The Spirit and the Sky: Lakota Visions of the Cosmos

The Spirit and the Sky: Lakota Visions of the Cosmos

The Spirit and the Sky: Lakota Visions of the Cosmos

The Spirit and the Sky: Lakota Visions of the Cosmos


The interest of nineteenth-century Lakotas in the sun, moon, and stars was an essential part of their never-ending quest to understand the universe. The Spirit and the Sky presents a survey of the ethnoastronomy of the nineteenth-century Lakota and relates Lakota astronomy to their cultural practices and beliefs. The center of Lakota belief is the unfathomable and sacred nature of the world in which they live and of the stars above--extraordinary and wakhiŋ (mysterious)--both of which constitute an integral part of this holistic world.

Mark Hollabaugh presents a detailed analysis of all aspects of Lakota culture that have a bearing on their astronomy, including telling time, Lakota names for the stars and constellations as they appeared on the Great Plains, and the phenomena of meteor showers, eclipses, and the aurora borealis. Hollabaugh's explanation of the cause of the aurora that occurred at the death of Black Elk in 1950 is a new contribution to ethnoastronomy.


My interest in Native American astronomy began many years ago when I read John Eddy’s Science article about the Medicine Wheel in the Bighorn Mountains of Wyoming and subsequently visited the site. When I taught my first college-level astronomy course, I included a five-minute segment on the Medicine Wheel. the following semester, the discussion of Native American astronomy stretched to about twenty minutes. By the time I retired from full-time teaching, I had difficulty containing the topics of ethnoastronomy and archaeoastronomy to a ninety-minute extended class period.

In the summer of 1992 in the bookstore at what was then known as the Sioux Indian Museum in Rapid City, I came upon three books containing the work of James Walker: Lakota Belief and Ritual, Lakota Myth, and Lakota Society. a quick scan of the indexes revealed references to the Sun, the Moon, and the stars. a comment by Lakota elder Ringing Shield, referring to Polaris, caught my attention: “One star never moves and it is wakan. Other stars move in a circle about it. They are dancing in the dance circle.” I immediately began to wonder about Lakota astronomy and the aspects of Lakota culture that are important to their astronomy. a clue was in the images they left on winter count hides and in ledger books.

In 1996 at the Fifth Oxford International Conference on archaeoastronomy held at St. John’s College in Santa Fe, I gave a talk on the images of celestial objects and phenomena (Sun, Moon, eclipses, stars, comets, and meteors) that appear in nineteenthcentury Lakota winter . . .

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