For decades, the Onaway Trust has been a close ally of the Afraid of Bear - American Horse Tiospaye, helping to support the Lakota community’s sacred Sun Dance ceremony in the Black Hills, South Dakota.


Having supported Native American communities since the 1970s, in 1997 a member of the Onaway team had the honour of being invited by the Afraid of Bear – American Horse Tiospaye to attend a neighbouring Sun Dance on the Pine Ridge reservation. As a result of this meeting, Onaway has been supporting the Tiospaye’s own Sun Dance every year that it has taken place since 1998, the first year that it was held at the Wild Horse Sanctuary in the Black Hills and a milestone in the spiritual restoration of this sacred Lakota site.

In continuation of this close relationship, Onaway was proud to support the 34th consecutive Afraid of Bear – American Horse Sun Dance ceremony, which was held on Flandreau Santee land in the Black Hills between the 17th and 21st June 2023.


The Sun Dance is the most sacred of the seven ceremonies practised by the Oglala Lakota tribes. Spanning four days around the summer solstice, the Sun Dance is a ceremony which brings cleansing, healing and regeneration to both people and land. It consists of a minimum of four rounds of dancing a day, lasting for several hours, in which participants dance around the sacred tree inside the arbour, known as the Tree of Life, which represents the Great Spirit, to the rhythm kept by the drummers while sacred Lakota songs are sung.

Throughout the ceremony, dancers make offerings in order to demonstrate their commitment to whatever they personally hope to manifest, achieve or express gratitude for through their sacrifice. This is represented by fasting throughout the four days of the ceremony, as well as flesh and blood sacrifices which are made by piercing dancers with bones which are tethered to the sacred tree or buffalo skulls, and can only be removed by dancing and pulling until the bones are torn from their chest or back.

The Sun Dance is a highly spiritual ceremony which is led by a male and female spiritual director, as well as an intercessor who channels between the spiritual and human worlds. The smoking and burning of sage plays an important spiritual role in supporting the dancers and conjuring spirits. In addition, Inipi, or sweat lodge, ceremonies serve as a means of spiritual purification and deep connection to one’s own spirit, ancestors and the higher power.


The Sun Dance is an event which has different significance and brings unique benefits to each person who takes part. Native American tribes have been sun dancing for thousands of years as a way of seeking spiritual power and purification for a stronger communion with the Great Spirit.

The ancient ceremony provides a link between past, present and future generations, as well as  between humans and the natural world, giving people the opportunity to connect with their spirit and ancestors, heal from trauma, appeal for help towards personal goals and send healing prayers out to the four directions. The themes for the year are established by the grandmothers of the tribes and include areas such as good health, peace and education, the protection and continuance of all life, and the restoration of the Black Hills for the benefit of future generations.

“We Sun Dance to heal from great loss, celebrate our culture and ancestry, and foster a sense of acceptance, belonging and hope for our people.”


The Afraid of Bear – American Horse Tiospaye (meaning ‘related or extended families’) held its first Sun Dance in 1987, in continuation of the centuries-old ceremony carried out by generations of Oglala Lakota ancestors, despite attempts by the US government to outlaw all Native spiritual and cultural practices.

Following criminalisation of the ceremony in 1883 due to the US government’s fear of armed hostilities by Native American communities, the Sun Dance only achieved legal status in 1978 as part of the American Indian Religious Freedom Restoration Act. Fortunately, in the years since these communities have committed themselves to reclaiming their heritage and once again reaping the cultural and spiritual benefits of the Sun Dance.

Unlike some Sun Dances, the Afraid of Bear – American Horse Sun Dance at Paha Sapa (Black Hills, South Dakota) is a very inclusive event, welcoming both Native and non-Native participants alike. Through the celebration of the Sun Dance and other sacred Lakota ceremonies known as the Seven Fireplaces, the Tiospaye seeks to harness the power of Native ancestral knowledge and spiritual practice to strengthen modern-day Lakota communities, inspiring them to honour their roots, stand up against adversity, and once again achieve self-sufficiency.

In light of the oppression and marginalisation faced by Native peoples even in the current day, the Sun Dance provides a boost in morale which allows these communities to envision and fight on towards a better world for future generations.

“We believe these ceremonies are integral to understanding who we are as a people and can help us heal and thrive now and in the future.”


Paha Sapa is regarded as the physical and spiritual home of the Lakota people and is therefore a sacred site for their religious and cultural practice. However, the Black Hills have been stolen from the community’s careful stewardship and contaminated by destructive forces such as the uranium mining and logging industries.

In 1878, the US government broke their treaty with the Sioux people just 10 years after granting them ownership of the Black Hills. Following the discovery of gold in the area, the Native peoples were forced to live on reservations far removed from their sacred lands and completely inadequate for their needs. In 1980 the US Supreme Court eventually ruled that the hills were illegally taken from the Sioux Nation and offered over $100 million in restitution, a figure which has now risen to around $2 billion.

However, the community continues to refuse to accept any amount of money in exchange for their sacred lands, stating that the Black Hills are not for sale and that they must be returned to the people so that they are once again under the stewardship of those who honour the land and rely on it to connect with their ancestors and spiritual beliefs. To this end, the Tiospaye is campaigning to change policy at the highest level, something which will require significant funding and advocacy from both members and allies of Native American communities.

In addition to campaigning for reclamation and stewardship of their land, the Tiospaye focuses on the preservation and sharing of ancestral knowledge, language, culture and traditions among communities and generations. The oral tradition of passing down this vital legacy from generation to generation was severed due to discrimination against Indigenous peoples in the form of oppression, forced relocation and residential schools. To help combat this, the Tiospaye is now creating a House of Knowledge in order to document the knowledge, culture and traditions of Lakota elders for the benefit of current and future generations.

“Our Tiospaye is working to reclaim our heritage, piece it back together, and share it with present and future generations.”

- Loretta Afraid of Bear-Cook

The Onaway Trust is honoured to have been a close ally of Native American peoples for almost 50 years, and we look forward to continuing this support for many more to come. To find out more about the Afraid of Bear – American Horse Tiospaye, please follow the link below.

project partners

Afraid of Bear - American Horse Tiospaye

The Afraid of Bear - American Horse Tiospaye campaigns for reclamation and stewardship of the Oglala Lakotas' ancestral land, as well as the preservation and sharing of ancestral knowledge, language, culture and traditions among communities and generations.