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Cultural Overview - Ways of Believing

Introduction | Ways of Believing | Reservations | Culture Today

Ways of Believing

"The Legend of the Pipe"

One day, two men were out hunting. Suddenly, a beautiful young woman stood before them. One hunter recognized that she was “wakan” (a mystery) but the other hunter saw only a beautiful woman and had lustful thoughts about her. This man was immediately enveloped in a cloud of smoke. When the smoke cleared, a pile of bones was left in the place where the man had stood.


The other hunter became very afraid but the woman reassured him. She told him that she came bearing a gift for the people and instructions for a good and sacred way of living. She told the hunter to return to his people and tell them to prepare for her to visit. The next day, the woman returned bearing the sacred pipe and instructed the people in the sacred ceremonies of the people.

After the woman instructed the people for four days, she left the pipe and walked away from the camp, making four transformations in appearance until she became a white buffalo calf.

The legend of Ptesanwin, or White Buffalo Calf Woman, explains how the Lakota/Dakota people came by the sacred calf pipe and their most important ceremonies. This specific pipe, which is still kept to this day, is considered the most sacred possession of the Lakota/Dakota people. Pipes are used in ceremonial manner to represent truthfulness between those who smoke it. Because the pipe was used in meetings set up to resolve conflict between the Lakota/Dakota and the U.S. Army, it was often mistakenly called a “peace pipe.”



The ceremonies given to the Lakota/Dakota people have been maintained for hundreds of years. One of major importance to the Lakota/Dakota people is the Sun Dance. The Sun Dance is a sacred ceremony of prayer and sacrifice. It lasts approximately one week and involves piercing the skin of the breast, shoulders, or back.

The second ritual that is important to the Lakota/Dakota people is the “inipi” or sweatlodge ceremony. The sweatlodge is a willow frame-covered by buffalo skins. Inside, participants sing and pray while water is poured over hot rocks. The sweat is meant to cleanse and purify the mind and body.

Third, the becoming-woman ceremony celebrates the time when a young girl begins her menstrual cycle and officially becomes a woman.

Fourth, the “spirit keeping” ceremony keeps a deceased relative’s spirit for one year. After that time, it is “released” with a feast, give-away, and ceremony.

The fifth well-known Lakota/Dakota ceremony is the “hanbleca” or vision quest. In this ceremony, a young man goes upon a hill to fast and pray for a vision that will tell him the purpose of his life.

Sixth, the making-relative, or “hunka,” ceremony is used to adopt a non-blood relative and, finally seventh, the throwing of the ball ceremony is a symbolic “game” that showed thankfulness for life.

These ceremonies all contained elements of the traditional Lakota/Dakota values that were so important to living a good life.


For the Lakota/Dakota people, the greatest responsibility of a human being was being a good relative. In a society that depended on social order and community cooperation to survive, the rules that governed behavior needed to be strict. In order to avoid friction within an extended family, one rule was to avoid certain relatives. A dutiful son-in-law, for example, avoided talking to, or about, his mother-in-law.

Being a relative also meant taking care of all of your relatives. For example, if a woman lost her husband to war or sickness, her husband’s brother would often take her into his home as a second wife. Children were raised with a wealth of relatives around to help guide them through life and, if any became orphans, they were quickly taken in by their relatives.

In light of the cultural emphasis on being a good relative, it should not be surprising that the Lakota/Dakota people viewed the world holistically. The people believed in the interdependence of all life forms. They believed that all living things—the four-legged, the two-legged, the winged, trees, and plants—were related. All of these were fashioned by the Creator for a specific purpose and therefore deserved respect.

medicine wheel

The Lakota/Dakota people used, and continue to use, the phrase “mitakuye oyasin” (“we are all related” or “all my relations”) at the end of prayers to express this belief that all living things in this world are interconnected.

World View

The Lakota/Dakota people do not consider themselves to have a “religion” so much as a way of life. Prayers and spirituality were not separate from everyday life but were an integral part of each day and that activity. The word for God in the Lakota/Dakota language is “wakan tanka” meaning “great mystery.”

Some specific values that were/are significant to the Lakota/Dakota people include honesty, generosity, bravery, and respect for elders and children.

Honesty was a cornerstone of the culture. The people did not have respect for one who would lie and, outside of raiding in a war party it was unthinkable for one to steal from another. As the Lakota leader Lame Deer said, “Before our white brother came to civilize us, we had no jails. Therefore, we had no criminals. We had no locks or keys, and so we had no thieves. If a man was so poor that he had no horse, tipi, or blanket, someone gave him these things....”

Generosity was a greatly admired trait among the Lakota/Dakota people. In fact, a man’s status in his band or tribe was greatly determined by his generosity with others. A Lakota/Dakota ceremony called the “give-away” demonstrates the importance of generosity. Traditionally, when a family or family member was honored for some reason, a family would give-away gifts and possessions such as homes, robes, and moccasins. In addition, they would treat the entire camp to an elaborate feast.

Today, the give-away is still an important ceremony. Important occasions such as graduations or naming ceremonies are celebrated with a feast and the giving away of horses, blankets, linens, cloth goods, and money.

Another important cultural value was bravery. In fact, warriors in the traditional Lakota/Dakota society earned more respect for doing brave deeds, such as counting coup (striking an enemy with a coup stick or with a bare hand), than for killing another. The Lakota/Dakota also recognized the importance of elders and children. They believed that wisdom comes with age and so elders earned and deserved respect. In fact, another word used for God was “tunkasila,” which means grandfather. Children were called “wakan yeja” which means “sacred beings” and were never hit as means of punishment. Children were expected to learn by example and were reprimanded through shaming or teasing.

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