Religious Beliefs and Practices of the Lakota Sioux

In her ethnographic work ''Lakota of the Rosebud'', Elizabeth S. Grobsmith details many of the religious beliefs and practices of the Lakota Sioux circa the 1970's, especially at the Rosebud reservation. Modern Lakota spirituality and ritual is a complex synthesis of native and introduced elements that defies ‘either-or’ categorization. Lakota beliefs and ceremonies can be discussed in seven main sections: Wakan Tanka and the Spirits; White Buffalo Calf Woman; the Seven Sacred Rites of the Lakota; Yuwipi Ceremony; the Ghost Dance; the Peyote Religion (Native American Church); and Powwows.

Wakan Tanka and the Spirits

Wakan Tanka is the primary deity of the Lakota spiritual pantheon. Wakan means “sacred,” and tanka means “great” or “big,” leading “Wakan Tanka” to be translated alternately as “Great Spirit” or “Great Mystery.” As Christian mythology has been assimilated into Lakota beliefs and religious practices ever since missionaries first approached them in what Grobsmith calls “dual participation”, many have equated Wakan Tanka with the Judeo-Christian God.

Lakota sacred numerology mostly revolves around the number four and its multiples.1) Thus Wakan Tanka is the head of the sixteen most important Lakota spirits. Wakan Tanka is directly connected to four of these spirits, or superior gods; Inyan (Rock), Maka (Earth), Skan (Sky), and Wi (Sun). Each of these is connected to another spirit in the same way. Rock is connected to Wakinyan (Winged), Earth to Whope (Beautiful One), Sky to Tate (Wind), and Sun to Hanwi (Moon). Then there are the subordinate gods, Buffalo, Bear, the Four Winds, and Whirlwind. These are in turn followed by the god-like entities Spirit, Ghost, Spiritlike, and Potency.

As in many cultures that have earth and sky deities, the Lakota often call Maka (Earth) “mother” and Skan (Sky) “father.” Whope (Beautiful One) is the daughter of Wi (Sun) and Hanwi (Moon), whose sacred areas are pleasure and harmony. Wankinyan (Winged) represents thunder and hygiene, and Tate (Wind) orders and manipulates the seasons.

White Buffalo Calf Woman

White Buffalo Calf Woman is one of the most important sacred figures of the Lakota. Not only did she impart “the way of the pipe,” one of the main sacred instruments, to the Lakota, her transformation into a buffalo is considered the reason why the Lakota began to lead a nomadic life on the plains. White Buffalo Calf Woman also bequeathed two female puberty ceremonies to the Lakota, the Girl’s Puberty Ritual, and the Throwing of the Ball (also known as the Buffalo Rite). She is also symbolically represented by the virgin woman who makes the felling stroke to the Sun Dance pole. Her place in the Lakota belief system is one of many examples of how the Lakota’s dependence on the migrating buffalo shaped their society and culture.

Seven Sacred Rites of the Lakota

The pipe White Buffalo Calf Woman taught the Lakota about is the instrument of the Seven Sacred Rites. These seven rites are the Sweat Lodge Ceremony, the Vision Quest, the Sun Dance, the Making of Relatives, the Keeping of the Soul Ceremony, the Girl’s Puberty Ritual, and the Throwing of the Ball. Of these seven, only the first three are practiced regularly by great numbers of Lakota. Grobsmith writes that the Making of Relatives ceremony is still practiced by some, and the Keeping of the Soul Ceremony only by very conservative and traditional people. The Girl’s Puberty Ritual and the Throwing of the Ball ceremonies have fallen into disuse, and have largely been replaced by Giveaways (see Keeping of the Soul Ceremony and powwows below).

Sweat Lodge

The Sweat Lodge Ceremony, a ritual of spiritual and physical cleansing, is largely believed to be the oldest Lakota ceremony. Canvas tarps over a willow frame form a closed space that will trap the hot humidity formed from pouring water over fire-heated stones, providing an environment for calling for the assistance of the spirits and other prayer. A Sweat Lodge Ceremony is also the venue for a medicine man to decide if candidates for the Sun Dance (below) are ready to meet their commitments. While this ceremony can be a prelude for the Sun Dance, Vision Quest, and Yuwipi rituals, it can also be a standalone rite.

Vision Quest

The second Sacred Rite still widely practiced by Lakota today is the Vision Quest, or “The Cry for a Vision.” Similar to the Sweat Lodge Ceremony, it can be a ritual by itself, or be performed before a Sun Dance. When a person feels the need to seek a vision, he (and permissibly, but rarely, she) will go to a medicine man. If his request is accepted after he presents the medicine man with a pipe, he will begin to study Lakota morality and spirituality. Traditionally this period of study was a year long, but as of the writing of Lakota of the Rosebud, this time period could be flexible according to the needs of the supplicant.

After this period of preparation, the person will climb a sacred hill designated by the medicine man, carrying a pipe. There a person will remain (traditionally for four days and nights, according to sacred numerology, but in present times this too has become flexible according to the needs of the person and the design of the spirits) without food or water. It is rare that a person is actually granted a vision, and a person may even be called to become a medicine man. He or she is then obligated to follow this calling, or face social and spiritual repercussions.

Sun Dance

The Sun Dance is the third of the widely practiced Sacred Rites, and is one of the most controversial. The Sun Dance is an act of ritual self-torture originally performed as a “drama” to symbolize the capture, torture, and release of an enemy, though now it is known as a way to express personal strength of will and courage. Grobsmith describes the Sun Dance as, a “supreme rite of intensification for society as a whole.”

Men and women may participate in the Sun Dance, but women will offer pieces of flesh cut from their arms rather than undergo the piercing part of the ritual like men. Lakota people usually act out this self-torture as a way to fulfill a vow made in payment for the return of a loved one from danger, or the restoration of an ill person. The Sun Dance once lasted twelve days, but now lasts for four, and participants must undergo a spiritual and physical cleansing to prepare for it, such as through the Sweat Lodge Ceremony. Traditionally the Sun Dance followed the cycle of the summer buffalo hunt, and in present times is held sometime from the middle of July to the beginning of August.

An appropriate cottonwood is selected for its straightness and height to be the Sun Dance pole, and chopped down, then erected in a hole. Its branches are filled with sacred items, such as effigies of a buffalo and a man on horseback, and sixteen cherry wood sticks to represent the nest of the powerful mythical Thunderbird. Other items include colored flags for the four cardinal directions.

There are four main forms of the Sun Dance, with varying levels of intensity. The mildest form, usually performed by initiates to the ceremony, is to stare at the sun from sunup to sundown. The second, most popular form, is to pierce the flesh of the chest, and insert a skewer, which is attached by thongs and ropes to the Sun Dance pole. The man will then struggle against this bond until the skewer rips through his skin. The third form is when a man is pierced through the chest and the upper back, and suspended from the inserted skewers until he can struggle himself free. The final form of the Sun Dance is a piercing of the upper back, and attaching a buffalo skull to the ropes and thongs. A man will drag the skull around until the skewer tears free. There has been a great deal of contention about the Sun Dance ceremony, both among Lakota about the validity of different versions, and the ritual’s legality in various stages of the United State’s legislature.

Making of Relatives Ceremony

The Making of Relatives Ceremony, or “they call them hunka [pipes],” is a Lakota ritual for expanding one’s circle of relatives beyond blood-ties, and therefore the network of people one can depend on. Grobsmith says that this relationship is considered stronger than kin-ties, and usually happens between an older, better-off person and a younger, less well-off Lakota.

Keeping of the Soul Ceremony

Another less-widely practiced ceremony is the Keeping of the Soul Ceremony, which is the traditional Lakota mourning rite. After a person dies, the family members cut a lock of his or her hair and keep it wrapped for four days. The father of the household must observe dietary restrictions about meat, and the entire family must be as quiet as possible. They then construct a “ghost bundle” which is ritually fed for six months (contemporary) to a year (traditionally). This period of mourning traditionally ended with a Giveaway, during which the deceased’s belongings were divided and given away to members of the community.


Though Giveaways were originally a rite of terminating mourning and an annual remembrance of the death thereafter, these events have gained a much broader significance and usage in modern Lakota culture. Giveaways are a fascinating form of ritual interdependence and the redistribution of wealth among the Lakota; by becoming “materially poor” an individual gains social respect because of their expression of the fundamental Lakota values of sharing and generosity. Grobsmith gives a list of several social events where a family might host a Giveaway, such as a birth, marriage, graduation, election to political office, or to mark a change of life. They can be held separately from powwows, but are closely associated with those popular social events. Families experience a run of good fortune are expected, and in fact obligated, under threat of social criticism, to redistribute their possessions to the community as a recompense and expression of gratitude for community support.

Female Puberty Ceremonies

The final two Sacred Rites, the Girl’s Puberty Ceremony and the Throwing of the Ball, are both female puberty ceremonies and neither are observed in contemporary times. The Girl’s Puberty Ceremony known in the Lakota language as “singing over the first menses,” and traditionally was held on the fourth day of the Sun Dance. The Throwing of the Ball was also known as the Buffalo Rite, since buffalo spirits protect a young woman’s chastity. After this ceremony is observed, a ball is thrown in the air, and the person who catches it received a valuable gift, such as a horse.

Yuwipi Ceremony

The ''yuwipi'' Ceremony, like its sister ceremony the lowanpi, is a ritual to draw on spiritual powers for purposes such as finding lost objects, diagnosing sicknesses, curing the ill (such as alcoholism), finding the perpetrator in an unsolved crime, and other supplications. The ceremonies are held in completely darkened rooms, and led by a medicine man or “interpreter.” The shaman, who may be proficient in herbal remedies, is rolled in a blanket and bound, and by the incredible power of the spirits, will be freed during the course of the ceremony. These spirits are perceived by participants as flashes of white or blue light. The shaman is rarely paid for his service, but instead the host of the ceremony will give him a gift and feed all the participants. Some people are banned from participating in the yuwipi ceremony, such as menstruating women. The Lakota consider menstrual blood an unborn child, so it is a powerful force of death, so powerful it may disrupt the flow of energies during the ceremony.

Ghost Dance and the Massacre at Wounded Knee

The Ghost Dance religion evolved under the influences of severe oppression of Native Americans like the Lakota during the 1880’s. Forced submission to an alien centralized government which ordered them to live on static reservations (and therefore abandon much of their way of life), created a reaction among many indigenous American peoples about the need to preserve their cultures.

The Ghost Dance arose from what might seem like unexpected roots, from a combination of Judeo-Christian messianic and apocalyptic imagery, shifted into a American Indian context. Wovoka, a Paiute shaman, began to teach about the second coming of Christ after witnessing a solar-eclipse and having a vision. Tales of his vision, accompanied by Arapaho sightings of a messiah crowned with thorns, rapidly circulated through camps and reservations. People believed that Christ would rescue them from white oppression. Various peoples sent representatives to Wovoka, who them returned to disseminate the new teaching that the world would be destroyed in an apocalypse, only to be renewed to its pre-European invasion richness, and be populated only with Native Americans. Believers prayed, chanted, meditated, and participated in the eponymous Ghost Dance, which would speed the coming of the new age. Lori Ligget of Green State University points out in her article on the subject that Wovoka not only taught people to ascribe to a “nativized” Christianity, but to American ideals of civilized life, such as agriculture and formal education.

In an article on the massacre at Wounded Knee, Karen M. Strom describes how the medicine man Yellow Bird performed part of the Ghost Dance in order to make those who had been gathered at Wounded Knee by Major Whitside’s forces impervious to gunfire. This seems to demonstrate the extreme faith people held in the Ghost Dance, not only as way of summoning a better future, but as a means of protection.

Peyote Religion (Native American Church)

The Native American Church is another obvious assimilation of Protestant Western Christianity with the native beliefs of several tribes, to the degree where, as Grobsmith points out, it seems indigenous. Also known as the Peyote Religion, it became formalized under the name the Native American Church. Peyote ultimately came from Mexico, and reached the Plains tribes via Oklahoman tribes. The tenets of the religion include rejecting alcohol, infidelity, and gambling, and living in harmony with others and self-reliance. During peyote ceremonies, people consume the hallucinogenic cactus button in teas or paste (despite the side-effects of nausea), and each person sings four “peyote songs” to the accompaniment of a gourd rattle and a drum. This ceremony has many similar aims to the yuwipi ritual, such as curing, finding lost objects, and expressing gratitude. Grobsmith says its popularity lies not only in its ascribed values, but because it resists total assimilation into the dominant culture.



Grobsmith goes into great detail about powwows in her chapter on the community life of the Lakota. The powwow is probably one of the most archetypal images of indigenous North Americans for non-Indians, and powwows still have great social significance for modern Lakota and other Plains tribes. The contemporary powwow is in fact an amalgam of the traditions of several Plains tribes through the course of a century of cultural exchange that is still ongoing today.

There are several different kinds of powwows, ranging from a local gathering for part or all of a reservation, to the enormous intertribal powwows such as the Crow Fair and Gallup Inter-Tribal Indian Ceremonial. While big powwows are attended in all seasons, the are held primarily in summer, partnered with a rodeo, fair, or Sun Dance. Powwows are also held on a variety of other occasions, such as American holidays like the Fourth of July or Veterans’ Day. Many families will follow the powwow “circuit” the entire summer. Visitors from different states or reservations will often be publicly acknowledged, and possibly given gifts, or receive a pot of money to recompense their travel costs.

Grobsmith distinguishes powwows from other Lakota events in that they have sacred elements, but are primarily social occasions. In the Lakota Language, a powwow is known as wacipi, or, “they dance,” and dancing and dancing contests are some of the biggest attractions at a powwow. There are many different kinds of dances, such as round dancing, which is more social, fancy dancing, and traditional dancing, which are generally competitive. Participants in dance contests spend a great deal of time and energy in the construction of elaborate, high quality costumes, which is one of the aspects they are judged on. The other is their ability to keep rhythm with the drums and singing, and how well they perform the style they are competing in.

A less formalized but equally important facet of powwow is how it acts as a medium for artistic and cultural exchange. The design of so many elaborate costumes gives younger generations the chance to question their elders about traditional costume materials, and therefore learn traditional lore about plants and animals. The gathering of so many different tribes allows an enthusiastic exchange of craft and costume designs and songs and dances that people will take back with them to their own tribes. This sharing of traditions and material culture contributes to the overall feeling of solidarity with other American Indians from different tribes attending the powwow, as is for many a way to freely and exuberantly express their own “Indian-ness.”

See Also



Grobsmith also describes seven as a sacred number, explaining that the number four also represented the four cardinal directions. In turn, five represents the sun’s zenith, six its nadir, and seven the concept of “center.”

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