As part of the Lakota culture, when people pray or do anything sacred, they see the world as having Four Directions. From these Four Directions — west, north, east, south — come the four winds. The special meanings of each of the Four Directions are accompanied by specific colors, and the shape of the cross symbolizes all directions. Like many Native American beliefs and traditions, specific details regarding colors associated with directions varies.
To the west, the sun sets, and the day ends. For this reason, west signifies the end of life. As Black Elk says, “… toward the setting sun of his life.” The great Thunderbird lives in the west and sends thunder and rain from its direction. For this reason, the west is also the source of water: rain, lakes, streams and rivers. Nothing can live without water, so the west is vital.
North brings the cold, harsh winds of the winter season. These winds are cleansing. They cause the leaves to fall and the earth to rest under a blanket of snow. If someone has the ability to face these winds like the buffalo with its head into the storm, they have learned patience and endurance. Generally, this direction stands for hardships and discomfort. Therefore, north represents the trials people must ensure and the cleansing they must undergo.
The direction from which the sun comes. Light dawns in the morning and spreads over the earth. This is the beginning of a new day. It is also the beginning of understanding because light helps us see things the way they really are. On a deeper level, east stands for the wisdom helping people live good lives. Traditional people rise in the morning to pray facing the dawn, asking God for wisdom and understanding.
Because the southern sky is when the sun is at its highest, this direction stands for warmth and growing. The sun’s rays are powerful in drawing life from the earth. It is said the life of all things comes from the south. Also, warm and pleasant winds come from the south. When people pass into the spirit world, they travel the Milky Way’s path back to the south — returning from where they came.
**NOTE: When the Lakota pray with the Sacred Pipe, they add two other directions: Sky and Earth. The Great Spirit — Wakan Tanka — dwells high above like an eagle in the sky; this direction’s color is blue. Earth is our Mother and Grandmother from whom we receive our nourishment. The color of this direction is green for all growing things.**
Adapted from Lakota Life by Ron Zeilinger