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Lakota Symbolism

Natural Beings


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The Earth
The Sun
The Moon
The Stars
The Night
The Tree
The Fire
The Rocks
The Eagle
The Buffalo
The Rabbit


The Earth (Makha)

The Earth is considered under two aspects, that of Mother and Grandmother. The former is the earth considered as the producer of all growing forms, in act, whereas Grandmother refers to the ground or substance of all growing things —potentiality.


— Joseph Epes Brown

The Earth is sacred, for upon Her we place our feet, and from Her we send our voices to Wakan Tanka. She is a relative of ours.

— Black Elk

The Sun (Wiyo ate)

The light of the sun enlightens the entire universe, and as the flames of the sun come to us in the morning, so comes the grace of Wakan Tanka, by which all creatures are enlightened. It is because of this that the four-leggeds and the wingeds always rejoice at the coming of the light. We can all see in the day, and this seeing is sacred for it represents the sight of that real world which we may have through the eye of the heart.

— Black Elk

The Moon (Hanhepi wi)

The growing and dying of the moon reminds us of our ignorance which comes and goes; but when the moon is full it is as if the eternal light of the Great Spirit were upon the whole world.

— Black Elk

The moon represents a person and also all things, for everything created waxes and wanes, lives and dies.

— Black Elk

The Stars (Wichahpi)

The stars are wakan. Sometimes they come to the world and sometimes the Lakotas go to them. There is one star for the evening and one for the morning. One star never moves and is wakan. Other stars move in a circle about it. They are dancing in the dance circle. There are seven stars. This is why there are seven council fires among the Lakotas. The Spirit Way is among the stars. It begins at the edge of the world. No man can find it. Wakan Tanka keeps the bad spirits away from the Spirit Way.  

— Ringing Shield

The Morning Star stands between the darkness and the light, and represents knowledge.

— Black Elk

The Night (Hanhepi)

The night represents ignorance, but it is the moon and the stars that bring the Light of Wakan Tanka into this darkness.

— Black Elk

The Tree (Chan)

The tree represents the way of the people. Does it not stretch from the earth here to heaven there?

— Black Elk

You are a kind and good-looking tree. Upon your the winged peoples have raised their families; from the tip of your lofty branches down to your roots, the winged and four-legged peoples have made their homes. When you stand at the center of the sacred hoop you are as the people, and you are as the pipe, stretching from heaven to earth. The weak lean upon you, and for all the people you are a support. May we two-leggeds always follow your sacred example, for we see that you are always looking upwards into the heavens.

— Black Elk

We consider the cottonwood very sacred, because long ago it was the cottonwood who taught us how to make our tipis, for the leaf of the tree is an exact pattern of the tipi, and this we learned when some of our old men were watching little children making play houses from these leaves. (This too is a good example of how much grown men may learn from very little children, for the hearts of little children are pure, and therefore the Great Spirit may show to them many things which older people miss.)

Another reason is that if you cut an upper limb of this tree crosswise, there you will see in the grain a perfect five-pointed star, which to us represents the presence of the Great Spirit. Also, even in the lightest breeze you can hear the voice of the cottonwood tree. This we understand is its prayer to the Great Spirit, for not only men, but all things and all beings pray to Him continually in differing ways.


— Black Elk

The Fire (Peta)

The fire represents the great power of Wakan Tanka, which gives life to all things. It is as a ray from the sun.

— Black Elk

The Rocks (Inyan)

The rocks that we use represent Grandmother Earth, from whom all fruits come, and they also represent the indestructible and everlasting nature of Wakan Tanka.


— Black Elk

O you ancient rocks who are sacred, you have neither ears nor eyes, yet you hear and see all things.

— Black Elk

The Eagle (Wanbli)

Since Wambli Galeska flies the highest of all creatures and sees everything, he is regarded as Wakan Tanka under certain aspects. He is a solar bird, his feathers being regarded as rays of the sun, and when one is carried or worn by the Indian it represents, or rather is, the "Real Presence". In wearing eagle-feathered "war-bonnet", the wearer actually becomes the eagle, which is to say that he identifies himself, his real Self, with Wakan Tanka.

The Spotted Eagle corresponds exactly, in the Hindu tradition, to the Buddhi, which is the Intellect, or the formless and transcendant principle of all manifestation. Further, the Buddhi is often expressed as being a ray directly emanating from the Atma, the spiritual sun.

From this it should be clear what is really being expressed in the often misunderstood Ghost Dance song: "Wambli Galeska wana ni he o who e", "The Spotted Eagle is coming to carry me away."

— Joseph Epes Brown

The Buffalo (Tatanka)

Tatanka represents the people and the universe and should always be treated with respect, for was he not here before the two-legged peoples, and is he not generous in that he gives us our homes and our food?

— Black Elk


The buffalo was to the Sioux the most important of all four-legged animals, for it supplied their food, their clothing, and even their houses, which were made from the tanned hides. Because the buffalo contained all these things within himself, and for many other reasons, he was a natural symbol of the universe, the totality of all manifested forms. Everything is symbolically contained within this animal: the earth and all that grows from her, all animals, and even the two-legged peoples; and each specific part of the beast represents for the Indian, one of these "parts" of creation. Also the buffalo has four legs, and these represent the four ages, which are an integral condition of creation.

— Joseph Epes Brown

Tatanka is the closest four-legged relative that we have.

— Black Elk

The buffalo teaches us honesty, kindness, sharing, and courage. It has been told that the buffalo gives all of itself to us, not just the meat, but every part is given to help us live. He was so kind to give himself. He was sharing. He had the courage to give himself. Every part of the buffalo teaches us something. The skull looks like a woman's reproductive organs. That's why it is used to represent life. It is our altar.

— Gary Holy Bull

The hair of a live buffalo is very wakan because it has been taken off a living tree, for you see, the buffalo people too, have a religion, and this is their offering which they have made to the tree.

— Black Elk

The buffalo bladder is, for many peoples, as sacred as our pipe, for it also may contain the whole universe.

— Black Elk

Sage (Peju ota)

The spirit in the smoke of the sage is very offensive to all evil beings and they will fly from it. They even fear the herb of sage and will not stay where it is. So if anyone carries sage, or keeps it near, the evil beings fear to come near such a one. 

— George Sword

To wear a wreath of sage upon our heads is a sign that our minds and hearts are close to Wakan Tanka and His Powers, for the wreath represents the things of the heavens -the stars and planets, which are very mysterious and wakan.

— Black Elk

Cedar (Hante)

If a Lakota is doing a ceremony relative to Wakinyan, he should make an incense of the leaves of the cedar tree. This is because the cedar tree is the favorite of Wakinyan, and he never strikes it with lightning. The smell of the smoke of the cedar is pleasing to him. When a thunderstorm is coming, one should make an incense of cedar leaves to propitiate Wakinyan.

— George Sword

Sweetgrass (Wachaga)

In all ceremonies that have to do with Wakan Tanka, after smoking the pipe an incense of sweetgrass should be made. This is because the spirit that is in the smoke of sweetgrass is pleasing to Wakan Tanka, and will incline Him to hear the ceremony with favor. The incense is also distasteful to all evil beings and thwarts their powers.  

— George Sword

Corn (Wagmiza)

The ear of corn that you see here has twelve important meanings connected with it, for there are twelve rows of kernels, which it receives from the various powers of the universe.

The tassel which grows upon the top of the ear of corn represents the presence of the Great Spirit, for, as the pollen from the tassel spreads all over, giving life, so it is with Wakan Tanka, who gives life to all things.

The swinging of the corn-stalks is very wakan, for it represents the corn when the breath of the Great Spirit is upon it, since, when the wind blows, the pollen drops from the tassel upon the silk surrounding the ear, through which the fruit becomes mature and fertile.

— Black Elk

The Rabbit (Mashtincala)

The rabbit represents humility, because he is quiet and soft and not self-asserting.


— Black Elk

Lakota rites:
Nagi Gluhapi (Keeping of the Soul)
Inipi (Rite of Purification)
Hanblecheyapi (Crying for a Vision)
Wiwanyag Wachipi (The Sun Dance)
Hunkapi (Making of Relatives)
Ishna Ta Awi Cha Lowan (Preparing for Womanhood)
Tapa Wanka Yap (Throwing of the Ball)

Other ceremonies

In concepts  ||  In natural beings
In dwellings  ||  In tools and objects

Complete list

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