The Last Kiowa Sun Dance

These pages are dedicated to LINN PAUAHLTY and SCOTT TONEMAH, two Kiowa Elders who have sought to preserve the history and culture of the Kiowa People and have shared their knowledge with the younger tribal members.

O Dom-oye-alm-k' hee, Creater of the earth,
Bless my prayer and heal our land,
Increase our food, the buffalo power,
Multiply my people, prolong their lives on earth,
Protect us from troubles and sickness,
That happiness and joy may be ours in life,
That life we live is so uncertain,
Consider my supplications with kindness,
For I talk to you as yet living for my people.

This prayer was last said one hundred eleven years ago, in 1887 when the Kiowa people held the last Sun dance, a religious and ceremonial gathering that was the centeral feature of Kiowa life for hundreds of years. The last century has brought great changes for the Kiowa. The Kiowa Nation, once a strong and dominant force on the Southern Plains, was crushed by both military and cultural pressures from the United States in the later part of the nineteenth century. Yet, despite the loss of land and control over their lives, the Kiowa have survived and have emerged to be a leader among Indian peoples. The Kiowa have maintained the delicate balance of preservation of many aspects of the traditional culture of the past through art, song and dance, while also progressing in the fields of education, employment, and economic development for the future. The Sun Dance was a part of the old life that passed, but still lives on in the spirit of many Kiowas.

While the Sun Dance ceremonies were eventually banned by the United States government, and the dance itself is no longer performed today, the Sundances influences still make an impact upon the Kiowa Life. Even when faced with pressures from the Dominent Society to adopt new ways of living and beliefs, the Kiowa people today have retained both memories and culteral elements of the Sun Dance from the past. For example, the ten Kiowa Tah-lee Medicine bundles ( sometimes erroneously referred to as the Ten Grandmothers), which played a central roll in the Sun Dance purification rituals are still cared for by tribal members charged with their safe protection. The "Brush Dance" which is still performed at the annual Kiowa Gourd Clan ceremonials, originated from dances held during the Sun Dance Lodge construction. Even some of the older tribal members can still remember some of the songs from a century ago, which played and integral part in the Sun Dance ceremonies. Moreover, purification through the use of the sweat lodge continues to this day and the steps of the Sun Dance, although somewhat different, do resemble the steps of the current day Gourd Dance and Black Leggings Dance.

This short article is intended to provide only a brief overview of the history and significance of the Kiowa Sun Dance, so that we may more fully apprciate its meaning today
Arvo Quoetone Mikkanen

The Significance of the Sun Dance

The Sun Dance was not a ceremony worshiping the sun, but rather it derived its name from the participants practice of staring upward or gazing into the sun. In Kiowa, Skaw-tow, meaning a cliff, bank or protection. Another less frequent word used was the Daw-s' tome, meaning a procession entering the lodge. The non-Indians have mistranslated the Kiowa word and called the ceremony the Ka-do, and also sometimes called the Medicine Dance, undoubtably because of the ceremonial significance of the event. Regardless of the name used, it is indisputable that the Sun Dance was the important religious ceremony for the Kiowas, as it was for many other plains Indian People. The Sun Dance was usually held once a year during the summer, and provided a time not only for ceremonial and religious celebration, but a time of re-union, sharing of news, healing, and self-renewal.

The Kiowa Calender Records of the Sun Dance

An unique element of Kiowa tradition was the practice of keeping pictographic records of the significant events of the past on animal hides. In this way, various Kiowa calender keepers such as Chief Do-ha-san, Keah-ko, An-ko and others kept the history of the tribe in written form so that later generations would know the events of the past. The Sun Dance ceremony provided the reference point for the summer on the calenders as indicated on by the Sun Dance Lodge on the Da-ha-san or Set-tan calender, or the Y- forked tree which was a part of the Sun Dance lodge as shown on the Keah-ko calender.

By looking back at the calenders we have a record of various Kiowa historical events , such as the Doh-pa Shaw Tow or Cat-tail Rush Sun Dance od 1834, which was first recorded Sun Danceon the Do-ha-san Calender. In 1849, the Kiowa calender entry is the Mayiagya Skaw Tow or the Cholera Sun Dance, shown by a human figure experiencing cramps next to the Sun Dance lodge, reveal the impact of diseases brought by the non-Indians to the Kiowa Country.

The year 1879 was probably the lowest point for the Kiowa people, and it is recorded as the Tsen-pia Skaw Tow or Horse-Eating Sun Dance when the buffalo had been virtually exterminated by settlers and buffalo bounty hunters. The Kiowa had to eat their own ponies to save themselves from starving. The An-Ko calender even showed the allotment of land that divided up the Kiowa-Comanche-Apache Reservation in 1901, represented by a white man with a chart of the sections of land and circles representing the money to be paid for it.

The Oak-Creek Sundance recorded on several of the Kiowa pictographic calenders was the last Kiowa Sun Dance that was completed. A sun Dance was begun in 1890 at a place near the Washita River called Pi-ho, however this Sun Dance was never completed since U.S. Cavalry troops were sent out from Fort Sill and the ceremony broken up. Several Kiowa Calenders record this attempt at holding the celebration, calling it the Unfinished Sun Dance represented by a half finished Sun Dance lodge. Therefore, although the last attempt to hold a Sun Dance was made in 1890, the last fully completed Sun Dance occured in 1887.

The records of the Office of Indian Affairs also reveal that the Sun Dance was not held in 1890, as does an account of an anthropologist who actually rode out with the troops from Fort Sill in late July to break up the Sun Dance. The government letters also revealthe disdain that the government had towards the Sun Dance, or Medicine Dance as they called it. At that time, conducting the traditional Indian religions was considered a crime and persons could be arrested for exercising their religios beliefs. It is shocking to consider that the First Amendment did not serve to protect Indian Religions, and even more shocking to learn that the Indian Religius Freedom Act was not passed until 1978.

The Tai-me and it's role in the Sun Dance

The Tai-me, a small decorated stone figure covered with ermine and feathers, was the most sacred object the tribe possessed and it played an important part in the Sun Dance. The Kiowa received the the first tai-me figure from an Arapaho man who married into the Kiwoa tribe.. The Arapaho originally obtained a tai-me figure from the Crow Indians during their Sun Dance. He later made copies of the Crow Tai-me and brought it to the Kiowa people. It is estimated the Kiowa obtained the feathered Tai-me figure in the 1700's, although the Kiowa had a similar figure made of buckskin and ceremonies surrounding it had been performed since ancient times.

At one time there were three Tai-me figures kept by the Tai-me keeper, one called a "woman", a smaller one called a "man", and a third figure. Both the Osgaes and the Utes have captured the images. Although the Osage later returned the Tai-me figures when a treaty was signed in 1837, the Utes captured two of the images in 1868 which were never returned. The keeper of the last remaining Tai-me in 1894 was a woman named Emaa, who was the ninth guardian since the original Arapaho keeper. The Tai-me keeper or priest was the central figure in the Kiowa Sun Dance and officiated before many of the ceremonies.

Preparation for the Sun Dance

The Tai-me Keeper or priest played a central role in the Sun Dance. After inspiration by dream, it was he who decided whether a dance would be held. If a dance was to occur, he sent messengers out to the various bands and divisions of the Kiowa, instructing the tribal members as to the place and the time of the celebration. The Sun Dance was usually held around the time of the summer soltice. The Kiowa would also look for the sign of the cottonwood trees' shedding of their fluffy seeds or when the prairie grass reached a certain length. Generally, the site selected was along a river or creek to provide water for the Tribe and the horses.

Originally, the Kiowa Sun Dance celebration lasted for about ten days, with six "getting ready' or preparation days, followed by four dancing days. On the first "getting ready" day, the Tai-me keeper rode throughout the camp with the Tai-me figure tied on his back and instructed tribal members not to argue or conduct thenselves in a less than honorable manner for the next ten days. The search for the sacred tree began with a purification sweat bath of two the young men selected to find the central Y-shaped fork of the Sun Dance Lodge. The sweat lodge was constructed of bent willows in the shape of a dome that was covered with buffalo hides. Water poured over heated rocks in the sweat lodge provided the purifying steam. The sacred ten Tah-lee or Boy-God Medicine Bundles were also placed upon sage in the sweat lodge to aid in the purification process. Once those selected found a proper tree and site for the campsite, they notified the Tai-me keeper who conducted additional ceremonial rites during the move of the tribe to the exact site to insure safety for those involved. The first four young men to touch the sacred tree once it was sighted receive honors by counting coup.

The Kiowa were divided into six bands, all of whom had specified duties and obligations in the Sun Dance ceremony and camped in particular locations around the central lodge. Near the east were the Kata or "biters" who were responsible for providing the buffalo for the ceremony. The Kogui or "Elks Band" were located to the southeast of the lodge and performed the war ceremonies. The Kaig-wa or the "Kiowa Proper" was the most prestigious group because it held the I<>tai-me, a small human image which was the holiest religous object the the Kiowa possessed. To the west were the Khe-ate or "Big Shields" who policed the Sun Dance grounds. The Kiowa-Apache, a sub-group of Apaches who have associated with the Kiwoa Tribe since ancient times, occupied the northwest quadrant. The final group, the Soy-hay-talpupl or "Black Boys" group, sometimes called the Sayn-days's People after the Kiowa trickster culture hero was located to the northeast. At one time there was a seventh band, the Kuato or the "Pulling out" band, however it is believed that this band was exterminated by the Sioux in the 1780's, after a disagreement among chiefs caused by that band splitting away from the main body of the Kiowa.

The second "getting ready"day was marked by the ceremonial kill of the buffalo for the dance. The buffalo was revered by the Kiowa, as it was among other plains groups, not only for its' strength and stamina, but for the food, clothing and shelter it provided the people. The bull was killed by a member of the Biters band who had to follow strict rituals and kill the animal with only one arrow or one bullet. A wounded or bloody kill, was considered a bad sign and an evil omen. Following the kill, a great number of rituals were performed and prayers recited to purify the buffalo head and skin which was eventually placed in the Sun Dance lodge in the Y of the central lodge pole.

On the third "getting ready" day, a sham or mock battle was held by the Kiowa Warriors wearing their ceremonial dress. Four bands of warriors entered the camp on horseback from the East, whilefoot soldiers or "rattles" stood in the center of the camp. Themounted warriors circled counter-clockwise four times around a "fort" built of brush around the sacred tree, which was defended by the foot soldiers. After the mock battle, the mounted warriors were declared the winner of the tree, which would then be cut downby the Skaw-tow-mah or "Medicine Bank Woman". The tree would be used as the forked center pole of the Sun Dance lodge. The Medicine Bank Woman was a captive or adopted Kiowa, so that harm would not befall a Kiowa by blood if any of the rituals or ceremonies were performed improperly. Some other ceremonies involving the Tai-me image were performed by captives so that Kiowas would not be hurt if any procedures were not followed. After the pole was erected, the Calf Old Woman Society performed its dances.., which were concluded by a ritual smoking of the great Straight Pipe, one of the oldest objects held by the Tribe.

The fourth and fifth "getting ready" days were marked by the construction of the Sun Dance lodge itself, from large cottonwood logs which were erected in a circle around the central Y-shaped fork. Poles were placed running from the top of the logs to the central fork, forming a circular arbor which was filled in with smaller tree branches. On the fifth day the Calf Old Woman Society and the young boys of the Rabbit Society brought clean white sand from nearby rivers or ponds to cover the bottom of the lodge. When finished, the Sun Dance Lodge roof would be covered with brush from one third to one half of the way up, and the sides would be enclosed completely, except for the entrance door. A big celebration by the various warrior societies would be held upon the lodge's completion with drumming, singing, the hanging of the Sun Dance Shields on an interior cedar screen, along with other decorations.

The sixth "getting ready" day was marked by the appearance of the comical "mud heads" who were masked clowns covered with mud, who ran throughout the camp playing jokes and tricking people. (This may be the origin of the "mud-daubers", who were men covered in mud, still seen today in the parade at the Annual American Indian Exposition in Anadarko.)Following the mud-heads, the buffalo hunting ceremony was performed. Various tribal members would cover themselves in buffalo hides, imitating the movements of the giant beasts. A selected man would consult with the Tai-me keeper and the Buffalo Medicine Cult man would recite the prayer described at the beginning of this article, while while performing a pipe ceremony. Various ceremonies were thenperformed which culminated in the unveiling of the four greatest warriors hidden under the buffalo skins. Everyone then honored these four individuals for their accomplishments of the past year. At the end of the sixth day a captive unveiled the Tai-me image, decorated it, and placed it upon a pole in front of the cedar alter built inside the Sun Dance Lodge.

The interior of the Sun Dance alter included a large screen of cedar built in front of the rear wall of the lodge. On this screen the eight Tai-me shields were hung and the alter was decorated with the Tai-me figure on a pole which faced East, a buffalo skull, and the two small mounds of earth to burn cedar incense. The center pole was ornamented with figures of buffalo and was also decorated with pieces of cloth, shawls and scarves. A processional was held of the dancers who would dance during the four days.

The Sun Dance

The first dancing day commenced at sunset on the last "getting ready" day and continued until midnight, while during the following two days the dancing commenced at sunrise and ended at midnight. On the last day the dance began at sunrise and ended at sunset. The Sun Dance Gourd Keeper was in charge of the Sun Dancers and led them in followed by the drummers and singers. The Sun Dance Gourd Keeper danced the entire four days without leaving the lodge, and was helped by four assistants. His dress consisted of various body paints, a yellow buckskin shirt with a blue breetchcloth, a rabbit skin cap with an eagle feather, and several bands of sage hung from his wrists and ankles. He also carried a piece of cedar and an eagle bone whistle. The assistants wore a similar type of dress, although the designs were a bit different from the Tai-me keeper's outfit.

The dancers themselves wore white buckskin shirts, blue breechcloths and were painted white. They often decorated their waists and heads with sage, hung shawls from their waists and carried eagle bone whistles. The dancers prepared themselves behind the cedar screen and kept time with the drum by blowing on their whistles. Facing the Tai-me image, the dancers raised themselves up and down on their toes in time with the music, flexing their knees and holding their arms out and raised upwards. The spectators and singers were allowed to leave at midnight, but the dancers were required to remain in the lodge without food or water. Unlike Sun Dances of other tribes, the Kiowa never pierced their skin or shed blood in anyway during the ceremony as this was considered taboo and would bring misfortune upon the Kiowa People. The only relief the dancers could receive from the heat of the day were water lillies to cool their heads and cat-tail roots, an ancient traditional ceremonial food.

Each day the dance began at sunrise and the dancer's family selected an artist to paint designs on the dancer's body. The family then presented the artist with a horse or blanket in appreciation. Following prayers and ceremonial smokes, the dance continued for the day. Although the dancers were not allowed to leave the lodge, they could rest on the edge of the arena or behind the cedar screen. Other ceremonies were held during the dancing including a simulated death of a buffalo by one of the dancers and fanning of the dancers by the Tai-me priest. At certain times dancers would fall unconcious and experience visions important to thier life as a result of the fanning action of the Tai-me keeper.

On the final day, offerings of various sorts were made to the Tai-me for good fortune and goods were piled up in front of the alter. Shortly before sunset the dancers were given small amounts of water, bringing the ceremony to a close. The Tai-me was packed away with various ceremonies and the Sun Dancing then ended. A large social dance was then held for the remainder of the night and the camp was broken the following morning. The last dance performed by the participants was the buffalo dance, so that those leaving would be protected by the buffalo guardian spirit for the coming year.

The End of the Sun Dance

Although Kiowa tribal members sought permission of the Indian agents in charge of the Kiowa-Comanche-Apache Reservation to continue the traditional ways, troops were frequently called out to interfere and break up the ceremonies. The 1890 Sun Dance was broken up in this way, as were other later Feather or Ghost Dances. Unfortunately, the policies of the United States government and missionaries were aimed at wiping out the traditional Kiowa religous, ceremonial, and culteral practices.

Official United States government policy during this time period was to break uptribal land holdings into individually owned allotments of land, force the Indians to become farmers of these lands, adopt the Christian religion, and assimilate into the white man's society. Eventually these efforts, including the use of force by troops from Fort Sill, brought an end to the Sun Dance. It is more difficult for the government to eradicate the "peyote religion" or Native American Church, with it's daybreak to dayight rituals and this aspect of the traditional Kiowa religion has survived to this day. Other cultural activities such as the Warrior Society dances and the many varied songs and music of the Kiowa have also been maintained.

The author has relied extensively upon accounts contained in the various Kiowa Calenders and in the Kiowa Voices series. Where these accounts conflict with accounts of other articles or anthropologists, the Kiowa voices version has been followed, since that publication was completed with the approval of the Kiowa Historical and Research Society and numerous tribal elders.


The Kiowa Voices, Maurice Boyd and Linn Pauahty, Historical Consultant, Texas Christian University Press, (1983)
The Kiowas, Mildred mayhall, Oklahoma University Press (1971)
Microfilm Records of the Kiowa Agency, Indian Territory, 1888-1891, Oklahoma Historical Society Archives
A Calender History of the Kiowa Indians, James Mooney, Smithsonian Institution Press, (1979)
The Kado or Sun Dance of the Kiowa, Hugh Leonard Scott, American Anthropologist, N.S. 13, (1911)

This article may be reproduced for historical or research purposes. Persons wishing to make any other reproductions must obtain written permission from the author. All Rights Reserved.
July 1987
Arvo Quoetone Mikkanen
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