Teachings of the Eagle Feather, part 28: Path of the Sun Dancer
Updated: Jul 1
Onaabani-giizis/Onaabdin-giizis (Snowcrust Moon), March 17, 2021
Giiwitaa-giizhigong bimaashiyen dibishkoo migiziwag. ("All Around The Sky We Soar Like the Eagles") - Anishinaabe proverb
Boozhoo indinawemaaganidog, gidinimikoo miinawaa. Biindigen miinawaa nindaadizooke wigamigong; enji-zaagi'iding miinawaa gikendaasong. Ningad-aawechige noongom giizhigad!
Hello my relatives, I greet you in a good way. Welcome back in my Storytelling Lodge where legends and stories are told. Let's tell a teaching story today!
Today's teaching, part 28 in the series Teachings of the Eagle Feather, is about one of our most sacred ceremonies, the Sun Dance. The teaching is centered around a jewelry set of a necklace and matching earrings and a bolo tie, both of which were designed by me and handcrafted in my jeweler's studio. Also added are a couple of illustrations of artworks by myself and fellow artists – among whom my talented sister Jéssica María Taylor and the late Anishinini (Oji-Cree) painter Jackson Beardy (see the image below).
~~ OUR GRANDFATHER, THE SUN ~~
The Peoples of the Anishinaabeg have always placed great significance on the sun. Gimishoomisinaan Giizis (Our Grandfather Sun) is central to several of our principal aadizookaanan (traditional stories).
To our People, Giizis is the symbol of GICHI-MANIDOO, the Great Mystery, and a spirit grandfather who guides all beings on Earth with his light and causes things to grow with his warmth. As he gives the gift of life once a day, it is renewed at dawn on the following day. Migizi, the white-headed eagle, is often associated with the eastern direction and the dawn and sunrise; the sun and the eagle have always had a close and powerful bond in the stories of our People, and sometimes they were even seen as interchangeable aadizookaanag (Spirit Grandfathers; literally: Makers of Stories).
~~ THE SUN DANCE, THE THUNDERBIRD, AND THE WHITE-HEADED EAGLE ~~
"Why do people do it? Why do people offer themselves to be cut through the skin, have wooden pegs pushed into their skin, have ropes attached to the pegs, have the ropes attached to Buffalo Skulls, and then drag the Buffalo Skulls around the grounds of the SunDance Lodge? It is about sacrifice. We sacrifice our lives for the people. The symbolic act of giving of one's life for the life of others. I have heard of people dancing for the health of loved ones. They forgo food, forgo water and continuously dance all day and into the evening for someone's health. You are tested. Not for strength or courage. You are tested for belief and prayer. You pray for others. For you children, your parents, your community, for the people. You are told not to pity those that are dancing. You rejoice for them. They are doing what is best for the people. It is up to the Creator to pity them. I love that about Indians. They are still trying to give for people. Lot of different people in a lot of different societies know sacrifice. We see everyday in the news with the people that are battling in war-torn countries. We see in those countries that people are suffering from natural disasters. We see it in the people that are not able to feed their families. We hope that sacrifice is answered." Source: Ojibwe Confessions: Indigenous View Point Image: "The Dragger," artwork by David Blacksmith.
Giizis-niimi'idiwin, which is how we call the Sun Dance, is a yearly ritual involving self-sacrifice and petitioning to the Aadizookaanag (Spirit Grandfathers of the Universe) to insure harmony between all living beings. The ceremony, which typically lasts 4 to 8 days, celebrates the continuity between life and death, depicting the cycle of death and re-birth. Partaking offers hope for renewal, restoration and forgiveness. Sundance takes place on sacred ground, literally and figuralitively.
Giizis-niimi'idiwin is believed to have been originated with the Nakawē-Ojibwe Anishinaabeg Nation (Anihšināpē) of the northern High Plains, and, from there on out, to have spread south and west to a great variety of Native Nations of the western Great Plains. In the ceremony, which is usually held at the peak of the summer seasons in the moon when the chokecherry bushes are ripe, Migizi the white-headed (bald) eagle plays a crucial role as facilitator of communication between man and the spirit world.
Migizi, the white-headed eagle, is symbolic of Gimishoomisinaan Giizis himself. Since it is eagle's habit to rise on the warming air of morning and to swoop down out of sight at night in pursuit of prey, our People have always compared the Sun's daily journey across the southern sky to his flight.
The Sun Dance – also called, depending on the region and spiritual context, Nibaagweshimowin (Thirst Dance or Rain Dance) and Ogichidaa Niimi'idiwin (Warrior Dance) – is basically an ultimate test of body, mind, and spirit. The ceremony is set up in a circular structure, the Sun Dance Lodge, with shade for the people that support the Sun Dancers who dance around the Sun Dance Tree, a forked pole usually made of a male azaadi (a poplar or cottonwood tree) that stands in the center of the circular enclosed dance area. The Tree of Life is symbolic of Creation. The lodge is always built in a circle with the entry facing east, signifying the coming of light, or south, signifying the direction from where the life-bringing rains comes. At the top of it sits the Thunderbird nest, for it is the Sacred Thunderbird as represented by Migizi, the white-headed eagle, who is the messenger for prayers sent to GICHI-MANIDOO. Bizhiki, the bison, is honored by the placing of specific parts of its body at the base of the tree. During the sun dance, the participating dancers face the azaadi tree with their eyes on the Thunderbird nest; they will continue until dusk of the final day, dancing and saying prayers for the good of inoodewiziwin (family), daawin (community), and gookomisinaan (Mother Earth). Afterward there is always gift-giving and a traditional feast.
Giizis-niimi'idiwin includes dances and songs passed down through many generations, a madoodiswan (sweatlodge ceremony) preceding the actual Sun Dance ceremony, the use of the Grandfather Drum, a sacred fire, a pipe ceremony, fasting from food and water before participating in the dance, and, in some cases, the ceremonial piercing of skin. The latter, as it is an ultimate trial of physical endurance, is the ultimate form of sacrifice we as human beings can possibly offer to the Universe. The Sun Dance is also a time for self-reflection and waaseyaabindam (having visions). Dancers only take part in it as the result of a dream or a vision, and never just randomly.
During the Sun-Dance it was tradition for each dancer to blow on a whistle made from the wing bone of an Eagle. Making the sound of an Eagle cry. Always keeping time with the drum. The whistle is painted with colored dots and lines to represent the remarkable perception of the Eagle. There is also a beautiful feather attached to the end of the whistle. The feather blew back and forth representing the breath of life. ''In an Eagle there is all the wisdom of the world'' (Source: Lame deer and Erdoes, 1972)
~~ SEEING THE BLUE BEHIND THE GRAY ~~
What does Sun-Dancing mean to me, personally? As I participated for the first time as a helper in a Sun Dance ceremony in 2016 at Gull Lake, Manitoba, I have not yet pierced myself. But each day, as I move forward humbly, keenly aware of my responsibilities and lessons unfolding, I do my best to follow the path Grandfather Sun shows us on his daily cyclic journey.
Although not always an easy thing to strive for – it's sometimes really hard to see the blue behind the gray sky –, it has become my life motto.
~~ SUNDANCERS IN THE SKY ~~
The above bolo tie, titled Giizisoniimii-bimisewin ("Flight of the Sundancer"), attests to this aspiration in life. It is constructed of sterling silver and set with turquoise and red coral. It was a gift to my then-life partner, an artist from Saskatchewan who participated in the Gull Lake Sun Dance for her first time. She gave it away.
The yellow and red gold eagle feathers of the above jewelry set, titled Giiziso-naamid Ishpiming ("Sun Dancer in the Sky"), symbolize Migizi the White-headed eagle and, in a broader sense, manidoo (spirit), and anamitaagoziwin (prayer). 21K yellow gold was chosen for the feathers because of its deeply yellow color, as it resembles the warm rays of Gimishoomisinaan Giizis (Grandfather Sun). The red coral tips of the feathers stand for the fire of Gimishoomisinaan Giizis and for the blood that is being sacrificed by the Sun Dancers. The round shape of the blue titanium necklace (the blue color reflecting the blue of the sky) stands for the circular structure of the Sun Dance lodge, which, in turn, represents the Universe and GICHI-MANIDOO, the Great Mystery of the Universe itself.
The circular shape of the necklace also reminds us to follow the path Grandfather Sun is showing us on his daily cyclic journey. We will be like the Sun Dancer who, like the eagle, seeks the deepest blue of the sky, sacrificing for mino-bimaadiziwin (good life and health) for all our relatives.
As we dance and sacrifice and fly like the Sun Dancer we will move forward in life, and while we do this, we will be keenly aware of, and receptive to, many valuable lessons that unfold along the way ...
Ahaaw sa. Mii sa ekoozid. Miigwech gibizindaw noongom. Ok, that is the end of the today's teaching. Thank you for listening to me. Giga-waabamin wayiiba, I hope to see you again soon! Mino bimaadizin! Live well! Migwechewendan giizis miinawaa akina gegoo ahaw! Be thankful for the Sun and for everything alive!