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Lengthy dispute underlies Sun Dance conflict

Lengthy dispute underlies Sun Dance conflict

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Some rules governing the Arapaho Sun Dance reflect the modern world. Cameras are not allowed at the ceremony. Reporters and other visitors, when they are allowed to attend, are told to keep secret the activities they observe.

Tribal leaders trace other rules and procedures to an earlier time. These traditions were handed down through generations of Northern Arapaho, they say, and were acted out this week in the annual Sun Dance on Wyoming's Wind River Indian Reservation.

The traditions were apparently interrupted at some point among the Southern Arapaho, many of whom now live on the Cheyenne-Arapaho Reservation in Oklahoma. This interruption seems to lie near the heart of a dispute about whether the Arapaho in Oklahoma should again be permitted to hold their own Sun Dance.

Gerald Redman Sr., a Northern Arapaho ceremonial leader in Wyoming, expressed reluctance to talk about reports from early June that Arapaho from both states disrupted preparations for a Sun Dance to be held on the Cheyenne-Arapaho Reservation.

"All I can say is that they don't have authority to do it," Redman said. "We didn't raid no camp."

What happened on June 8 is a matter of dispute. Patrick Spottedwolf, who faced orders from tribal courts in both states to refrain from performing the ceremony, told an Associated Press reporter the next week that about 50 people had arrived in their camp, cutting down a ceremonial arbor with chainsaws and then setting it on fire.

Spottedwolf said he heard "whooping and hollering" as 20 to 30 cars rolled across the field where a Sun Dance was to be held.

Earlier news reports said the group that disrupted the Sun Dance preparations numbered about 20. Officials from the Bureau of Indian Affairs said the incident resulted in several minor injuries and left several vehicles damaged.

Criminal consequences?

The events of June 8 can be viewed in multiple ways, and their consequences remain unclear.

Spottedwolf faces a contempt of court charge in Cheyenne-Arapaho Tribal Court. He pleaded not guilty to the charge on June 14, according to a news account, explaining at the time that he believes court orders prohibiting him from holding a Sun Dance improperly infringe on his freedom of religion.

Chris Schneider, an attorney for the Northern Arapaho who practices law in Lander, intends to act as prosecutor when Spottedwolf goes to trial in Concho, Okla., in September. He said Spottedwolf could face jail time if he is convicted.

Injunctions filed in Concho and at the Shoshone and Arapaho Tribal Court in Fort Washakie lay the foundation for the charges. The documents forbid Spottedwolf and Saul Birdshead, another Southern Arapaho, from "conducting, directing, sponsoring or causing to be performed" any ceremony "purporting to be an 'Arapaho' Sun Dance or similar ceremony." Resolutions from the business councils of both tribes make similar demands of Spottedwolf and Birdshead.

Birdshead could also face charges, Schneider said.

Northern Arapaho tribal leaders have criticized the BIA, which is charged with policing each reservation, for failing in their view to enforce the orders and injunctions.

It is not clear whether anyone suspected of disrupting Sun Dance preparations in Oklahoma will face criminal charges. Charles Morris, the prosecutor for the Cheyenne-Arapaho Tribes, did not return repeated phone calls to the tribal court office in the last two weeks.

What the law says - and doesn't

Reactions to what happened June 8 vary, with some defending the tribe's authority to control its own ceremonies, others wondering at the harm of permitting a Sun Dance in Oklahoma and many questioning how an apparent infringement on religious freedom could be permitted within the borders of the United States.

Legally, the picture is far from clear.

Common notions of religious freedom can be traced to the Bill of Rights and the First Amendment to the Constitution, which begins, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof."

Tribal governments, however, are not restricted by the Bill of Rights, according to Richard Collins, a law professor at the University of Colorado who specializes in Indian law. Religious freedom only became a consideration for tribal governments with the passage in 1968 of the Indian Civil Rights Act.

"No Indian tribe in exercising the powers of self-government shall make or enforce any law prohibiting the free exercise of religion," the act begins. Notably absent from the 1968 law is anything resembling what is known as the "establishment clause," Collins pointed out.

In the words of Charles Wilkinson, another Colorado law professor who works on Indian law, "tribes can be theocracies."

It is difficult to say what protection Spottedwolf and Birdshead might find in the more limited religious freedom right established in the 1968 law.

For one thing, Collins said, tribal courts are generally responsible for interpreting the Indian Civil Rights Act.

The Cheyenne-Arapaho Tribal Court has so far supported the tribe's authority to place restrictions on Spottedwolf and Birdshead. Writing in June 2005, Judge Charles Tripp referred to an "unwritten" law governing the spiritual activities of the Arapaho that predates the constitutions of both tribes and of the United States. "With any unwritten law there are also people or entities that perform corresponding legal duties," Tripp wrote.

Tripp went on to uphold the resolutions of both tribes and to issue a permanent injunction against the two men, allowing that they could file a new petition arguing that their right to freedom of religion was violated.

If the case were to make it to federal court, Collins said, changes in the U.S. Supreme Court's interpretation of what is protected according to freedom of religion cases between 1968 into the 1990s could add one more layer of complication.

And freedom of religion only seems to be one consideration in the case. Leaders for the Northern and Southern Arapaho have argued they are one tribe artificially separated by the U.S. government. Artificial or not, that separation raises questions of the authority of one tribal court in a separate reservation.

Additionally, there is the question of whether the people who interrupted Sun Dance preparations in Oklahoma had the right to "self help."

"Did they have the right to take the law into their own hands?" Collins asked.

Answers to this and other questions, Collins said, are unclear.

A tradition endures

The Northern Arapaho Business Council passed a resolution in April 2002 asking Spottedwolf and Birdshead to refrain from their "unauthorized, exploitative, and heretical activities" in trying to hold a traditional Sun Dance. Tripp, issuing a permanent injunction against the men in 2005, cited arguments that they were using a book written in the early 1900s in which an anthropologist documents the Sun Dance.

"Plaintiffs further allege that because information was provided to the anthropologist" in violation of the secrecy of the ceremonies, the authority to conduct those ceremonies "died out," Tripp wrote. "Therefore, the ceremonies were 'lost.'"

The anthropologist who observed, photographed and described the Sun Dance was George Dorsey. He wrote in 1903 that widespread hostility toward the Sun Dance at the time stemmed from "ignorance" of its true meaning. He cited contemporary works in which writers describe the ceremony as a "cruel ordeal," and he mentioned efforts by U.S. government officials to stamp it out.

"The Sun Dance is given up only with the greatest reluctance by a tribe," Dorsey wrote. "That the time is soon coming, however, when the ceremony will no longer be given by any tribe, there is no doubt."

Despite Dorsey's prediction for the future of the Sun Dance, it has endured in various forms and among different tribes. In some places, people who are not members of a tribe are allowed to participate. The Northern Arapaho in Wyoming have been notably more cautious about sharing their Sun Dance and other ceremonies.

Richard Williams identified himself as a ceremonial man and a legislator on the Cheyenne-Arapaho Reservation in a letter to the editor of the Watonga Republican, a weekly newspaper in Oklahoma. Williams wrote that he participated in what happened June 8 only after efforts over the years to resolve the matter in a "good and peaceful" way were unsuccessful.

"On that day our traditional people gathered together to pray before we went into that camp," the letter says. "We prayed for no violence and for no harm to come to anyone. We went in with no weapons."

The letter describes the response to what happened and the suggestion by some that he and others violated the law. "Traditional law, spiritual law was here first," he wrote.

"We traditional people know that the Sun Dance is a way of life every day of life," Williams wrote. "It's not what you go to and 'practice.' It's what you live."

Schneider spoke of changes in how tribal courts deal with traditional ceremonies. They emerged in the 1880s as "Courts of Indian Offenses," and tribal members were originally prosecuted in them for participating in various traditions.

"They were agents of assimilation and acculturation," Schneider said.

Now, Schneider said, the tribal courts are often in the position of protecting those ceremonies.

Reporter Anthony Lane can be reached at (307) 266-0593 or at


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