The Sundance ceremony, conducted once a year in the middle of the summer, is the most important spiritual ceremony in the Ute tradition. Having undergone a series of transformations over the last century, it nevertheless preserves at its core a Ute tradition as old as time, the tradition of tagu-wuni or “standing thirsty.” That tradition has two major, mutually interlocked aspects to it, the personal and the communal.
At the personal level, a dancer (traditional male) must receive a command which often comes to him through a dream and impels him to participate in the ceremony as a dancer. At the visible level, participation involves a four-day fast – abstaining from both food and liquid – conducted inside the Sundance lodge, there undergoing the various ceremonies connected with the Sundance and participating in the dancing itself (where each individual dancer, when aroused by the drumming and singing, dances facing the center pole of the lodge). The visible trimmings of the ceremony are the mere shell, within the actual spiritual contents resides. And for the individual dancer, the spiritual contents involves a quest for spiritual power, a purification, an act of communion (or attempted communion) with the Great Spirit. This quest, the so-called “medicine power” is strictly individual, with very minimal direction from the Sundance Chief. The Sundancer has to reckon with the spiritual world by himself and cope with rigors and pains of the spiritual quest alone, summoning his utmost physical and mental resources. He is not judged or evaluated, the “success” of his quest is purely a matter between him and the Great Spirit. And the gained “medicine power,” if indeed obtained, is given to him to use or abuse according to his private vision. That is, however only half of the story.
The communal or social aspect of the Sundance has to do with the fact that the Sundancer does not only partake in the ceremony as an individual. He is, at the same time, a member of a family. And the family pitches their Tipi or shade lodge in designated locations around the periphery of the Sundance grounds. The Sundancer comes forward as their representative, and they are there to support him vigorously, both spiritually and physically, in singing, drumming or silent participation. The presence of the family is absolutely crucial in giving the Sundancer strength and sustenance as he undergoes his quest-ordeal. It is also crucial in reminding the dancer that, although he is there on his own and the “medicine power” if gained will be his to use, the power is ultimately not his at all, but rather it comes from the ultimate source, the Great Spirit, and is given to him for a purpose, to be used in service of his family and community. The family/community, participating as a more passive audience inside the Sundance lodge, thus has very high stakes in the dancer’s successful quest. And while they are keenly aware of the possibility that the dancer may choose to hoard his gained “medicine power” and use it strictly for his own ends, by their mere presence and support they exert a powerful force upon the dancer to follow the path of mature spiritually and social responsibility, responsibility to his kin as well as to the community at large.
With the family serving as the mediating force, the Sundance thus becomes the instrument via which the entire Ute community attempt to achieve spiritual rejuvenation and reinforce the common spiritual power which has traditionally served to bind them together. The Sundance becomes both the means of achieving that common bond, and the affirmation of the existence of such a binding power. And so long as the Sundance tradition persists, and so long as Sundancers receive their dream-vision and come forward to dance, the survival of the people is assured.
Submitted to the Southern Ute Drum by:
Eddie Box, Sr.
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