The Blood Ritual of the Sun Dance

Indian Sundance, Making A Brave

(Blood Reserve Near Fort Macleod, Alberta. July 31, 1886) Photograph by Boorne and May.

The Blood ritual or Self-totrure, is a ritual that takes place during the Sun Dance. It was considered highly controversial and contributed to the banning of the ceremony in Canada and the United States. Like the dance portion of the ceremony, the Blood ritual varied depending on what tribe it was being performed in. Some tribes methods included hoisting the male participant by his breasts from the ceiling of the medicine lodge, while others dragged buffalo skulls from the backs or danced while tethered to the medicine lodges post from their breasts.

The ritual was traditionally done to fulfill an oath. A man who was to experience some form of danger would pray to the Sun and ask for protection. He would make an oath to return a sacrifice through pain or blood for his protection. This could be done by a warrior, or other male trabe member who went through an imminent danger. In the case of the Blood Indians (a last remaining group of the Blackfoot), the teathering of the breast to medicine lodge pole method was performed. 

Preparation: After a male tribe member returned from making his oath, he informed the elders of his tribe. The Blood Indian tribes elders who had gone through the ritual were in charge of the ceremony. The participant would fast prior to the ceremony and would bring offerings to the elder in charge, so that he may watch over him. The elders would then pray in one of their lodges for the participant. The participant would not eat or drink the day before the ceremony. The particpant would then enter the medicine lodge and lay down. The elders then painted black dots along his arms and under his eyes. A moon symbol was applied to his forehead. Black dots were also painted on the legs, while the rest of the body was painted white. Sage brush was then wrapped around his head, wrists and ankles. 

The ritual: After being painted, the particpant was cut on each of his breasts with a sharp arrow head. Flattened sticks were then inserted into the cuts, so that they may stick out on either side of the cut. The back was cut as well and a war shield was hung from the wood inserts. Ropes from the center post of the medicine lodge were then tied to the partipants breast inserts. He would lean back to apply tension and dance until the inserts were torn from his breasts. After the dancing, any pieces of skin partially attached would be cut off and placed at the base of the post. The participant would then leave the lodge and leave the tribe to fast for one night (Ewers 1948).

Partly due to the self-torture aspects of the controversial ritual, the Sun Dance was outlawed by the Indian Department and the Mounted Police (Ewers 1948). The ceremony remained prohibeted until the American Indian Religious Freedom Act (1978).

The Blood Ritual of the Sun Dance