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The Sioux Native Americans Series - Religion

BY KATE WEXELL (staff writer)

[This article is one part of a series of articles by Kate Wexell about the Sioux Native Americans, developed in honor of National Native American Heritage Month this November. Read more in other articles of this series!]

The Sioux Native Americans were nomadic people who lived from the earth. Most of the time, they would eat fruits, buffalo, and small game, so they followed the animals from their summer to winter feeding grounds. This led their religion to focus on humanity’s connection with nature. They believe that each creature has its own spirit (“wakan”), but that there is one universal source that souls are derived from, called the Great Spirit or Wakan Tanka. This universal source means that the Sioux people don’t believe in a separation between the spiritual and physical worlds. Instead, they view the universe in a series of circles, which symbolize unity, like the famous medicine wheel that is included in many rites. The medicine wheel is a philosophical idea about balance that they hold, corresponding with the four directions on earth.

The Wakan Tanka symbolizes everything that is holy and mysterious. They believe that the spirit is present within all things. Because of this, Sioux believe that they are relatives of birds and animals. They think that all animals carry messages of the Great Spirit to model proper behavior or have a certain meaning. For example, a badger represents strength and tenacity, while a wolf pack represents speed, wisdom, and solidarity. The swallow offers thunder power, and the bear has fearlessness and hunting power. Out of all the animals, the buffalo is the most important to the Sioux. The buffalo is the chief of all animals.

The Lakota have seven sacred rites, including The Keeping of the Soul, The Rite of Purification, Crying for a Vision, The Sun Dance, The Making of Relatives, Coming of Age, and The Throwing of the Ball. They believe that the White Buffalo Calf Woman came and gave these rites to them and a sacred pipe and stone to use in the ceremonies. Smoking established a relationship between individuals, the four winds, and Wakan Tanka. They believed that when somebody smoked the pipe, they prayed for and with everybody.

In the Keeping of the Soul, the souls of the dead are reunited with Wakan Tanka. A lock of hair from the deceased is held over burning sweetgrass and then placed in a buckskin pouch. The Sacred Pipe is smoked, and then somebody is selected to be the Keeper of the Soul. They hold onto the pouch for a year, and when that time is over, they carry the bag outside, and the soul is released to Wakan Tanka.

During the rite of purification, a sweat lodge is used to represent the earth, sun, moon, and universe. Sweat lodges were made of a bent willow frame covered in buffalo hides. Hot rocks would be placed in the center. It was believed that these rocks had a spirit that was released when water was poured on them and steam emerged. Participants will smoke the Sacred Pipe, burn sweetgrass and coal, and pray.

Sioux Sweat Lodge

In the rite of Crying for a Vision, usually a boy would become a man. With the help of a Holy Man, the recipient would smoke the Sacred Pipe and have a ceremony conducted on him. After that, he goes on his vision quest where he lays isolated in a high place. He spends a few days refraining from eating or drinking. If he has a vision during that time, he reports it back to the Holy Man to have it interpreted.

The Sun Dance is their annual religious festival celebrating the power and spirit of the Sioux people. They believed that a greater power in nature than all others was the sun, and so they must make sacrifices to the sun for their petitions to be granted. In the ritual, the Sun Dancer offered himself to the Great Spirit to improve his skills or talents. They would have a piece of bone shoved through their chest, and tied to a cottonwood tree. They would dance in an attempt to pull the bone loose. Being willing to bear the pain would grant them more power or whatever talent they had desired.

Image of the Sun Dance Ceremony

The Making of Relatives ceremony represents the relationship between the Lakota and Wakan Tanka. It was originally used as a ceremony to unite the Ree and Lakota tribes in peace. Members of each tribe painted their faces to represent change, forgetting old troubles, and beginning new relationships. It is still used to make peace between groups today.

In the Coming of Age ceremony, the tribe celebrated the first menstruation of a young girl. In order to become a woman, a Holy Man purifies her and prepares her to become a child-bearing woman. There is a ceremony in a tipi with the girl’s family (usually the females), where the center of the ceremony is a buffalo skull. Then, the girl remains isolated with the women while smoking the Sacred Pipe and praying.

In the final ceremony, the Throwing of the Ball, a young girl, symbolizing innocence and purity, would throw a painted ball. She would throw it in each of the cardinal directions, and somebody would throw it back to her. Finally, she would throw it up in the air. It represented the notion that Wakan Tanka is everywhere, giving power to his people.

Unfortunately, in the 1880s, the government banned the Lakota from practicing the Sun Dance and other ceremonies. They were also dispelled from dancing and many other traditions. During the 1890s, while Native Americans were being moved onto reservations, a Pauite Indian named Wovoka founded a new religion called the Ghost Dance. It promised to restore the earth to its prior state before the Europeans had invaded the continent: the buffalo would be returned, the ghosts of their ancestors would rise, and the white man would disappear. Unfortunately, this frightened the Indian Agents of the United States government, and the leaders of the movement were to be arrested. This resulted in the killing of Sitting Bull. After that, the Lakota were frightened of the government, and tried to move off the Pine Ridge Reservation with their leaders. At Wounded Knee Creek, soldiers intervened, resulting in the deaths of over 300 men, women, and children.


Center of the West Museum (Cody, WY)

Akta Lakota Museum and Cultural Center (Chamberlain, SD)

Crazy Horse Memorial (Custer, SD)

Image Sources

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