The Great Mystery

Words by Ruth Hopkins

Photographs by Michael Hauptman

Ruth Hopkins invites us to behold Wakan Tanka, the essence at the heart of Oceti Sakowin spirituality, in which the sacred flows through everything: from the movement of muscles to the stars in the sky.

More often than not, many of us are so wrapped up in our busy lives that we seldom take the opportunity to be present—not just physically but mentally, emotionally, and spiritually as well. There’s so much going on around us at any given instant. Alas, we miss out both on the subtleties and on the big picture as a whole.


Our current world is awash with distractions, and we get caught up in these. Duly so. I’m not embellishing when I say we are in unprecedented times. We are quite possibly living at the end of the age of man, mainly because of the climate chaos that has been unleashed upon our world thanks to rampant, unchecked capitalism, colonialism, and a system of white supremacy whose “civilization” was built on land stolen from murdered Indigenous peoples and the labor of enslaved Africans.


To reconnect with the world and challenge oppressive systems, we must turn to Indigenous spirituality. In order to understand Indigenous spirituality, we must practice being present. Only when we observe nature with an understanding of ourselves as part of it—by watching, listening, touching, and using all of our senses to interact with it—will nature teach us about the connectedness that binds us as one and what “sacred” really means.


When settler priests invaded Oceti Sakowin (Dakota/Lakota/Nakota Sioux Nation) territory, they asked us how we say “God” in our language. We responded with “Wakan Tanka,” translated as “the Great Mystery”—but there’s so much more to it.

Wakan Tanka and the Great Mystery are just one name for this spiritual essence. They are also called Nagi Tanka, the Great Spirit. They take many forms. One of those forms is Takuskanskan—that which causes movement of any kind. It is Takuskanskan that causes water to flow through streams, rivers, and underground aquifers. Takuskanskan provides our muscles with the strength to propel ourselves and other objects. Takuskanskan causes the stars to fall. Takuskanskan is the very essence of motion.


Wakan Tanka is also the sky that we humans can see from the surface of our planet, but they are also that which we cannot see. Wakan Tanka is the dark matter that makes up over a quarter of our universe, existing within the void. They are also the Wi (the sun) and Han-Wi (the moon).


Ina Maka, Mother Earth, is Wakan Tanka, too, as is Inyan, Rock. They are our original grandmother and grandfather. This is why when we pray, we will sometimes say “Tunkasila,” (Grandfather) instead of Wakan Tanka. We use these relational terms when we are praying to our ancestors.


Wakan Tanka is also the Wind, the Thunderbeings, the Winged Ones, and the Beautiful Woman, Wohpe.

When we truly grasp the concept that we are all related, it becomes that much harder to kill our brethren.

The Oceti Sakowin also called Wohpe “White Buffalo Calf Woman.” Long ago, White Buffalo Calf Woman visited the Oceti Sakowin. She carries prayers through smoke. It is she who gifted us with the canupa (the sacred pipe) and our seven sacred rites:


· Inipi: Sweat Lodge. This steam bath with four sacred doors symbolizes the womb of Mother Earth. Within, we are strengthened, purified, and healed.


· Hanbleceyapi: The Vision Quest. Those who cry for a vision and seek insight are sent to a secluded area with just their canupa. They go without food or water for up to four days, until they receive a revelation. Dreams are more real than waking life, as Tasunka Witko, Crazy Horse, said.


· Wanagi Wicagluha: Mourning Ceremony. When loved ones die, their spirits can linger on the earthly plane among their people for a year. This rite allows us to grieve and commune with the spirits of our dead loved ones before releasing them back to the stars.


· Wiwanyang Wacipi: The Sun Dance. Dancers go without food or water for four days, dancing around the Tree of Life, which represents Wakan Tanka and the Center of the Universe, giving flesh offerings from their bodies. Everything goes in a circle in Sun Dance—and outside of it as well.


· Hunkapi: The Making of a Relative. This is a formal adoption ceremony that solidifies relationships between individuals, families, and Wakan Tanka.


· Isnati Awicalowanpi: Womanhood Ceremony. This ceremony marks a young woman’s first moon, or menses, cycle.


· Yuwipi: They Tie Him Up. During Yuwipi, the Yuwipi man is tied up then set free by spirits who come to the gathering and offer aid to those in attendance. Yuwipi is often used as a means of healing or talking to the ancestors.

Yes, the Great Mystery chose the form of a human woman to show us how to pray and communicate with the spirit world. To some, all of these manifestations are separate. To the Oceti Sakowin, they are different but nonetheless one. Depending on what we are praying about, we may choose to direct our words to Wakan Tanka as a whole or to one of these individual manifestations.


Wakan Tanka is everywhere. Its manifestations were never born, nor will they ever die, because they exist forever, even if they change forms.

To the Oceti Sakowin, all things carry the essence of Wakan Tanka. Everything has a spirit. The very waniya, the stars in the sky, hold spirits. When a baby is born, a spirit travels from a star and enters into its body. When we die, that same spirit leaves our corporeal forms and returns home to the cosmos. As spirits, we travel the spirit road in the sky, back to our makers. After all, what are we but stardust?

The Great Mystery has never stopped speaking to us. It is we who choose whether to listen and learn.

There is much to learn from the skies. Thousands of years ago, my Oceti Sakowin ancestors were skilled astronomers. They noted cosmic events, mapped the stars, and used constellations to explain our values and teach history. Stars were used to mark the changing of the seasons and when ceremonies should be performed. Among Indigenous peoples, spirituality was not kept separate from the rest of our lives. As a part of us, our belief system permeated everything we did, including our science. This is a lesson that Western academia has yet to comprehend.


When was the last time you treated yourself to stargazing? Getting in touch with the Great Mystery is as simple as that. Take the time to go out on a clear night, away from bright lights, and really study the sky overhead. The sense of awe you will feel is not just any sentiment; it is an unspoken acknowledgement. It is an inborn reverence for all that we are, for everything that made us, and a vivid reminder of that which binds us. We are connected to each other and to everything in the universe. When we truly grasp the concept that we are all related, it becomes that much harder to kill our brethren, neglect the creatures of the earth and the sky, and lay waste to the beautiful, life-giving planet that sustains us. When we destroy the planet’s ability to provide for us, we are only destroying the future of humanity and the dreams of those yet to be born.

The first lesson of Wakan Tanka is simple: Mitakuye Oyasin, we are all related. This is the purest, most concentrated meditation that we can express, because it is a recognition of our place within the universe.


As we journey through this life, doing our best to carry the torch that has been passed down to us by our predecessors and to survive and thrive in these dire and uncertain circumstances, we must reclaim our time. Part of the process of decolonization is reclamation, and that includes the time that we all need to observe, reflect, pray, and remember who we are as both humans and spiritual beings who are the children of Wakan Tanka. The Great Mystery has never stopped speaking to us. It is we who choose whether to listen and learn.

Shop Atmos Volume 06: Beyond

After a year of global upheaval, one question is on all our minds: What lies beyond the horizon? We know we need a new future, but what does it hold? What exists on the other side of disaster capitalism and colonization? What wisdom awaits beyond binary thinking and Western views of time and space? What does the cosmos contain beyond life on our planet? For Volume 06: Beyond we are imagining a world free from the constructs that have confined our planet and its people for too long.

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