Lakota Symbolism of the Circle

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The word circle has many meanings. According to, it has approzimately twenty definitions. Two meanings are: a closed plane curve consisting of all points at a given distance from a point within it called the center and a series ending where it began, especially when perpetually repeated. These previous two definitions are coherent in Lakota religion. One of the most profound symbols in the Lakota culture is the circle. Being keen observers, the people realized the circle appears on many things no matter where you look in the world and beyond. The sun is round. The moon is round. The earth is round. The seasons follow each other in a perpetual circle. Thes examples are abundant throughout te seven rites, which Joseph Brown describes, according to Black Elk. Black Elk is a wicasa wakan, closely translated as a"holy man" of the Lakota Soiux Indians. In this paper, I briefly as possible, will describe some of the rites and show how the circle is important by its representation. First, I must explain the Lakota (sioux) concept of "wakan". In the world of the Lakota, the word wakan means many things. Joseph Brown translates this word as "holy" or "sacred" (3, fn.1). In the beginning, he explains how the pipe came about, of course, as according to Black Elk. The knowledge of the pipe is vatl in understanding the nature and spirituality of the Lakota. There is more to the meaning of the pipe, but for now I must limit this to its interpretation of being sacred. It is the shape of the bowl of the pipe, which is of course round, hence "bowl", but consequently is made of a round red stone (from the earth), which means more than the construction of the pipe itself. In addition, the round stone shown to the Lakota peoplehad seven circles upon it, each representing the seven rites, which use the pipe (7). When the women gave this pipe to her people she also walked clockwise (9). The first rite is the Keeping and Releasing of the soul. This rite is to purify the souls of the dead - a ritual to become one with the Spirit, so that it's able to return to Wakan-Tanka (11). This would be much like trying to put down a few paragraphs accurately summing up "God". The Lakota believed in nature, all that surrounds it and becoming one with the Spirit. In order to accomplish this they would release the soul - "back to the ground" - Black Elk refers to this as returning to Wakan Tanka. The second part of the rite is where the circle comes into play. "A round circle is scraped on the ground to represent a buffalo wallow, and ... another round place is then made from the earth..." (23). They do this in order to achieve their goal in seeking wakan. Through the rite of releasing the souls, they also learn to be generous, to help those in need, and to follow in every way the teachings of Wanka-Taken (25). The symbol of the circle also suggests the concept of family. "You are as the root of the wakan tree which is at the center of our nation's "hoop"" (27). The word hoop is in quotes, in which I will explain this term shortly. The traditional Lakota family, called tiyospaye, includes the extended family - aunts, uncles, grandfathers, etc., and friends that were "made family". So, one is a member of an immediate family, a broader circle of family, and finally, the entire nation. Beyond that, is the circle of the universe, which includes plants, animals, rocks, stars and all things they consider family. This circle is cohesive, a harmonious organism that I can only sum up as "life". The phrase "all my relatives" is common and heard often, and explains simply, but profoundly, the concept of interrelated being. In addition, life itself is a circle, from birth to childhood to adulthood to old age to death, only to have another born to take the place of the one gone. Black Elk sums this up very well in saying, "The life of a man is a circle from childhood to childhood, and so it is everything where...
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