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Native American Religion

Lakota: The Four Directions

When praying or engaging in anything sacred, the Lakota look to the four directions. Everything in this world comes from these four directions. The four directions also represent the four sons of Tate, the wind. Each direction has a representative meaning, and often the four directions are depicted as a cross that resembles a plus sign within a circle, and a color.

If you begin to study the four directions you may notice quickly that the colors equated to each may appear differently from reference to reference. For example, in the book Sioux Indian Religion authors Raymond J. DeMallie and Douglas R. Parks depict the correlation between the direction and color this way:

  • Black for the west
  • Red for the north
  • Yellow for the east
  • White for the south

And, they add blue for the sky and green for the earth, as is often done.

The issue of attributing color to the four directions may be baffling. Just about every book you read may line out the color/direction relation differently. The differences may even go beyond the generality of different books to the specifics of individual Lakotas or Lakota groups or bands. For example, the American Indian Science and Engineering Society, a group that uses the four directions and their corresponding colors to identify their organization, describes them this way:

  • White for north, for wisdom gained through winter stories
  • Red for east, and enlightenment
  • Yellow for south, and innocence
  • Black for the west, and its power

All the diversity is intensified by the fact that many a "sham shaman" contributes yet more spin on the issue.

So which is correct? How can you tell bogus interpretations from time honored ones? Well, you can't.

The metaphysics and religion of the Lakota are as subjective as those of any religion. Maybe even more so because of the emphasis on individualism, i.e. one's own vision. No where is this more true than among the Lakota holy people and interpreters. The variations in the colors for the directions can easily and readily differ from individual to individual, as each is guided specifically by their own visions. Perhaps humor is part of the spiritual picture as well, as Wakan Tanka no doubt would take delight in watching some people try as they might to codify the colors en masse while knowing that the information was attained in a highly specific and individual manner.

In accepting all interpretations as truth, it is easy to see that the spirits work in mysterious ways. Perhaps they also are trying to encourage a looser, more eastern way of looking at things rather than have something as central as the four directions fall to tendencies of codified and dogma-ridden western religions. Inconsistency may actually be the way to a fuller understanding of the Great Mystery.

If you have a desire to conform, however, it may be noted that the second set of correspondents listed above - white/north, red/east, yellow/south, black/west - seems to be seen in a majority of references. A sample of representative meanings for these corollaries might include:

  • The black west as the place where the rain originates, and a place that represents the end, or finality, as things done in the dark are final things. People with an affinity for the west may become heyoka, or sacred clown that does everything backwards or in a contrary manner. The bald eagle is associated with this direction
  • The white north offer a cleansing, purifying and strengthening power. Operating as winter does when it cleans the earth of the weak, the white north sends tests and teaches the courage, endurance and wisdom that comes with the trials of life. The white eagle is associated with this direction, and it is said that those who have a vision of the white eagle become healers.
  • The red east is a place where peace, light and new life rise up each day. Blood and birth are from the east. The spotted eagle, being all these things, represents this direction and its feathers are said to bring insight and visions.
  • The yellow south sees a sun that is strongest when facing this direction. The yellow south, like its representative bird, the golden eagle, stands for the peak of life, warmth, understanding and ability.

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