Animal Studies Bibliography
The Symbolic Role of Animals in the Plains Indian Sun Dance
Elizabeth Atwood Lawrence (1993)
Society and Animals , v. 1, n. 1, pg. 17-37
Many anthropologists have studied the Sun Dance but few have directed their attention toward the role of animals in the ceremony. This article examines the role of the eagle and the buffalo in the Sun Dance. The overall significance of the Sun Dance is renewal-the spiritual renewal of it's participants and their ancestors as well as the renewal of the earth and nature. The eagle plays a major role in the Sun Dance. The eagle is believed to be a messenger between man and spirit. Thus, in the Sun Dance, the eagle exerts his power as a facilitator and communicator between people and the supernatural forces (pg. 20). The feathers of the eagle are equally important and serve supernatural functions, such as aiding in the healing of a sick person. The buffalo, on the other hand, is the source of life for the plains Indians. In the ceremony the buffalo represents the people and the universe and should always be treated with respect, for he not here before the two-legged peoples, and is he not generous in that he gives us our homes and our food? The buffalo is wise in many things, and, thus, we should learn from him and should always be as a relative with him (pg. 24). Various parts of the buffalo are used in the ceremony both as spiritual tools and as symbols of the power of the buffalo. The role of animals in the sun dance reflect an intimate relationship between humans and nature that differ from traditional western cultures. All animals are viewed as a single interrelated community and the Indians are merely a part of that community. This is very different from the importance placed on individualism in western cultures. The Plains Indian's identified with many characteristics that the buffalo possessed. For instance, the buffalo displays social relationships very similar to the Indian's. They are both very social and communal and are rarely found alone. To minimize the guilt felt from killing the animals, they believe the animals gave themselves to the hunters in order to benefit them. There is a sense of reciprocity in their relationship with the animals. Unlike western cultures which believe that the animals are merely there for our extraction and consumption. Perhaps western cultures can learn something from the relationship and symbolism animals have in Plains Indian cultures.