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Lakota (Teton Sioux), North or South Dakota


Sun Dance

Creation Date

ca. 1895


late 19th century


24 x 66 in. (61 x 168 cm)

Object Type


Creation Place

North America, Native American, North or South Dakota

Medium and Support

muslin, pigments

Credit Line

Museum Purchase, Lloyd O. and Marjorie Strong Coulter Fund, Laura T. and John H. Halford, Jr. Art Acquisition Fund, Jane H. and Charles E. Parker, Jr. Art Acquisition Fund, Barbara Cooney Porter Fund and Greenacres Acquisition Fund


Public Domain

Accession Number

Lakota paintings on muslin traditionally hung inside tipis or log cabins in order to shield living spaces from cold winds. This ambitious and exceptionally well-preserved work, however, was likely created for the non-Native market. A confirmed early owner was an Episcopal missionary on the Cheyenne River reservation who would have appreciated the detailed description of a religious ceremony that holds great significance for Native communities throughout the Great Plains. The Sun Dance is an annual rite of renewal, when humans place themselves in spiritual alignment with the forces of the natural and supernatural worlds. In 1883 the government banned the Sun Dance, implicitly acknowledging its crucial importance and instigating a conflict that further escalated with the growth of a new Native religion, the Ghost Dance. These tensions led to armed conflict in 1891, when the U.S. military decimated the Lakota at Wounded Knee. Scholar Janet Berlo describes the scene represented here: “The painter of this exquisitely detailed muslin has portrayed the ceremony within the enclosure erected from cut poles, with shaded areas sometimes of cloth or hide, or simply cut leafy branches. Some twenty standing figures wear war regalia, and most raise their right hands to the sky as they sing and dance; some wear the buffalo horn and eagle feather headdresses of the most esteemed and valorous warriors. Three horses within the enclosure are painted for war. Many of the men are shirtless, and some are painted blue, while others are painted yellow for ceremony. These men have elected to perform the most sacred and painful act of piercing their pectoral muscles and attaching themselves to the central pole, finally ripping their bodies away in an act of blood sacrifice that aligns them with the potent powers of the sun. The center pole is cottonwood, from a tree cut at another location, ceremonially carried here and planted. A cloth banner hangs from the top, and leafy cut branches are placed in the crook of the pole. Small effigies of a man and a buffalo—both fashioned from buffalo hide—hang from these branches. Still within the enclosure, at right, are five seated figures and one standing. They smoke the sacred pipe and pray for those who will undergo the blood sacrifice. At left, another pipe holder watches over a large drum circle. At far left and far right are vignettes of people, mostly women, riding or walking toward the ceremony; their garments range from traditional quilled and painted hides to Navajo chief’s blankets, wool trade cloaks, and wool dresses embellished with elk teeth.”