Saturday, October 14, 2017

The Spirit and The Sky, A Book Review

The Spirit And The Sky, A Book Review
Astronomer's Study Of Lakota Starscape
By Dakota Wind
Hollabaugh, Mark. The Spirit and the Sky: Lakota Visions of the Cosmos. Lincoln, NB: University of Nebraska Press. 2017. 276 + xii pages. $50.00 (hardcover). Illustrations, tables, photos, notes, bibliography, and index.

The title of Hollabaugh’s The Spirit and the Sky calls to mind Norman Greenbaum’s 1969 psychedelic/gospel classic rock anthem Spirit in the Sky. I contacted the author about this, and he personally assured me that the title of his book is inspired by Lakȟóta star knowledge (which is touched on at the end of chapter 9).

Hollabaugh’s bibliography draws heavily from non-native resources who’ve spent considerable time learning Lakȟól Wičhóȟ’aŋ (Lakota language, tradition, lifeways, philosophy) direct from the Lakȟóta themselves. These resources reach back through the years with specific references to winter count (pictographic records) years, and recorded oral tradition.

What makes The Spirit in the Sky special is that Hollabaugh draws on carefully constructed relationships with contemporary Dakhóta and Lakȟóta people since the ‘90s, and fully acknowledges lasting friendships with scholars, native and non-native in his preface.

A chapter on Telling Time gives readers an insight into how the Lakȟóta reckon a year (generally thirteen months), a month (a lunar month; from new moon to new moon), and seasons (winter is the longest, and why a year is called a “winter”). The times of the month are explained (phases of the moon) as well as times of day (position of the sun). Counting sticks are touched on briefly insofar as the Lakȟóta attempts to measure the months and years, which is frustrating to any who try to tack down exact times. The general acceptance of natural time in the Lakȟóta tradition encourages a non-reliance of exactness. What matters is Wókiksuye, or Remembrance.

A chapter on Eclipses and the Aurora Borealis examines Lakȟóta beliefs of the two events. The eclipse is regarded as the sun’s death by many Lakȟóta, and some reacted with fear. Some said/say that a great serpent swallows the sun, but the sun proves victorious and lives again, and some fire their guns or holler into the air in triumph. The Northern Lights have several names, and several narratives – none more important than another. Surprising to this reviewer is the connection of the Northern Lights to Woȟpé (Falling Star Woman) of Lakȟóta myth-history, and to the Huŋkáyapi (the Making-of-Relatives; when one is taken as a relative).

A chapter on Stars and Constellations explores the cultural narratives of the night sky. Many of the same familiar Greek and Arabic constellations have Lakȟóta counterparts with equally interesting stories. The children of the Sun and Moon dance forever around one wakȟáŋ (with-energy; “holy,” or “sacred”) star, Wičháȟpi Owáŋžila (The Star That Does Not Move), and those who do not, fall down as Wičháȟpi Hiŋȟpáya (Falling Stars).

Hollabaugh doesn’t conclude his study with the establishment of the reservation era. His work breaks that tired trope and includes an entire chapter dedicated to the living tradition of Lakȟóta star knowledge. It’s necessary to show the Lakȟóta as they are today, survivors of a system that has tried to extinguish language, culture, and tradition. Some of Hollabaugh’s native resources and informants are still alive and still sharing.

What makes The Spirit in the Sky an essential for studies of the North American Plains is that the Lakȟóta relationship with the land is reflected in the sky. The Lakȟóta star stories are indigenous and to hear them, one must go to an elder to hear them. This book is a good place to become acquainted. 

The only thing that would make reading this resource better would be to read, deconstruct, and interpret each topic as it’s mentioned with a Lakȟóta elder or other knowledgeable person. It would be a wonderful supplement if Hollabaugh or his publisher included a slideshow or an interactive online feature or smartphone application to articulate the heavens as one goes through each chapter. 

The Spirit in the Sky isn’t hearty enough for college instructors to develop an entire course around – Hollabaugh might even agree with this, but it is solid enough to pique anyone’s interest whether he or she have a passive or deep interest in the stars or Lakȟóta views of the heavens and earth. Make certain your local library has a copy, or get yourself one.

Dakota Wind is an enrolled member of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. He is currently a university student working on a degree in History with a focus on American Indian and Western History. He maintains the history website The First Scout.