Crow Sun Dance chief speaks to history students about tradition, evolution of Native American rituals

Students in History Professor Clyde Ellis' Issues in Native American Religions course are studying how Native traditions have held their forms and meanings while adapting to outside influences and restrictions.

Students in Professor of History Clyde Ellis’ Issues in Native American Religions class had the rare opportunity Tuesday to discuss aspects of the Native American Sun Dance ritual with Thomas Yellowtail, the Crow Nation’s Sun Dance chief and one of the most respected spiritual leaders on the Northern Plains.

The Sun Dance is an ancient annual renewal ritual held around summer solstice common among Native American communities. It involves three to four days spent dancing in a sun dance lodge to induce a prayerful, meditative, and sometimes visionary state. Fasting and sweating are also part of the ritual.

“The Sun Dance is not just this moment,” Yellowtail told students. “It’s the entire cycle of life. It follows through the whole year. You carry this sacrifice and the prayers you went in there for; you carry them for your entire life.”

Yellowtail, of the Crow Nation in Montana, and Tim McCleary, chair of Crow Studies at Little Bighorn College in Crow Agency, Montana, spoke to students and faculty for more than an hour over Skype. Ellis’s extensive research and relationships with Native American communities and colleagues in the field made Tuesday’s exchange possible.

“This was a phenomenally important opportunity – a rare and special privilege,” Ellis said of the session. “Hearing directly from Native people is vitally important for gaining a sense of how real people deal with real issues in Native communities. It allows students to meet and speak with Native people, and our discussions are much more informed because they emphasize the strength of Native cultures and the resilience of contemporary indigenous belief systems and practices.”

Ellis’ course focuses on Native Americans’ religious traditions and unique world views. It follows belief systems from pre-Anglo-Saxon contact through the introduction of Christianity, and how tribal practices and beliefs have informed Native religious movements.

“Our emphasis is on how change and continuity are at the core of all of this,” Ellis said.

The Crow Nation’s ritual is most commonly used to pray for family and loved ones or give thanks, Yellowtail said. The experience is a sacrifice, meant for purification and prayer for the future. Yellowtail’s grandfather reestablished the Crow Sun Dance in 1941 – partly in response to sending sons and daughters to aid the American effort in World War II – and passed the spiritual practice to him.

“We go into the Sun Dance for the people around us,” Yellowtail said. “It’s all about love and respect for each other and the Mother Earth below us.”

The conversation deepened understanding of the course’s themes and illuminated the exchange between traditional Native practices and modern culture.

“We have been talking a lot about how Native American communities have adapted and changed their religious traditions over time while also maintaining their traditional roots,” Rachel Feld, a senior history major, said. “Talking with Mr. Yellowtail and Dr. McCleary helped me to understand how the Crow Agency has experienced this change and adaptation. … When Mr. Yellowtail spoke about how the Sun Dance was given to his grandfather, it helped me to truly understand the importance of the ritual in his community.”

Yellowtail said the practice of the Crow Sun Dance continues to evolve, even as it holds fast to Crow language, songs, dances and rituals.

In ancient traditions, women were excluded from the Sun Dance. But Yellowtail’s grandmother insisted that women be included in Crow ceremonies – the songs, dances, and sweat lodge ritual – if her husband revived the ritual. Other tribes, such as the Shoshone, still exclude women from the Sun Dance, Yellowtail said. The Crow appreciate that men and women have different spiritual attributes, and that each prays differently.

Yellowtail also spoke of practicing Catholicism while maintaining Crow traditions. He went on to describe a priest and nun who participated in the Crow Sun Dances.

“My grandfather said, ‘In the white man’s world, there’s all the churches. This is their way. It’s good that they follow their way of praying. If they come and want to be part of (the Sun Dance), who are we to deny them?’”

Hearing Yellowtail describe the harmony between Catholicism and Crow traditions surprised and intrigued students.

“That was incredible to know the interaction of two religions and the respect they share for one another,” said Amanda Ruvolo, a senior history major also pursuing secondary education teaching licensure. “It helped me understand that Crow people aren’t a society from the past, but a group still present today and practicing their traditions and rituals from hundreds of years ago. We had the chance to actually understand the notion of religion as constantly changing yet keeping its roots.

“Something like being able to talk with Mr. Yellowtail and Dr. McCleary just exemplifies how the professors at Elon want their students’ academic experience to be more purposeful.“

Ellis plans to invite more expert speakers for future discussions this semester.

“It was the perfect illustration of how tradition, change, and continuity are vital to this particular way of belief,” Ellis said. “It’s also important for students to hear from Native people about all of this. The majority of our students have no idea that Native nations even exist in the 21st century, or that they maintain deeply traditional practices and values while also living modern contemporary lives.”

The research and expertise faculty bring into the classroom afford Elon students unique opportunities to engage with subjects, Ellis said. Those experiences distinguish learning at the university and within the College of Arts and Sciences, as recently recognized by U.S. News & World Report’s ranking of Elon as No. 2 for undergraduate teaching in the 2020 “Best Colleges” guide.

Ellis, a University Distinguished Scholar, has spent more than three decades living and working with American Indian communities to understand how Native people maintain tribally specific cultural practices and identities despite centuries of change and exposure to non-indigenous values and cultures. A preeminent scholar in the field, he has published numerous books and articles about Native American culture and history, and served as a consultant to the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian. The importance of his work in understanding Oklahoma’s native history and culture led to his 2017 induction into the Oklahoma Historical Society’s Historians’ Hall of Fame.