For the Sioux nation, religion is an integral part of daily life. The Sioux's world view, like that of a number of other indigenous peoples, embraces shamanism, animism and polytheism. Although the U.S. government attempted to ban the Sioux's religious practices during the 1800s, many 21st-century Sioux still believe in the tribe's traditional spirituality and have reinstated some of its previously controversial dance ceremonies.
Earth and Spirit
The Sioux lived from the fruits of the earth and the buffalo, which they followed as these animals moved from summer to winter feeding grounds. They believed that animals, plants and humans all came from one source: Mother Earth. They also believed that although each creature, including humans, had its own spirit, or "wakan," this spirit came from one universal source: the Great Spirit, or Wakan Tanka. Wakan Tanka is manifest in every aspect of the universe. For the Sioux, all is one and there is no separation between the physical and spiritual worlds. Lakota Sioux visionary Black Elk expresses this sense of oneness in his vision of a "mighty flowering tree" growing in the center of a series of hoops. This world tree "shelters all the children of one mother and one father." Black Elk also refers to the Sioux people as "the sacred hoop," which represents the unity of the nation. Circular forms, such as medicine wheels, play an important role in Sioux religious rites, as the circle also symbolizes oneness.
Wakan Tanka and Wakanpi
Wakan Tanka translates as "all that is holy and mysterious." Although the Great Spirit is manifest in all things, it had assistance from spirits called "wakanpi." These invisible beings had control over all aspects of life, so they had to be kept happy. Only specific people could understand what the wakanpi wanted, so it was the job of holy men and women to communicate with these spirits, usually through shamanic practices such as dream interpretation and drumming-induced trances. In the Sioux tradition, shamanic ability is a divine gift revealed to the person during his or her youth. The budding shaman typically goes on a solitary vision quest to discover what the spirits require of him or her.
The vision quest was a Sioux rite of passage for boys at puberty that lasted approximately three or four days, during which the young man was alone in a remote place without food. The process represented a form of death and rebirth, during which the individual hoped to connect with his guardian spirit and learn how he could benefit his tribe. When he returned he reported his visions to the tribal elders and was assigned a new social status within the tribe. The vision quest is still used by some Native Americans.
Smoking the Sacred Calf Pipe was another important ritual. It symbolized the responsibility of each person to the other members of the tribe as well as the identity of the tribe. Decorations on the pipe symbolize the earth and everything in it. Black Elk says that when people smoke the pipe they "pray for and with everything." Sweat lodges for purification were used before significant ceremonies such as the Sun Dance.
The Sioux Sun Dance takes place in a sacred circle. Its purpose is the renewal of the relationship with the land and all beings, including ones from the spirit world. The U.S. and Canadian governments suppressed this practice in 1883, seeing it as merely superstitious rather than religious. Permission to practice it again was only given in the mid-20th century.
The Ghost Dance only appeared during the 1890s, when numerous tribes experienced the loss of buffalo and land. A visionary called Wovoka claimed he had been given a vision of a dance that would restore the land and traditional way of life to the Native American tribes. The Sioux expanded on the Ghost Dance by adding the belief that wearing of specific symbols on clothing would provide protection in battle. The dance united many tribes, which is possibly the main reason that it was banned.
- University of Cumbria Overview of World Religions: Sioux Religion
- Chiefs: Sioux Nation Religion And Beliefs
- Native Americans Online: Native American Ghost Dance
- George Mason University: Plains Indians of The United States of America
- University of Texas: Parallelism in Sioux and Sami Spiritual Traditions
- Encyclopedia of The Plains Indians: Vision Quest
- Encyclopedia of The Plains Indians: Sun Dance
- American Indian Religious Traditions; Suzanne Crawford O'Brien and Dennis F. Kelley
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