" The Sun Dance ceremony was usually held near the time of the Summer Solstice, and lasted from four to eight days, depending on the specific nation’s practice. Common ritual elements included dancing, singing and drumming, the experience of visions, fasting, and, in some customs, self-torture. The Shaman was the sole authority, and the only one who understood the mythologies and true significance of each part of the ceremony.
"This was the most important religious ceremony of the 19th century Plains Indians. The American bison, the primary food animal for these peoples, was a central figure—it was of vital importance to the tribe’s survival that the pact between this sacred animal and the People be honored once a year, celebrating a renewal of the cycle of life, death and rebirth.
"In some stories, it was the Buffalo itself that gave the ceremony to the People. A buffalo skull might be used as an altar, as it was believed that the soul dwells in the bones of people and animals. Using skeletal remains in a ritual signified a mystical rebirth into the primeval womb, in preparation for a return to life in a fleshly form.
"The Sun Dance ritual symbolized appeasement to the buffalo for having to kill and eat it. It was believed that the buffalo willingly offered itself to the People as food—literally as a sacrifice of the god. In return, it was felt appropriate to offer sacrifice in return, in the form of fasting, thirst and self-inflicted pain. These actions were considered a prayer for the welfare of the candidate’s family and community.
"Family members and friends come to pray and support the dancers, as well as members of other camps, who were invited to attend through the presentation of an invitation wand, made of a sprout from a plum tree, 'about as large as the largest quill from an eagle's wing, and four spans long. Its smaller end should be ornamented with a design of such color and material as the maker may see fit, though all [wands] for one event should be so nearly alike that there should be little choice among any of them, so as to give no cause for a thought of discrimination in the invitation.'
"Those candidates who successfully completed the Sun Dance in its fullest form established that they possessed the four great virtues: bravery, generosity, fortitude, and integrity, and were henceforth respected and honored by all the people. It was expected that each would soon receive a vision, in which there will be a communication from the Sun."