Lakota Sioux Culture: Sacred Buffalo Symbol of the Divine and the Medicine Wheel

Lakota Sioux encampment diorama (courtesy Akta Lakota Museum and Cultural Center)

Since being a small boy (Cub Scout,) I have enjoyed Native American legends and stories. Our Cub Pack was once visited by a “real” Indian Chief in full Indian dress. This chief demonstrated dances and words; then told a story of Indian boys struggling to become strong braves and warriors. I was so impressed, as young minds can be, that I convinced myself I was from Irish-Indian heritage. It opened my eyes to the rich culture of Native Americans. On my bookshelf I have a small collection, which I treasure, of antique, authentic original legends of Native Americans.

Ahearn celebrates Lakota Sioux tribe with new hat.

My visit to the Akta Lakota Museum and Cultural Center in Chamberlain South Dakota renewed my interest in these ancient people. At the center housed at St. Joseph’s Indian School in Chamberlain, South Dakota (www.aktalokota.org) the list of St. Joseph’s successes is long, dating back to 1927.

The words “Akta Lakota,” mean “to honor the people,” and were chosen because the museum is truly intended to honor and preserve the rich culture of the Lakota people and the students at St. Joseph’s Indian School.

The Museum Director, Dixie Thompson, gave us a tour and explained the symbolic Medicine Wheel that is at the heart of Lakota Sioux beliefs. She directed me to the web site to learn more. (www.aktalokota.org)

The Medicine Wheel represents the sacred hoop of life and the four cardinal directions. The belief is that everything about the wheel is representative of something. The round shape of the wheel represents the never-ending circle of life and death. It means the Alpha and the Omega, Beginning and End, and to the Lakota Sioux, unity in the Great Spirit.

Lakota Sioux Medicine Wheel

Inside the circle are two paths which cross in the center. The cross symbolizes the four directions, each offering its own lessons, color, and animal guide as well as the Four Lakota Virtues (see below.) When looking at the Medicine Wheel, begin at the Left. The West, which is the color Black (or Midnight Blue); The top is the North, which is Red; Right is the East, which is Yellow; and the bottom, which is South, is represented by the color White.

The path from East to West is the Path of Spirits, (the Blue Road) the path from South to North represents the Lakota Sioux Physical Walk (the Red Road) and at the center where the paths cross, is representative of the Heart, in this case buffalo symbol but other images such as eagle are also employed.

Above The Medicine Wheel: Freedom of Mind, Body, Spirit.
Below The Medicine Wheel: Nurturing, Mother, Life

Lakota Museum Chamberlain S.D.

The Lakota Virtues
East—Beginnings; purity, family, innocence, amazement of Life
South—Youth: passions of life, friendships, self-control
West—Adulthood: solitude, stillness, going inside oneself, reflection
North—Place of the Ancient Ones Who Have Gone Over: wisdom

St. Joseph’s school makes a huge difference in the lives of Indian children. The museum demonstrates their heritage, culture, and beliefs as well as the great craftsmanship of the Lakota tribe. The Lakota tribe culture is compelling and their story is uplifting. They were among the native peoples caught in “progress” when Europeans swept across the continent.

 

The Lewis and Clark Expedition traversed the North American continent in the years from 1804 to 1806. During their much celebrated remarkable journey they encountered many peoples who had been native to North America for centuries. Like so many world explorers before them, they told the natives they were now members of a much larger body of people, people who had now taken possession of the Native American lands and that this would bring them riches beyond their imaginations.

Dubbed “Indians” by Columbus, who assumed he had found the West Indies and claimed the lands in the name of Queen Isabella of Spain, Native Americans subsequently were victims of history as Europeans migrated to North America and claimed Indian lands as their own; first the Spanish, then Napoleon when the French overthrew the Spanish Government. Finally Napoleon, in need of money  to fight wars with England and Russia, realized he could not manage such distant lands successfully, determined the lands called Louisiana would be sold for 3¢ an acre to the USA.

In one fell swoop, The Louisiana Purchase doubled the lands claimed by America. Acclaimed by many, disparaged by the short-sighted of the time, the purchase likely became the most important land purchase of the previous 300-500 years.

The Native American tribes who lived for centuries on the lands claimed ownership, but soon possession was lost to the greater strength of European immigrants supported by US Calvary.

The plight of Native Americans is a sad old story familiar to most Americans. Please realize though, that the story is not over. Descendents of those tribes live on today; some on reservations and some have melded into the fiber of the conglomerate of American peoples. All are Americans. All deserve the respect of their neighbors. As with all Americans, some contribute more and some less, but the Declaration of Independence declares us all equal. “Dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”

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Sacred Buffalo Symbol of the Divine

The Legend of the Sacred Buffalo demonstrates how the people wasted no part of the animal and what an important symbol it was to them and their way of life.  I have reprinted it here from <www.stjo.org/site> the St. Joseph’s Indian School website because the words describe far better than I ever could, the wisdom of the Lakota people.
(Adapted from Ron Zeilinger’s LAKOTA LIFE)

“Tatanka or buffalo in Lakota lore is held in high regard by the Lakota people. Respected as a symbol of the divine because the buffalo was a ‘banquet’ for the people.

The creature gave up its own flesh and life to feed them. It provided for their every need by way of sheltering them with its hide over their tipis; covering their bodies as clothing and their feet as moccasins.

Tatanka also provided everyday utensils such as needle and thread, awls, bowls and more. In this way, the buffalo was a true relative for the people—making life possible.

Because of the buffalo’s great importance to the people, a buffalo symbol or buffalo skull is present in all sacred Lakota rituals. It stands as a reminder of this great animal which gives completely of itself for others.

The buffalo is a symbol of self-sacrifice; it gives until there is nothing left. This was imitated by the people in their lives. To be generous and give what you have to others in need, or to honor them, is one of the most highly respected ways of acting or being.”

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A code to which we can all aspire.

 

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2 Responses to “Lakota Sioux Culture: Sacred Buffalo Symbol of the Divine and the Medicine Wheel”

  1. tim says:

    I am so envious of your place in the world right now! You have gained so much knowledge and insight into a culture I believe is truly connected to the heart more than the mind and as such is the future we have to seek…not a past we’ve rejected.
    As I now walk into the west, I am happy for all the world has given me, especially my family, Uncle Bill. You will be missed this weekend but the time you’re having is truly “priceless”. Good Journey and “Yata-hey!”

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  2. NJHMaine says:

    Mr. Bill,
    Thank you for the Lakota piece. I appreciate the pictures that you put in your blog and I love keeping up with your adventures. Thanks for taking the time to find enough internet signal to post!
    take care,
    NJH

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