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Monday, July 19, 2010

Discussion, LAKOTA ETHNOASTRONOMY, WhiteBuffaloCalfWoman.Ning.Com Archives


by Steven Mizrach

Although there has been much written about Plains Indian ethnoastronomy, a large amount of that literature has focused on the Caddoan ethnic/linguistic group - in particular, tribes such as the Pawnee, Arikara, and Arapaho. In this paper, I will focus on the "Sioux" Indian tribes (a misnomer), looking in particular at the astronomical practices and beliefs of the Oglala, Hunkpapu, and other Lakota bands. It can be shown that despite what some anthropologists have proclaimed about living 'timelessly', the Lakota did pay attention to the heavens, and they did have means of preserving what they observed.

Sun Dance

Contrary to common belief, the Plains Indian Sun Dance was neither a form of solar worship nor a ritual ordeal or sacrifice. For the Lakota, the Sun was indeed a representative of the Great Mystery (wakan tanka), and was known as a wakan akanta (superior divinity) whose name was Wi. However, the Sun Dance is not for the purposes of offering blood or anything else to the sun; and even though many people have focused on the use of hooks being driven into the flesh of the dancers or their way of dancing until exhaustion, this was not an 'ordeal' in the commonly understood sense. Instead, the "probationer" or dancer volunteered to partake in the ritual in order to help put himself and his band in harmony with the cosmos. (Lincoln, 1994.)

The Lakota hold their Sun Dance very year in late July or August. It is thought that the timing of the Sun Dance had more to do with the height of the buffalo herd population at that time of the year (that was when all the nomadic hunting bands could gather in one place) than with any specific astronomical or calendrical event. A vertical connection (axis mundi) to the sun and the cosmos is necessary for the ceremony to continue, and this is symbolized by erecting a large cottonwood tree at the center of the dance ground. The tree is adorned with flags and artefacts of six colors, representing the six cardinal directions (east, west, north, south, above, below.) The dancing ground is surrounded by an arbor covered with boughs with an opening to the east, where the dancers and the Sun enter each day. (Crummett, 1993.)

One of the more sensational aspects of the dance is, of course, the piercing of dancers with pegs through the chest; these pegs are connected to a rope which is tied around the central tree. The dancer runs from the periphery of the circle to the center and back three times, building up speed. After the third flight, the dancer runs with such force that the pegs are torn out of his chest, ripping free from his flesh. Many Lakota point out that this part of the ritual simply emphasizes that at birth, people are "torn" this way from the Great Mystery and from their connection to the veridical dimension of the cosmos. It reinforces the idea that everything is ultimately dependent on the gifts of the Sun, and can't ever truly be free of the heat and light that it gives. (Farrer, 1992.)

According to the Lakota, the Sun Dance is one of the six great ceremonies, including the smoking of the holy Pipe, that was given to them by their culture-bringer, White Buffalo Calf Woman. Although it became something of a powwow-style tourist attraction around the middle of the century (after the U.S. government outlawed the more sensational aspects of it in the name of "decency"), since the 1970s, AIM members and other Lakota traditionalists have tried to recapture some of the solemnness of the original ritual, and have subsequently banned tourists, alcohol, and other distractions, while restoring the piercing and rigor of the ritual. Non-Indians have been allowed to participate, but only if they are well known and agree to obey by all the rules and taboos of the ceremonies.

From an astronomical standpoint, the Sun Dance is interesting because its elements display many of the features of the Lakota cosmos. The Lakota believe that the circle is a divine shape, primarily because so many things in the cosmos (the Sun, the Moon, etc.) are round. Although the Sun Dance is not held on the vernal equinox, the eastern opening of its arbor clearly is supposed to be oriented toward the rising of the summer sun. The Lakota have not been an agricultural people, at least within historical times, although they may have been before. Like many nomadic societies, they did not attach much importance to fixed points within the year.

Winter Counts

The Lakota did not have a system of writing prior to European contact, and thus did not have a calendrical notation system as we would understand it, or any "true" written history. However, they did utilize a means of counting winters and noting significant events that passed each winter season by recording them ideographically. This was used to supplement their primarily oral tradition. They would begin their year with the first snowfall, and end it with the thawing of spring. The tribal winter count keeper would symbolize each passing winter with a pictograph and a phrase notched into a tanned animal hide, and these were mnemonic devices to record the most significant events of that year.

The tribal count keeper's job was to remember each year and the things that happened. "That was the winter when we saw the purple spotted buffalo," or something like that. Von Del Chamberlain discovered that these winter counts often contained significant astronomical data. Among a sample of some 200 winter counts from many different bands, he claimed to have found pictographic records of 17 astronomical events, including solar eclipses, lunar eclipses, "fireballs" or spectacular meteors, comets, and the Leonid meteor shower -- in particular the famous 1833 meteor "blizzard." (Del Chamberlain, 1984.) The Lakota clearly only recorded very stunning and unique phenomena - unique enough to identify a particular year.

They did seem to realize that eclipses were recurrent events, but they did not seem to believe that there was any type of regularity or periodicity to the most spectacular total eclipses of the sun or moon. Del Chamberlain concludes that the reason why only one comet appears in the winter counts is because the Indians did seem to believe that the recurrence of comet appearances was a recurrent, predictable phenomenon. Why this insistent interest in transient events? Most likely, it was connected to the Lakota belief that such things were connected to the wakan or incomprehensible nature of the cosmos.

For the Lakota, anything which did not behave the same way as other things did was wakan. A heyoka, or sacred-backwards-clown, was wakan because he did things in an ironic, reversed way that was different from everyone else. The planets were wakan because of the way they wandered among the other stars. The pole star was wakan because all the other stars whirled around it while it kept its place in the sky. The spectacular cosmic events recorded in their winter counts are similarly wakan, because they were unexpected and dramatic.

Ultimately, as was suggested earlier, the Lakota were not very interested in recording recurrent astronomical phenomena, because as nomadic hunters, they didn't need an agricultural calendar. They did reckon the months (literally, by the passing of new Moons) and the seasons but the primary annual event for them was when the population of the buffalo herd reached its peak. For them, the most interesting and important aspects of the cosmos were the ones that were idiosyncratic and non-replicated, although they did watch the movements of the Sun and the stars for other purposes or in earlier times, which will be discussed below.

Medicine Wheels

While there has been some argument over the antiquity of North American medicine wheels, and their purpose, most scholars are agreed that they may have had some astronomical function. The medicine wheels were large spoked wheels built from rocks with a central cairn in the middle. The most famous totally intact medicine wheel is the one found in the Bighorn Mountains of Wyoming, which appears to have been used to watch the summer solstice sunrise and the summer dawn stars (Aldeberan and Rigel), and was probably built around 1760. (Krupp, 1983.) There are numerous other medicine wheels in Canada, where they seem to be most common, but they also were utilized on the northern Plains, including in Lakota territory.

John M. Eddy found numerous remains of medicine wheels on the Plains, which were often as large as a hundred meters in diameter. Eddy claims the date of many of these wheels has never been established firmly (some could be as much as 10,000 years old), and that many modern ethnographic informants, when asked about them, seem to have forgotten about their original function, and know only that they are sacred and have to do with powerful "medicine." (Eddy, 1977.) The wheels clearly show similarities to sun dance medicine lodges and tipi rings, and for the Lakota both these structures were thought to be "mirrors" of the cosmos. Many of them have 28 'spokes,' which is a significant astronomical number.

His Plains medicine wheels, like the Bighorn wheel, often use the central cairn as a foresight to view the summer solstice sunrise. A wheel in Montana reinforced this solar connection when he found that opposite the solstice spoke line on the other side of the cairn was a small solar symbol made of sunken lichen-covered stones. This symbol looks like the "parent" wheel, and suggests strongly that the wheels themselves could be solar imagery, with the spokes representing the radiating energy of the sun. The smaller symbol has turned up in several of the wheels found in Canada, so it does seem to be more than just an idiosyncratic marker.

The Canadian wheels are important because they often contain certain correlations or nearby archaeological materials which make them more dateable than their cousins on the Plains. The Moose Mountain wheel in Saskatchewan, for example, is extremely similar to the Bighorn Wheel, and its construction appears to date to somewhere around 100 to 300 CE. (Nikiforuk, 1992.) Eddy feels that these wheels are strong evidence for a "medicine wheel" tradition on the Plains which could stretch back thousands of years. They may not have all been built by the same people, he cautions, but they do seem to represent a certain diffusion of ideas.

If this is true, why the apparent lack of such sun-watching among most modern Lakota? Eddy thinks that with the introduction of the horse by the Europeans and their shift to a nomadic lifestyle, the Lakota lost much of their traditional astronomy - the kind of star-charting that could be found among the horticultural Caddoans, for example. He heralds it as a classic example of a loss of traditional knowledge through cultural contact. As it turns out, he wasn't completely correct.

Celestial Imagery

The fact that astronomy was important for the Lakota can clearly be found inscribed on their artefacts. Eppridge and others have collected a lot of the artefacts associated with the Ghost Dance religion or "ethnic revitalization movement" founded by the prophet Wovoka. In the Ghost Dance ritual, the morning star was identified with the Messiah: it was the "yellow star" who those in Ghost Dance trance were supposed to watch. It appears in the form of a Maltese cross on many ghost shirts worn by the dancers. Other shirts often contain images depicting stars, moons, suns, and comets. (Eppridge, 1980.)

The Lakota often made a special war shield following a Vision Quest. The design on the shield was supposed to offer them special protection and guidance. Many of the shields found by ethnographers contain celestial designs, usually depicting the sun, the Pleiades, the Little Dipper, Castor and Pollux, the Pole Star, and the morning star. Vision questers were often directed to make the focus of their visions the central element of their shields. The fact that they frequently chose astronomic elements shows what their attention was often directed toward. (Carlson, 1990.)

The heyokas or sacred clowns of the Lakota often covered their bodies with special painted designs. Sometimes these designs reflected sheer chaos. Sometimes they contained things that were supposed to be deliberate insults against enemies of the tribe. Often they contained the particular "step" or zigzag design that was supposed to reflect the lightning or thunder which was the hallmark of Wakinyan, the Thunder Bird. (One was supposed to become a heyoka if they were frightened by thunder.) But particularly interesting to ethnoastronomers was their frequent use of the sun and the moon, or the morning and evening star, to reflect on their bodies their unique "oppositional" or reversing nature.

The Pole Star appears infrequently on Lakota artefacts, but always prominently. Like the Sun, it is thought to be part of the Superior Mysteries. They call Polaris Wichapi Owanjila, "the Star that always stands in one place." The other stars are said to be moving in a "dance circle" around it, paying homage to it. The Lakota claimed that Polaris was emblematic of the way that all of creation moved around Wakan Tanka, "that-which-moves-moving-things." (Hollabaugh, 1996.) On objects, it often appears on top of the axis mundi (world-tree): much like the Christmas Star does on the trees people use today...

Other everyday objects of the Lakota have been found to have astronomical images, ranging from moccasins to tipis. There are even examples of the aurora borealis and shooting stars appearing on certain objects. One problem complicating this research is the sheer variety of pictographs used for depicting stars. The Lakota used crosses, lozenges, circles, and interlocking triangles , as well as the kind of five-pointed and six-pointed images Western people would readily identify as stars... only ethnographic information has helped people understand the nature of these depictions.

Lakota Cosmology

Two books, by Hassrick and Powers, give a general indication of what religion was like among the Lakota Sioux. In their complex pantheons, some Lakota ideas about the cosmos can be discerned. The counterpart of Wi, the Sun, was Hanwi, the Moon, whose name literally means "Night Sun." The stars were regarded simultaneously as parts of Skan, the Sky, and were also thought to be supernatural people in their own right. Because Sun had abandoned his wife at a feast of the gods, Skan passed judgement on him. From then on, Sun was forced to rule over the day and Moon over the night. Wohpe, their daughter, was the White Buffalo Calf Woman. (Powers, 1972.)

In Lakota cosmology, there were quadripartite divisions of everything: four colors (red, green, blue, yellow), four superior mysteries (sun, sky, earth, rock), four classes of gods (superior, associate, subordinate, spirits), four elements in the sky (sun, moon, sky, stars), four parts of time (day, night, month, year), and four winds corresponding to the four cardinal directions. All of these are symbolized by the Lakota cross-within-a-circle, a symbol which appears throughout the Americas. For the Lakota, it is the "sacred hoop" and represents the totality of their people. (Steinmetz, 1990.)

The user of the Sacred Calf Pipe faces east toward the rising sun at dawn, west toward the setting sun at dusk. The Sun was recognized as one of the greatest of the Lakota's divine Controllers. Inktomi, the trickster-spider, mediates between gods and men. According to this text, Wohpe is Falling Star, and *she* marries the South Wind as her husband. (Hassrick, 1964.) The Morning Star is said to represent the light of knowledge as a counter to the darkness of ignorance.

The eastern part of the tipi symbolizes the source of light. The south, death and the spirit path. The west, darkness and thunderbirds. The north, the path of forefathers. The Buffalo People are said to reside in the north. The Lakota claim to see a woman, rather than a man's face, in the moon, and she is said to be stirring a kettle by the fire. The moon is explicitly linked to women's menses and to pregnancy and fertility. For the Lakota, two of the six directions are marked by the solar zenith and nadir. (Williamson, 1984.)

The stars are said by some Lakota to be very remote from human affairs. People are not to concern themselves with their business because the stars are wakan. (Walker, 1980.) However, this is contradicted by stories which suggest that the star people come to earth to look for brides, and the fact that heroes and other important ancestor figures go to join the stars. (Monroe, 1987.) Lakota society was very individualistic, and so were the visions that were granted to people. So we can expect some degree of variance among religious ideas. The person who made this statement to Walker (Ringing Shield) might not have been familiar with all of the specialzied star lore of the tribe.

Milky Way and Fallen Star

Among the Lakota, there are many interesting myths and legends which are used to explicate their ideas about the cosmos, as is the case among many cultures. According to mythographer James LaPointe, "the ancient Lakota wise men said that all heavenly bodies exert influences upon life on Earth, and the destinies of individual life are at all times under the spell of the sun, moon, and stars." LaPointe also suggests, "... they imparted their knowledge to posterity through oral narratives and object lessons. One star cluster was called Pa yamini pa, 'a monster with three heads.' "

The Lakota have one fascinating myth which tells a great deal about their astronomical beliefs. According to this legend, Fallen Star, a supernatural hero, was the son of the North Star and a Lakota woman. (Interestingly, in Western mythography, the morning star or "Lucifer" is known as the "fallen star" or "the bright star cast out of heaven.") Fallen Star was said to be a member of the Maghpia Oyate or Cloud People and to be a special protector of the Lakota. His mother had lived with North Star in the clouds, but fell to Earth when she made the mistake of trying to dig up a plant growing in the cloud world - something she had been warned against. The North Star now broods in immobile solitude over the loss of his beloved Lakota maiden.

Tupun Shawin (the red-cheeked maid) was found by a group of boy hunters while she was lying unconscious after she had fallen from the cloud world. Her child was nursing from her "vigorously." The boys did not know if she was a cloud or spirit woman and so left her alone. But they did not want to abandon the helpless infant, so they brought it back to the village. The mysterious baby was named Fallen Star and given to a lonely, barren woman in the village. He matured very quickly, and became aware of a special destiny. He told others in the village that he was the child of a bright star in the heavens, and then told his adopted mother that he had to return to his father's place in the sky. He is said to be there now, watching over the Lakotas, his adoptive people.

Lakota people call the Milky Way Wanaghi Tachanku or "trail of the spirits." It was "the trail all Lakota people must take when fate overtakes them." (This is another interesting cross-cultural 'coincidence,' because among the Indians of South America, the Milky Way was also thought to be a "road of the dead" or "way of souls.") They claimed that at the point where the Milky Way splits, a divine Arbiter stood ... people who lived an immoral life were forced to head down the part of the Milky Way that ends in a nebula, tumbling through space forever. Those who lived a proper life took the other road to Wanaghiyata, the promised home of departed souls.

What is fascinating about this myth is that it ends this way, at least according to the translator: "Today, somewhere near the Trail of Spirits, known to others as the Milky Way, Fallen Star sends rays of hope for his earth people." (LaPointe, 1976.) This suggests Fallen Star might be one of the stars found near the Milky Way. Which one can't be determined from the story, but it could be the one of the ones in the Big Dipper. Based on the legend, it would have some special relationship to the Pole Star. This would be an interesting topic for further investigations.

Lakota Constellations and the Black Hills

Sinte Gleiska University scholar Ronald Goodman spent ten years studying the astronomical folklore of Lakota people, and the result of this work was Lakota Star Knowledge: Studies in Lakota Stellar Theology, a book which detailed the literally "cosmic" importance of the Black Hills for Lakota people. It discusses the spring constellations which the Lakota people observed while moving in a cyclical round from site to site in the Black Hills. The Black Hills were thought to be a terrestrial mirror of the cosmos, so the Lakota were simply "mirroring" the motions of the heavens. As the sun moved counterclockwise through the ecliptic, the Lakota were moving clockwise through the terrestrial analogues of their constellations. (Goodman, 1990.)

These constellations were: Canshasha Ipusye (Dried Willow), which was watched from the winter camps during the spring equinox; Wincinchala Sakowin (the Seven Little Girls = the Pleiades), which were watched from Harney Peak during "thunder's welcoming"; Tayamni (the Buffalo), which were watched from a central cairn during "life's welcoming in peace"; Ki Inyanka Ocanku (the center of the "Race Track"), which were watched from Pe Sla (a bare hill); and Mato Tipila (the Bear's Lodge), which were watched from Devil's Tower, during the summer solstice, prior to the Sun Dance. The 'race track' was subdivided into Cangleshka Wakan (sacred hoop) and Tayamni Cankahu (the Animal's Backbone.) The idea of the Black Hills as a 'terrestrial zodiac' is interesting; such an idea was proposed by Katharine Maltwood for some of the formations around Glastonbury.

The key sacred sites within the Black Hills, which are themselves thought to be enclosed by a terrestrial 'race track,' are Bear Lodge Butte, Old Baldy, Ghost Butte, and Thunder Butte. Devil's Tower is actually outside the Black Hills, but it forms the symbolic "Buffalo's Head" of the Lakota with two other hills inside the area -- Bear Butte as the "Buffalo's Nose," and Inyan Kaga as the "Black Buffalo Horn." Goodman notes that the tipi's shape also mirrors the heavens: 3 poles for the North Star, 7 poles for the cardinal directions, 2 poles for "ears", equaling the 12 months and the 12 stars (morning, evening, 7 in the dipper, 3 in Orion's belt.)

Goodman also discusses Fallen Star and the afterlife beliefs of the Lakota. This ties into the Lakota constellation known as nape, "the Hand," which consists of Orion's belt and sword, and the stars of Rigel and Eridanus Beta. He suggests "the Hand" can be correlated with the "Chief who Lost his Arm." In this legend, the chief has his arm torn from his shoulder by Thunderbirds as a result of his selfishness. His daughter offers to marry Fallen Star if he can recover the hand for her. Fallen Star succeeds in this quest, defeats the Thunderbirds and Inktomi, and marries her. As Goodman points out, Fallen Star represents the new chief and the new year, and their son the renewed earth of spring.

In the legend, it is said that while searching for the arm, "Fallen Star... seems to be in the Black Hills area, but at the same time he also appears to be moving through the star world. He travels through three villages or 'star peoples,' and it is said his son will have to visit the other four." Something of astronomical significance is being described here... but I am not sure what. What's most fascinating is how similar this is to the "wounded king" myth of European Grail legends - the wound leads to a loss of fertility, and only healing this wound restores the land. The Grail legends are said to have a zodiacal basis too...

Winter Solstice Stars

Besides the "Race Track," the Lakota watch another important group of stars around the winter solstice. Although they didn't observe the winter solstice itself (it was usually way too cold on the Plains to be out at night star-watching all the time), these stars were noted around this time. Parts of this group of winter stars are parts of the earlier "race track," shifted in the sky; others are not.

Some of these stars/asterisms include Wichapi Owanjila (Polaris), Wakinyan (the Thunderbird = gamma Draconis + 2 stars from "Ursa's bowl"), Wichakihuyapa (the Big Dipper), Mato Tipila (the Bear's Lodge, which includes Castor and Pollux), Tayamni (the Buffalo, which includes Sirius, Rigel, and Aldeberan), Capella, the "Fireplace" (which includes parts of Leo and Gemini), Canshasha Inpusye (the Dried Willow = Triangulum plus Aries), Hehaka (the Elk, which has part of Pisces plus other stars), Keya (the Turtle), Zuzuecha (the Snake = stars in Canis Major + Columba), and Wanagi Ta Chanku (the Spirit's Road = the Milky Way.)

Paula Giese, a Lakota student at Sinte Gleiska, discusses these constellations because she feels that Lakota Star Knowledge only deals with the spring stars. She mentions a few others of importance: Arcturus is said to be variously either Iktobu (going toward), or Wichapi Sunkaku (Morning Star's younger brother), or Oglechkutepi (Arrow game), or Ihuku Kigle (it went under). It has a special relationship to Anpao Wichahapi (dawn star, Venus.) The Agleshka, or Salamander, corresponds to no known Western constellations. The Crab Nebula, which has no Lakota name, apparently occupies a special position among these stars. (Giese, 1995.)

Giese also mentions some interesting things about the Big Dipper. Its seven stars are said to correspond to the seven stages of a woman's maturation and to the seven Lakota council fires. Towin, the Blue Woman Spirit who assists midwives with births, lives in the center of the dipper -- the place where one can find the hole from which Fallen Star's mother fell. The Dipper is said to carry the water for celestial sweat lodge ceremonies, and to ferry the spiritual essence of deceased people to the Milky Way.

Basically, she suggests that there may have been some limited star-watching "from some sheltered location" around the end of the year, close to the winter solstice. Young people were taught about these constellations because the "life-paths" for girls and boys were marked out by the Dipper and so it was important for them to know about it. They were taught that the Sun would eventually return from its southerly drift, and that these stars were a reassurance of that fact. All in all, these are interesting additions to the insights in Goodman's book.


Why, until the publication of Lakota Star Knowledge, did many anthropologists think that the Lakota had no ethnoastronomy? Mostly, this is due to misinterpretations of the stories from Walker's informants, who claimed that the Lakota had no interest in the stars. It was partly due to a misunderstanding of the term wakan. Although they regarded the stars as mysterious and incomprehensible, they still observed them - as part of their religion. Astronomers studying Lakota culture after they had lost control of the Black Hills would not have known how vital star-watching was to their religious ceremonies.

Most ethnographers assumed that only the Caddoan (such as the Skidi Pawnee) groups on the Plains had any meaningful astronomy because only settled horticulturalists would have the time to make observations and only they would have the need to use the heavens as timing mechanisms for agriculture. (Ruggles and Saunders, 1993.) It was assumed by people like Del Chamberlain that, although star knowledge might have been used by the Lakota in the past, the introduction of the horse and the transition to a nomadic buffalo-hunting lifestyle caused this knowledge to disappear. (Chamberlain, 1982.) The Lakota also had an extensively oral tradition, and did not make the complicated sky maps and star charts of the Pawnee, or make other kinds of astronomical notation.

The problem was that Western astronomers simply didn't look closely enough at the Lakota religion. Other societies use star-watching as a form of utilitarian time-keeping ... a purely "secular" (literally) pursuit. The problem was that ceremonies like the Sun Dance, Sweat Lodge, and Sacred Pipe contained cosmological knowledge; but ethnoastronomers left study of those rituals to scholars of religion. They didn't realize that the Lakota were the descendants of the "vanished" cultures that created the Plains Medicine Wheels. They spent too much time hunting for alignments and not enough time collecting legends. They didn't understand that some of the adornments on Lakota costumes and artifacts were astronomical, because they didn't look "like stars," and they never really asked anyone about their museum collections.

Unlike some of the other cultures of Mesoamerica and South America, the Lakota did not have an astronomical calendar. They didn't build large, fixed, monumental structures with celestial alignments. They were not interested in fixing the length of the year, or of establishing precise planting and harvesting times, or calculating the beginning of climactic seasons. All that mattered to them was the size of their precious buffalo herd, and they could always determine its peaking point through simple observation. The only part of the year they counted were winters, because on the Plains surviving winters was something worth remembering, and it was the time that hunting ceased.

But research with the Lakota should teach us that nomadic hunting societies do not ignore the heavens, either. Like many other societies on the move, the Lakota used the stars as a guidepost for when to move on from place to place in the Black Hills. Ethnoastronomers seem to have a biased belief that only people who stay in one place bother to stretch their heads out and look up at the sky. But for wandering peoples, the heavens literally may have laid out a "map" of their migrations. Other forms of religious pilgrimage should be studied in this light. The Lakota were probably not the only race who chose to mimic the movements of the stars above by their migrations below.

Lakota Celestial Imagery: Spirit and Sky by Dr. Mark Hollabaugh
Copyright (c), 1997, by Mark Hollabaugh

This is a written version of an illustrated talk I presented in May, 1997, at the Dakota History Conference sponsored by the Center for Western Studies at Augustana College in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.


“One star never moves and it is wakan. Other stars move in a circle about it. They are dancing in the dance circle,” Ringing Shield, May 1903 (Walker, 1991, pp. 114-115). That comment by a Lakota elder about Polaris was the genesis for this paper. The Lakota, or Sioux, lived for over 100 years on the great plains of what is now Nebraska, South Dakota, North Dakota, Montana and Wyoming. Much of the interpretation of their life from about 1750 through December, 1890, has focused on their interactions with their great plains environment. What has often been missing from the “standard” treatments of their culture has been an investigation and exploration of their relationship to the celestial world beneath which they roamed the plains. The purpose of this paper is to explore this celestial dimension in the context of their culture. It will not be possible to examine all of the different kinds of celestial images that were important to this people, nor to fully discuss their meaning. Rather, this is an overview and a survey of those areas that might be fruitful grounds for further exploration.

The Lakota Nation is broken into three distinct cultural and linguistic groups. The eastern Sioux speak the Dakota dialect, the central Sioux speak Nakota, and the western Sioux speak the Lakota dialect. The dialect name has become the common name for the people as well. These language groupings are also known by their common names, the Santee, Yankton, and Teton. The four Santee groups, two Yankton groups and the Tetons were said to comprise the seven “council fires.” The Teton Sioux or Lakota are the focus of this paper. The Teton are further subdivided into seven subdivision, the best known of which are the Oglála (“To scatter one’s own”), Sicáhgu or Brulé (“Burned” in French), Huhkpapa (“They camp by the entrance”) and Mnikowoju (“They plant by the water”).

Several excellent histories give details of the history of the Lakota. While late twentieth century scholars have taken issue with some of his interpretations and his lack of direct references, nonetheless George Hyde’s work on the Lakota serves as a primary survey of their nineteenth-century life (Hyde, 1961, 1975, 1993). Other books give a late twentieth century interpretation of these events and people (D. Brown, 1962; D. Brown, 1970; Hassrick, 1964; Utley, 1984).

In any research into ethnoastronomy, it is important to consider the sources from which the data is collected. The focus of this paper is on nineteenth century Lakota celestial thought, and hence, nineteenth century sources must be utilized. The most readily available written material was complied by a man who became a trusted friend of the Lakota.

James R. Walker, a physician at the Pine Ridge Reservation from 1896 to 1914, decided to work with traditional Lakota healers instead of against them. This cooperative spirit lead to a relationship of trust between Walker and the medicine men, and the Lakota shared their stories, beliefs, and rituals with Walker. His journals are primary sources on the late nineteenth century Lakota.

Walker’s compilations are the primary source for this paper. This limits the scope of this exploration to the insights given by the people Walker interviewed late in the nineteenth century. Generally, contemporary Lakota have a high regard for Walker and the veracity of the accounts he recorded. Vine Deloria, Jr., for example, gives high praise for Walker and his methods, but notes the informants were all “late” in Lakota history and little is known about the origins of Lakota beliefs about the stars. He further claims that Walker asked the “wrong” questions for the information to be of value to archaeoastronomy (Deloria, 1982). I would disagree with this assertion because I believe Walker has left a wealth of information, which, if combined with other historical materials , could yield rich insights. Another valid criticism of Walker is that he tended to rely on just a few translators.

There is an important epistemological point to be made. There is no such thing as one Lakota “system” of “orthodox” belief. Unlike Christianity, for example, which has dogmatized its beliefs into a set of doctrines, the Lakota are much less rigid. Lakota belief can even be very “fluid” and exhibits diversity (DeMallie, 1987, p. 43). One cannot say, “This is what the Lakota believe about the stars.” It is possible to say what a specific Lakota person says about the stars. This means Walker’s interviews and stories will enable us to understand what the Lakota at Pine Ridge believed about the stars. Although we may not be able to directly understand the origins of those beliefs, these accounts are a starting place.

The goal of this paper is to explore the celestial images of the Lakota and attempt to understand their meaning. First, I will give specific examples of celestial images including comets, meteor showers, and the sun and moon. Second, I will examine the Lakota concept of wakan, or the incomprehensibleness of the universe. Finally, I will suggest that it is necessary to understand wakan in order to understand the meaning of the celestial images.

Examples of Celestial Imagery

Many examples of celestial images from the nineteenth century Lakota that have been preserved on winter count hides and ledger books. Von Del Chamberlain (1984) has compiled an excellent list of Plains Indian winter count hides and ledger book entries that specifically refer to astronomical events. Garrick Mallery, a late nineteenth century expert on winter count hides, explained the use and function of the winter count hide:

The Keeper of the Count was responsible for the perpetuation of the history… with this counsel of the old men of his tribe, he decided upon some event or circumstance which should distinguish each year as it passed, and marked what was considered to be its appropriate symbol or device upon a buffalo robe kept for the purpose. The robe was at convenient times exhibited to other Indians of the tribe, who were thus taught the meaning and the use of the signs as designating several years. (Maurer, 1992, p. 275)

For a people who relied largely on oral tradition, the hide was a visual prompt for the teller of the people’s stories.


In 1822 a brilliant meteor blazed across the sky. This was recorded on September 20, 1822, at Fort Snelling in Minnesota (Hyde, 1975, p.318; Chamberlain, 1984). A Lakota couple supposedly saw this and several months later named their new son Red Cloud in recognition of the event (Mahpiya Luta). This is only one example of a meteor making an impression on the Lakota. In November, 1833, the Leonid meteor shower put on a spectacular display. Estimated rates are 100,000 to 240,000 per hour (Rao, 1995). The Lakota noticed this spectacular celestial display:

In November, 1833 when Spotted Tail was ten, the stars fell. The entire sky was streaked with fire as myriads of meteorites flashed across the heavens, and the fright-ened Indians thought that the world was coming to an end. (Hyde, 1961, p. 29)

A winter count hide by No Ears made note of this Leonid meteor shower (Walker, 1982, p. 138). His drawing of the shower is reproduced in Figure 1. Additional images of the 1833 Leonid shower and other showers were recorded by Mallery (1886, p. 116). Chamberlain notes the universal appearance of this event on plains Indian winter count hides (1984). These events made an impression on the Lakota. What appears in any Lakota discussion concerning a comet or meteor, is that the apparition is considered to fit into the larger picture of how the universe works. The meaning of the event is intricately connect to what is wakan or sacred.

Figure 1. 1833 Meteor Shower.

Walker offers an insight into the impression such meteors made and the meaning of the concept Wakan. He reports a conversation with Finger, an Oglála Lakota holy man who spent an entire night instructing Walker in the sacred ways of the Lakota (Hirschfelder and Molin, 1992, p. 88). This passage also indicates how Walker approached his task of determining the meaning to the Lakota of these concepts and events:

It came about in this way: I was at the house of Finger in the evening, and when starting for the agency, all were out in the gloaming, and a very brilliant meteor fell. Finger exclaimed in a loud voice, " Wohpe . Wohpe-e-e-e.” He then harangued for a short time and the women built a fire and when it had burned to coals, Finger burned a quantity of sweet grass on it, evidently with forms and ceremonial mutterings.
[Walker continues by discussing a subsequent meeting with Finger.] I left the Agency on the first of April, so had no opportunity of reviewing the matter with Finger or of submitting it to others of the Oglála for their discussion

Wohpe, the Lakota word Finger uses for the meteor, derives from the verb wohpa, “to make fall by shooting,” or “to shoot down” (Beuchel, 1983, p. 598). Wohpe, also associated with the White Buffalo Calf Woman, is a prominent figure in the Lakota creation story. The burning of sweet grass is a characteristic Lakota ritual. “Good” spirits like the smell of sweet grass, and the burning of the grass is a means Finger employed to bring the good spirits to him. Note that Walker attempted to corroborate the information he received from Finger with other Oglála Lakota. This was typical of his approach. He would ask several people to give their opinions. Walker goes on to mention how he checked his translations with George Sword, one of his principal interpreters:

The information I got from Finger clears up much that was obscure, especially relative to Taku Škanškan. Perhaps you will remember that I said that I could not give a translation of Škan, which is the shamanistic term for Taku Škanškan and that according to the best information I had, Škan meant the sky I so translated it with the approval of several Indians, including George Sword, though each and all declaring that Škan was the sky, and was also a spirit that was everywhere and that gave life and motion to everything that lives or moves. Every interpreter interpreted Taku Škanškan as “What Moves-moves,” or that which gives motion to everything that moves. From the information given by Finger it is evident that his concept of Taku Škanškan, or Škan is a vague or nebulous idea of force or energy. Recalling attempts of other Oglála to define the word I am sure that they had the same kind of a concept of Škan. I am now surprised that this did not appear to me before talking with Finger.

Taku Škanškan could also be translated as the “energy of the universe.” Beuchel translates the phrase “a power working, moving things secretly” (Beuchel, 1983, p. 476). In Finger’s mind, the concept is closely related to the Wakan. Walker was not only aware of who his sources were, but also who his interpreters were. Although he himself learned some Lakota, he relied on native interpreters to convey the meanings of the elder’s words. In the following passages, Walker relates several Lakota concepts:

Finger's discussion of Wakan Tanka agreed with that given in that part of my paper on the Sun Dance as submitted to you [i.e., Walker, 1917], except relative to Škan and the relative existence of the four superior Gods. For instance, he gave Inyan, the Rock, as the first in existence and the grandfather of all things. Maka, the Earth as next in existence and the grandmother of all things. Škan next in existence after the Earth because He gave life and motion to all things: Wi, the Sun, as the last in existence but as the most powerful and august of Wakan Tanka, being Wakan Tanka Kin, The Wakan Tanka. He also said that the Associate Wakan Tanka, Wi (the Sun), Wi Han, The Moon; Tate, The Wind, and Wakinyan, The Winged, and Wohpe were as the other self of the four Superior Gods; that is, that Wi and Wihan are as one: Škan and the Wind are as one; The Rock and The Winged are as one; and that the Earth and Wohpe are as one; that while there are eight personalities that are Wakan Tanka, four Superior and four Associate, they are all as one and there is but one Wakan Tanka. This is The Great Mystery known only to the wisest shamans.

Discussing Wi and Škan, Finger said that while The Sun was the superior and most powerful of the Gods, yet He derived His power from Škan; that many of the Lakotas believed Wi and Škan to be one and the same personalities; but the Wi was a Wakan Tanka visible in the sky only half the time while Škan was the Nagi Tanka, the Great Spirit, everywhere at all times and invisible except his color which was the blue seen in the sky at all times.

Walker is appropriate in recognizing that a simple translation of wakan will not do and he attempts to understand the interrelatedness of the ideas Finger expressed. In this section he suggested the translation of “Great Mystery” for Wakan Tanka. In a concluding comment, Walker acknowledges his own limitations. It is interesting that he says his paper is “constructive.” Apparently he was very aware he was putting his own thoughts into the report:
I am fully alive to the sense that my paper is based entirely upon information given by others, and that it is in part constructive; that I may have been misinformed either intentionally or because of the difficulty in getting correct translations of the language of my informants. But the intention of the paper is to give such information as I have received. (Walker, 1983, pp. 9-10)

The Lakota also noticed comets and apparently distinguished them from meteors. Two hides in the collection of the State Historical Society of North Dakota illustrate comet art (Maurer, 1992, pp. 274-275; Chamberlain, 1984). The Blue Thunder winter count hide from the Upper Yanktonai Nakota band depicts events from 1785 to 1913. It clearly shows an early nineteenth century meteor pictograph and also a comet. A second hide, the Swift Dog, from the Huhkpapa Lakota, chronicles their history from 1797-98 to 1911-12. The third to last entry depicts Comet Halley’s 1910 apparition. Maurer notes the Hu hkpapa remembered the years 1911-1912 as the “time when children had measles and a bright comet appeared in the sky.” This illustrates the important point that common Gregorian civil calendar dates may not always coincide with dates given for a particular pictograph.

Sun and Moon
A discussion of the role of the sun and the moon in Lakota life would encompass an entire book. For example, one could study how they reckon time. We take it for granted that the solar and lunar cycles can provide a calendar. Although the Lakota use solar and lunar cycles, they have a very different concept of time than Americans or Europeans. Times of the day, for example, are reckoned by how the sun or moon appear or are moving across the sky.
Winter count hides were the visible representations of Lakota history and functioned as an annual calendar (Chamberlain, 1984). Although the Lakota use repeating cycles of nature to give names to the passage of time, I believe they have a very linear, continuous, view of time. Their history seemingly would never end, at least as long as the buffalo were on the earth. In attempting to understand the Lakota concept of time, I find the following assessment to be useful:
In Lakota culture time was not conceived of as a causal force; history was not directed nor did it embody that notion of progress and change which is so fundamental to European culture. Instead, the universe was perceived as existing in harmonious balance. As Ella Deloria once put it, ‘You see, we Indians lived in eternity.’ (DeMallie, 1987, p. 31)

I have come to think of the Lakota as being suspended in time. There was no indication their situation would ever change until the white man (wasichu) began “putting down roots.”
Living in an eternity where the sun was a persistent feature in the sky led to giving it a place of importance, and there is one ritual where the Sun’s central role is best exhibited. The paramount ritual in Lakota life, then and now, is the Sun Dance. Beginning with Walker, many scholars have written volumes about the Lakota Sun Dance. Again, it is not possible to include a lengthy discussion of this important ritual in this discussion. It is, however, important to say that the Sun Dance is not Sun worship.

The Sun Dance is practiced by many of the Plains Indians and the Lakota call it Wi Wahyag Wachipi, or “Dance looking at the Sun.” It is one of the seven sacred rites of the Lakota as explained by the legendary Lakota elder Black Elk (Brown, 1989). The purpose of all seven rituals is to strengthen the tiyospaye (“community” or “extended family”) and sense of mitakuye oyasin (“You are all my relatives”).

The Sun Dance ritual includes fasting, purification, and dancing. At the center of the dance circle is a sacred tree around which the participants conduct themselves. Sometimes, even in modern times, the Sun Dance includes piercing of the flesh of male dancers who wish to provide a personal sacrifice. The sun is all-powerful. When a dancer participates in the Sun Dance, it is a participation in the sacred and mysterious. The Sun Dance serves primarily as an agent to strengthen the dancer’s sense of self and spirituality, and strengthen connections to the community (tiyospaye). In a contemporary reference, the Lakota at the Sun Dance are described as practicing a kind of sun watching reminiscent of the southwestern pueblo peoples:
The old-man-who-counts watches the sunset, cutting notches in his stick, even though with calendars this is no longer necessary. The old man watches until the sun sets on a well-known landmark. When finally it reaches the appropriate place, the time has come to make the sacred lodge. (Amiotte, 1987, p. 78)

I am uncertain how wide-spread this sun watching practice is. The mention of it, however, is a good reason to undertake further research into Lakota sun watching. This is the only reference to Lakota calendar sticks that I have found. This may be a late-nineteenth century or early twentieth century practice that became practical, and necessary, after confinement to the reservations and the Lakota no longer traveled great distances. However, at the Northern Plains Tribal Art Show in Sioux Falls, on September 28, 1996, Arthur Amiotte told me sun watching was practiced at the time of the Winter Solstice. He mentioned that although nomadic, the Lakota did return to the same location each year for their “winter camp” and hence there would be familiar horizon landmarks. Amiotte also said he knew of no Lakota calendar sticks in existence today. In addition to Walker’s nineteenth-century records (Walker, 1917), an excellent modern, personal account of Lakota Sun Dancing is Thomas E. Mails’ Sundancing at Rosebud and Pine Ridge (1978).

The sun and moon often appear together in Lakota images. I found an example of a heyoka warrior’s body ornamentation (Walker, 1991). The heyoka was a contrary who used his spiritual powers to satisfy the Wakihya h or thunder beings of the west. On the great plains summer thunderstorms (and winter blizzards) approach from the west. The heyoka would dress warmly in hot weather, and wear few or no clothes in the dead of winter. The heyoka were considered wakan, and are an example of “that which is different.”(Hirschfelder and Molin, 1992, p. 119) This particular drawing from a ledger book shows both a sun and moon symbol on the warrior’s body. In a sense the sun and moon are opposites or contraries, and hence they are a sort of celestial “joke” when they appear together on the Heyoka.

Of course, the sun and moon are together during an eclipse. Solar eclipses were noted by the Lakota. An 1888 winter count hide pictograph by Short Man (Figure 2) reports A hpa wi wah te, literally, “the sun died” (Walker, 1992, p. 151) However, a note dating of this eclipse on January 1, 1889, is problematic. Using TheSky 2.03 (Level III), I determined the dates of solar eclipses visible from western South Dakota from 1883 to 1892. Using “SunTimes for Windows” (Zephyr Services, 1995), I checked the sunrise and sunset times for the eclipse dates. Although there was an eclipse on 22 December 1889, the sun was not up in that area during the eclipse. The closest eclipse dates to 1888 to which Short Man could have alluded are 16 March 1885, 6 June 1891, and 10 October 1892. It also could be that the hide dates given for the event are slightly off. An event that occurred, for example, in the winter of 1888-1889 could be recorded in either 1888 or 1889 (Chamberlain, 1984).

Figure 2. Solar Eclipse, 1888.

Wakan – That Which is Different

Having discussed some examples of Lakota celestial images, I will now attempt an interpretation of these images in terms of the Lakota concept Wakan. The Lakota did not exist apart from nature, but were very much a part of it. In this sense, the traditional ecological focus of the Lakota’s relationship to the land and the animals, especially the bison (tatahka), that inhabited the land is correct. There has, however, been little interpretation of the meaning of the celestial events and phenomena that have been discussed in the previous section of this paper. It is my thesis that to understand the meaning of these celestial events and images one must attempt to understand wakan as the nineteenth century Lakota understood it.

I will draw on sections from Walker’s conversations with Lakota elders to interpret the meaning of wakan itself. The most common translation of wakan is “sacred” or “holy.” For example, the best translation of the name of the Mdewakahto hwah band of the Santee or Dakota Sioux in Minnesota is “People of the Sacred Lake.” In the basement of the Episcopal Cathedral in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, there is a small chapel used by a Lakota Christian congregation. Carved on an altar are the words Wakan, Wakan, Wakan, alluding to the Christian Trinitarian formula, “Holy, Holy, Holy.” The best approach to understand wakan is to understand the usage of the word and it is important to recognize the cultural context from which this concept takes its meaning.

The Lakota are a profoundly spiritual people. Although they exhibit one of the most genuine senses of humor and light-heartedness of any American Indians, they are very serious about their relationship to wakan tahka (often translated “Great Spirit” or “Great Mystery”), the created world, their fellow human beings, and their inner self. Their view of the world is very different from that of the white men who first encountered them in the early nineteenth century. Thus, I believe, it can be difficult, if not impossible, to summarize in a few words a concept like wakan.

Father Eugene Buechel in his Lakota-English Dictionary gives several connotations to the word: “sacred, consecrated, special, incomprehensible, possessing or capable of giving an endowed spiritual quality which is received or transmittable to beings making for what is specially good or bad” (Buechel, 1983, p. 525). This latter meaning is reflected in the term wicasa wakan, which Buechel translates “priest, formerly the Indian shaman.” The common usage slightly mistranslates that phrase as “medicine man.” In the film Dances With Wolves, Doris Leader Charge, who was the Lakota dialog consultant for the film, rendered it “Holy Man.” The Black Hills (Paha Sapa) are a place that is wakan.

However, wakan has meanings that transcend the human existence of the Lakota on the great plains. James Walker offers valuable insights into the meaning of this concept to the nineteenth century Lakota. In the following lengthy excerpts from his writings, he uses Lakota elders’ explanations of the meanings. As always, it is important to realize these are the opinions of the people he interviewed. First, he quotes from Good Seat:

Wakan was anything that was hard to understand. A rock was sometimes wakan. Anything might be wakan. When anyone did something that no one understood, this was wakan. If the thing done was what no one could understand, it was Wakan Tanka. How the world was made is Wakan Tanka. How the sun was made is Wakan Tanka. How men used to talk to the animals and birds was Wakan Tanka. Where the spirits and ghosts are is Wakan Tanka. How the spirits act is wakan. A spirit is wakan…
…The sun, the moon, the morning star, the evening star, the north star, the seven stars [i.e., Pleiades], the six [sic] stars [i.e., Big Dipper], the rainbow--these are all wakan… (Walker, 1991, pp. 70-72)

At first glance, it seems as if everything was wakan for Good Seat. In one sense that is true, because so much of the Lakota world is extraordinary and “Wakan was anything that was hard to understand.” But notice that the wakan or “mysterious” things Good Seat describes are things people cannot create or control. Good Seat’s list of these objects, animals, and phenomena are things that have kept the best scientists and theologians busy for centuries. That is, they are extraordinary. Wakan things are those experiences, events, or objects that are worthy of wonder. Something that is wakan does not reach the analytical mind, but rather catches the spirit of a person and causes him or her to reflect.

Following his transcription of Good Seat’s conversation, Walker adds his own interpretation concerning the meaning of wakan. Again, in this summary, he draws on his conversations with many Lakota, allowing them to interpret one another:

Long ago, the Lakotas believed that there were marvelous beings whose existence, powers or doings they could not understand. These beings they called Wakan Kin (The Wakan). There were many of the Wakan, some good and some bad. Of the Wakan who were good, some were greater than others. The greater were called Wakan Wankantu (Superior Wakan). The others were called Taku Wakan (Wakan Relatives). They were not relatives the same as a father or a brother but like the Lakota are all relatives to each [other]. The bad Wakan were not relative either to the good or to each other…

The old Lakotas also believed that each thing except the Wakan and mankind had something like a spirit. This something they called a nagila (spiritish). These nagipila (spirits-ish) were wakanpila (wakans-ish). Ordinarily, the people call a wakanla, wakan. Wakan Tanka (Great Wakan) and Wakan kin mean the same. In former times the term Wakan Tanka was seldom used but now it is used more often than Wakan kin. The younger Oglalas mean the God of the Christians when they say Wakan Tanka. When a shaman says Wakan Tanka, he means the same as Wakan Kin as used in former times. This means all the Wakan and the Wakanpila, both of mankind and of other things, for the old Oglalas believed that these were all the same as one. This is kan (incomprehensible, an incomprehensible fact that cannot be demonstrated).

When an Oglála is amazed by anything he may say that it is wakan meaning that it is wakanla (like wakan). It appears from the above information that "divine" is the proper interpretation of wakan. (Walker, 1991, pp. 72-74)

It is important to note that these characterizations are based on traditional Lakota beliefs from the nineteenth century as recorded by such white men as Walker. To give the meaning of wakan as “divine” shows a decidedly Christian influence. Encounters with whites, and in particular Christian missionaries, has had an effect on modifying the traditional mid-nineteenth century beliefs. Indeed, two important Lakota sources were Christian: George Sword was an Episcopal deacon and Black Elk was a Roman Catholic catechist. Such experiences may influence the interpretive comments from twentieth century Lakota elders. Good Seat hints at this when he said, “I am an old man. I know what my father said. I know what his father said. In the old times, the Indians knew many things. Now they have forgotten many things. The white men have made them forget that which their fathers told them” (Walker, 1991, p. 70). Walker alludes to this modification when he comments “The younger Oglalas mean the God of the Christians when they say Wakan Tanka.” Hence, the missionaries used Wakan Tanka to convey the Christian idea of God and usually translated the phrase “Great Spirit.”

We who are white and born into a western way of thinking may have a difficult time understanding these meanings of wakan. In a white American (or European) way of thinking, there are distinctions between the natural and supernatural, between the secular and sacred, between the human and the divine. These distinctions are blurred or even non-existent in the Lakota mind. Such dichotomies do not exist. The important distinction for the Lakota was between the ordinary and the extraordinary. More than anything what characterizes the universe for the Lakota is its incomprehensibleness, its uniqueness, and its wonder. Thus, I believe the best interpretations of wakan are “incomprehensibleness,” “that which is different” and “worthy of wonder.” The best interpretation of wakan tahka might be “the great incomprehensibility.” The Lakota were able to share in this wonder, mystery and incomprehensibleness through their rituals (DeMallie, 1987, p. 28) and their partnership with the natural world. Interestingly enough, although Lakota belief shows many variations, the rituals are generally more uniform. This may be because the rituals are a collective, community effort, serving to strengthen kinship ties.

Wakan and the Stars

Having discussed the meaning of wakan, I will now briefly explore how this important Lakota concept influenced their understanding of the stars. Walker records a conversation with Ringing Shield from May, 1903, in which the stars are said to be wakan:

A wise man said this. The stars are wakan. They do not care for the earth or anything on it. They have nothing to do with mankind. Sometimes they come to the world and sometimes the Lakotas go to them. There are many stories told of these things. No medicine can be made to the stars. They have nothing to do with anything that moves and breathes. A holy man knows about them. This must not be told to the people. If the people knew these things, they would pull the stars from above. There is one star for the evening and one for the morning. One star never moves and it is wakan. Other stars move in a circle about it. They are dancing in the dance circle.

There are seven stars. [Seven stars is a Lakota name for the Big Dipper.] This is why there are seven council fires among the Lakotas. Sometimes there are many stars and sometimes there are not so many. When there are not so many, the others are asleep. The spirit way is among the stars. This moves about so that bad spirits can not find it. Wakan Tanka keeps the bad spirits away from the spirit way. The spirit way begins at the edge of the world. No man can find it. Taku Skanskan is there and he tells the good spirits where to go to find it. The winds will show a good spirit where to go to find the beginning of this trail. The bad spirits must wander always on the trail of the winds. The stars hide from the sun. They must fear him. So mankind should not try to learn about them. It is not good to talk about them. It is not good to fight by the light of the stars. They must be evil for they fear the sun (Walker, 1991, pp. 114-115).

This passage is packed with both insights and contradictions. First, consider the North Star. The Lakota name for Polaris is Wicahpi Owahjila -- “Star that always stands in one place.” What is especially interesting about Ringing Shield’s words is that the pole star is wakan because it does not move. This suggests that wakan connotes “that which is different” about Polaris compared to the other stars. Then Ringing Shield goes on to mention the morning star and evening star. He equates the seven stars of the dipper with the seven council fires of the Lakota. These statements about the stars may seem to be in conflict with the statement that “mankind should not try to learn about them [the stars]. It is not good to talk about them.” He says, in essence, “Don’t even think about the stars,” yet he, and the Lakota as a whole, have names for stars, legends about the stars, and record celestial events and phenomena on hides! In a similar discussion Little Wound says “The stars are Wakan Tanka, but they have nothing to do with the people on earth. Mankind need pay no attention to the stars” (Walker, 1991, p. 70).
There is a contradiction, or at least an ambiguity, here.

If mankind should not even talk about the stars, or pay any attention to them, why should celestial events be recorded on hides, or appear on a heyoka, or become a part of story to be retold? I believe what Ringing Shield and Little Wound were saying was that the stars and their motions, or non-motions, are a part of the “great incomprehensibility” and hence mankind cannot fully understand them or their meanings. None the less, the sun, the moon, and the stars permeate Lakota thought and culture. Why?

It is simply because meteors, comets, the sun, the moon, and the stars are wakan that they were noted, recorded, and re-lived in stories and ritual. The stars are worthy of wonder, they are mysterious, they are incomprehensible. As fruitless as it may seem, reaching for the stars brings the great mystery a little closer to earth. Although the celestial images preserved on winter count hides, in ledger books and on clothing serve an ornamentation function, they too are a part of the belief and ritual of the Lakota. Each Lakota ritual serves a purpose. Ritual reflects and transmits belief and tradition. Thus, Lakota celestial art is an integral part of the beliefs of the people who constructed it. And, the center of Lakota belief is the incomprehensibleness of the world in which they live. The stars, although extraordinary and wakan, are a integral part of that world.


There are at least three areas for future research that would reveal more insights into the Lakota and their astronomy. First, I have briefly discussed meteor showers, eclipses, and comets. It would be helpful to continue the work of Von Del Chamberlain (1984) and to correlate the same events observed by various Native Americans on the great plains as recorded in ledger books and on winter count hides. Art historians might be able to shed some light on the Lakota’s use of five-pointed stars. It may be that they began to use this symbol after encounters with the American flag. Second, I have observed aurora while camping in the Badlands National Park (about latitude 43 N). Are there any instances of aurora in Lakota art or stories? How did they interpret them? Finally, Amiotte’s reference to calendar sticks and horizon sun watching is very intriguing. An examination of this aspect of Lakota astronomy would allow for comparison with the pueblo people of the southwest. A sensitive and respectful inquiry might reveal more about any use of these sticks today and the relative importance of sun watching for calendrical or ritual purposes.

More importantly, understanding wakan and how it relates to the stars must be the focus of any research into Lakota astronomy. That is, understanding their culture is the key to understanding their astronomy and their use of celestial images. There is a danger that meaning could be “read into” Lakota ideas. It is possible to avoid this by employing an approach from the “historical-critical method” of biblical hermeneutics and allow Lakota sources to interpret and explain other Lakota sources. There are ethnographic materials other than those of Walker which might reveal other insights. Also, it would be very interesting to ask contemporary Lakota elders and wicasa wakan to comment on the monologues Walker recorded. However, it is important to recognize such commentary would represent the views of late twentieth century Lakota, many of whom have been strongly influenced by both Christianity and the twentieth-century ideas of Black Elk.

The passion to be a part of “living the sky,” to use Ray Williamson’s term, was a central facet of Lakota life. Raymond DeMallie offers a final assessment that may help explain the ambiguity the Lakota have about the stars and their wakan nature:

In the nineteenth-century Lakota system of belief, the unity of Wakan Tanka embraced all time and space, together with the entirety of being, in a universe where the place of human beings was minor but well-defined. Because this universe was most fundamentally characterized by incomprehensibility, it was beyond humanity’s power ever to know it fully, and perhaps it was this futility that made the quest for understanding of the wakan the driving force in Lakota culture (DeMallie, 1987, p. 32).

Ultimately any attempt at understanding the Lakota’s use of celestial images in their culture must also come to terms with their understanding of wakan. It may for us, as for the Lakota, be futile to come to any final conclusions that can satisfy a twentieth century analytical, scientific mind.


Dr. Von Del Chamberlain, former director of the Hansen Planetarium, Salt Lake City, brought to my attention his important work on Plains Indians calendars. I am deeply indebted to my good friend, and Lakota mentor, Dr. Martin Brokenleg for his patience with my endless questions. To Martin I say, “Mitakuye Oyasin!”


How to contact me:
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By phone: 952-487-8461

Last updated: 1 March 2003

Venus, the Morning Star and Evening Star
Conjuction of Moon, Venus & Jupiter (w/moons). Photo courtesy of Tavi Greiner One of the nicknames of Venus is “the Morning Star“. It’s also known as the Evening Star. Of course, Venus isn’t a star at all, but a planet. So why does Venus have these nicknames? The orbit of Venus is inside the orbit of Earth. Unlike the outer planets, Venus is always relatively close to the Sun in the sky. When Venus is on one side of the Sun, it’s trailing the Sun in the sky and brightens into view shortly after the Sun sets, when the sky is dark enough for it to be visible. When Venus is at its brightest, it becomes visible just minutes after the Sun goes down. This is when Venus is seen as the Evening Star. When Venus is on the other side of the Sun, it leads the Sun as it travels across the sky. Venus will rise in the morning a few hours before the Sun. Then as the Sun rises, the sky brightens and Venus fades away in the daytime sky. This is Venus the Morning Star. The ancient Greeks and Egyptians thought that Venus was actually two separate objects, a morning star and an evening star. The Greeks called the morning star Phosphoros, “the bringer of light”; and they called the evening star Hesperos, “the star of the evening”. A few hundred years later, the Hellenistic Greeks realized that Venus was actually a single object.
We have done several articles on Universe Today encouraging readers to go out and see Venus the Morning Star. And here’s what Venus looks like in a telescope. Want more information on Venus? Here’s a link to NASA’s World Book on Venus, and here’s NASA’s Solar System Exploration Guide to Venus. We have also recorded a whole episode of Astronomy Cast that’s just about planet Venus. Listen to it here, Episode 50: Venus.

Rainbow Warriors of Prophecy

Poem from Don Juan of Carlos Casteneda's book

"For me there is only travel along a path that has heart, on any path that has heart. And as I travel the only worthwhile challenge is to traverse it's full length, looking, looking breathlessly!" 

Blessings from Grandmother Going Places
Don Juan loved a poem which when translated to English loses some of the rhythm, but I hope you enjoy!

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