Lakota Sacred Geography

The traditional homeland of the Lakota (Sioux) is the Black Hills, an isolated oval-shaped area of mountains on the border between South Dakota and Wyoming. The mountains stretch some 180 kilometers (120 miles) from north to south and 80 kilometers (50 miles) east to west, and are surrounded by flat plains. The name Lakota means "Friends of the Earth," and the Lakota, traditionally a nomadic people, kept their lives in harmony with the cosmos by tuning their seasonal path through the landscape to the annual cycle of the sun through the stars. The basis of their subsistence was the buffalo (tatanka), an animal they considered to embody the power of the sun. As they followed the herds through the landscape, they received spiritual instruction from the stars. Although their traditional way of life was virtually eliminated during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, as were the extensive buffalo herds that used to roam this country, the Lakota are now sharing with outsiders elements of their tradition as they try to rebuild it.

The Lakota perceive a direct connection between certain places in the landscape and certain groups of stars in the sky. Thus Harney Peak, the highest mountain in the Black Hills, was associated with Seven Little Girls (the Pleiades), and isolated Devil's Peak was connected with Bear's Lodge (part of Gemini). During the year, the Lakota traditionally moved from their winter camps south of the Black Hills northward, toward and into the range. This journey, following the seasonal movements of the buffalo through the landscape, also followed the path of the sun through the constellations, and an integral part of the process was the performance of the appropriate sacred rites. On one level, this annual journey, regulated by observations of astronomical phenomena, simply served to ensure the successful exploitation of a vital food resource. However, this outsiders' perspective fails utterly to comprehend anything of the meaning of these practices to the people who undertook them. From the Lakota standpoint, the whole journey was a ceremony—a sort of ritual pilgrimage—that first and foremost preserved the balance of life and ensured peace and harmony in the cosmos in general.

A few details serve to give an idea of the complexities involved. The spring journey away from the winter encampments commenced when the sun entered the Cansana Ipusye constellation (parts of Aries and Triangulum). The same phrase, Cansana Ipusye, is used by the Lakota to describe the Dried Willow, the Sacred Pipe in which it was smoked, and the wooden spoon in which shamans would carry live coals (representing the sun) as the journey commenced. At the same time (around the spring equinox), the sacred powers in the sky would use the celestial wooden spoon (Ursa Major) to carry the sun to the celestial pipe (Aries/Triangulum).

When the sun arrived at the Pleiades, the people would camp at Har-ney Peak and perform ceremonies welcoming back the Thunders. After this, the sun moved toward the center of "the great circle of stars" (Rigel, Sirius, Procyon, Pollux, Castor, Menkalinan, Capella, and the Pleiades) while the people moved to Pe Sla, a "bare hill" in the middle of the Black Hills. Emerging out of the celestial great circle are the head (Hyades), backbone (Orion's belt), ribs (Betelgeuse/Bellatrix and Rigel) and tail (Sirius) of a buffalo, the animal that symbolized all life. Likewise, the Black Hills were seen as the place out of which all life was annually renewed on earth. For this reason, rites took place there at this time to welcome back life: water was poured on the earth to feed the plants, seeds were scattered for birds, and buffalo tongues were offered for meat-eating animals.

As the summer solstice approached, the sun approached the Bear's Lodge (Mato Tipila) and the people arrived at the Devil's Tower. Mato Tipila was created by the central figure in Lakota oral tradition, Fallen Star, to protect two children threatened by bears. The constellation is located on one side of, but nonetheless within, the great circle of stars, whereas its earthly equivalent, Devil's Tower, is in fact some one hundred kilometers (sixty miles) northwest of the Black Hills. This configuration seems contradictory from a Western perspective, serving to remind us how wrong we could be if we tried to reconstruct elements of Lakota worldview from partial historical information without having modern informants. We might easily try to enforce too literal an interpretation of the mapping between sky and earth, and dismiss the idea that the Devil's Tower could have been part of the scheme. It was at Devil's Tower that, in July or August, the annual Sun Dance took place. Contrary to popular belief, this was a solemn ritual, the last celebration of the season devoted to the sun, buffalo, and the Black Hills.

The Lakota, like many indigenous peoples, ascribe spiritual meaning to the whole landscape and to particular places within it. What makes their case particularly interesting, though, is the added dimension of timing. Cosmic harmony is preserved by being in the right place at the right time and performing the appropriate rites. The terrestrial world is connected to the spirit world both in space and time, and the key to this connection is the sky. Not only are places in the landscape associated with particular asterisms, but the time to be there is prescribed by reference to the sun's passage through the stars. This connection between the terrestrial and the spiritual also has the pragmatic effect (from a Western perspective) of making sure that the buffalo can be successfully hunted. But for the Lakota, the buffalo are not simply a resource to be exploited. They are part of the whole circle of life, who say "take my flesh with gratitude" (Chamberlain et al. 2005, p. 145), and humans have to return this gift by doing all they can to preserve the cosmic order.

See also:

Landscape; Orion; Sacred Geographies.

References and further reading

Chamberlain, Von Del, John Carlson, and Jane Young, eds. Songs from the Sky: Indigenous Astronomical and Cosmological Traditions of the World, 140-146. Bognor Regis, UK: Ocarina Books and College Park, MD: Center for Archaeoastronomy, 2005.

DeMallie, Raymond J., and Douglas R. Parks, eds. Sioux Indian Religion. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1987.

Goodman, Ronald. Lakota Star Knowledge: Studies in Lakota Stellar Theology. Rosebud, SD: Sinte Gleska College, 1990.

Mizrach, Steven. Lakota Ethnoastronomy. lakota.htm.

Sundstrom, Linea. "Mirror of Heaven: Cross-cultural Transference of the Sacred Geography of the Black Hills." World Archaeology 28 (2) (1996), 177-189.

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