decorative triangles


Oceti Sakowin Nation


in the spirit of mato tipila: an honoring

by Craig Howe
Listen to audio recording of the story below.
play pause

Long ago in a Lakota village there lived a young woman named Tapun Sa Win—Red Cheek Woman—whose beauty drew suitors from other villages near and far.

As was the custom, each of them took turn and enfolded her in his robe, presenting his case for her affection, all under the watchful eye of elders.

One evening a particularly radiant young man showed up to court Tapun Sa Win. No one had seen him before, nor knew from where he had journeyed. When it was his turn, he stood beside Tapun Sa Win under the cover of his robe and won her heart. She agreed to marry him and the people in the village were happy. At the announcement, though, he told them that he was from the stars and wished to take Tapun Sa Win to his home in the sky.

Reluctantly, the people agreed. So the man from the stars and Tapun Sa Win were married, and then went to live in the sky. They were happy, and she was pregnant. But the star man left their home every day to wander the sky like other stars, and his regular absences and the strange place led her to feelings of loneliness.

Her husband had cautioned her about the sky plants and animals and told her to never dig a particular plant that looked similar to the one she knew from earth.

But one day when he was away, Tapun Sa Win dug that plant, and through the hole where the root was, she could see her Lakota relatives far below.

Seeing them made her loneliness seem unbearable. So she decided she would leave the sky world to visit them. She quickly braided together all of her shawls and blankets and even the roots of plants to create a long rope. She tied one end of the rope to an anchor and dropped the rest through the hole. Then she squeezed through the hole and began shinnying down the rope toward this earth. Unfortunately, she was still far above the earth when she came to the end of the rope. It was too short. She clung to the end of the rope a long time, but eventually she tired and lost her grip, and the fall to the earth killed her.

Upon his return from wandering, her husband peered through the hole and saw Tapun Sa Win lying dead on the earth far below. Heartbroken he sat atop a rock and to this day is still sitting there. He is the one star that does not move. The Lakota people call him Waziya Wicahpi, the North Star.

Soon afterwards, a group of Lakota boys were playing outside their village and found the body of Tapun Sa Win.

Though frightened...they returned and found that miraculously her baby had been born alive and was trying to nurse.

They named him Wicahpi Hinhpaya—Fallen Star—and took him to their village, where the elders decided to raise him.

He grew differently from his Lakota relatives. Within a few earth years, he was a grown man, and he performed many good deeds for the people. One day he told them he was going to return to his father's people in the sky, but he would not forget his Lakota relatives. He said he would help them in two ways. One, he would instruct them in the medicinal uses of plants. The other was that he would help them in times of natural disasters. Then he left and returned to the sky world.

The people were sad, of course, but life went on.

Years, perhaps generations later, the people were returning to the Black Hills from the northwest. One late summer afternoon, they made camp in an area with many pine trees. As the camp was being set up, the children played, as they played, a group of seven girls drifted farther and farther from the camp.

Suddenly the girls stopped playing and—looking all around them—saw that countless bears had silently encircled them....Then, out of the blue above came a voice, "I will save you."

It was Fallen Star. He had not forgotten his promise to help his Lakota relatives...As the ferocious bears closed in, he instructed the little girls to stand atop a mound of earth; then he asked it to raise in the sky. And it did...As the mound rose skyward, the bears clawed all around its sides...But in doing so, the bears dislodged huge spires of granite that fell on top of them, burying all of them...

Fallen Star then asked each girl to choose her favorite species of bird...once she has chosen, a flock of those birds came and carried her to the safety of the camp.

That remarkable monolith still stands as a tangible marker of the relationship between Lakotas and Fallen Star.

Black Hills, South Dakota (He Sapa)

Place of origin

Black Hills
South Dakota Black Hills, September 22, 2013. Photograph by Jerry and Pat Donaho

"Before there were Lakotas on this earth, the ancestors of Lakotas lived in the underworld and were known as Pte Oyate—the Buffalo People. They served the spirits down there. Eventually a few of the Pte people were enticed to come to the surface through a connecting cave, and their descendants are the Lakota people."

How, Craig, Lydia Whirlwind Soldier, and Lanniko L. Lee, eds. 2011. He Sapa Woihanble: Black Hills Dream. St. Paul: Living Justice Press.

Bear Butte, South Dakota (Mato Paha)

Place of prayer and ceremony

Bear Butte
Bear Butte, Black Hills, South Dakota. Photograph by Doug McMains, 2016.

"Bear Butte isn't just a butte where people come to pray or get married. It represents something deeper than that. It represents a philosophy that guides behavior: be good to others and good to ourselves; respect everything."

How, Craig, Lydia Whirlwind Soldier, and Lanniko L. Lee, eds. 2011. He Sapa Woihanble: Black Hills Dream. St. Paul: Living Justice Press.

Black Elk Peak, South Dakota

Place of the spring equinox ceremony

Black Elk Peak
Black Elk Peak, 2016. Photograph by Runner1928. [CC BY-SA 4.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons.

This ancient ceremony, also known as "Welcoming Back the Thunder Beings," celebrates the arrival of a new Oceti Sakowin Oyate growing season. Participants pray that the Thunder Beings will bring good weather and that younger generations will carry on the tradition.

For further information, see "Welcoming Back the Thunder Beings," Lakota Country Times,

Missouri River, South Dakota (Mni Sose)

Place of gathering

Missouri River
Missouri River near Yankton, South Dakota, October 2006. Photograph by Galen Jons, courtesy of the U.S. National Park Service, via Wikimedia Commons.

"Seeing the Missouri River country of the Sioux is like seeing where the earth first recognized humanity and where it came to possess a kind of internal coherence about that condition.

As you look you think you see old women leaving marked trails in the tall burnt grass as they carry firewood on their backs from the river, and you think you hear the songs they sang to grandchildren, and you feel transformed into the past."

Cook-Lynn, Elizabeth. 2012. The River's Edge. St. Paul: Living Justice Press.

Confluence of Minnesota and Mississippi Rivers (Bdote)

Place of first creation

Missouri and Mississippi Rivers
Missouri Meets Mississippi, June 7 2009. Photograph by Doc DeVore

"Our spirits come from the Creator down the Canku Wanagi, the 'spirit road', more commonly known as the Milky Way."

"In our Creation myth we the Dakota, the Seven Fires of the Dakota, came from the belt of Orion...the seven stars...Dakota people belonged to one of the seven fires, or bands, that made up the Oyate, or Nation."

Westerman, Gwen, and Bruce White. 2012. Mni Sota Makoce: The Land of the Dakota. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society.

Spirit Lake, Iowa

Place of ceremony

Northwest Iowa
Northwest Iowa near Spirit Lake. Photograph by Daniel Ruf.

Story of young girl going with Medicine People to Spirit Lake:

"So she went into the water and swam toward the bottom. There she saw a woman in white buckskin who held a bowl in each hand. The woman said, "These will help your people. When you plant them, they will grow and then you can eat them...' The gift was seeds of corn: four male seeds in one bowl and four female seeds in the other...The Dakota people from that time forward would have plenty of corn. Because the holy being, the sacred woman, lived there under the water and gave them the gift of corn, they called it Spirit Lake."

Westerman, Gwen, and Bruce White. 2012. Mni Sota Makoce: The Land of the Dakota. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society.

Barn Bluff near Red Wing, Minnesota (He Mni Can)

Place where they live under the fog

Barn Bluff
Eastern End of Barn Bluff, May 4, 2009. Photograph by Reenie82. [CC BY-SA 3.0 ( or GFDL (], via Wikimedia Commons.

"...a cultural hub was established at He Mni Can...on the Mississippi River...Many people lived in that area, working together, gathering medicines, and hunting...Then there were disagreements about who should pick medicine in the area,. The argument escalated until they were ready to fight one another...The ground started to shake. A mist rose up out of the area, and the people fell unconscious to the ground. After a while, as the mist started to lift, they came back to their senses and remembered they were ready to battle. But as they looked at their opponents, they saw that they were separated by a valley with water running through there. The Creator had shown them that this land was given for everyone to use and not to fight over it."

Westerman, Gwen, and Bruce White. 2012. Mni Sota Makoce: The Land of the Dakota. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society.

Pipestone Quarry, southwestern Minnesota

Sacred red stone is still quarried for ceremonial pipes for prayer

Pipestone Quarry
Pipestone Quarry on the Coteau des Prairies, 1836–1837. Painting by George Catlin. Courtesy of the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Gift of Mrs. Joseph Harrison, Jr. 1985.66.337.

"Dakota tradition maintains that when the Creator sent the Unktehi to flood the earth, the people who perished had forgotten how to behave as human beings. Their blood became the sacred red stone which is still used today for our ceremonial pipes used for prayer."

Westerman, Gwen, and Bruce White. 2012. Mni Sota Makoce: The Land of the Dakota. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society.

decorative triangles

" Oceti Sakowin , meaning Seven Council Fires, (known to some as the Sioux Nation) is a confederacy of Native Nations that speak three different dialects of the same language: the Dakota , Nakota , and Lakota . The Lakota, the largest of the three groups, is composed of seven bands that occupy reservations in South and North Dakota. The Dakota, or Santee , live in South Dakota, Minnesota, and Nebraska. The Nakota reside in South Dakota and Montana." SD Office of Indian Education, "Oceti Sakowin Essential Understandings and Standards".

" He Sapa [the Black Hills ] holds memories and stories of Lakota history from the time of creation...and at the center of He Sapa is its foundation— Inyan , the Rock. Lakotas believe that countless generations later, our ancestors left the underworld and emerged onto this earth through a hole, or connecting cave, in Inyan.

... He Sapa is a precious resource that Lakotas have held in trust for the coming generations. He Sapa to Lakotas is a wizipan, a repository from which we can draw physical and spiritual sustenance. It is a place of prayer and ceremony. We cannot look upon it without thinking about the power that created it. We are part of it, as it is part of us."

South Dakota Black Hills, September 22, 2013. Photograph by Jerry and Pat Donaho.,

"...for Box Butte was a holy hill, a shrine where people went to pray for all sorts of blessings, but mostly for a long life...'We shall visit the holy hill'. She called Little Chief in from play, telling him, 'Grandchild, as your grandfather said, we are going up there now...You and your sister shall leave your very own prayers today'.

They had climbed the south side, about the middle of the butte. The pile of prayers was at the west end, the 'sunset end'. They watched her unfold a bit of painted deerskin and spread it out. It contained ceremonial red paint. With a little of it on her fingertips she carefully painted each child's right palm. 'Before you handle holy things you must have sacred paint on your hands,' she told them. Then she painted their stones and instructed them to place their prayers where they would stay.

Great Mystery...See these little ones...They have become your relatives today..."

Ella C. Deloria, Waterlily (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1988).

Spiritual values and religious beliefs and practices were very important to the traditional cultures and daily lives of many Native Americans, including the Oceti Sakowin .

The American bison, commonly referred to as the buffalo, has always held great meaning and importance for the histories, cultures, religions, and ways of life of Native people and Northern Great Plains Nations. The buffalo is a food source and is used to make tipi covers, clothing, tools, medicine, weapons, and more. The buffalo is also considered a relative and is honored in songs, dances, and prayers. The buffalo was and remains a critical link between people of the northern Great Plains and their homelands.

Sioux Indians Hunting Buffalo, 1835. Painting by George Catlin. Courtesy of the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Gift of Mrs. Joseph Harrison, Jr. 1985.66.411

"Two young men went out to hunt. Along the way, the two men met a beautiful young woman dressed in white who floated as she walked. One man had bad desires for the woman and tried to touch her, but was consumed by a cloud and turned into a pile of bones.

The woman spoke to the second young man and said, 'Return to your people and tell them I am coming.' This holy woman brought a wrapped bundle to the people. She unwrapped the bundle giving to the people a sacred pipe and teaching them how to use it to pray. 'With this holy pipe, you will walk like a living prayer,' she said. The holy woman told the Sioux about the value of the buffalo, the women and the children. 'You are from Mother Earth,' she told the women, 'What you are doing is as great as the warriors do.'

Before she left, she told the people she would return. As she walked away, she rolled over four times, turning into a white female buffalo calf. It is said after that day the Lakota honored their pipe, and buffalo were plentiful."

This version of the story was told by John Lame Deer in 1967.

The white buffalo calf holds special significance to many American Indians—including the Oceti Sakowin , also known as the Lakota , Dakota and Nakota , or the " Sioux ." According to oral history, the White Buffalo Calf Woman was holy and visited the Oceti Sakowin over a four-day period about 2000 years ago. There are several versions of the story, each conveying the same essential details.

The traditional homes known as tipis remain an important symbol of identity for the people of Northern Great Plains Nations. They are uniquely adapted to life on the Great Plains. They can be taken down or constructed in a few hours and are fabricated using a framework of peeled poles, often from pine trees common in the region, and covered in bison hides or lengths of canvas. Tipis are shaped to provide stability against the strong winds common in the region. They can be adapted to accommodate a large or small number of occupants and modified to include insulation in the winter. With an internal fire, tipis can also offer protection from frigid temperatures.

Tipis at Fort Laramie, Wyoming, 2016. Photograph by Doug McMains
Go to top