As legend states, long ago, the Sacred White Buffalo Calf Woman came to Earth and gave the Lakota people a Sacred Pipe and a small round stone. These gifts would be used for the Seven Lakota Rites.
After presenting the gifts and teachings, the Sacred White Buffalo Calf Woman left the people saying, “There will be four ages, and I will look in on you once each age. At the end of the four ages, I will return.”
As she left, she changed from a beautiful woman into a black buffalo. Her coat then changed to red, and then to yellow, until finally changing to white. She then disappeared into the clouds.
The bowl of the pipe she gave the Lakota people was made of red stone, representing the Earth. A buffalo head was carved on the pipe, symbolizing all of the four-legged animals that roam the earth. The pipe’s stem was made of wood, representing nature. Twelve eagle feathers hung from the place where the bowl joined the stem; this symbolized all the birds.
The round stone was made out of the same red earth as the pipe and had seven circles on it, representing the seven rites.
When a Lakota person smokes a sacred pipe, his or her voice is sent to Wakȟáŋ Tȟáŋka — the Great Spirit
Inípi — Rite of Purification
The Lakota term for sweat lodge is Inípi, which means ‘to live again’. The Inípi serves as the basic purification ceremony of the Sioux, as well as many of the other Native American cultures. The Inípi can begin a ceremony, conclude a ceremony, or can even stand alone as a ceremony of its own.
The Inípi lodge takes the shape of a dome and is constructed of 16 willow poles and a canvas or hide cover. Due to its shape, some describe the lodge as a symbol of Uŋčí Makȟá — Mother Earth’s — womb.
Before the ceremony takes place, prayers are said and the lodge is purified.
Throughout the Inípi, participants sit on sacred sage in the shape of a circle. The ceremonial pipe is smoked while heated rocks are placed on the center fireplace and water is poured over them to create steam.
During the Inípi, the door to the lodge is opened four times to represent the four ages described by the Sacred White Buffalo Calf Woman. On the fourth time the door is opened, all participants emerge from the lodge and all that is impure stays within.
Haŋbléčheyapi — Crying for a Vision
Vision Quests can be undertaken as part of the rite of passage from boyhood to manhood or as an adult in order to receive specific revelations. Men are traditionally the ones who take part in this ceremony, but in recent years, some women have prayed for visions in formal Vision Quests.
The person participating in a Vision Quest first participates in an Inípi for purification purposes. Traditionally, the person seeking a vision builds the sweat lodge themselves.
After the Inípi ceremony, the individual seeking a revelation is isolated in a place where the power is great. Although some sites, such as the Black Hills in South Dakota, are well-known as powerful sites, all tribes have identified areas they use specifically for this purpose. The individual remains isolated at this location for several nights — usually four — fasting from food and praying for a vision that will reveal their destiny.
Visions traditionally come in the form of an animal and dreams are said to hold the most powerful visions.
After the Haŋbléčheyapi concludes, the participant’s dreams are interpreted by a Wičháša Wakȟáŋ — Holy Man.
Wiwáŋyaŋg Wačhípi — Sundance
Developed by several Plains Tribes, the Sundance has been recognized by some as the most important ceremony practiced by the Lakota. The ceremony is a visual sacrifice for the people.
The annual Sundance, bringing many people from different bands together, serves as a time for renewal for the tribe, people and Uŋčí Makȟá — Mother Earth. In 1876, one of the largest Sundance ceremonies took place near the Little Big Horn River, bringing approximately 6,000 participants together.
Individuals vow to participate in the Sundance in return for a specific form of help — such as sparing the life of a sick relative, finding buffalo during times they were scarce, or experiencing success during war.
Participation in a Sundance includes the dancer’s entire family. Throughout the ceremony, family members offer assistance and encouragement to their loved one.
The ceremony, traditionally lasting seven days, begins with the cutting of the Sundance pole, preferably cut from a cottonwood tree, which is not allowed to touch the ground as it falls. The pole is decorated and placed in the middle of the arena.
At the beginning of the ceremony, anyone can dance. Dancers make sure to face the sun and take this time — usually four days — to prepare themselves.
The heart of the ceremony is the piercing of the Sundancers’ pectoral or back muscles with a length of bone. The bone is then attached to the pole or buffalo skulls by rope. The purpose of the dance is to remove the pieces of bone from one’s body. Those attached to the pole leaned backwards to try and release themselves. Those attached to skulls drag them over rocks and through bushes to encourage the bones to break free.
Huŋkálowaŋpi — Making of Relatives
The Huŋkálowaŋpi ceremony was first used to build peace between the Lakota and Ree people. This ceremony ensured peace and friendship between the tribes and mirrored the relationship of the Lakota with Wakȟáŋ Tȟáŋka — the Great Spirit.
Today, the ceremony traditionally includes an older man taking a younger man under his wing, offering to protect and treat the young man as his own son. Occasionally, the ceremony also serves as a way of adopting nontribal members into a family.
Today, one can become part of a thiyóšpaye — extended family — by birth, marriage or Huŋkálowaŋpi.
Išnáthi Awíčhalowaŋpi — A Girl’s Coming of Age
This rite was performed at the time when a young girl realized the change taking place in her life was a sacred thing. The ceremony was held to purify and prepare her for becoming a woman and bearing children. Although the Išnáthi Awíčhalowaŋpi ceremony is not as common today due to the changes in gender expectations, the ceremony traditionally occurs during a girl’s first menstrual cycle.
Family members build a tipi and gather the necessary objects for the ceremony. On the day of the ceremony, a Wičháša Wakȟáŋ — Holy Man — burns sweet grass and uses the smoke to purify all of the ceremonial objects. A feast was held, and a giveaway took place. The goodness and holiness that came to the young girl also then extended to the whole tribe.
Overall, the young girl is reminded of the virtues necessary for womanhood, including modesty, generosity, child bearing and supporting male relatives and husbands.
Wanáǧi Yuhápi — Keeping of the Soul
According to the Sacred White Buffalo Woman, when a Lakota person dies, their souls must be purified so they can reunite with Wakȟáŋ Tȟáŋka — the Great Spirit.
Traditionally, a lock of hair from the departed was cut and held over a piece of burning sweet grass for purification purposes. After being wrapped in a piece of sacred buckskin, called the soul bundle, the bundle was kept by the soul’s keeper in a special place within the tipi. The Keeper of the Soul vowed to live a life of harmony until the soul can be released — typically about a year.
After a commemorative banquet and gift-giving ceremony, the bundle containing the soul was carried outside and released.
It is said that the soul travels along the Spirit Path — Milky Way — to reach Mayá Owíčhapaha — the old woman who judges each soul.
The one-year commemoration remains a common ceremony today.
Tȟápa Waŋkáyeyapi — Throwing of the Ball
In a ceremony preceding the Tȟápa Waŋkáyeyapi ceremony, the ball is painted red, with a blue dot in each of the four quarters. Two circles blue in color were painted around the ball, which symbolize heaven and earth coming together. A pipe was purified with sweet grass smoke while prayers were sent to Wakȟáŋ Tȟáŋka — the Great Spirit and the powers of the Four Directions. The ball was said to have been given to man by the buffalo, symbolizing that man was the inheritor of the earth.
A young girl is traditionally chosen to throw the ball. After reaching the center of a large circle, she throws the ball to each of the Four Directions. People standing around the circle catch the ball and return it to her. After throwing to the West, South, East and North, the girl throws the ball high into the air. As the ball comes down on the people, the Great Spirit’s power also comes down.
Sometimes used as a healing ceremony for a stressed community, Tȟápa Waŋkáyeyapi highlights that Wakȟáŋ Tȟáŋka — the Great Spirit — is everywhere.
The Sacred Pipe, Black Elk's Account of the Seven Rites of the Oglala Sioux, recorded and edited by Joseph Epes Brown.
The Gift of the Sacred Pipe, Based on Black Elk’s Account of the Seven Rites of the Oglala Sioux, recorded and edited by Joseph Epes Brown. Edited and Illustrated by Vera Louise Drysdale.