Sioux Religion

Doctrines The Sioux regard the universe as ultimately incomprehensible; life, growth, and death are mysterious and suggestive of powers difficult to understand. Since time itself is regarded as non-causal, and does not embody notions of change and progress, nothing in the universe can be considered to be inevitable. This incomprehensibility and unpredictability of the universe, anything difficult to understand, is called 'wakan', which also connotes the animating force of the universe, the totality of which is 'Wakan Tanka'. Wakan Tanka is the sum total of the personified powers that brought all things into being; sometimes it is embodied as the Six Grandfathers.
Humankind itself formed in and emerged from the womb of Mother Earth, as did the buffalo. Everything has its own spirit but all share the same spiritual essence that is Wakan Tanka; so it is that the most important aspects of personality are shared by everything in the universe. Other beings often shared their knowledge with humans or provided aid in time of crisis (See Mary Crow Dog:1991 pp.178-180), and so came to be thought of as 'people'. The observance of the human-like characteristics of these peoples led to the development of kinship with them. At birth one receives from Takuskanskan a guardian spirit and the life-breath or ghost which comes from the stars; at death these return to the spirit world.
Ritual seeks to placate the wakan beings or powers - which may be predisposed to good or evil - but also involves a process of continuing revelation. On returning from his vision quest, the vision seeker commonly integrates his vision into the life of the community by performing it ritually in public. In this way he adds to the fund of collective knowledge necessary to sustain a balanced relationship between the human community and other forms of life, both animate and inanimate. This sense of unity and of the cohesive force of ritual, is conveyed by the recurring song text: "I do this ( take part in the ritual, songs and prayers) so that I may live with my relations" (Powers:1982 p.154).
Finally, a few words on the Black Hills, why they are sacred to the Sioux. According to Charlotte Black Elk, Sioux legend says that with the creation of the universe a song was given to it, each part of the universe being imbued with a part of the song; but only in the Black Hills was the song found in its entirety, here at the "heart of everything that is" (Timewatch "Savagery and the American Indian" Part 2, BBC2 30th January 1991). Legend also says that the hills are "...a reclining female figure from whose breasts flowed life-giving forces, and to them the Lakota [Sioux] went as a child to its mother's arms" (Luther Standing Bear quoted in Matthiessen :1992 p.4). It was in the Black Hills that the Sioux people originated, and at Bear Butte on the eastern edge of the Hills, that the Creator first imparted his sacred instructions to them; thus it is that Bear Butte is the most sacred of all places, and both Sioux and Cheyenne come here each year for vision quests. Although explanations of what happens to one at death vary, it has been said that the spirits of the Sioux dead rest in the Black Hills.

History The word 'Sioux' is a collective term for seven tribal groups which are organized into three main political units, the Teton, Yankton, and Santee. This conventional model of Sioux social organization seems not, however, to be applicable prior to about 1700. The people that came to be known as 'Sioux', had, by the sixteenth century settled on the headwaters of the Mississippi, Minnesota; at this time this people called themselves the 'Seven Fire Places'.
The Sioux were first positively identified by Jean Nicolet who recorded the term 'Sioux' in the Jesuit Relation in 1640. In 1660 two French explorers, Pierre Esprit Radisson, and Medard Chouart, encountered the Sioux in what is now eastern Minnesota at an annual feast of the Dead. Wars with the Chippewas and the Crees contributed to the dispersion of the eastern Sioux - collectively called the Santee - from their homes around Mille Lacs, the Chippewas being armed by French Traders. Missionaries, however, considered that the presence of traders at the junction of the Mississippi and Missouri rivers, had also attracted the Santee from their original homeland. Of the seven sub-divisions of the Teton Sioux, the Oglala and Sicangu (Brule) were the first to arrive on the Plains, whilst horses, which transformed Plains life, were obtained by the Oglala about 1750, possibly from the Arikara people (Powers:1982 pp.5, 16-17, 26, 28).
In the history of the Sioux peoples the Buffalo holds a crucial place. From it the Sioux derived most of life's necessities; for example, from its hide they made clothing and tepees, ropes and snowshoes; the horns provided spoons, weapons, and ceremonial articles, whilst the sinew was used for bow strings, arrow points, and sewing materials (Salomon:1928 p.31). The Buffalo was also the comrade of the Sun, and even controlled all affairs of love; its spirit cares for the family, for the young of all beings, and for growing things or vegetation. This centrality of the Buffalo in the life and thought of the Sioux, suggests how devastating was the Buffalo's extermination for the latter's traditional culture.
Towards the end of the eighteenth century there were possibly sixty million buffalo on the Plains (Matthiessen:1992 p16); by 1884 the slaughter by hide hunters, encouraged in Government and by the army for the purpose of breaking tribal power and autonomy, was virtually complete, and, according to one contemporary estimate only eighty-five Buffalo were left in 1889 (W.T.Hornaday quoted in Dippie:1982 p.225). The Sioux, along with other Plains tribes, were now consigned to a state of dependence on Government handouts on various reservations - the Government's strategy had been a success.
Even more devastating for tribal culture and religion than the extermination of the Buffalo, was the Government's determination to forcibly civilize and assimilate Indian peoples. In view of rapid Euro-American expansion, the Federal Indian Bureau had opted for assimilation partly as the most effective means of neutralizing Indian-White conflicts. Nevertheless, Hiram Price, Commissioner of Indian Affairs (1881), stated in his annual report of October 24th, that the Indian could not be allowed to remain in his "old superstitions, laziness, and filth, when we have the power to elevate them in the scale of humanity"; the choice was clear: Indian 'civilization', or Indian 'extermination'.
When Price stated that history proves "Savage and civilized life cannot prosper on the same ground", he was echoing a long held conviction among Euro-Americans, and one, which, by the mid-nineteenth century was allied to a theory of social development that had become central to Federal Indian policy. This theory of social development both defined what the Indian was and what he ought to become, namely, a Euro-American imitation. Since it was obvious that in evolutionary terms the Euro-American was immeasurably the Indians' superior, it followed that the former knew what was best for the Indian whose humanity was yet barely developed1; in determining the Indians' future, it was therefore considered, by the Government and other interested groups, unnecessary to consult native peoples themselves, to ask them what they wanted. In practice this meant the elimination of native culture, language, and religion.
In schools Indian children were prohibited from speaking their own language and from expressing themselves through their own cultural forms - punishment followed if this rule was broken. Children were also separated from their families whose influence was viewed as deleterious to their children's 'progress'; one of the main jobs of the Indian police was to return truants to school. In his annual report for october 1st, 1889, Commissioner of Indian Affairs, T.J.Morgan, outlined his vision for Indian education. The Indian school was to be the "means of awakening loyalty to the Government, gratitude to the nation, and hopefulness for themselves [the Indian]". Reference to the Indians' own "unhappy history" should be kept to a minimum, and made only to contrast it with the "better future that is within their grasp". Furthermore, they "should hear little or nothing of the 'wrongs of the Indians', and of the injustice of the white race". As for removing children from their parents - the earlier the better - Morgan went so far as to prescribe the witholding of rations from the latter if they resisted the removal of their children to school. Mary Crow Dog (Sicangu Sioux), formerly a pupil at St.Francis Boarding school (est.1886), Rosebud Reservation, S.Dakota, gives a moving account of the prevalence of the aforementioned attitudes to Indian education as recently as the 1960's! (Mary Crow Dog:1991 Ch.3).
Indian schools nurtured in many students a sense of shame and contempt for their own people and culture2, and further eroded their tribal identity by throwing together into one class Indians of different tribes. In his Commissioner's report for 1934, John Collier expresses his desire to end this denigration of native culture in the classroom. Quoting his Commissioner's circular, issued in the January of the same year, he states: "There are Government schools into which no trace of Indian symbolism or craft expression has been permitted to enter...No interference with Indian religious life or expression will hereafter be tolerated. The cultural history of Indians is in all respects to be considered equal to that of any non-Indian group...The Indian arts are to be prized, nourished, and honoured".
In the Congressional debates over the Wheeler-Howard Act3 in June, 1934, Collier's radical support of native culture attracted severe opposition from Churches and from Indians who had enthusiastically adopted the White man's culture. In 1948 Representative Wesley D'Ewart asserted the need to "break the ties" of Indian children with their roots in order to "get them assimilated with the White race" (Dippie:1985 p.341). Despite this enduring opposition to native culture, the passing of the Wheeler-Howard Act in 1934 promoted the official reinstatement of the Sun Dance prohibited in 1881, although it appears that the Dance was operative, covertly, in the 1920's and may never have ceased. Also prohibited in the 1880's and revived in 1973 by Leonard Crow Dog, was the Ghost Dance.
The 1890 Ghost Dance was inspired by the vision of the Paiute prophet, Wovoka (Jack Wilson), the 'Messiah'. Wovoka's vision reached the Sioux late in 1889 bringing, for many, a ray of hope into a sad and desperate existence. This vision, as told by the sioux, spoke of the resurrection of the Indian dead, the restoration of one's youth, the return of the Buffalo, Elk, and other game, and the removal of the White Man from Indian country forever4. Black Elk, a well known Holy Man who attended Ghost Dances in 1890, later recalled that "The people were crying for the old ways of living and that their religion would be with them again" (DeMallie:1985 p.260). Notably, by this time all the traditional public rituals of Sioux religion including the Sun Dance, Soul-keeping, and Giveaways, had been prohibited by the Government (Ibid.)5.
Following reports from Indian Agents that the Sioux were arming themselves and showing a defiant stance toward the Government and its representatives, troops arrived at Pine Ridge on November 20th, whilst others were deployed to Rosebud and other Sioux agencies. Sitting Bull, viewed by one Agent as "...the high priest and leading apostle..." of the Ghost Dance, was arrested on December 15th and killed in the process. Followers of Sitting Bull fled to the Cheyenne River agency; alarmed at Sitting Bull's death and uneasy at the troops' presence on their Reservation, the Big Foot band, numbering about 350, headed for Pine Ridge under a flag of truce on December 23rd. Intercepted by troops they surrendered unconditionally and stayed at Wounded Knee overnight. On the following day (Dec.29th) as troops sought to confiscate the Indians' weapons, a shot went off and "carnage ensued".
Morgan records in his Commissioner's Report for October 1st, 1891, that of the troops' casualties 25 were killed [though mostly by their own fire] and 35 wounded; for the Indians those killed included 84 men and boys, 44 women, and 18 children, whilst at least 33 were wounded, many fatally6. It has been said that besides these Indian deaths "A people's dream died there..for the nation's hoop is broken and scattered" (Black Elk Speaks:1971 p.276); the ghost shirts worn by the Big Foot band had failed to protect them as it was believed they would... the dream was discredited. The Messiah's vision had promised a return to the old ways, that the White Man would be gone from the Indian's land forever...the massacre of the Big Foot band promised and affirmed the contrary; by the end of January the Indians were back at the Indian agencies.
Thus, when Leonard Crow Dog revived the Ghost Dance at Wounded Knee in 1973, he revived more than just a dance. At Wounded Knee at this time traditional Indians and members of the American Indian Movement (AIM) protested to the Government at the appalling living conditions on Pine Ridge Reservation. Wounded Knee was chosen for the protest because it symbolized a continuity with the suffering and injustice experienced by those who were massacred there in 1890, and where a 'dream' also died.
The Ghost Dancers had restored and affirmed the Sacred Hoop, the life-way and the solidarity of the Sioux people, whilst also denying the alleged superiority and sovereignty of Euro-American culture. The Sacred Hoop had, however, now taken on an international character, for at Wounded Knee in 1973 Indians of different nations stood side by side against a common foe, namely, Euro-American culture and the U.S. Government itself; the attendance at the Sun Dance also illustrated this international character, whilst the Dance itself, like the Ghost Dance here, became for many Indians a focus for rediscovering and reaffirming their Indianness'. It should, however, be noted that for some Sioux the participation of other tribes in the Sun Dance is a cause for concern (see Beatrice Medicine in DeMallie;Parks:1987 pp.163-164).
The Sun Dance, Yuwipi, Purification ritual (Sweat lodge ), and Vision Quest are still regularly held. In all of these rituals one's kinship with the Earth, with Wakan Tanka, continues to be affirmed. In the modern Yuwipi prayer is still offered to the spirit of the stones, and a spirit stone is still offered to patients or clientele for protection against danger or illness, thus signifying the continued belief in a spiritual force in all forms of Creation. The Sacred Pipe, given by the White Buffalo Woman and handed down through the generations is still a symbol of unity for the Sioux people. The present Pipe Keeper, Arval Looking Horse, says of it, "The Sacred Pipe is the center, all the other pipes are the roots. When people pray with the Pipe, then the spirits come. Sometimes it takes time, but they do come. It is our way. The Sioux people believe in the Sacred Pipe" (DeMallie;Parks:1987 p.73) The Sacred Pipe thus remains the mediator between Wakan Tanka and humankind reinforcing the kinship ties of the Sioux people with all aspects of Creation. This sense of unity and kinship is further reinforced in the Sun Dance as Arthur Amiotte (Oglala Sioux) explains: "... for the one who understands it, there is a profound realization in the dance, a sacred ecstacy, a transformation whereby he realizes the wholeness and unity of all things... Through this the individual transcends all that we know of this life and finally arrives at the real world, the real place" (DeMallie;Parks:1987 p.89).
Ritual teaches the people how to live; it defines one's responsibilities to both the human and non-human communities, and affims one's kinship with the land itself. These relationships have, however, been seriously damaged by assimilation, Government educational policies, relocation, high unemployment (up to 90% on reservations), the indignity of poverty, domestic violence on reservations, and alcohol and drug abuse; children who were separated from their families often never returned. The re-establishment, then, of the traditional life-way requires no less than the rebuilding of the community from the family upwards, and there is much being done toward this end7.

Symbols DeMallie has referred to the concept of 'wakan' as the dominant "intangible symbol" of Sioux religion, the core of its belief, and the reader should turn to the section on Belief for a discussion of this important concept. The present section dicusses the circle symbolism, the Sacred Calf Pipe, and sacred numbers, so important for understanding the structure of Sioux belief.
The circle was indicative of life itself and was thus held to be sacred (wakan). "Everything", said Black Elk, "tries to be round - the world is round" (DeMallie:1985 p.291). The human body, the tree-trunk, the seasons. time (day, night, moon), a bird's nest - all of these were circles. The Sioux imitated this natural order by configuring the camp in circles, by sitting in circles for ceremonial occasions, and also by constructing circular tepees. Metaphorically, the camp circle was the 'sacred hoop', within which all was "safe, knowable, auspicious" (Powers:1982 p.41). So, the circle symbolizes wholeness and "helps us to remember Wakan Tanka, who, like the circle, has no end" (Black Elk quoted in Brown:1953 p.92).
The Sacred Calf Pipe, brought to the people by the White Buffalo Calf Woman, one of the Wakan Tanka, is the embodiment of all creation, all forms of which are understood to be one's relatives and to which one is bound by smoking the Sacred Pipe; by this act one accepts one's responsibility toward all one's relatives.
Black Elk tells us that the pipe-bowl is made of red stone and symbolizes the Earth, whilst a buffalo carved in the stone represents all the four-leggeds. The pipe stem, made of wood, symbolizes all growing things, whilst twelve feathers attached to it represents the eagle and all winged creatures. All of these "peoples" "send their voices to Wakan Tanka, the Great Spirit. When you pray with this Pipe, you pray for and with everything" (Black Elk quoted in Brown:1953 pp.6-7). Thus, the Sacred Pipe symbolizes the identity of the Sioux peoples - "this is the Sioux religion" (Arval Looking Horse 'The Sacred Pipe' in DeMallie:1988 p.69). (See also the end of the History section).
Sacred numbers, four and seven. The structure of the Universe and of all those things within it reflect a four-fold division. There are, for example, four divisions of time: day, night, the moon, and the year; four parts to all growing things: the roots, stem, leaves, and fruit; and four stages of human life: babyhood, childhood, adulthood, and old age. "Since the Great Spirit caused everything to be in fours, mankind should do everything possible in fours" (George Sword quoted in Powers:1982 p.48). Hence, ceremonies preferably spanned four days or a period divided into four day sections. Also, the Purification Lodge was constructed, ideally, from sixteen willow branches so arranged as to mark out the four directions. The Sun Dance Lodge was built from twenty-eight poles (4x7) with a central pole symbolizing Wakan Tanka; both of the said structures represented the Universe. The White Buffalo Woman brought to the people seven sacred rites and she stayed with them for four days. The Sioux were also formerly known as the 'Seven Fire Places' (See History section). The numbers four and seven are viewed as sacred by most North American Indians.

Adherents Tribal population estimates from the 1990 Census for American Indian Tribes and Alaska Native villages, gives the total Sioux population at 103,255. This figure, however, gives no indication of the number of Sioux who adhere to what may be understood as traditional culture. It has been noted that for native Americans generally, following much assimilation, "...large numbers of persons do not strongly identify with their American Indian heritage and do not resemble the socioeconomic profile of most American Indians... There are nearly 6 million such individuals, compared with the 1.4 million persons who better resemble conventional ideas about who is an American Indian", namely, a core group with strong ties to their tribal heritage, who are most likely to speak a native language, and probably live on a reservation (Snipp:1991 p.310). Nevertheless, it is much less clear to what extent this relationship applies to the population of any given tribe, or for our present purposes, the Sioux. This problem is complicated by the question of to what extent can Indian participation in Euro-American society be considered as acculturation. Powers suggests that acculturation studies have, by definition, been biased in favour of showing change and adaptation but not contEskimo-Aleuty (Powers:1982 p.xii).
Speaking of the Oglala Sioux, Powers makes the important observation that using the White man's technology, wearing White man's clothes etc., is no indication of the acceptance of the White man's values. Use of the White man's technology may be necessary for survival, but when the Oglala seeks his identity he does so in a "...religious system whose structure has remained in many respects constant since European contact" (Ibid. p.204). Whilst it is difficult to give a figure for the number adherents of traditional culture, there are certainly many Sioux organizations dedicated to its continuing survival. Many Sioux continue the struggle to hold on to the Black Hills, refusing a $100 million award for the Hills from the Indian Claims Commission (ICC) in 1980. The refusal of this award is a measure of the continuing vitality of and committment to traditional culture (See Beliefs section for a discussion on the sacredness of the Black Hills).

Main Centre


1. The low status attributed to the Indian is well illustrated as follows. The U.S. Supreme Court determined in 1877 that the Pueblo were not Indians as they were "a peaceable, industrious, intelligent, and honest and virtuous people...Indians only in feature, complexion, and a few of their habits" (Quoted in Cohen, F. Handbook of Federal Indian law, 1942 p.22). The court later reversed its decision when Indian agents reported the Pueblo's "drunkenness, debauchery, dancing, and communal..." The Pueblo were Indians after all, "being a 'simple, uninformed and inferior people'" (Cohen:1942 p.22). My source for this account is Thornton:1987 p.189.

2. Luther Standing Bear, himself a graduate of Carlisle Indian School, recalled that back on the reservation "...some of the returned Carlisle were ashamed of their old people and refused to shake hands with them; some even tried to make them believe they had forgotten the Sioux language" (Standing Bear:1975 p.191).

3. The Wheeler-Howard Act is better known as the Indian Reorganization Act (IRA).

4. Notably, Wovoka himself advocated living in peace with the White Man (Mooney quoted in Thornton:1987 p.140).

5. It has been suggested that the decision to participate in the Ghost Dance was closely linked to tribal depopulation. The Ghost Dance would restore the dead to life and int turn the old ways also. Non-participating tribes were larger, suffering less depopulation (Thornton:1987 p.157).

6. D. Brown states that whilst 153 Indians were known to have died at Wounded Knee, other wounded Indians crawled away from the scene only to die later, so bringing the death toll up to nearly 300 (Brown:1970 p.444).

7. One native organization doing such work is the White Buffalo Calf Woman's Society on Rosebud Reservation, South Dakota. Among its major projects is the provision of shelter and counselling for victims of violence and rape and their children; the training of women to run purification rites and to learn the ways of the Sacred Pipe; and working with Indian prisoners in the State's Correctional Institutions. The central concern of the Society is to affirm and to restore mutual respect within family life, without which the community, and too its culture, can never be strong (Talking Stick Journal, Winter/Spring 1996).