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Sioux Sun Dance

It was on this date in 1934 that President Roosevelt signed the Indian Reorganization Act, which sought to restore self-government for indigenous people. In keeping with the act, tribes were encouraged to adopt constitutions or charters. In North Dakota, the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara, as the Three Affiliated Tribes, soon adopted a constitution. Other tribes in North Dakota would later follow suit.

The federal government had previously outlawed traditional rituals and religious ceremonies as a way to encourage assimilation. And even with the new self-governance, some restrictions on those ceremonies still remained.  One of the affected ceremonies was the sun dance, which involved sacrifice and was meant to celebrate and bring renewal and strength to all.  In 1936, permitted version of the ceremony was revived by Sioux tribal members in Little Eagle, South Dakota.

The following year, a Sun Dance was planned in Cannon Ball, North Dakota. It would be the first North Dakota sun dance since 1880. And the event involved an unusual request. Three Sioux chiefs asked North Dakota Governor William Langer to help them acquire a bison bull for the ceremony’s feast. Bismarck Tribune readers learned of the request on this date in 1937. The newspaper described it as “one of the strangest requests to come before a North Dakota chief executive.”

Bears Heart, All Yellow and Many Horses made the request to Governor Langer, who was just months into his second term. The Tribune reported that the chiefs asked the governor to urge the National Park Service to donate the bison from a nearby herd for a feast to be held on July 2nd.

About a thousand tribal members from Montana, North Dakota and South Dakota attended, but we don’t know if Governor Langer was able to help the tribe secure a bison.

Edward Milligan, a North Dakota tribal anthropologist, expressed hope and optimism for the return of the sun dance. He told the Associated Press: “After 57 years of suppression, the sun dance is ready again to take its place in the lives of the Sioux, teaching its lessons of fortitude, abstinence, charity and virtue to the younger generation.”

Dakota Datebook by Jack Dura

The Bismarck Tribune, 1937, June 18, p. 3.
The Billings Gazette, 1937, July 2, p. 4.

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