Words by Ruth Robertson
Practicing rituals can serve as a critical tool in fighting settler colonialism, a system that demands we commodify what matters to us and sacrifice our souls for capital gain.
In western society, rituals are often described as antiquated—even obsolete. They are considered to hold little significance and are merely the markers of formal occasions, or on the flipside, they are thought of as odd little sequences of behavior that we perform consistently without much thought at all. As a Oceti Sakowin (Dakota/Lakota) person who practices her ancestral beliefs, my perspective on rituals is not the same.
The difference as to why we practice rituals boils down to not just our definition of the word ritual, but in how we define our very existence.
A core conviction of Oceti Sakowin spirituality is that we are spiritual beings. As spiritual beings, spirituality permeates every aspect of our lives. Spirit is not just acknowledged, but accepted in its entirety and embraced. It is not necessary for us to set aside one day in seven for worship and supplication. Rather, any moment of any day may hold religious connotations on a Mother Planet that is our Church, as the Source, our Universe, awakens our souls and calls us back to ourselves—like blood cells pumping through a beating heart.
If there is no purpose to ritual, there is no need for it and we would simply stop doing it. The definition of ritual, for us, is purpose. Ritual is who we are as spiritual beings inhabiting human bodies.
The Oceti Sakowin have seven sacred rituals that we observe as needed. They were gifted to us by White Buffalo Calf Woman, a divine feminine deity who visited our people many millennia ago. White Buffalo Calf Woman brought us the Canupa, the sacred White Buffalo Calf Pipe, that we still have and pray with to this day.
If there is no purpose to ritual, there is no need for it and we would simply stop doing it. The definition of ritual, for us, is purpose.
The Seven Sacred Rites of the Oceti Sakowin are:
Inípi—This Rite of Purification occurs in a hot, steamy, sweat lodge. It means, “to live again.” The lodge itself is a symbol of Mother Earth’s womb. During the ceremony, at equal increments, the door of the lodge is opened four times, representing the four ages as told to us by White Buffalo Calf Woman. Those who make it to the fourth door emerge reborn while leaving their impurities within the lodge.
Haŋbléčheyapi—Crying for a Vision involves sitting in isolation without worldly distraction in a sacred place to seek spiritual insight. Participants fast and pray for four days. A Holy Man interprets the visions and dreams seekers are given.
Wiwáŋyaŋg Wačhípi—Sundance is frequently considered the most important ritual conducted by the Oceti Sakowin. Sundances occurred based on ancient star calendars and are held during the summer months. Participants who receive the dream dance for four days and four nights without food or water, while pierced to a Tree of Life that is adorned with prayer ties, which stands in the center and is planted over a fresh buffalo heart. They give flesh offerings from their bodies and pray without ceasing. Dancers’ loved ones attend in support and smoke the pipes of the dancers between rounds. In precolonial times, all bands of the Oceti Sakowin would converge during Sundance ceremony, thousands strong.
Huŋkálowaŋpi—During the Making of Relatives ceremony, Oceti Sakowin adopted new family members. This ritual was more public, as taking on new familial obligations meant its participants were essentially taking vows to one another, to enter into a relationship as kin. A hunka ceremony can occur between Oceti Sakowin and anyone else regardless of Tribe, race, color, creed, or nationality.
Išnáthi Awíčhalowaŋpi—A Coming of Age ritual traditionally happens after a girl’s first menstrual cycle. It is meant to prepare her for womanhood and give her a sense of purpose and belonging. It is also a celebration! The participant’s family would hold a feast and giveaway in the girl’s honor for the entire community.
Wanáǧi Yuhápi—The Keeping of the Soul and Wiping of Tears ceremony helps participants to cope with grief and loss. During this ritual, the hair of its participants is cut in a sacred manner following the death of a loved one. After a year has passed, the soul of the deceased is released and free to travel along the Spirit Path or Milky Way. A giveaway and feast is also held at this time to memorialize and celebrate the life of the individual who passed.
Tȟápa Waŋkáyeyapi—The Throwing of the Ball ritual served as a visual representation of humanity’s connection to all things. A red ball symbolically joins heaven and Earth through a single human being, who stands at the center of the Great Mystery and all the powers of the Four Directions.
Ritual provides people with a greater sense of belonging and strengthens ties that have been severed through the trappings of settler colonialism.
You may notice that our rituals involve not just individual, but community healing. This aspect of rituals needs to be understood by western society. When we perform rituals, whether we are Lakota or not, we are centering ourselves within a group, bonding with others through the ritual. Ritual provides people with a greater sense of belonging and strengthens ties that have been severed through the trappings of settler colonialism. Even when performed in isolation, rituals, whether religious or not, center us and place us within a given context where we are part of a whole. We are a part of something bigger than ourselves, and we each have a role to play within it.
As an Oceti Sakowin woman, I perform many rituals other than the seven sacred rites of my ancestors, and they are also vital to my wellbeing. While I could go on about picking up my morning coffee on workdays or my nightly skincare regime, for me, my most important ritual is running.
I’ve heard other Native runners say “running is ceremony,” and I whole-heartedly agree. The entire process of running is ritualized for me, down to the last minute detail. Being an avid runner involves commitment. Finding time to run. Obtaining the proper gear to do it, especially outdoors. Selecting a location to run that is safe and challenging. Ensuring that my equipment is in working order. Making changes because my body has changed due to running 27 miles a week. I run inside half the time, due to weather and time constraints, but running outside is truly a spiritual experience for me. With nothing but nature to serenade me, I’m free to observe the beauty of the natural world unimpeded. Birds sing to me, and frogs and dragonflies look upon me as if they know me.
I love to sweat: the more the better. I’ve even come to love the soreness that follows, knowing I’ve fought past a wall that would have broken me before. As I hike through the woods in 90 degree heat wearing a 20 pound weighted vest, I can feel the ancestors living through me, vibrant and untouched by centuries of genocide.
During and after a hard run, I pray. I pray for the energy to finish strong, and about all the problems I face in my daily life. I pray for my mother, my children, my fiancé, and my community. I pray for our country, and the people of Earth. I pray for the generations to follow—and give thanks when I finish, each and every time. I pray for the past, too. Running makes me so grateful. I know there are others who won’t or can’t, and there may come a day where I too, must hang up my running shoes.
Running is ceremony, indeed. It’s healing and it provides me with improved health, not just physically, but mentally, emotionally and spiritually, too. I’ve run through rage. I’ve run to think. I’ve run until my thoughts are nothing but the black void of space and my head is cleared of negativity. Running gives me consistency that decreases my anxiety, and alleviates occasional moments of depression that come with being a Native woman descended from holy men, wagon burners and exiles who was born and raised on the Reservation. And also, from just plain being a human alive in 2022.
I may not be the fastest, and I may not run the longest, but that doesn’t matter to me because the only person I’m concerned with beating is myself, and I keep winning.
Rituals help us cope—and we must cope—in a good way. Find the healthy rituals in your life and embrace them. It’s ok. With all the trauma, tragedy and hardships we must weather in hopes of one day assuming status as an elder, healthy rituals are a critical, often minimized tool in fighting settler colonialism, a system of death that so often demands we commodify the sacred and sacrifice our souls on the altar of capitalism.
Look for the sacred. Even sex can be ceremony. You are a sacred being. We have unlimited potential to access what is holy from within.