Feb 182012

Mails, Thomas E. Sundancing: The Great Sioux Piercing Ritual Council Oak Books, 1998 Gbooks

In writing about the Sun Dance, one is tempted to being with a vivid description of the absorbing, flesh-piercing ritual. But to do so is a tragic mistake, for in focusing everything upon a single, albeit sensational, fraction of an entire and splendid religious ceremony, the overall significance of the four-day event is missed, and it is inevitable that the rest of the Sun Dance will be ignored and misunderstood — even by some Indians.


While working on Chapter 1 of the book, I wanted to spend a paragraph or two on the First Nations Sun Dance as an example of physical ordeals in religious practice. However, I wanted to make sure I got the details as correct as possible, so that sent me on another research trip. Sometimes you have to read a whole book just to make sure that a couple of sentences are accurate.

Mails, a retired Lutheran minister, wrote this highly detailed book on both the history and the practical execution of the Sun Dance. (I’m a little puzzled why he used inflammatory terms like “torture” to describe the flesh sacrifice and piercing aspects.)

Within the complex four-day ritual, pledgers may make flesh offerings, which are bits of skin about a quarter inch square, cut off from the plegers’ bodies, usually the arms. They are tied into small bundles on strings.

The piercings, also not mandatory, involve piercing the pledger’s chest skin with an awl or knife, followed by a stick or eagle’s claw attached to a rope or hide thong attached to the sacred tree. The pledger then pulls back on the rope until the skin gives way. Note that actual suspension, with the full weight of the pledger, is rare. [Pg. 14, with more details on Pg.133-144]

There’s a long and complicated history of the Sun Dance and its prohibitions and restrictions under the reservation system, with the dances sometimes held in secret and sometimes openly, but with the ordeal aspects removed, and sometimes with the ordeal aspects played up for tourists. Mails quotes Ethel Nurge’s book The Modern Sioux, which says, “it [the Sun Dance] has deteriorated to the point where it is little more than an unsuccessful sideshow — a flesh carnival, if you will — in which the audience is invited to watch the spectacle of self-inflicted pain.” (Pg.8)

Some of the changes have been imposed by others, when the ritual in total, or just the piercing, has been banned by American government authorities. One 1928 photo shows a participant leaning away from the sacred tree with a kind of sling around his back instead of from piercings in his chest.

Garbled versions of this ritual, focused on the most violent and blood aspects, permeated outwards into white culture, through low media like the Mondo films. Unsurprisingly, the film A Man Called Horse gets it wrong, both the technical details and the social and religious context. The Sun Dance isn’t something you do once to become Sioux, it’s something you do repeatedly and regularly as a part of being Sioux. It isn’t necessarily martial either, but also involves healing and well-wishing, for the Sioux and for humanity as a whole.

…I was reminded of the recent movie, Return of a Man Called Horse, wherein Richard Harris, when pierced with a skewer four times the size of any I’d ever seen, shed more blood than all the fifty or so pledgers I’d watched put together. Readers who saw the movie will also be noting by now that it was a poor and most inadequate portrayal of the Sun Dance.

Pg. 180

One of the most interesting points in Mails’ book was that the Sioux Sun Dance is only a few hundred years old, and not ancient and unchanging.

The antiquity of the Sun Dance as it is practiced on the Plains has been the subject of considerable debate. Some contemporary Sioux date it as far back as A.D. 1685. Non-Indian anthropologists give it a more recent origin, ranging anywhere from 1750 to 1800.

Pg. 14

Mails says that about twenty Plains tribes have similar rituals, with the difference that they insist that the ritual must be unchanging, while the Sioux are more adaptable about the particulars. “Over a period of less than twenty years its theme and thrust shifted from associations with the hunt and war complex to that of the survival of the culture within severe confines.” (Pg. 16)

So what does this have to do with the modern primitive and BDSM subcultures? There’s a link, albeit a thin and tangled one. It does illustrate that cultural conflicts often come down to the very physical, bodily level, with the colonizing telling the colonized what they can’t and must do with their bodies. Sexuality is just one of many facets of this. I’d be interested to look at Western civilization’s own eschewing of physical ordeals, perhaps tied to the post-anesthesia European view of pain as something unacceptable and obscene, which roughly coincided with colonialism and the witnessing of voluntary pain in the rituals of indigenous people around the world.

I’m tempted to say that, when you take the long view of this, what we see is Western Judeo-Christian civilization, having a particular, alienated view of the body, is (re)discovering different ways to relate to the body, but that might be a gross and non-useful oversimplification of the historical process. Pessimistically, one could view this as just another form of cultural appropriation, like hipsters with feathered headdresses. (There are also a couple of posts on sweat lodges held by and for non-Native people: 1, 2. Note in particular the discussion of machismo as part of bad sweat lodging.)

Personally, I don’t believe non-First Nations people (in BDSM or modern primitive subcultures) should not perform chest piercing suspensions. I do think it shouldn’t be called “Sun Dance” or “O Ki Pa”, because the piercing suspension is one small part of the ritual. Just call it chest-piercing suspension.

Addendum: The more I think about it, the more I think the issue of machismo discussed in the sweat lodge posts (link above) is important to how these kind of physical ordeal rituals are (mis)read by others. Machismo is ultimately about the self, and therefore is the problem. (Machismo is actually a problem in BDSM too, and the root of some manifestation of both top’s disease and bottom’s disease, putting individual accomplishment above the connection between top and bottom.)

The corporate retreat sweat lodges are ultimately about self-interest. In Victor Turner’s terms, you can have liminality without communitas, as when a person undergoes a ritual to prove his masculinity and without any other consideration. The Sioux in Mails’ book talk about the Sun Dance as instrumental sacrifice: I want my ailing mother to be well, so I offer this blood sacrifice of myself. The point of the ceremony is the dissolution of the individual ego (via fasting, dancing, singing, sweat lodge use, and the pain of flesh offerings and piercing) and awareness of humanity in a greater sense.

It’s difficult to experience communitas when you aren’t with other people also experiencing it. Perhaps the problem with the alleged shamans and the suburban sweat lodges is that the practice is not wide-spread and customary enough to create the conditions for communitas. It’s different doing it with a bunch of guys you’ve never met before than with people you see on a regular basis. What was originally intended to foster community instead fosters individualism.

My dear Tavy, your pious English habit of regarding the world as a moral gymnasium built expressly to strengthen your character in, occasionally leads you to think about your own confounded principles when you should be thinking about other people’s necessities.

George Bernard Shaw, Man and Superman

 Leave a Reply

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>



This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.