Saturday, December 21, 2019

Winter Solstice Is Sacred Time

The Long Night Moon at White Earth Butte. The crescent represents the moon or month. Above the moon, appearing upside down at the top is the landscape profile of White Earth Butte as seen from the south looking north. 
Winter Solstice Is Sacred Time
A Time To Carry One Another

By Dakota Wind
The longest season of the year was winter on the Great Plains. On the traditional Očhéthi Šakówiŋ lunar calendar, the year consisted of two spring, four summer, two autumn, and five moons or months. The word for "year," in fact, is “Waníyetu,” meaning “Winter.”

The first snow was celebrated. Men put on their snowshoes and danced in the fresh powder. The snow made for ease of hunting. The Lakȟóta explained the changing of the seasons as an epic battle between two brothers: Wazíya (The North) and Okáǧa (The South). As one retreated, the other gained ground. When Wazíya won, his breath blew across the landscape, and for as deadly and sharp his cold breath might be, he brought a blanket of snow under which Uŋčí Makȟá (Grandmother Earth) slept.

The cultural genesis of the seasons aside, they remembered and shared real events from winters past. The High Dog Winter Count recalls the year 1800 as one of the most challenging years to survive. The summer heat was unbearably hot. The great gangs of bison went away, and hunting was poor. Flowers disappeared from the landscape, and the wind drank up the water. The birds refused to sing too.

A punishing winter followed, as remembered in the White Bull Winter Count.

Winter came, snow and ice were everywhere. A group of Lakȟóta decided to move winter camp from the bottomlands of one river to that of another. As they moved over the high plains, a blizzard caught them. Gradually some of them began to succumb to the cold and fell. As one person fell, another lifted and carried him or her for the rest of their journey. Kičhíč’iŋpi keúŋkiyapi, “They say that they carried each other.”

The Lakȟóta used the long winter night to share stories like that of Wičháȟpi Hiŋȟphaya (The Fallen Star; also called “Star Boy”). The story of his mother, Tȟapȟúŋ Šá Wíŋ (Red Cheek Woman), and father, Wičháȟpi Owáŋžila (The Star that Does Not Move; “The North Star”) is fairly well known and told in books and various online media.

The Lakȟóta share Ohúŋkakaŋ (stories from the distant past) and Wičhówoyake (stories, legends, myth) during the five lunar months of Waníyetu (the winter season), and during this moon especially, they share stories like the Fallen Star narrative. 


Sometime during the Long Night, the Fallen Star rises from the highest point of White Earth Butte. As the heavens turn, or as the earth rotates, the constellation gradually moves counter-clockwise until most of it gradually disappears past the northern horizon. Fallen Star, or Capella, dips down past the horizon, then majestically rises, bringing hope to the people. 

According to Ronald Goodman’s work in his Lakota Star Knowledge, Fallen Star was renowned among the Lakȟóta as “the Protector, the bringer of light and higher consciousness.” After becoming a father, Fallen Star ascended “a hill at night with a friend,” and told him that he was going to return home. Fallen Star laid down upon the hilltop and died. His spirit was seen as a light that rose into the star world. “At some time in the past, all Lakȟóta acquired the gift of light he brought them.” (Goodman, 2017; 32)

Goodman discusses an ancient central symbol strongly associated with the heavens and the world. This symbol is referred to as Kapémni (“the action is swinging around and around,” as with a warclub or bull roar), and resembles an hourglass. One half represents all that is heavenly, the other half represents all that is worldly. What is in the heavens is also present in the world. In the pages of Lakota Star Knowledge, this “mirroring” is demonstrated in a map of the Lakȟóta constellation Čhaŋgléška Wakȟáŋ (The Sacred Hoop) which demarcates the locations of landmarks in and around the Black Hills.

In 1967, Helen Blish published her thesis A Pictographic History of the Oglala Sioux, featuring the works of Amos Bad Heart Bull (~1868-1913), a noted Lakȟóta artist, amongst of what was a map of the Black Hills and other features including Pahá Ská (White Butte). White Butte is noted as being north of the Black Hills.

It is a general map; not everything matches up perfectly, in fact, maps of the landscape were concerned with lineal cohesion rather than over-exactness. Matȟó Thípila (Bear Lodge), or Devils Tower, is not actually within Khiíŋyaŋka Očháŋku (The Race Track), the edge of the Black Hills. The Race Track is the “mirror” of the Sacred Hoop, just as Makȟáska (White Earth Butte), or White Butte, is not a part of the Black Hills, it is north of the ‘Hills. It is a real butte. It is also the hill upon which Fallen Star made his journey back to the sky. 

Like Devils Tower, White Butte appears to be in the narrative of the Sacred Hoop in Bad Heart Bull’s map narrative, though it is not so in actuality. Yet according to the map of the Sacred Hoop constellation in Lakota Star Knowledge, a star commonly known as Capella, the brightest star in the constellation Auriga appears as part of the Sacred Hoop.

Referencing Bad Heart Bull’s map and tracking the sky from the Sacred Hoop to the North Star one “sees” the stars associated with the constellation Auriga “pointing” or “reaching” towards the North Star. The constellation Auriga appears to be Kapémni, or "mirror" of White Butte and the immediate landscape surrounding that beautiful plateau. 

Fallen Star returns to the sky to be with his father. He sends rays of light and hope to the Očhéthi Šakówiŋ people. 

As Capella is the Fallen Star I’d like to suggest that Auriga is his constellation. At about 6:00 PM on the longest night of the year, this constellation appears upside down. Twelve hours later, at about 6:00 AM, which is at the tail end of the longest night, the heavens have rotated 180° counterclockwise, and have become right side up. The Fallen Star “rises” from the horizon, it rises from the top of White Earth Butte.

Long ago, before the reservation era anyway, the month which some might call December today, was known by some Lakȟóta as Waníčhokaŋ Wí (The Midwinter Moon). They might not have known the exact time (it’s 10:19 PM CST) but could reckon the subtle shift in daylight when there was a little more of it and could track the general date with counting sticks; they knew it happened in the Midwinter Moon.

According to Vi Waln, “I believe the real day of prayer was observed on the winter solstice by the people with ceremony, food, and family.” Further, “Nature and the stars were monitored carefully to help with preparation for whatever time of year was upon the people.” And lastly, “Many Lakota people will offer prayer in much the same our ancestors did so on the Winter Solstice.” (Valn, Winter Solstice Is Sacred, 2011)

There are five winter moons in the traditional Lakȟóta calendar. After the Winter Solstice, it was time to gather red willow (eastern dogwood) to make čhaŋšáŋšaŋ, traditional tobacco made from the inner bark of the red willow, and used for ceremony.

In the heart of winter, in daylight, there sometimes appears the sundog. The Lakȟóta call it Wíačhéič'thi, which means "The Sun Makes A Campfire [For Himself]," and the story associated with this event holds the promise of light, that it returns. Sometimes, during the winter nights, they see a ring around the moon, also called Wíačhéič'thi, only this is interpreted as "The Moon Makes a Campfire [For Herself]." The Moon has vigorously stirred her pot and light has spilled about her lodge.

The New Lakota Dictionary lists the Winter Solstice as Waní-Wí-Ipȟá (Crest of the Winter Sun). The Húŋkpapȟa might call the same Haŋyétu Háŋska (The Long Night) as they called this traditional month Haŋyétu Háŋska Wí (The Long Night Moon).

However it is called this day, or this month, these things are certain: gather close together with family in observation or prayer, eat together, share stories, and carry each other.



1 comment: