Life and Death: Lakota Spiritual Practice


In Lakota spirituality, leaders speak about dealing with a Nuclear Age world out of balance, life after death, and overcoming drugs, money and emptiness. Lakota history and the Seven Sacred Rites are discussed.

Lakota People, wolves, vision questLakota History: Nomadic Hunter Gatherers

The Lakota people are the western-most of the three groups belonging to a political body called Titonwan, occupying lands in both North and South Dakota. The Lakota have historically been a nomadic hunter-gatherer people who organized their lives and ceremonies around movement of the sun and stars. They acquired the horse around 1700 and became a dominating force within the Missouri River Basin by virtue of their skills as mounted equestrians.

Lakota also designates the language spoken by the seven bands of the Oceti Sakowin (seven councilfires): Oglala (They Scatter Their Own), Sichangu (Burned Thighs, also known as Brule), Mnicoujou (Planters by the Water), Itazipcho (Sans Arcs or Without Bows), Oohenumpa (Two Kettles), Sihasapa (Blackfeet), and Hunkpapha (End of the Camp Circle). In the past, the Lakota occupied areas of what are now Montana, Wyoming, North and South Dakota, and Nebraska, their resource based being the buffalo, elk, deer and other large mammals as well as fruits, seeds, roots, and tubers.

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The Encyclopedia of Religion (Powers 1987, Garrett 2005, Martin 2005) examines the Lakota spiritual cosmology, referring to the inclusion of He Sapa, the Black Hills, in Lakota-held lands by treaties. After the discovery of gold by Custer’s forces in 1875, He Sapa was taken illegally for white settlement, still contested and in litigation today, although in the early 1980s the U.S. Supreme Court established once and for all that the Lakota hold exclusive title to the Black Hills. He Sapa, sometimes known as Paha Sapa, is land considered sacred by the Lakota and other Plains tribes. It is known as wa-maka ognaka y cante (the heart of everything that is).

During the westward movement by gold seekers and immigrants, the Lakota defended their lands under such leaders and strategists as Red Cloud, Crazy Horse, Sitting Bull, Gall, American Horse, and Rain in the Face. The Lakota were notably present at the victory of Greasy Grass (the Little Bighorn) and the subsequent defeat of George Armstrong Custer and the Seventh Calvary on June 25, 1876.

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By 1888, intense suffering, starvation, and death on the reservations prompted people to participate in the Ghost Dance movement in an effort to restore lost relatives and the traditional way of life. Allegedly for their participation in the movement, over three hundred disarmed Lakota men, women, and children of Chief Big Foot’s band of Mnicoujou were were massacred by the Seventh Calvary, Custer’s reconstituted force, on December 29, 1890, at Wounded Knee, South Dakota.

Lakota Religious Traditions: The Great Mystery

For the Lakota, religion is not compartmentalized into a separate category. More appropriately, Lakota traditions and spirituality are fully integrated into a life rhythm including all aspects and patterns of the universe. At the center of this rhythm is Wakan Tanka or Tunkashila, sometimes translated as Grandfather and often as Great Spirit or Great Mystery, but better left untranslated. Chanunupa Wakan (the sacred pipe) and the subsequent smoke carries messages from humans to Wakan Tanka.

Seven Sacred Rites

According to contemporary Lakota oral historical accounts and discussions with elders, the following is a description of the Seven Sacred Rites of the Lakota that came from the Encyclopedia of Religion. Handed down from White Buffalo Calf Woman, Wicoh’an Wakan Sakowin (Seven Sacred Rites) have been recorded by Joseph Brown in the words of Nicholas Black Elk in The Sacred Pipe: Black Elk’s Account of the Seven Sacred Rites of the Oglala Sioux.

First Rite. The first of the Seven Sacred Rites (though not chronological) is Inikagapi or Inipi (to renew life). A sweat lodge is held in a dome-shaped structure made of willow saplings and covered with hide or tarps that symbolizes the shape of the universe and/or the womb of a pregnant woman. Heated stones are placed in a central hole in the lodge and water is poured over them by an itancan (leader) to create steam. The purpose of the ceremony is to pray for health and well-being, spiritually and physically.

Second Rite. The second rite is Hanbleceyapi (crying for a vision). The vision quest is undertaken by an individual with the help and guidance of a holy man. A person elects to go on a quest to pray, communicate with the spirits, and attempt to gain knowledge, strength, and understanding. The person pledges to stay on an isolated hill for one to four days with a blanket and a pipe, but without food or water. Upon returning, the vision may be discussed with the wicasa wakan (holy man). Often the meaning of the vision is not readily apparent and the individual may be told to wait for knowledge and understanding.

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Third Rite. The third rite is Wanagi Wicagluha (keeping of the spirit). Spirit keeping is a rite performed by a mourner for one year to grieve for a lost loved one. When a person dies the spirit can linger around the family and community. According to Black Elk, “this rite purifies the souls of our dead, and our love for one another is increased” (p. 10). A special place is set up for the spirit, who is fed every day. Members of the family and community can come and visit, eat, and sit with the spirit and family. After one year the spirit is ceremonially released and the mourning period is formally ended. It is usual among the Lakota for the mourning family to refrain from attending or participating in secular activities, gatherings, or events during this formal grieving period.

Fourth Rite. The fourth rite is Wiwanyang Wacipi (sundance). The Sun Dance is often considered the most important rite, and it is held during the summer when the moon is full. In times past a number of Plains bands of the Lakota would gather at a prearranged location for the annual meeting of the Oceti Sakowin; this was the occasion prior to Greasy Grass. It was during this annual gathering that the Sun Dance ceremony was held. During the ceremony, dancers pledge to make offerings of their flesh so that “much strength would be given to the nation” (p. 99) and to fulfill personal vows. The choice to participate is solely that of each individual. It is usually the result of receiving a sacred dream or is undertaken to seek assistance in healing a sick loved one. The sacred tree that is placed at the center of the dance area symbolizes Wakan Tanka, the center of the universe.

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Fifth Rite. The fifth rite is Hunkapi (making relatives). It establishes a “relationship on Earth, which is a reflection of that real relationship” with Wakan Tanka (p. 101). It was usually performed to unite a younger person with a family, and it can be a way of solidifying relationships with other individuals as well as Wakan Tanka. This ceremony represents the formal adoption of people as relatives.

Sixth Rite. The sixth rite is Isnati Awicalowanpi (puberty ceremony). The ceremony takes place after a girl’s first menses, and prayers are said to ensure she will grow up to have all the virtues of a Lakota woman and understand the meaning of her new role, and to formally announce her eligibility as a potential wife and mother.

Seventh Rite. In place of Tapa Wankayeyapi (throwing the ball), a game “which represents the course of a man’s life,” is no longer in use. Instead, I include the vital religious practice known as Yuwipi, which became popular in the twentieth century. It encompasses a number of cultural concepts related to traditional life and problems confronting contemporary Lakota peoples. This rite is performed in a darkened room under the supervision of a Yuwipi man or wicasa wakan. The object is to cure a person and at the same time to pray for the general welfare of all Indian people and for long life for the kinship group. Some Yuwipi men possess an exceptional ability that allows them to locate lost items or people.

See Also:

“Climate Haywire, Pipelines Bursting, Time for a Change,”


Brown, Joseph Epes, ed. The Sacred Pipe: Black Elk’s Account of the Seven Sacred Rites of the Oglala Sioux. Norman, Okla.,1953. An interview during the winter of 1947 with the Lakota medicine man Nicholas Black Elk on the Seven Sacred Rites, inspired by earlier interviews by John G. Neihardt.

Deloria, Ella C., ed. Dakota Texts. New York, 1932. The best bilingual compilation of Lakota mythological texts by an author who was both Lakota and an anthropologist.

Densmore, Frances. Teton Sioux Music. Washington, D.C., 1918. Contains a number of interviews with Hunkpapa medicine men, transcriptions and translations of sacred songs, and vivid ethnographic accounts of most of the sacred ceremonies.

Lakota Religious Traditions. Encyclopedia of Religion. 14 Nov. 2018 <>.

Powers, William K. Yuwipi: Vision and Experience in Oglala Ritual. Lincoln, Neb., 1982. A translation of a Yuwipi ceremony indicating the relationship between Yuwipi, sweat lodge, and vision quest. Includes a chapter on the history of Yuwipi at Pine Ridge.


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Updated 23 June 2021

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About Jack Eidt

Novelist, urban theorist and designer, and environmental journalist, Jack Eidt careens down human-nature's all consuming one-way highway to its inevitable conclusion -- Wilder Utopia. He co-founded Wild Heritage Partners, based out of Los Angeles, California. He can be reached at jack (dot) eidt (at) wilderutopia (dot) com. Follow him on Twitter @WilderUtopia and @JackEidt