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Lakota Ceremonies


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Chanunpa Wakan
The Earth Day Ceremony


Chanunpa Wakan  (The Sacred Pipe)

The pipe ceremony is a sacred ritual for connecting physical and spiritual worlds. "The pipe is a link between the earth and the sky," explains White Deer of Autumn. "Nothing is more sacred. The pipe is our prayers in physical form. Smoke becomes our words; it goes out, touches everything, and becomes a part of all there is. The fire in the pipe is the same fire in the sun, which is the source of life." The reason why tobacco is used to connect the worlds is that the plant’s roots go deep into the earth, and its smoke rises high into the heavens.

There are different kinds of pipes and different uses for them. There are personal pipes and family pipes as well as pipes for large ceremonies. The particular stone used depends upon the tribe’s location, and various symbols are added to attract certain spiritual energies. Also, the type of tobacco used depends on tribal custom. But despite these differences, there are certain important similarities: The ceremony invokes a relationship with the energies of the universe, and ultimately the Creator, and the bond made between earthly and spiritual realms is not to be broken.

Ed McGaa (Eagle Man), an Oglala Sioux, and author of “Mother Earth Spirituality: Native American Paths to Healing Ourselves and Our World”, says that most pipe ceremonies have the same intention: to call upon and thank the six energies.

"All of our Sioux ceremonies beseech to the four directions, the earth and sky, and ultimately the Great Spirit. We see our Creator through nature, and we try to emulate what the Creator has made. This has worked out well, as you can see from the track record of Native American people. The old time Indians were honest, ethical people, and they had an unblemished environmental record. When the Pilgrims first landed, they kept them alive, and they took in black slaves. They were extremely humanistic. That’s one of the main reasons that I believe in the natural way."

Eagle Man begins a ceremony by beseeching the West power, while thinking about the life giving rains and the ever-present spirit world. Next, he beseeches the North power, the source of endurance, strength, truthfulness, and honesty, which are qualities needed to walk down a good path in life. Then, he will look to the East power. The east is where the sun rises, and the sun brings us knowledge, the essence of spirituality. Without knowledge, we become ignorant and cause harm to ourselves and others. The fourth energy is the South power, which brings us bounty, medicine, and growth.

Next to be acknowledged is the Earth Spirit. Eagle Man touches the pipe to the ground, and says, "Mother Earth, I seek to protect you." Since Mother Earth depends on the sun’s life giving energy, the pipe is then held up towards the sky. Lastly, the pipe is held straight up to the Great Spirit, the Great Mystery, the unexplainable source of all life. These words are then spoken: "Oh Great Spirit, I thank you for the six Powers of the universe."

Unlike many westerners, Eagle Man explains that the person reaching out to the spirit world has no fear: "Most of us are not afraid of the Great Spirit. We don’t fear something that has given us our life."

It is unimaginable for an Indian to break his word after smoking the pipe. In the past, the signing of treaties was always accompanied by pipe ceremonies because Indians believed that smoking the pipe would secure the arrangement. No one would be foolish enough to lie or go back on their word once the pipe was smoked, because the pipe was the vehicle for carrying their word up to the Creator. And in return, a blessing would descend from the Creator to the individuals smoking it.

Of course, we all know that the United States government did not share in these understandings, and sent representatives to the Indians to use the pipe as a means of deception. As White Deer of Autumn explains:

"You’ve heard of the peace pipe. There is no such thing, in a sense, because that came about when the government sent emissaries to the Native Americans. At that time, we were still the lords of the land; we still held the power. The U.S. government had to deal with that. They understood that the pipe would allow peaceful transactions because no Indian would ever lie once spoken on the pipe."

By dishonoring the meaning of this sacred practice, treaties were broken and land was taken, but the benefits were short-lived, as White Deer of Autumn explains:

"When the Europeans started to use tobacco, they saw it as a market, and thus corrupted its function. Now it is being misused, and you see what happens when a gift that has been given is misused."

Yet, to those who understand its true significance, the pipe ceremony holds great power. White Deer of Autumn continues:

"When a stem and bowl are disconnected, you have two sacred objects. When a stem and bowl are connected, you have a living being. And the pipe is addressed as a living, breathing being. A Catholic priest traveling down the Mississippi observed men laying down their arms in conflict before the pipe. They would not fight in its presence. He said that by carrying the pipe you could pass from one end of this land to the other, without being harmed. A great holy man, named Lame Deer, said that as long as one Indian holds the pipe and prays to the Great Mystery, we will live. That’s how powerful it is."

From “Native American Healing” in Gary Null’s Natural Living.


The Yuwipi ceremony is used for healing, divining, and for finding lost persons or objects. A medicine man who performs this nighttime ritual builds a special altar on the floor of a house and allows the spectators to tie his hands securely behind his back, then wrap him head to foot in a thick blanket so that he is entirely covered like a mummy. Ropes are tied around the blanket to hold it in place. He is then laid out full length on the altar, while the other participants sit in a tightly packed circle around him and hold hands so they will know if anyone moves.

The lights are extinguished, and the medicine man prays audibly so that everyone can hear him. After a specified period of time, the lights are turned on, and without anyone having helped him, the Yuwipi man will be sitting there free of his bindings, with the blanket neatly folded beside him and his hands folded in his lap. He never reveals how he does this, and when asked always claims that the spirits come and release him.

During the time he remains wrapped and in the dark, the medicine man may pray for help in determining the cause of an illness he has been asked to cure, and in learning the roots or herbs that will heal it. Or, if he has been asked to find a lost object or person, he will pray for guidance regarding that. Surprising results are common, and there are many testimonies to the truth of this, including those given by non-Indians who have participated and been helped in amazing ways.

From “Secret Native American Pathways” by Thomas E. Mails

The Earth Day Ceremony

According to Eagle Man, the Sioux nation takes Earth Day very seriously and performs a powerful ceremony in its honor. The ceremony is held outdoors, where the four directions are invoked, as well as the powers of the earth and sky, to let these energies know that the people are giving Mother Earth their full support and respect. Acknowledging the directions is a common part of Native ceremonies, but here they are connected to environmental talk. Eagle Man explains:

"We talk about life giving rains coming out of the West. We talk about clean waters. And we ask, ‘How can we help make the water clean?’ We talk about less wasting of water. Also, we talk about fighting for the non-pollution of water.

"Then we turn to the North and appreciate cleanliness and purity. We know that we have an uphill battle, as most environmentalists have. But we beseech upon the North power to fortify us and give us great strength to endure in our venture into environmentalism.

"We beseech the East power and talk about knowledge, about educating children. We see that more today. Kids are less apt to throw trash out of their cars windows. I just had three occupants in my car. One dumped his water out from his paper cut, but he wouldn’t think of throwing that paper cup out there on the grass. Had he thrown out the paper cup, I would have stopped the car, turned around, admonished him, and made him pick up the paper cup. It doesn’t sound like much, but it all adds up. So, we talk about knowledge.

"We go to the South power, and we beseech for bounty to be taken away from these people that are wasting. All business executives care about is making more and more money. They don’t care about taking their bounty and applying it to Mother Earth’s needs. We beseech for the bounty to be distributed to people who will make use of it for the Earth Mother, and for projects that will generate a myriad of environmental items that can cause less pollution."

Ultimately, addressing the directions leads to communion with the Creator. But Indians do not focus directly on the all-seeing Great Mystery. Rather, they speak to His Creation as manifested in nature, represented by each direction.

From “Native American Healing” in Gary Null’s Natural Living.


Smudging is a common practice among Native Americans for the cleansing of energy through the burning of sage, tobacco, and sweetgrass. John Joseph says these substances emit certain smells that are pleasing to the Great Spirit:

"Sweetgrass grows high in the Rocky Mountains, and is known as the grass that never dies. It is a gift from the Creator, and one of the great smells for reminding us of the mountains and the open air. Sage is the cleanest smell of the desert, and is also given to us by the Creator. Tobacco is yet another gift. Our thoughts and prayers are carried on its smoke. It is a visual representation of our thoughts and prayers being carried, more so because it carries the two great smells of the mountain and desert."

The smudging itself is performed by mixing the sweetgrass, sage, and tobacco in a bowl, usually an abalone shell, burning the ingredients, and then blowing or fanning the smoke over a person. Often, an eagle feather fan is used, as Native Americans believe that the prayers and thoughts contained in the smoke are carried to the Creator on the wings of eagles, which fly the highest and are in direct communication with the Creator.

Smudging plays a central role in traditional healing ceremonies because it is believed that once negative energies are cleared out, a sense of peace and relaxation takes over, putting spiritual difficulties to rest. Joseph explains why this aspect of healing is so important:

"Western medicine primarily looks at physical causes, and often does not consider the spiritual well being of the individual. You have to understand that there’s a big difference between healing and curing. Curing is a quick fix and will only be long-term if the spiritual site is fixed."

Smudging is often combined with other modalities that get to the root of illness, such as talking to a shaman, taking long walks, fasting, praying, and engaging in purification ceremonies.

From “Native American Healing” in Gary Null’s Natural Living,


Lakota rites:
Nagi Gluhapi (The 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)

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

Complete list

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