The best way to talk about Lakota culture is to recognize the truths about the culture, and the knowledge that our ancestors passed along to us.
One of the most important aspects of Lakota culture is the oral tradition. Through this tradition, the knowledge of the creator has been passed on even into today’s generation. The elders told our history orally. The wintertime was an especially good time for the stories to be told. The stories were told over and over again every year so that they would not be forgotten. Our history was also written on winter counts, which was a pictorial account of the year. However a lot of the winter counts were destroyed by the advancing efforts of white settlers.
When Lakota people first came on to the earth, they came by the way of the Black Hills. The story of how we came on this earth says that the first people that arrived on earth were tricked by Inktomi. This trickery was a punishment for not listening to the creator; these first people were turned into the buffalo. They were told that they would serve as food and shelter for human beings. When the earth was ready for humans, the Lakota emerged from the Black Hills. At that time they were told by the creator to hunt the Buffalo.
Since this time, Lakota people and their ancestors always hunted the buffalo. European history traces Lakota people to have lived in the woodlands of Minnesota as of the year 1650. It’s said that the Lakota were woodland people that became expert buffalo hunters in as little as fifty years(Hassrick, p. 64). The Lakota people weren't originally woodland people, which is why they are referred to as the prairie dwellers.
History has been distorted by European settlers because of cultural misunderstandings. It was an effort to destroy the pride of a strong society and assimilate Lakota people to live like Europeans. If the buffalo were always migrating, then it is possible that the Lakota people were always moving across the country, constantly entering new territory and making allies as well as enemies.
The buffalo were significant for our culture, because it provided the people with everything they needed. Food, shelter, and tools could be made from the animal’s giant body. The tipis that people lived in were made from many buffalo hides sewn together. In the winter, some people moved into wigwams made of bark to prevent their tipis from rotting.
Hunting buffalo was a community affair. Before Lakota people had horses, running buffalo over a cliff was one of the ways that buffalo were killed. To accomplish this people would surround the buffalo, while someone disguised as a buffalo would lead them to a cliff. The buffalo were chased over the edge and the fall would kill them. This method would was a great way to obtain lot’s of meat at once (Hassrick, p.200-201).
The diet of Lakota people consisted mostly of meat. Lakota people were hunter and gathers. They never farmed for food. The fruits and vegetables in their diet were found already grown or received from trading with other tribes. Lakota people used dogs dragging a travois to help carry back berries and other fruits and vegetables they uncovered.
The dog was an important animal that helped the daily lives of the Lakota people. Before the horse, the dog had the burden of dragging the travois’s that Lakota people used to move from place to place. Dogs were trained to be good watchdogs, and bark at strange things. Puppies were used in ceremonies, and eaten as a delicacy.
The horses' effect on Lakota Culture
When Lakota people started to gain horses, they became a powerful force on the prairie. With horses, Lakota people could cover more territory, and control more territory. Horses became a type of currency. Whenever someone needed services from another tribal member, the asking price was usually a horse. Giving away horses was a great way of honoring loved ones.
Horse stealing was one way to obtain wealth. Lakota people would sneak into enemy camps, and steal the best horses. First they would observe the horses and then try to steal the strongest and fastest horses. These horses were usually signified by special paint markings or a feather tied in the horses’ hair. Also, young men would sneak off at night and form war parties to steal horses. They did this because they wanted to prove themselves as warriors. Of course parents would worry about their children, but at the same time they were also proud of their young warriors.
When a Lakota man wanted to marry, he would usually have to pay a dowry. In order to obtain a very prestigious woman, the dowry might be as much as one hundred horses. If a man wanted prove his worth, he might enlist the help of friends and family to obtain the horses for the dowry.
Women were well respected in Lakota culture. History has depicted natives as savages because some men had plural marriages. However, the truth is, men had many wives because there were women that needed to be taken care of. The way Lakota society was structured demanded that everyone should be taken care of. Men depended on women, and women depended on men for survival.
Unfortunately, war is a very real part of life, and the Lakota people were warriors. Living on the prairie was very hard and there were always other tribes trying to gain wealth and territory to survive, just like the Lakota were trying to survive. History has painted Native Americans to be bloodthirsty savages that had no compassion for taking another man’s life. I know this is not true because Lakota men would paint their face before going into battle. This was an effort to hide their identity from the creator, because they knew taking another man’s life is wrong.
Lakota people had many different warrior societies within the tribe. The societies acted as the military and police for the people. It was an honor to be invited into one of these societies. It could also mean death because of what was expected of you once you joined a society. For example, someone might be staked to the ground, and be expected to stay in one place while engaged in battle unless someone cut him free.
Warriors received prestige from their war record. A warrior obtained an impressive war record by counting coup. A coup was obtained by getting close to a hostile enemy and touching them without killing them. The warrior would use a coup stick, or some other battle paraphernalia. The coup had to be witnessed by someone, so that the claim could be verified.
The entire way of life for Lakota people was in balance with nature. Lakota people were not wasteful. They never took more than what nature could restore. Even the structure of the people was in balance. If some one was in need, there was always some one willing to give. In Lakota culture, generosity was an admirable trait. Hoarding more property then needed was looked down upon.
Lakota religion and spirituality was also an important factor that kept the peoples minds and bodies strong. Their sacred ceremonies helped keep them in balance. Sweat lodges were used to cleanse and purify the body and soul. The sweat lodge was created by forming long wooden poles into a dome. Buffalo hides were used to make an airtight seal, covering the dome. There was an alter made a few feet from the door, which usually consisted of a buffalo skull mounted on a small mound. Also rocks would be heated in a fire pit in front of the lodge until they were glowing. When the rocks were ready, they were placed inside of the lodge, where a hole was dug in the middle.
Once the rocks were inside, the door would be shut and the people inside would pray and sing. Water was poured onto the rocks, which created steam that would cleanse the people inside. The steam that came off of the rocks is believed to be the breath of the creator. The rocks are the oldest things on earth, and when they are heated, they come back to life.
Lakota people also use the sacred pipe for prayer. It was the White Buffalo Calf Woman who brought the pipe to the Lakota people. The story begins when two warriors were out scouting and saw a woman in the distance. When they approached the woman, one of the warriors decided he wanted to capture her. Because he disrespected this sacred woman he was mysteriously reduced to bones. The mysterious woman told the other warrior to return to his camp and tell the people to prepare for her arrival.
When the White Buffalo Calf Woman came to the people, she taught them sacred ceremonies and gave them the White Buffalo Calf pipe to pray with. The people were told to make replicas of the pipe, which is what they used for prayer and ceremonies.
The vision quest is also an important religious ceremony. The vision quest was used as rite of passage for young men. Some one that undertook the vision quest would have to pray on hill for as long as four days and nights, without food or water. The individual would have to maintain a state of mental awareness while praying, and try their best not do doze off. It was important, because during this time they might receive a vision that would bring insight to themselves and their people.
The Sundance was one of the most important religious ceremonies for the Lakota people. During Sundance time, the people would come together in a large camp. Many things would have to be prepared in order to hold a Sundance. A cotton wood tree was prepared and placed in the middle of the circle where the dance would be held. The Sun dancers would pierce their bodies and drag skulls as a form of self-sacrifice. These sacrifices were made as a way to honor the creator, and bring balance to the people.
History of Language
One of the most important aspects of Lakota culture is the language. However when European settlers came and placed Indian children into boarding schools, the children had been banned from speaking their own language. The language is important because it presents another way of thinking and understanding.
Introduction of New Cultures
Today there are many disagreements about Lakota culture and religion. For instance, the introduction of Christianity and other world religions has caused many people to receive aspects of Lakota culture as taboo. Alcoholism and the distortion of history has left the Lakota nation in disarray.
Hassrick, R.B. (1964) The Sioux: life and customs of a warrior society. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.