by Steven Mizrach



Although there has been much written about Plains Indian ethnoastronomy, a large amount of that literature has focused on the Caddoan ethnic/linguistic group - in particular, tribes such as the Pawnee, Arikara, and Arapaho. In this paper, I will focus on the "Sioux" Indian tribes (a misnomer), looking in particular at the astronomical practices and beliefs of the Oglala, Hunkpapu, and other Lakota bands. It can be shown that despite what some anthropologists have proclaimed about living 'timelessly', the Lakota did pay attention to the heavens, and they did have means of preserving what they observed.


Sun Dance


Contrary to common belief, the Plains Indian Sun Dance was neither a form of solar worship nor a ritual ordeal or sacrifice. For the Lakota, the Sun was indeed a representative of the Great Mystery (wakan tanka), and was known as a wakan akanta (superior divinity) whose name was Wi. However, the Sun Dance is not for the purposes of offering blood or anything else to the sun; and even though many people have focused on the use of hooks being driven into the flesh of the dancers or their way of dancing until exhaustion, this was not an 'ordeal' in the commonly understood sense. Instead, the "probationer" or dancer volunteered to partake in the ritual in order to help put himself and his band in harmony with the cosmos. (Lincoln, 1994.)

The Lakota hold their Sun Dance very year in late July or August. It is thought that the timing of the Sun Dance had more to do with the height of the buffalo herd population at that time of the year (that was when all the nomadic hunting bands could gather in one place) than with any specific astronomical or calendrical event. A vertical connection (axis mundi) to the sun and the cosmos is necessary for the ceremony to continue, and this is symbolized by erecting a large cottonwood tree at the center of the dance ground. The tree is adorned with flags and artefacts of six colors, representing the six cardinal directions (east, west, north, south, above, below.) The dancing ground is surrounded by an arbor covered with boughs with an opening to the east, where the dancers and the Sun enter each day. (Crummett, 1993.)

One of the more sensational aspects of the dance is, of course, the piercing of dancers with pegs through the chest; these pegs are connected to a rope which is tied around the central tree. The dancer runs from the periphery of the circle to the center and back three times, building up speed. After the third flight, the dancer runs with such force that the pegs are torn out of his chest, ripping free from his flesh. Many Lakota point out that this part of the ritual simply emphasizes that at birth, people are "torn" this way from the Great Mystery and from their connection to the veridical dimension of the cosmos. It reinforces the idea that everything is ultimately dependent on the gifts of the Sun, and can't ever truly be free of the heat and light that it gives. (Farrer, 1992.)

According to the Lakota, the Sun Dance is one of the six great ceremonies, including the smoking of the holy Pipe, that was given to them by their culture-bringer, White Buffalo Calf Woman. Although it became something of a powwow-style tourist attraction around the middle of the century (after the U.S. government outlawed the more sensational aspects of it in the name of "decency"), since the 1970s, AIM members and other Lakota traditionalists have tried to recapture some of the solemnness of the original ritual, and have subsequently banned tourists, alcohol, and other distractions, while restoring the piercing and rigor of the ritual. Non-Indians have been allowed to participate, but only if they are well known and agree to obey by all the rules and taboos of the ceremonies.

From an astronomical standpoint, the Sun Dance is interesting because its elements display many of the features of the Lakota cosmos. The Lakota believe that the circle is a divine shape, primarily because so many things in the cosmos (the Sun, the Moon, etc.) are round. Although the Sun Dance is not held on the vernal equinox, the eastern opening of its arbor clearly is supposed to be oriented toward the rising of the summer sun. The Lakota have not been an agricultural people, at least within historical times, although they may have been before. Like many nomadic societies, they did not attach much importance to fixed points within the year.


Winter Counts


The Lakota did not have a system of writing prior to European contact, and thus did not have a calendrical notation system as we would understand it, or any "true" written history. However, they did utilize a means of counting winters and noting significant events that passed each winter season by recording them ideographically. This was used to supplement their primarily oral tradition. They would begin their year with the first snowfall, and end it with the thawing of spring. The tribal winter count keeper would symbolize each passing winter with a pictograph and a phrase notched into a tanned animal hide, and these were mnemonic devices to record the most significant events of that year.

The tribal count keeper's job was to remember each year and the things that happened. "That was the winter when we saw the purple spotted buffalo," or something like that. Von Del Chamberlain discovered that these winter counts often contained significant astronomical data. Among a sample of some 200 winter counts from many different bands, he claimed to have found pictographic records of 17 astronomical events, including solar eclipses, lunar eclipses, "fireballs" or spectacular meteors, comets, and the Leonid meteor shower -- in particular the famous 1833 meteor "blizzard." (Del Chamberlain, 1984.) The Lakota clearly only recorded very stunning and unique phenomena - unique enough to identify a particular year.

They did seem to realize that eclipses were recurrent events, but they did not seem to believe that there was any type of regularity or periodicity to the most spectacular total eclipses of the sun or moon. Del Chamberlain concludes that the reason why only one comet appears in the winter counts is because the Indians did seem to believe that the recurrence of comet appearances was a recurrent, predictable phenomenon. Why this insistent interest in transient events? Most likely, it was connected to the Lakota belief that such things were connected to the wakan or incomprehensible nature of the cosmos.

For the Lakota, anything which did not behave the same way as other things did was wakan. A heyoka, or sacred-backwards-clown, was wakan because he did things in an ironic, reversed way that was different from everyone else. The planets were wakan because of the way they wandered among the other stars. The pole star was wakan because all the other stars whirled around it while it kept its place in the sky. The spectacular cosmic events recorded in their winter counts are similarly wakan, because they were unexpected and dramatic.

Ultimately, as was suggested earlier, the Lakota were not very interested in recording recurrent astronomical phenomena, because as nomadic hunters, they didn't need an agricultural calendar. They did reckon the months (literally, by the passing of new Moons) and the seasons but the primary annual event for them was when the population of the buffalo herd reached its peak. For them, the most interesting and important aspects of the cosmos were the ones that were idiosyncratic and non-replicated, although they did watch the movements of the Sun and the stars for other purposes or in earlier times, which will be discussed below.


Medicine Wheels


While there has been some argument over the antiquity of North American medicine wheels, and their purpose, most scholars are agreed that they may have had some astronomical function. The medicine wheels were large spoked wheels built from rocks with a central cairn in the middle. The most famous totally intact medicine wheel is the one found in the Bighorn Mountains of Wyoming, which appears to have been used to watch the summer solstice sunrise and the summer dawn stars (Aldeberan and Rigel), and was probably built around 1760. (Krupp, 1983.) There are numerous other medicine wheels in Canada, where they seem to be most common, but they also were utilized on the northern Plains, including in Lakota territory.

John M. Eddy found numerous remains of medicine wheels on the Plains, which were often as large as a hundred meters in diameter. Eddy claims the date of many of these wheels has never been established firmly (some could be as much as 10,000 years old), and that many modern ethnographic informants, when asked about them, seem to have forgotten about their original function, and know only that they are sacred and have to do with powerful "medicine." (Eddy, 1977.) The wheels clearly show similarities to sun dance medicine lodges and tipi rings, and for the Lakota both these structures were thought to be "mirrors" of the cosmos. Many of them have 28 'spokes,' which is a significant astronomical number.

His Plains medicine wheels, like the Bighorn wheel, often use the central cairn as a foresight to view the summer solstice sunrise. A wheel in Montana reinforced this solar connection when he found that opposite the solstice spoke line on the other side of the cairn was a small solar symbol made of sunken lichen-covered stones. This symbol looks like the "parent" wheel, and suggests strongly that the wheels themselves could be solar imagery, with the spokes representing the radiating energy of the sun. The smaller symbol has turned up in several of the wheels found in Canada, so it does seem to be more than just an idiosyncratic marker.

The Canadian wheels are important because they often contain certain correlations or nearby archaeological materials which make them more dateable than their cousins on the Plains. The Moose Mountain wheel in Saskatchewan, for example, is extremely similar to the Bighorn Wheel, and its construction appears to date to somewhere around 100 to 300 CE. (Nikiforuk, 1992.) Eddy feels that these wheels are strong evidence for a "medicine wheel" tradition on the Plains which could stretch back thousands of years. They may not have all been built by the same people, he cautions, but they do seem to represent a certain diffusion of ideas.

If this is true, why the apparent lack of such sun-watching among most modern Lakota? Eddy thinks that with the introduction of the horse by the Europeans and their shift to a nomadic lifestyle, the Lakota lost much of their traditional astronomy - the kind of star-charting that could be found among the horticultural Caddoans, for example. He heralds it as a classic example of a loss of traditional knowledge through cultural contact. As it turns out, he wasn't completely correct.


Celestial Imagery


The fact that astronomy was important for the Lakota can clearly be found inscribed on their artefacts. Eppridge and others have collected a lot of the artefacts associated with the Ghost Dance religion or "ethnic revitalization movement" founded by the prophet Wovoka. In the Ghost Dance ritual, the morning star was identified with the Messiah: it was the "yellow star" who those in Ghost Dance trance were supposed to watch. It appears in the form of a Maltese cross on many ghost shirts worn by the dancers. Other shirts often contain images depicting stars, moons, suns, and comets. (Eppridge, 1980.)

The Lakota often made a special war shield following a Vision Quest. The design on the shield was supposed to offer them special protection and guidance. Many of the shields found by ethnographers contain celestial designs, usually depicting the sun, the Pleiades, the Little Dipper, Castor and Pollux, the Pole Star, and the morning star. Vision questers were often directed to make the focus of their visions the central element of their shields. The fact that they frequently chose astronomic elements shows what their attention was often directed toward. (Carlson, 1990.)

The heyokas or sacred clowns of the Lakota often covered their bodies with special painted designs. Sometimes these designs reflected sheer chaos. Sometimes they contained things that were supposed to be deliberate insults against enemies of the tribe. Often they contained the particular "step" or zigzag design that was supposed to reflect the lightning or thunder which was the hallmark of Wakinyan, the Thunder Bird. (One was supposed to become a heyoka if they were frightened by thunder.) But particularly interesting to ethnoastronomers was their frequent use of the sun and the moon, or the morning and evening star, to reflect on their bodies their unique "oppositional" or reversing nature.

The Pole Star appears infrequently on Lakota artefacts, but always prominently. Like the Sun, it is thought to be part of the Superior Mysteries. They call Polaris Wichapi Owanjila, "the Star that always stands in one place." The other stars are said to be moving in a "dance circle" around it, paying homage to it. The Lakota claimed that Polaris was emblematic of the way that all of creation moved around Wakan Tanka, "that-which-moves-moving-things." (Hollabaugh, 1996.) On objects, it often appears on top of the axis mundi (world-tree): much like the Christmas Star does on the trees people use today...

Other everyday objects of the Lakota have been found to have astronomical images, ranging from moccasins to tipis. There are even examples of the aurora borealis and shooting stars appearing on certain objects. One problem complicating this research is the sheer variety of pictographs used for depicting stars. The Lakota used crosses, lozenges, circles, and interlocking triangles , as well as the kind of five-pointed and six-pointed images Western people would readily identify as stars... only ethnographic information has helped people understand the nature of these depictions.


Lakota Cosmology


Two books, by Hassrick and Powers, give a general indication of what religion was like among the Lakota Sioux. In their complex pantheons, some Lakota ideas about the cosmos can be discerned. The counterpart of Wi, the Sun, was Hanwi, the Moon, whose name literally means "Night Sun." The stars were regarded simultaneously as parts of Skan, the Sky, and were also thought to be supernatural people in their own right. Because Sun had abandoned his wife at a feast of the gods, Skan passed judgement on him. From then on, Sun was forced to rule over the day and Moon over the night. Wohpe, their daughter, was the White Buffalo Calf Woman. (Powers, 1972.)

In Lakota cosmology, there were quadripartite divisions of everything: four colors (red, green, blue, yellow), four superior mysteries (sun, sky, earth, rock), four classes of gods (superior, associate, subordinate, spirits), four elements in the sky (sun, moon, sky, stars), four parts of time (day, night, month, year), and four winds corresponding to the four cardinal directions. All of these are symbolized by the Lakota cross-within-a-circle, a symbol which appears throughout the Americas. For the Lakota, it is the "sacred hoop" and represents the totality of their people. (Steinmetz, 1990.)

The user of the Sacred Calf Pipe faces east toward the rising sun at dawn, west toward the setting sun at dusk. The Sun was recognized as one of the greatest of the Lakota's divine Controllers. Inktomi, the trickster-spider, mediates between gods and men. According to this text, Wohpe is Falling Star, and *she* marries the South Wind as her husband. (Hassrick, 1964.) The Morning Star is said to represent the light of knowledge as a counter to the darkness of ignorance.

The eastern part of the tipi symbolizes the source of light. The south, death and the spirit path. The west, darkness and thunderbirds. The north, the path of forefathers. The Buffalo People are said to reside in the north. The Lakota claim to see a woman, rather than a man's face, in the moon, and she is said to be stirring a kettle by the fire. The moon is explicitly linked to women's menses and to pregnancy and fertility. For the Lakota, two of the six directions are marked by the solar zenith and nadir. (Williamson, 1984.)

The stars are said by some Lakota to be very remote from human affairs. People are not to concern themselves with their business because the stars are wakan. (Walker, 1980.) However, this is contradicted by stories which suggest that the star people come to earth to look for brides, and the fact that heroes and other important ancestor figures go to join the stars. (Monroe, 1987.) Lakota society was very individualistic, and so were the visions that were granted to people. So we can expect some degree of variance among religious ideas. The person who made this statement to Walker (Ringing Shield) might not have been familiar with all of the specialzied star lore of the tribe.


Milky Way and Fallen Star


Among the Lakota, there are many interesting myths and legends which are used to explicate their ideas about the cosmos, as is the case among many cultures. According to mythographer James LaPointe, "the ancient Lakota wise men said that all heavenly bodies exert influences upon life on Earth, and the destinies of individual life are at all times under the spell of the sun, moon, and stars." LaPointe also suggests, "... they imparted their knowledge to posterity through oral narratives and object lessons. One star cluster was called Pa yamini pa, 'a monster with three heads.' "

The Lakota have one fascinating myth which tells a great deal about their astronomical beliefs. According to this legend, Fallen Star, a supernatural hero, was the son of the North Star and a Lakota woman. (Interestingly, in Western mythography, the morning star or "Lucifer" is known as the "fallen star" or "the bright star cast out of heaven.") Fallen Star was said to be a member of the Maghpia Oyate or Cloud People and to be a special protector of the Lakota. His mother had lived with North Star in the clouds, but fell to Earth when she made the mistake of trying to dig up a plant growing in the cloud world - something she had been warned against. The North Star now broods in immobile solitude over the loss of his beloved Lakota maiden.

Tupun Shawin (the red-cheeked maid) was found by a group of boy hunters while she was lying unconscious after she had fallen from the cloud world. Her child was nursing from her "vigorously." The boys did not know if she was a cloud or spirit woman and so left her alone. But they did not want to abandon the helpless infant, so they brought it back to the village. The mysterious baby was named Fallen Star and given to a lonely, barren woman in the village. He matured very quickly, and became aware of a special destiny. He told others in the village that he was the child of a bright star in the heavens, and then told his adopted mother that he had to return to his father's place in the sky. He is said to be there now, watching over the Lakotas, his adoptive people.

Lakota people call the Milky Way Wanaghi Tachanku or "trail of the spirits." It was "the trail all Lakota people must take when fate overtakes them." (This is another interesting cross-cultural 'coincidence,' because among the Indians of South America, the Milky Way was also thought to be a "road of the dead" or "way of souls.") They claimed that at the point where the Milky Way splits, a divine Arbiter stood ... people who lived an immoral life were forced to head down the part of the Milky Way that ends in a nebula, tumbling through space forever. Those who lived a proper life took the other road to Wanaghiyata, the promised home of departed souls.

What is fascinating about this myth is that it ends this way, at least according to the translator: "Today, somewhere near the Trail of Spirits, known to others as the Milky Way, Fallen Star sends rays of hope for his earth people." (LaPointe, 1976.) This suggests Fallen Star might be one of the stars found near the Milky Way. Which one can't be determined from the story, but it could be the one of the ones in the Big Dipper. Based on the legend, it would have some special relationship to the Pole Star. This would be an interesting topic for further investigations.


Lakota Constellations and the Black Hills


Sinte Gleiska University scholar Ronald Goodman spent ten years studying the astronomical folklore of Lakota people, and the result of this work was Lakota Star Knowledge: Studies in Lakota Stellar Theology, a book which detailed the literally "cosmic" importance of the Black Hills for Lakota people. It discusses the spring constellations which the Lakota people observed while moving in a cyclical round from site to site in the Black Hills. The Black Hills were thought to be a terrestrial mirror of the cosmos, so the Lakota were simply "mirroring" the motions of the heavens. As the sun moved counterclockwise through the ecliptic, the Lakota were moving clockwise through the terrestrial analogues of their constellations. (Goodman, 1990.)

These constellations were: Canshasha Ipusye (Dried Willow), which was watched from the winter camps during the spring equinox; Wincinchala Sakowin (the Seven Little Girls = the Pleiades), which were watched from Harney Peak during "thunder's welcoming"; Tayamni (the Buffalo), which were watched from a central cairn during "life's welcoming in peace"; Ki Inyanka Ocanku (the center of the "Race Track"), which were watched from Pe Sla (a bare hill); and Mato Tipila (the Bear's Lodge), which were watched from Devil's Tower, during the summer solstice, prior to the Sun Dance. The 'race track' was subdivided into Cangleshka Wakan (sacred hoop) and Tayamni Cankahu (the Animal's Backbone.) The idea of the Black Hills as a 'terrestrial zodiac' is interesting; such an idea was proposed by Katharine Maltwood for some of the formations around Glastonbury.

The key sacred sites within the Black Hills, which are themselves thought to be enclosed by a terrestrial 'race track,' are Bear Lodge Butte, Old Baldy, Ghost Butte, and Thunder Butte. Devil's Tower is actually outside the Black Hills, but it forms the symbolic "Buffalo's Head" of the Lakota with two other hills inside the area -- Bear Butte as the "Buffalo's Nose," and Inyan Kaga as the "Black Buffalo Horn." Goodman notes that the tipi's shape also mirrors the heavens: 3 poles for the North Star, 7 poles for the cardinal directions, 2 poles for "ears", equaling the 12 months and the 12 stars (morning, evening, 7 in the dipper, 3 in Orion's belt.)

Goodman also discusses Fallen Star and the afterlife beliefs of the Lakota. This ties into the Lakota constellation known as nape, "the Hand," which consists of Orion's belt and sword, and the stars of Rigel and Eridanus Beta. He suggests "the Hand" can be correlated with the "Chief who Lost his Arm." In this legend, the chief has his arm torn from his shoulder by Thunderbirds as a result of his selfishness. His daughter offers to marry Fallen Star if he can recover the hand for her. Fallen Star succeeds in this quest, defeats the Thunderbirds and Inktomi, and marries her. As Goodman points out, Fallen Star represents the new chief and the new year, and their son the renewed earth of spring.

In the legend, it is said that while searching for the arm, "Fallen Star... seems to be in the Black Hills area, but at the same time he also appears to be moving through the star world. He travels through three villages or 'star peoples,' and it is said his son will have to visit the other four." Something of astronomical significance is being described here... but I am not sure what. What's most fascinating is how similar this is to the "wounded king" myth of European Grail legends - the wound leads to a loss of fertility, and only healing this wound restores the land. The Grail legends are said to have a zodiacal basis too...


Winter Solstice Stars


Besides the "Race Track," the Lakota watch another important group of stars around the winter solstice. Although they didn't observe the winter solstice itself (it was usually way too cold on the Plains to be out at night star-watching all the time), these stars were noted around this time. Parts of this group of winter stars are parts of the earlier "race track," shifted in the sky; others are not.

Some of these stars/asterisms include Wichapi Owanjila (Polaris), Wakinyan (the Thunderbird = gamma Draconis + 2 stars from "Ursa's bowl"), Wichakihuyapa (the Big Dipper), Mato Tipila (the Bear's Lodge, which includes Castor and Pollux), Tayamni (the Buffalo, which includes Sirius, Rigel, and Aldeberan), Capella, the "Fireplace" (which includes parts of Leo and Gemini), Canshasha Inpusye (the Dried Willow = Triangulum plus Aries), Hehaka (the Elk, which has part of Pisces plus other stars), Keya (the Turtle), Zuzuecha (the Snake = stars in Canis Major + Columba), and Wanagi Ta Chanku (the Spirit's Road = the Milky Way.)

Paula Giese, a Lakota student at Sinte Gleiska, discusses these constellations because she feels that Lakota Star Knowledge only deals with the spring stars. She mentions a few others of importance: Arcturus is said to be variously either Iktobu (going toward), or Wichapi Sunkaku (Morning Star's younger brother), or Oglechkutepi (Arrow game), or Ihuku Kigle (it went under). It has a special relationship to Anpao Wichahapi (dawn star, Venus.) The Agleshka, or Salamander, corresponds to no known Western constellations. The Crab Nebula, which has no Lakota name, apparently occupies a special position among these stars. (Giese, 1995.)

Giese also mentions some interesting things about the Big Dipper. Its seven stars are said to correspond to the seven stages of a woman's maturation and to the seven Lakota council fires. Towin, the Blue Woman Spirit who assists midwives with births, lives in the center of the dipper -- the place where one can find the hole from which Fallen Star's mother fell. The Dipper is said to carry the water for celestial sweat lodge ceremonies, and to ferry the spiritual essence of deceased people to the Milky Way.

Basically, she suggests that there may have been some limited star-watching "from some sheltered location" around the end of the year, close to the winter solstice. Young people were taught about these constellations because the "life-paths" for girls and boys were marked out by the Dipper and so it was important for them to know about it. They were taught that the Sun would eventually return from its southerly drift, and that these stars were a reassurance of that fact. All in all, these are interesting additions to the insights in Goodman's book.




Why, until the publication of Lakota Star Knowledge, did many anthropologists think that the Lakota had no ethnoastronomy? Mostly, this is due to misinterpretations of the stories from Walker's informants, who claimed that the Lakota had no interest in the stars. It was partly due to a misunderstanding of the term wakan. Although they regarded the stars as mysterious and incomprehensible, they still observed them - as part of their religion. Astronomers studying Lakota culture after they had lost control of the Black Hills would not have known how vital star-watching was to their religious ceremonies.

Most ethnographers assumed that only the Caddoan (such as the Skidi Pawnee) groups on the Plains had any meaningful astronomy because only settled horticulturalists would have the time to make observations and only they would have the need to use the heavens as timing mechanisms for agriculture. (Ruggles and Saunders, 1993.) It was assumed by people like Del Chamberlain that, although star knowledge might have been used by the Lakota in the past, the introduction of the horse and the transition to a nomadic buffalo-hunting lifestyle caused this knowledge to disappear. (Chamberlain, 1982.) The Lakota also had an extensively oral tradition, and did not make the complicated sky maps and star charts of the Pawnee, or make other kinds of astronomical notation.

The problem was that Western astronomers simply didn't look closely enough at the Lakota religion. Other societies use star-watching as a form of utilitarian time-keeping ... a purely "secular" (literally) pursuit. The problem was that ceremonies like the Sun Dance, Sweat Lodge, and Sacred Pipe contained cosmological knowledge; but ethnoastronomers left study of those rituals to scholars of religion. They didn't realize that the Lakota were the descendants of the "vanished" cultures that created the Plains Medicine Wheels. They spent too much time hunting for alignments and not enough time collecting legends. They didn't understand that some of the adornments on Lakota costumes and artefacts were astronomical, because they didn't look "like stars," and they never really asked anyone about their museum collections.

Unlike some of the other cultures of Mesoamerica and South America, the Lakota did not have an astronomical calendar. They didn't build large, fixed, monumental structures with celestial alignments. They were not interested in fixing the length of the year, or of establishing precise planting and harvesting times, or calculating the beginning of climactic seasons. All that mattered to them was the size of their precious buffalo herd, and they could always determine its peaking point through simple observation. The only part of the year they counted were winters, because on the Plains surviving winters was something worth remembering, and it was the time that hunting ceased.

But research with the Lakota should teach us that nomadic hunting societies do not ignore the heavens, either. Like many other societies on the move, the Lakota used the stars as a guidepost for when to move on from place to place in the Black Hills. Ethnoastronomers seem to have a biased belief that only people who stay in one place bother to stretch their heads out and look up at the sky. But for wandering peoples, the heavens literally may have laid out a "map" of their migrations. Other forms of religious pilgrimage should be studied in this light. The Lakota were probably not the only race who chose to mimic the movements of the stars above by their migrations below.