Sacred Star Beings in Yuwipi: How Cultural Values Manifest in Ceremony and Living Beyond Analysis and Individuality

“We grew up in ceremonies our whole lives. The elders make us feel good, they see for us. They tell us, ‘Do these ways while you’re young. They’re part of you, and they’ll help you through life.’ ” – Mike Littleboy Jr. 

Clifford Geertz defines religion as “a system of symbols which acts to establish a powerful, pervasive, and long-lasting moods and motivations in men by formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and clothing these conceptions with such an aura of factuality that the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic” (90). Using concepts of ethos and world-view, Geertz’s theoretical framework serves to demonstrate the self-reinforcing role of religion in culture in social and psychological terms. By demonstrating the interplay of intrinsic, individual elements and extrinsic social elements of religion as manifesting meaning in culture, Geertz illuminates a dynamic academic approach to understanding the ways of the human world. As Geertz explains from an anthropological point of view in his essay Religion as a Cultural System, “the importance of religion lies in its capacity to serve, for an individual or for a group, as a source of general, yet distinctive, conceptions of the world, the self, and the relations between them, on the one hand…and of the rooted, no less distinctive ‘mental’ dispositions, on the other” (123). These cultural functions of religion serve as the bedrock from which social and psychological functions emerge. Tracing the social and psychological role of religion is, according to Geertz, “a matter of understanding how it is that men’s notions, however implicit, of the ‘really real’ and the dispositions these notions induce in them, color their sense of the reasonable, the practical, the humane, and the moral” (124). In essence, our beliefs are a template for how we create values and manifest ourselves in the world.

The Lakota people from the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota hold values and a sense of cultural identity that are inextricably tied to their spiritual orientation. They value the sanctity of their land, their traditions, their cosmology, their ancestry, their families, and their children as the vessels of these beliefs. Indeed, in Toward an Oglala Lakota Constitution: Statement of Basic Principles, Birgil Kills Straight and Steven Newcomb portray succinctly the critical value of children for the Lakota spirituality embodied within the culture:

“Children are the future of the Nation; the security and well-being of the Nation is ensured by providing security and well-being to the Children on behalf of the Seventh Generation. Children represent renewal, laughter, joyfulness, and heart and love. By nurturing and supporting them by providing for them in all areas of their lives, through a well- rounded Oglala Lakota education the language, culture, and spiritual traditions of the People shall be continually renewed and revitalized. Healing and revitalization are necessary for the sake of the children and the future generations.”

Wakan Wicahpi Kin, or Sacred Star Beings, is the Lakota word for children. As Lakota scholar Celinda Kaelin writes in her essay Dancing with the Sun, “this naming speaks volumes about Lakota values and culture” (1) because it palpably recognizes their traditional spiritual understanding of the origin of life itself – the cosmic. The Lakota see children as souls on the Spirit Road reincarnated, and thus cherish and honor them as Star Beings, freshly arrived from the Spirit World (2).

Geertz’ model speaks to the concretization of values through ceremony as a self-reinforcing hermeneutical system of religion in culture. For the Lakota, the importance of children in cultural identity plays out in the attitude towards them in ceremony. Although seriousness and self-discipline involved in Lakota ceremony, children are often allowed to witness and experience them. For ceremonies like Sweat, according to Lakota spiritual leader Mike Littleboy Jr., the presence of children is taken into account and the ceremony is altered to accommodate their needs – the stones are not so hot, the rounds are not so long… “We grew up in ceremonies our whole lives,” he explained, “The elders make us feel good, they see for us. They tell us, ‘Do these ways while you’re young. They’re a part of you, and they’ll help you through life.’” Even when children are not physically present in ceremony, they are often evoked as the subject of intentional prayer, as the future of the tribe. The Littleboy clan demonstrated an immense amount of patience, love and concern toward their children; they did not seem to even consider the prospect of separating children from adults in their daily activities and rituals.

A particularly powerful demonstration of the spiritual value of the younger generation for the Lakota people was a Yuwipi ceremony that took place in Mike Jr.’s house. The participants filed in to the basement room where the windows had been covered with sheets of black plastic. We took seats against the walls, leaving the space in the middle of the room uncrowded – prayer ties filled with tobacco and wrapped with the four sacred colors (white, yellow, red and black), wound around an altar of sorts. Four larger flags which I had helped to tie earlier in the evening, one of each color, marked the corners of the rug, signifying the four directions, the four elements of the Sacred Hoop of the self (soul or spirit, mind, emotions, body) and the four cycles of life (birth, youth and growth, death, and spiritual incarnation).

I found myself seated next to two Lakota women who were surrounded by a number of children – cousins, nieces and nephews, sons and daughters. It didn’t seem to matter – everyone in the Littleboy house piled into the room. Justin’s little one, Jayden, crawled into my lap. Sage was passed around, and Mike Jr. instructed us to place it behind our ears. Jayden, four years old and feisty, didn’t wait any help with his sage. He fidgeted, play-punched me, took off his shoes. I stayed as still and quiet as possibly, doing my best to exude a calm, serious energy so as not to further rile him up.

Meanwhile, the singers, Justin and Jalen, completely covered Mike Jr. with a star-blanket and secured it with twine. His hands are tied behind his back, and twine bound him around his chest, waist, feet and neck. He lay facedown in the center of the altar, and the light was extinguished – it was completely black. At first, Jayden whimpered. “I can’t see! Tell them to turn on the lights! I can’t see!” he whispered to me, kicking his legs. I held him tight, rocking back and forth. I heard Naveya, Mike’s three-year-old daughter, start to cry, and her great aunt’s comforting whisper. Then the singing began, the deep rhythm of the drum and the voices of the singers vibrated through the room. Almost immediately, sparks of white light burst from the altar, and crackled and danced throughout the room, accompanied by sounds of rattles. The sounds and light appeared and disappeared and reappeared so quickly that their source was impossible to conceive. I was filled with a warm calmness that settled upon my body and mind – I felt interconnectedness with every person in the darkness. Identity and individuality melted into a unity with the tangible energy of the room. The song and drum and rattles and lights increased in intensity, but did not invoke fear. In my arms, I felt Jayden’s body grow calm. His small head rested between my chest and arm. His little fist found and kept the rhythm of the drum beat on my thigh. The sensation of connectedness with Jayden, a oneness, permeated the space, spreading through the circle of attentive worshipers surrounding the altar.

The song ended, and prayer began. Each participant was given the opportunity to offer prayers to the spirits. Many asked for the protection of “the man in the middle,” who was offering himself as a vessel for the spirits; they prayed for their families, the people of Pine Ridge, the families and the land that supports them. As if in response to the pleas of the group, sparks, rattles and whistles filled the space around the speakers – an affirmation, it seemed to me, of the reception of the prayers by the spirits. At this point, Jayden began to get restless again. He slid off of my lap, onto the floor, but held tightly to my hand. “Dad, Dad,” he whispered to the darkness. Although I could see nothing, I believe that as soon as he made physical contact with his father, who was seated with the drum a few feet in front of us, he let me go. The warmth of his little body lingered.

When it was my turn to pray, I was unsure. I began with an expression of gratitude for the families of the Lakota who had invited us into their ceremonies and homes, shared their stories and asked nothing in return. Then the words began to form themselves on my tongue, rushing like water from a spring – I prayed for the land and for the children, the future of the Lakota, for their protection and their health and their education. The rattle responded, and as the words came through me, the singers began to beat the drum and bless the moment. I did not know to continue, so I concluded my prayer there with the blessing Mitakuye Oyasin; recited in all Lakota ceremonies these words declare a deep seeded understanding of unity – we are all related.

The prayers continued throughout the song, accompanied by lights and rattles and whistles all around and above me. Time disappeared. The space, the songs, the spirits were all there was. Finally, Mike’s voice echoed from the altar – no longer stifled by the blanket, that the ceremony had come to a close, that our prayers had been heard, and it was time to turn on the lights. Blinking disconcertedly in the sudden brightness, I looked around the room. Mike was seated in the center of the altar on the star blanket, unbound, the ropes neatly bundled beside him. Before him in a tight ball are the hundreds of prayer ties that had previously surrounded the space where Mike lay facedown. The larger flags were now lined up in front of him. Next to Justin, Jayden is fast asleep, and to my right, the four or five other children who had been in ceremony with us were also slumbering. As we passed around the sacred pipes in conclusion of the Yuwipi, Justin makes sure to bless his sleeping son by touching the C’anupa to the sleeping boy’s shoulder.

In terms of ceremonial manifestation of values with regards to children in Lakota culture, the Yuwipi demonstrated how beliefs in the significance of children as spiritual beings and their role as successors of tradition are central cultural values. The Geertz’ model is not fully conducive to my experience with Jayden in the ceremony, however. This brings to light a discussion concerning how we use theory and personal experience in religious studies. Theoretical models in the study of religion serve as lenses to illuminate the multidimensionality of perspectives for understanding phenomena such as ritual and ceremony. Through the Geertz lens, I have gained a respect for Lakota values and how they play out in ceremony. Yet a single model itself fails to encapsulate the entirety of ceremony, especially in terms of personal experience. There is an element of feeling, of ineffability, that expands one’s understanding of ceremony upon participation, which in turn serves to expand appreciation for and understanding of the culture to which it belongs.

Personal experience, however, can be limiting in terms of achieving a wholesome, multidimensional comprehension of ceremony. Within the bounds of personal experience, we are restricted to our subjective, individual interpretation. Approaching one’s own experience objectively is always a precarious task, as it requires the shedding of our personal (and often unconscious) opinions and biases. Broaching the topic of subjectivity, I argue that it is itself inescapable. We all interpret the world through our own perspectives and experiences, which manifest in our actions and reactions. We can never be anyone else but each our own particular selves. Yuwipi, for me, was a magical experience – the most intimate interactions with what I interpreted to be paranormal spirits. It invoked in me a sense of greater vibrational energy. I entered into the ceremony with an intention to be open and uncritical; make myself available to the ceremonial experience as authentically as possible (in the Lakota’s epistemological sense). Yet I am still aware of such thoughts, emotions and sensations as completely my own, determined by my own experience and intention. For me, the spirits were present; the connection with Jayden was beyond the profane. But such a perspective is just that – perspective: individual, unique, subjective.

Thus, it is the delicate dance between theory and experience, I believe, that manifests the most fruitful understanding of ceremony. Through the act of communication of ideas and thoughts, we develop, define and refine the subjective lenses through which we interpret and grasp meaning in the world. The ability to share and communicate ideas and perspectives allows for inter-subjectivity – the capacity to coexist and thrive and learn from one another as human beings. In this way, I believe, studying theoretical models of religion and applying it to personal experience of ceremony demonstrates our capacity to expand our interpretive possibilities. In the end, it all ties back to the Lakota philosophy of interconnectedness. Despite different interpretations and models, theories and experiences, those present in the Yuwipi were present to a shared moment, inexpressible, “really real.” How that moment manifests itself for each individual will vary diversely, as we each walk our own path, but it all stems from one moment, one source – Life. Mitakuye Oyasin.

Justine Epstein, November 2012

Photo Credit: Laura Sullivan


Works Cited

Geertz, Clifford. “Religion as a Cultural System.” The Interpretation of Cultures:

            Selected Essays. Fontana Press, 1993: pp. 87-125. Print.

Kaelin, Celinda. “Dancing with the Sun.” Dancing with Eagles and Condors Ch. 27

(n.d.): 1-29. Print.

Kills Straight, Birgil, and Steven Newcomb. “Toward an Oglala Lakota Constitution:

Statement of Basic Principles.” Toward an Oglala Lakota Constitution.

Indigenous Law Institute, 2004. Web. 14 Nov. 2012.




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