"From Wakan Tanka, the Great Mystery, comes all power. It is from Wakan Tanka that the holy man has his wisdom and the power to heal and make holy charms. Man knows that all healing plants are given by Wakan Tanka, therefore they are holy. So too is the buffalo holy, because it is the gift of the Wakan Tanka."
Meza Blaska, Oglala Sioux Chief
To the Sioux, religion was not separate from everyday life. They believed that human beings, like the buffalo and other animals, were created from the Mother Earth. Humans and nature were one. There was no clear distinction between the natural and the supernatural.
The Wakan Tanka (Great Spirit)
The extraordinary was called the Wakan Tanka, and included all that was mysterious, powerful, or sacred. The words Wakan Tanka translate as "all that is holy and mysterious." The Wakan Tanka had always existed and would always be. It had created the universe, and yet, at the same time, was the universe. The Sun, the Moon, the Stars, the Earth, the very rocks, and the human soul were all manifestations of the Wakan Tanka.
Holy men and women
Included in the Wakan Tanka were invisible beings, or Wakanpi, who exercised power and control over everything. It was essential that humans please these beings. Since the Wakanpi were incomprehensible to ordinary humans, it was necessary that certain human beings be capable of understanding their needs. Holy men and women fulfilled this role. They obtained their special knowledge through direct contact with the mysterious ones through dreams and visions. They acted as mediums through which the power of the Wakan could flow.
Special emissaries of the Wakan Tanka, such as White Buffalo Calf Woman, brought important rituals, like the sacred pipe ceremony, to the community. Holy men and women received other rituals during trance-like states. On a personal level, near the time of puberty, Sioux boys, and some girls, went on a vision quest through which they experienced a symbolic death and rebirth and gained a vision of their guardian spirit. This guardian spirit gave them their own personal songs and rituals.
The Sioux passed down their knowledge, rituals, and beliefs together with their history and moral code to the new generations in story form. Elders often gathered the young around the fire to impart important tales and legends. Some, like the story of White Buffalo Calf Woman, could take up to seven evenings to tell and could only be told when the moon was shining.
Death and the Afterlife
Death and the afterlife held no special terror for the Sioux. In battle, Sioux warriors courted death openly. They believed that death in battle was preferable to dying of old age or disease. The Sioux believed in the immortal nature of the human soul, which, having come from the Wakan Tanka at birth, returned to the Wakan Tanka at death. The spirits of dead loved ones were therefore one with the Wakan Tanka and everywhere and in everything, though a part lingered near the grave for the consolation of friends and relatives.
Christian missionaries began trying to convert the Sioux from the time of contact with Europeans. They met with little success until the 1850s when the reservations came into being. Catholics, Presbyterians, Congregationalists, and Episcopalians built mission churches and schools on Sioux reservations with the blessings of the U.S. government. Their success, however, remained modest until 1883, when the U.S. government enacted the Code of Religious Offences. This code restricted the religious freedoms of the Sioux and banned their traditional rituals and practices.
By the 1850s, Christian missionaries began to realize it would be more effective if members of the Sioux Nation persuaded other Sioux to embrace Christianity. They ordained priests and ministers from among their recent converts. The rate of conversions increased.
Today, many of the descendants of Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse have abandoned the Christianity of the mission schools and churches and have returned to the religion of their ancestors. Once illegal, the Sun Dance is again a vital ritual. After a hiatus of over 80 years, even the Ghost Dance has a new life. Some Sioux children are once again learning the Sioux language. Sioux Elders are slowly starting to gather the young about them to pass on their stories.
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