arapaho held what they referred to as a Great Medicine dance that was a ceremony held over a period of one to four days. It was not held at any particular time or with any regularity and usually only every two or three years. However, if the tribe was having misfortune or if a larger number of devotees wanted to undergo the trials, the ceremony would be held in successive years. In modern times, the Northern Arapaho now held this same ceremony once a year on the Wind River Indian Reservation here in Wyoming.

This ceremony was renamed the Sun Dance by the white people who observed it but is not done to worship the Sun but, as Wooden Leg stated in his biography, rather to get closer to the Great Medicine above us. The Great Medicine Ceremony and other fasting ceremonies were done in order to make medicine by giving thanks to the One Above and asking His continued favor.

It was customary to have this ceremony during the summer season and the main purpose would be to ask the Great Medicine for blessings on the tribe as a whole and not for individuals. Wooden Leg said that their prayers were for such things as good grass, new colts, for success in their hunting and in repelling their enemies.

He speaks of an instance when he was a child of when the Cheyenne and Arapaho came together to have their Great Medicine ceremony. It was a time of great upheaval for both people and this must have had far-reaching significance in the years to come.

“The Cheyennes and the Arapahoes had their two Great Medicine ceremony dances together on one occasion when I was about twelve years old. (1870)

We were south of the mountains beyond the headwaters of Powder river. The two tribes camped as one, in one great camp circle, but all the Cheyenne lodges were at one side of the camp and all of the Arapaho lodges at the opposite side. Each tribe had its Great Medicine lodge at its own side of the combined camp.

I went back and forth looking on at both of them. The other people of both tribes did the same. I was not quite old enough during our free roaming days to take a part in the important tribal affairs. I merely looked, listened, kept quiet and though about them.

This double sacred dance of the Cheyennes and Arapahoes was for only one day. During that one day all of the participants and many other people took neither food nor water. After sunset, they had a great feast. That was the regular way – the participants took neither food nor water while the ceremonies were being carried out, one, two, three or four days.”

Wooden Leg, A Warrior Who Fought Custer Interpreted by Thomas A. Marquis, 1962, Chapter 4, Worshipping the Great Medicine, page 143

Today, the Sun Dance still serves to bring together different tribes and people.