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The Lakota Ways Pages: 1 | 2

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The ways of the Lakota have been passed down from generation to generation, long before the white man first stepped onto North American soil. An important part of Lakota culture focuses on the larger community of their people, as represented by the council fires. For this community of the Great Plains, the buffalo was not only key to Lakota survival, it also held great spiritual significance.

In the tradition of their ancestors, the Lakota family extends beyond the parents and their children: younger generations learn from their elders, who hold the wisdom of the tribe. The Lakota way places an emphasis on home, and spirituality plays a role in every action. Read more about the Lakota traditions that continue to this day among the families of the Pine Ridge Reservation.

Michael Littleboy and son
Michael Littleboy and son


The People
The Lakota people belong to the larger group Oceti Sakowin (meaning "the seven places of fire"), called the Sioux by the white man after the Chippewa (Ojibwa) word for their enemies "nadouessioux," meaning "little snakes." Legend tells that long ago at a sacred lake, Sun (Wi), who appears as fire on earth, revealed the tribal organization to the Sioux people. Thus began the tradition of the seven council fires, the Lakota among them.

Lakota is one of the three similar languages spoken by the Sioux; the others are Dakota and Nakota. The Lakota are made up of seven bands: Oglala ("dust scatterers"), Sicanju (or Brulé, "burnt thighs"), Hunkpapa ("end of the circle"), Miniconjous ("planters beside the stream"), Sihasapa (or Blackfeet, different from the Blackfeet tribe), Itazipacola (or Sans Arc, "without bows") and Oohenupa ("two kettles").

The Buffalo

"We did not think of the great open plains, the beautiful rolling hills, the winding streams with tangled growth, as 'wild.' ...To us it was tame. Earth was bountiful and we were surrounded with the blessings of the Great Mystery."
- Luther Standing Bear, chief of the Oglala Lakota, 1905-1939

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Doris Eagle That's the baby white calf. Tunkashila sent us that calf and he's gonna take care of us.
Grandchild Who?
Doris Eagle Tunkashila, the great spirit, you know who, you know who I'm talking about. He brought us this so we can all get along together and we can all help each other out. And all the Indians stay together. That's what brought that. That's why we have that calf here on our reservation, on Indian land.

Lakota people are also called Teton Sioux or Titunwan, meaning "who live on the prairie." The name recalls the migration of the tribe from the woods of Minnesota to the Black Hills of the great plains territories, where they learned to live with the buffalo. On the wide open lands Tatanka, the spirit in the form of the buffalo, provided for both body and soul. Hunters ate the fresh liver of the newly killed buffalo, and boiled, roasted and dried meat nourished the entire village. The Lakota used buffalo hide for clothing, tipis and shrouds for their prayer lodge. They made saddles, tools and weapons from the bones. They carried water in buffalo bladders and used buffalo droppings for incense and fuel. Every part of the animal served a purpose, down to the hooves, which were made into glue. The Lakota would not dishonor the Earth by wasting a single portion of Tatanka's precious gift.

Lakota family
Little Wound, wife and son studio portrait, 1899 (Denver Public Library, Western History Collection)


The Family

"The old Lakota was wise. He knew that a man's heart away from Nature becomes hard; he knew that lack of respect for growing, living things soon lead to a lack of respect for humans too."
- Luther Standing Bear, chief of the Oglala Lakota, 1905-1939

Kinship is central to the Lakota way of life. Courage, fortitude, wisdom and generosity are among the most celebrated virtues. The Lakota learn these traits from their elders and prove them in their daily lives. Every act and judgment is considered in terms of its duty and benefit to the extended family, which often includes hundreds of people. The worst insult a Lakota can give is to say "you live as if you had no relatives."

The Home

"There was once a Lakota holy man, called Drinks Water, who dreamed what was to be....He dreamed that the four-leggeds were going back to the Earth, and that a strange race would weave a web all around the Lakotas. He said, 'You shall live in square gray houses, in a barren land....' Sometimes dreams are wiser than waking."
-Black Elk (1863-1950), holy man of the Oglala Lakota, written in 1932


Lakota camp
(Denver Public Library, Western History Collection)


The tradition of the Lakota household dates back to an ancient legend. Wisdom (Ksa) created the first lodge, which had a circular floor. He placed the fire from Sun (Wi) in the center. The door faced east, giving honor to the rising sun. Traditional lodges still follow this plan. In individual tipis, the husband sleeps on the west side of his wife, who is in charge of the household. They keep their belongings by the wall near their respective sleeping places. Movement within the tipi should always be in the direction of the sun (clockwise). A good guest sits to the right of the door until invited to move further inside. Wood and water are stored on the left. Keeping things in good order is of vital importance.

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