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P.O. Box 13521
Minneapolis MN 55414
612/ 721-3914 . fax 612/ 721-7826
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Saulte Ste. Marie, Michigan Sundance, NOT AIM Sundance

July 9, 2011
American Indian Movement First Sun Dance


In 1970 Clyde Bellecourt of the American Indian Movement was invited as a sponsor from the Great Oglala Nation on the Pine Ridge Reservation to attend the Sun Dance. Clyde was excited about the invitation, and like most of us in the early years had read books such as Black Elk Speaks that relates the sacred rites of the Lakota Nation. Upon accepting the invitation, Clyde thought it would fulfill two purposes, one of course to be one of the sponsors, and two, to learn firsthand, the spiritual traditions of the Sun Dance, the purification ceremony, and the reasons for such ceremonies.

Clyde arrived on the Pine Ridge Reservation grounds where the Sun Dance was being held and he thought he had gone to the wrong place. There was a fair, a rodeo, and surrounding the arbor, there were fair rides, a ferris wheel, a merry-go-round, a tilt-a-whirl, and food stands. He asked someone, “where is the Sun Dance?” He was told, 'Right here.' He ran into Dennis Banks and Russell Means, who were both dancing, and one had a snow cone and the other had a fry bread burger, and Clyde expressed his disbelief. They told him that the Sun Dance turned into a powwow after the day was done, and the dancers could eat, drink, go home, be with their girlfriends, or wives, or boyfriends, or husbands. The sacred Sun Dance grounds turned into a social dance and anyone could dance powwow whether they were sober or not.

Russell Means and Dennis Banks told Clyde, “Wait until Sunday and see what happens then.” Clyde asked them about Sunday and they said that the Catholic priest arrives at noon to the Sun Dance arbor to serve communion.

The prime sponsors of the Sun Dance was the Catholic Church and the Bureau of Indian Affairs. The dancers were not allowed to pierce. They hitched a horse harness to the buffalo skull and the dancer was allowed to pull it like that.

Lehmann Brightman of United Native Americans out of California and Clyde could not believe what they were seeing and hearing. They told Dennis and Russell that this was not going to happen on their shift. Dennis and Russell pleaded with Clyde and Lehmann not to upset the dance because it would turn people against the American Indian Movement. They said to go and talk to Fools Crow. Clyde asked who Fools Crow was, and learned he was a chief of the Oglala Nation who had some responsibility with the Sun Dance. When they met with Chief Fools Crow he spoke only in Oglala Lakota and the interpreter was Severt Young Bear. They asked Fools Crow, “why are you allowing this to happen?’

Chief Fools Crow was given tobacco, but still had to have permission from the Catholic Church to have the Sun Dance. It was the same with the other ceremonies as well, not only on Pine Ridge, but every Indian Reservation, and Indian community. The peyote ceremonies became the Native American Church. These ceremonies had the Christian bible present. This is how the church controlled us, and made us weak. We were removed from our lands, and made more dependent with our every move.

Clyde informed Chief Fools Crow who they were, and told him about the great stories he read concerning the Lakota Nation, and the sacred ceremonies. Clyde told him what they must do to strengthen our communities and bring back the ceremonies to the people. At this time, Chief Fools Crow said there was nothing he could do, and told them to go and talk to the warriors. Clyde asked who they were, and Frank Fools Crow said, “the Sun Dancers.”

Lehmann Brightman and Clyde did talk to the Sun Dancers about the Church controlling them and the ceremonies, and they took a vote, and the warriors voted unanimously to take back the Sun Dance from the church.

On Sunday everyone from all of the communities on Pine Ridge came to see what would happen. Word spread quickly, and it turned out to be the largest crowd at a Sun Dance in recent memory at Pine Ridge. At noon the priest arrived with two altar boys and their bread and wine to offer communion, which would conclude the Sun Dance of the Great Oglala Nation. When Lehmann Brightman and Clyde entered the arbor, there were loud boo’s from the crowd and they started to throw whatever they had at them, food, trash, cups, bottles, etc. They informed the priest who was adorned in white Indian beaded vestments, that the dancers no long wanted him there, and that his days are now over. The priest asked Clyde, “Who are you?” Clyde told him who he was and that he represented the American Indian Movement, and introduced Lehmann Brightman as his brother from United Native Americans. The priest said, “I heard about you rabble-rousers.” Clyde said to the priest, “Father, please I am asking you to leave.” The priest said, “What if I don’t?” Clyde and Lehmann gently took the priest by each arm and escorted him out of the arbor to the boo’s and jeers of the crowd . By that time the police sirens could be heard, and Clyde and Lehmann were placed in the backseat of a squad car and were driven to the border of the reservation and were told to never come back.

Because of this action, in 1971, the following year, the American Indian Movement held its first Sun Dance on the Rosebud Reservation at Crow Dog’s Paradise. A Sun Dancer is committed for a lifetime. Clyde said that he has been a Sun Dancer for 40 years and now a Head Sun Dancer, and also a member of the Midewin Society.

Today, there are hundreds of Sun Dances, purification ceremonies, healing ceremonies, Midewin ceremonies every year. Most are conducted by recognized spiritual leaders, such as Rick Two Dogs, Warfield Moose, Richard Moves Camp, and others, but we also know there are those who exploit their own people’s traditions.

The most recent example of this is occurring in Saulte Ste. Marie, Michigan this year. It’s being advertised as a “public event” on Facebook. The American Indian Movement name and logo is being used without permission of the American Indian Movement. Chief Terrance Nelson, and Edward Benton-Benai are advertised on the poster, and neither of these two men are attending, or taking part in any way. Sault St. Marie has never attended American Indian Movement meetings, and are not recognized as part of the council. The reason for the establishment of the American Indian Movement Grand Governing Council and Trademarked logo is to curtail the abuse of our name, organization, and intellectual property rights being used by people we do not know.

The American Indian Movement is not saying that Sun Dances cannot be held in any area or community. Indian people can have all the Sun Dances they want, but the responsibility, the honor in being truthful rests on the organizers, and they should not be using the name of an organization that has nothing to do with their Sun Dance. The danger in this is that some one could get hurt, or sick, and the responsibility would be on the American Indian Movement.

The Sun Dance in Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan has been planned in a highly irregular manner in spite of our wishes for them to discontinue using our name. Many of the people taking part in this dance were asked to leave the American Indian Movement Sun Dance in Pipestone for bringing alcohol, drugs, and behaving in a non-spiritual way by breaking their fasts, thus encouraging others to do so, bringing in water, food, ice, etc., and other behavior not associated with the real reason to Sun Dance.

It is a four day ceremony, the dance is for four days, men and women are separated, there is no physical contact. Men dance to pay respect to the women. Everyone dances to renew the health, happiness of the people and the earth. We encourage young people to seek out their traditions, but ask questions, and be aware of people who may not be trustworthy.