Native Americans perceive life as a series of cycles. The Lakota speak of the Cangleska (Chan-gles-Ka) Wakan, the Sacred Red Hoop of Life around which they walked. The United States government believed that the Lakota spoke of solely of religious beliefs which they dismissed as superstitious constructs. The military would not accept that the Lakota spoke literally of their physical environment. In addition to representing many spiritual teachings, the small circular icons we see worn and displayed represented a literal relationship between the Lakota and their physical environment in the Black Hills of South Dakota. It was the Lakota relationship to Black Hills that was considered sacred.
The Black Hills are a geological wonder. It is a wedge shaped land mass that rises from the prairie in the western corner of South Dakota. It is as though someone cut a piece out of the Northern California forests and dropped them in the center of the western prairie. The Lakota speak of a Great Race of Animals around the Black Hills, the tumult of which caused the Hills to rise from the floor of the earth(1)
Formed by glaciers, the mass consists primarily of bedrock coverered with glacial sediment. The land is fertile and supports giant black pines; from which it gets it name, farming, crops, fruits and berries and a multitude of wildlife and fish. It is in this environment that the Lakota enjoyed an abundant way of living.
The Cangleska Wakan, the Sacred Red Circle of Life is a red clay valley that circles the Black Hills. The Lakota, a nomadic people, migrated around this Hoop on an annual basis for physical survival and spiritual renewal. There were specific camps for winter, spring and summer which corresponded to the best locations for game and foods.
Lakota Spirituality was also inherently tied to the Black Hills environment. Within Cangleska Wakan; the Sacred Hoop, are various land masses used by the Lakota for the facilitation of specific rituals at various times of the year.
During the winter, the bands resided at their winter camps in Nebraska and South Dakota. At the time of the spring equinox, the bands would begin the Spring Pipe Ceremonies. The prayers called the people to return to Devil’s Tower for the annual Sundance. The prayers also called for the return of the animals and the renewal of plants. The bands would then begin the trek to Harney Peak ,Nebraska for the ceremonies of renewal. There the Lakota performed the ceremonies called “They are dancing for the Thunders that are theirs”. This was a ceremony to welcome back the Thunder Beings, harbingers of the spring storms which cleansed the earth.
When the bands arrived at Pe Sla, A barren hill in the Black Hills in mid-spring, the bands would perform the ceremony called “Peace at Bare Spot”. This was a ceremony of welcoming back life and included the offering of libation (pouring water), feeding the birds and the offering of meat. This time also included preparation for the annual Sundance; a time which included prayer and purification.4
Once the spring ceremonies were concluded the people would begin the journey to Devil’s Tower to conduct the Sundance at the time of summer solstice. The Sundance was a national religious and social event. Matters of legal importance impacting the tribes were decided then. If the bands could not converge for the spring ceremonies, all endeavored to return for the Sundance.
On the journey to Devil’s Tower, the people would carry with them stones from Inyan Kaga (a hill in the Wyoming Black Hills) to be used in the purification lodges at the Sundance. The spiritual name for Devil’s tower is “Grey Buffalo Horn”. Inyan Kaga is called “Black Buffalo Horn” and Bear Butte was called the “Buffalo’s Nose”. This triangular configuration of mountains was called, “The Buffalo’s Head” and between spring equinox and summer solstice was a cauldron of spiritual energy and activity. 4
To the Lakota, The Buffalo represented a traditional way of life; a way of living. They were not just referring to the wooly animal of the plains, but rather to the spiritual “Buffalo”, whose head was formed by three sacred mountains, which was the core of their spiritual and physical and renewal. The journey for the Lakota was, in actuality quite circuitous, however this was Their sacred and literal Red Circle of Life
Cangleska Wakan, the first Medicine Wheel, encompassed the physical context for Lakota spiritual beliefs. This was their home. Saying that the Sacred Circle was broken is a literal description of the desecration of the physical homeland of the Lakota people. Bear Butte, the place where the Lakota said they emerged from within the earth, is now a national park. The people now need special arrangements to facilitate the Vision Quest ceremonies to prepare to dance. The Hot Springs, used for spring purification are now a tourist attraction from which the people are barred and chased away. When the Lakota said they were no longer able to follow the Sacred Hoop, they spoke literally as well as symbolically.
The physical world of the Lakota was mirrored in the heavens. What they did on the earth was a replica of what occurred in the heavens; as the saying goes, As above, so below…From a practical perspective How did the Lakota know when to move camp? We will explore these concepts and questions in our next articles, “The Significance of the Big Horn Medicine Wheel.”
Spider who Sings
Black Elk spoke of a time in the Seventh Generation of people that the Sacred Hoop would begin to be mended. This mending has taken many forms including political and social revolution, litigation, and the reclaiming of traditional cultural andspiritual practices. There are many who have been able blend traditinal teachings and American institutions to build lives of courage with purpose.
The journey for the individual can be treacherous as lack of employment opportunities, poverty, substance abuse and disease are rampant on the reservation. The reservation on Pine Ridge has been described as a third world environment and many struggle to find meaning in the barren land into which they were deposited.
If you are interested in providing assistance there are many credible organizations which help to provide propane, medicines and education on the Lakota reservations. If you desire to provide assitance please contact the Black Hills Salvation Army http://www.usc.salvationarmy.org/usc/www_usc_blackhills.nsf/ to find credible ways to help these communities. The Lakota Country Times http://www.lakotacountrytimes.com/ is good online resource reporting on events involving the Lakotanation. The Native American Rights Fund http://www.narf.org/ provides articles and information on the efforts of native tribes to unravel the legal entaglements of the treaties which took away their lands and rights. NARF is the place to go if you can’t find other resources. They will tell you how to help.
1. Lakota Creation Stories
2. map from: http://www.ndsu.edu/nd_geology/nd_maps/nd_map4.htm
4. Lakota Star Knowledge: Studies in Lakot Stellar Theology: Ronald Goodman, Sinte Gleska University press, 1992.