Final Paper: The Black Hills of South Dakota

The Black Hills of South Dakota: The Religious, Spiritual, Cultural and Traditional Embodiment of Mountains within Sioux/Lakota Tribes

Throughout the world, across all mountain ranges, and differing ethnicities, mountains have provided symbolism, religion, traditional cultural practice, and a way of life for all that call mountains home. While some mountains are vast, others are smaller, but that makes them no less significant to the that people surround the mountains and call them home. For others, mountains are viewed simply as an adventure, a way to prove oneself or find oneself, a feat waiting to happen, and for the indigenous peoples that call such a landscape home, their gravitation toward mountains is to seek something much larger than an adventure, for some, it is to preserve a traditional way of life.

One of the most common entities throughout Native American tribe’s spiritual universe is the sacred stone. Almost every tribe has its own religious story and understanding of the important role the sacred stones play in the physical and spiritual worlds. The sacred stones vary in size from a pebble to the most important, mountains, but all serve a purpose within Native American cultures. With the largest of stones being mountains, it is also through them that the center of each tribe’s universe is depicted through generational stories passed on orally as is the tradition throughout Native American tribes. Sacred mountains are thought to possess powers, provide verification of traditional stories regarding origin and emergence into this world, provide residence for buffalo and others sustain life. (Deloria, Jr. P. 149)

The Black Hills (Khe Sapa) of South Dakota are located within the United States of America and are an isolated mountain range rising 3,000 to 4,000 feet above the plains landscape of South Dakota, Wyoming, and Montana. (Sundstrom, 177) These mountains are considered sacred and vital to the existence of Native American tribes such as the Lakota, Cheyenne, Arapaho, Kiowa, and the Kiowa-Arapaho as they were essential for ceremonial and traditional purposes that would aide the tribe and provide answers for those seeking resolution to their troubles. While many tribes called the Black Hills home at some time or another, migratory patterns of tribes provide evidence of relocation, a practice that was common amongst nomadic people such as Native Americans.

Explanations regarding the myths, oral history, religious, spiritual, cultural and traditional practices of the Sioux/Lakota (used interchangeably throughout work) tribes of the Black Hills in South Dakota will provide insight and understanding regarding a particular ethnic group and their close and personal relationship with a range of mountains and how the Black Hills played and still continue to play an essential and integral role throughout the culture of Sioux People.

The Sioux, Astrology, and The Falling Star Cycle

According to Lakota history, they arrived in the Black Hills in 1775. The linkage of the Black Hills and the Lakota is due to the Lakota being the last Native American tribe that settled throughout the lands of the Black Hills and called the mountain range home. The Lakota viewed the Black Hills as the center of the universe, a practice not uncommon throughout Native American tribes as “each tribe has its own center and its own boundaries” (Deloria, Jr. P. 203) It was through the Black Hills that the Lakota identified natural features throughout the mountains via constellations and associated each specific constellation with traditional stories such as the Falling Star Myth Cycle. Seasonal migrations throughout the Black Hills were in tandem with the constellation cycle, visiting the natural and sacred sites throughout the hills while celebrating the telling of the Falling Star Myth Cycle. (Lozny, 209)

Not only were the Black Hills used astrologically, they served as a location that housed the mythical and traditional oral histories and teachings that Native American tribes are known for. Nicholas Black Elk, the famous Oglala Holy Man was interviewed throughout his life regarding the oral history and sacred teachings of the Sioux; it was in an interview that Black Elk speaks of the Falling Star myths, placing the story within the Black Hills. Within the story, Falling Star travels throughout the Black Hills as he visits seven villages known as “star villages” while also undertaking adventures. It is within the story and re-told by Black Elk, that the villages visited by Falling Star are associated with the seven stars of Pleiades (the Big Dipper), confirming that the Sioux (Lakota) used the Black Hills astrologically to locate natural features throughout the range, but also related such natural features into mythological traditions making them sacred and traditional.

Oral tradition and interviews regarding the astrological importance of the Black Hills within Lakota culture have also been confirmed via maps constructed on animal hides, depicting the correlations between the Black Hills themselves and the constellations of the sky. (Goodman 1992: 1) These maps were both separate depictions of the sky and earth as well as combinations of both the sky and earthly world on a single hide, providing a visual representation regarding the linkage between both the earthly world, the sky world and the significant roles both played throughout Lakota culture displayed on a tangible item.

The Falling Star cycle depicted on hides, told orally throughout Lakota tribes and practiced ceremonially as well, tells of a dual universe consisting of earthly people and star people inhabiting both worlds. The myth bridges the gap between one world and the next, aiding in ceremonial practices and customs such as sweats, vision quests, and interpretations from medicine men throughout Lakota tribes.

As previously mentioned, within the myth of the Falling Star Cycle, Black Elk tells of seven villages visited by Falling Star but was never specific regarding the locations of the natural and sacred landmarks of the Sioux within the Black Hills. It is through discussions, oral history, and archaeological findings throughout the Black Hills that sacred sites have been recorded and observed, the sites are as followed: Bear Butte, Devils Tower, Inyan Kara, Race Track, Reynolds Prairie, Rapid Creek and eastern Black Hills, and Willow Creek and Warbonnet Creek. (Sundstrom, P. 185) Specific sacred sites were used for specific cultural and traditional purposes based on the season that each ceremony fell upon.

Past and Present Ceremonial Sites within Sioux Culture

The Inyan Kara Mountain of the Black Hills was used specifically as the site for the annual Lakota Sun Dance (wiwanke wachipi), a ceremonial offering of flesh to the Creator that also evoked the creation and re-creation of forces, it was a time for renewal for all Sioux people as multiple bands of Lakota came together to celebrate and give thanks and offering to the Creator. (

The specific location of the Sun Dance had been passed down through oral tradition, as the Inyan Kara Mountain is identified within Lakota culture as Inyan Kahga, the first movement of stone or the stone. Within Native American culture, a stone is regarded as the most perfect form of life as it needs nothing else to survive; it is one with itself. A stone is the perfect work of the Creator, its surface has no ending and no beginning, it lasts forever. (Deloria, Jr. P. 154) The Lakota translation of the mountain referred to the creation of the world that they inhabit through the blood sacrifice of the god Inyan, he bleeds himself dry and disperses his energy to create the present world. (Sundstrom, P. 186) In a sense, it is the creation story of Sioux people as well as the site of creation, which would explain the flesh and blood offerings given during the annual Sun Dance. The requirement within Sioux culture for a stone to hold sacred and ceremonial purpose is that it must be completely free from the soil on which it rests, as the stones independence from the earth signifies that it is ready for a human relationship (Deloria, Jr. P. 154); hence the importance of the mountain Inyan Karan Mountain.

While previous tribes had come to call the Black Hills home and practice ceremonial tradition in accordance with the mountains, as each tribe came and went, the predecessors left the mountains with lasting tradition and culture that was then taken, adapted, and incorporated into the culture of the incoming tribe that would call the mountains home. This practice is especially interesting and unique as Native Americans of differing tribes also have different language, dialect, traditions, cultural practices, and spiritual and earthly interpretations differ. But as each Native tribe comes and goes across specific regions of land, past tribal tradition and culture are modified and incorporated into the present tribe’s tradition and culture as they now inhabit that land.

Traditional Practices of Sioux

While the annual Sun Dance (wiwanke wachipi) was a grand event throughout Sioux bands and was a coming together of all bands to celebrate the renewal of life and give thanks to the Creator for life, there were other ceremonial practices carried out throughout the year as well. It was vision seeking or as the Sioux call it, “crying” or “lamenting” that was used as a ritualistic way of praying throughout the year and was very important, as it stood in the very center of Sioux religion, for through prayer and vision good things were to come to the tribe and people. (Mails, P. 130)

Vision seeking is a part of Sioux religion that is still practiced today throughout Sioux tribes via sweat lodges. It is in sweat lodges that men pray to the Creator and seek answers and aid for what ails the people of the tribe, but within Sioux culture of both past and present, it is believed that only those who are good in mind, body, and spirit will receive the truly great visions, which are then interpreted by medicine men and from there, strength and health are delivered to the people. Women are not allowed to take part in vision seeking as they possess the ability to carry and bring forth life, an ability that is most sacred and special throughout Sioux culture; they ensure the future of the people.

Not all vision quests are carried forth to bring forth answers or remedies for tribal matters that are troublesome, often times they are also used to ask the Creator for strength for an upcoming ordeal that will require great strength. Instances such as an upcoming Sun Dance or battle were common ordeals throughout Sioux tribes that many men sought out to ask the Creator for assistance and needed strength. Sites within the Black Hills were vital and served these men for such religious purposes, this practice is done most commonly alone with the man cleaning himself in mind and body. After said practice is carried out, an offering such as food, blankets, beadwork, and flesh are given to the Creator as a way to give thanks for assistance and clarity within the mind, body and soul of the man.

Sacred Places of the Black Hills

Within Sioux culture, all places are viewed as sacred because all things that inhabit the world are viewed as connected and all depend on the other to maintain the balance of life; all things on Earth are to be respected and treated so. As previously mentioned, stones of all shapes and sizes carry some sort of spiritual connection within the earthly and spiritual world. They provide powers, insight into creation stories and origin of tribes, are thought to sustain life, and in some instances, provide forewarning of events to come.

In the quiet moments of morning, medicine men come to view and interpret the visible previews of the events to come, events of the immediate day and sometimes things that will occur in the future. These particular stones are often times large slabs of granite found across the plains that are traditionally home to Plains tribes such as the Sioux, interpretations are also said to be viewed on rocky cliffs. John Neihardt, tells of an Indian man’s interpretation of these stones and their abilities to present medicine men with foreseeable pictures as one of the four most important ways that Native Americans foretell the future. (Deloria, Jr. P. 150) The Native American man tells of a place in the Black Hills, a bank of solid rock where there are inscriptions that only medicine men possess the spiritual capability to interpret, he says that “We don’t know who wrote it, but a medicine man can decode it and get the meaning. We would camp and when we would come back there would be more writing.”

There are several of these cliffs and stones throughout the lands of the Black Hills and traditional Sioux people have interpreted the writing on such stones and cliffs as having been done by night spirits. It is through night spirits and the spirits of ancestors that Sioux people are able to not only receive a preview of what is to come, but to also communicate spiritually with their ancestors.

The Black Hills Gold Rush of 1874: Past and Present

As with most mountain ranges that have been studied throughout the course of history, not all human beings interpret the world and all that it encompasses in similar fashion. With colonialism pushing further and further West throughout the United States, Americans began settling further west in hopes of acquiring land that was thought to be unclaimed and untouched as Native Americans were viewed as “savage” and “uncivilized.” While the Black Hills had been explored before the discovery of gold in 1874, many trappers, traders, explorers, and settlers avoided the hills as they were considered sacred to Lakota tribes and fiercely defended due to the sacred veneration that the Black Hills hold culturally and traditionally throughout Lakota/Sioux tribes.

Black Elk speaks of such accounts of white settlers throughout the Black Hills and their desire to acquire the riches housed in the Black Hills. He tells of Pahushka (Long Hair, the Lakota name given to George Armstrong Custer) leading his soldiers into the Black Hills in search of gold. While he was just eleven years old at the time, Black Elk understood the importance of the Hills and felt that Custer had no right to venture into the mountains, using such terms as “all that country was ours.” (Neihardt, P. 49)

Treaties were made between the United States and the Native American tribes throughout America regarding territorial lands, a treaty was made between the United States and Red Cloud in 1868, allowing the Sioux people to remain within the Black Hills but upon the discovery of gold, that treaty held very little weight. Black Elk remembers the promise of the Black Hills belonging to the Sioux “as long as grass should grow and water flow” (Neihardt, P. 49) and recalled the discovery of gold within the Black Hills, using terminology such as the “yellow metal” that makes Wasichus (white people) crazy and it was because of the discovery of gold that made the bad trouble.

It was due to the gold rush of 1874 that the Great Sioux Nation (Oceti Sakowin) were forcibly pushed from their sacred homelands and relocated throughout South Dakota, Montana, Canada, and North Dakota making their homes on reservations. While the United States has offered the Sioux Nation, consisting of all bands of Sioux, a pay out ever-changing and today is worth $1.3 billion due to the interest it has collected throughout the years, the Sioux refuse the payment. Why?

For the Sioux, the Black Hills hold cultural significance that aids in the identity of Lakota people, as it is within the Black Hills that Sioux people are believed to come from, traditional and cultural practices take place at specific and sacred locations within the hills, and it is where Sioux are meant to be. While some cultures view their mountains as a means to benefit financially and provide a leap into modernity, others view their mountains as a place of creation, self-identity, a connection to their ancestors and family, and a preservation of traditional lifestyle. Quite simply put, the Black Hills Are Not For Sale.

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