Lakota
Traditional Culture
  Since Time Immemorial
Homeland of the Lakota
All My Relations
Camp Life & Seasonal Round
References Cited

  Contemporary Culture
  Arts and Artists
Tribal Government
Language
Tribal Colleges
Self-Determination and Sovereignty
Recommended Web Sites and Bibliography

  Relationship with the U.S.
  Fur Trade
Making Treaties
The Shrinking Reservation
References Cited

 
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From Catlin's Indians
Hubbard Brothers, Philadelphia
The beaver ceremony begins the ceremonial season" (Catlin: 1891).
 
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White Bull drew fifteen tipis around the perimeter of the camp, including his own, the red one at the top. He shows the sacred thunder tipi in the center and a number of figures walking and carrying pipes. Between the tipis, buffalo meat dries on racks. In the center of the circle, he wrote in Lakota, "I have diagramed these tipis as I remember them from living in the camp, my friend" (Berlo: 1996).

The Ceremonial Camp Circle of the Minniconjou, 1931, Sioux History in pictures, courtesy of the Elwyn B. Robinson Department of Special Collections, Chester Fritz Library, University of North Dakota.

 
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Two views of Devil's Tower
Located in the Black Hills of NE Wyoming
Courtesy of National Park Service
 
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Yellow-headed blackbird
Jeffrey G. Olson photo
 
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Pierre > Culture > Camp Life & Seasonal Round
The habits of buffalo were especially important to the Lakota's lifeway. The migratory movement of the buffalo from spring to winter was mirrored by the Lakota on earth, and by spirit beings in the heavens. This reciprocal connection greatly influenced their seasonal camp life. The knowledge and awareness of the movements of the sun and stars, the passing of new moons or months, led the Lakota through their cycles, culminating with their primary annual event, the Sun Dance, when the populations of the buffalo herds had reached their peak.
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Bison grazing near Missouri River
Jeffrey G. Olson photo
Spring
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4-Direction Walk, elders carry staffs and lead the way
Courtesy of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe

In buffalo days, the Pipe Ceremony of the spring equinox marks the time for small winter bands to move into the Black Hills. During the Lakota annual ceremonial journey, from spring equinox to summer solstice, the sun travels through four of their constellations, while the people move step by step to the Black Hills. Notching the "moon counting sticks" allows the people to keep track of time. The first notch is made in the "moon of the birth of buffalo calves," marking the end of winter and the time to replenish the food supply.

The Lakota are happy to be moving once more. The women and daughters go outside to view their tipis, which need sewing from the winter winds' damage. The children are ready to play different games with their friends.

Finding a camp location with a good water supply, sufficient wood for fuel, grazing and forage for horses, protection from the wind, and security from red or white enemies, is a major challenge for the Wakiconza, the camp leader. Camp movements are decided by the Wakiconza, who tells the "camp crier," who then tells the people.

Upon hearing the camp crier's call, the women get to work immediately, dismantling and packing the lodges and gear. Horses are made ready, travois are packed, and everyone falls into line. As they walk or ride along, the people can hear the stragglers being disciplined by the Akicta, four men chosen to enforce the Woope, the proper way to behave, according to the customary laws of the Lakota. The Akicta use sticks to hurry them along.

In this matrilineal culture, the women are heads of family and owners of the tipis. These they erect in the order in which they march into camp. Each family pitches their tipis in a circular formation with an opening on the side of the circle facing east. This camp circle is called a Wico-ti. The east is the main entrance and it has two sides. These honor places are reserved for those tipis of men who are of great warrior status. The highest place of honor is in the middle of the circle facing the east entrance. Here the leader of the camp places his tipi.

Tipis erected outside the camp circle are reserved for people who did not recognize authority of the camp council and those that had committed crimes.

The camp leader is called the Wicasa Itancan, who has the responsibility to protect the camp. The people who live together called themselves a tiospaye. Every tipi in the circle is subordinate to the law of the camp and everyone is expected to help maintain law and order at all times.

Any member of the camp can wander in and out of the camp circle, with one exception. Any large group of men has to come through the main entrance; otherwise, they are considered to be committing an act of war. This protects the people from a surprise attack.

The Thunder Being in the west, the Wakinya, is awakened as the ground is thawing during the "moon of grass appearing," and it is time to move camp again, moving closer to the Black Hills. The next month, May, is the "moon when the ponies shed," signaling time to move again.
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Spring thunderstorm near Rosebud
Courtesy Rosebud Sioux Tribe
Summer

Bands unite during the "moon of thunder storms," bringing together relations who have been hibernating in their winter camps. This is a time for celebration and happiness. The summer solstice brings all the Lakota bands to Devil's Tower, Mato Tipila Paha, for their mid-summer Sun Dance ceremony. This is the only time that the camps are placed upon large, open flats. Around the camp, children are busy playing while the older boys break their colts. Girls help their mothers repair old tipis and sew new ones with sinew, to replace those that have worn out. They make new moccasins and leggings from the "smoke tops" of the worn tipis.

The men gather from all the scattered bands and select a leader. After they smoke their pipes, they talk about affairs of the tribe, in particular the annual buffalo hunt. Lakota conversations lead to battle stories, but these are not told in a boastful manner.

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Horse Racing of Sioux Indians near Fort Pierre.
An engraving by Rawdon, Wright & Hatch after a painting by Karl Bodmer.
Courtesy of South Dakota State Historical Society State Archives.

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Cousins drying chockecherries.
courtesy Rosebud Sioux Tribe

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Boys with timpisila braid (prairie turnips)
courtesy of Rosebud Sioux Tribe.

Outside the camp circle, during the "moon of ripe June-berries, the women gather vegetables and pick berries in preparation for the Sun Dance. When time allows, women and daughters paint their parfleches and robes, while visiting and laughing with their relatives. They enjoy this good company through the "moon of making fat" or June when everything is blooming, then the "cherry ripening moon"; and through the "moon of ripe plums" or "moon when the cherries turn black." Besides picking the fruits of the season, and digging prairie turnips, Lakota women are kept extremely busy with hide working as their men kill buffalo. Buffalo are prime during the "moon of ripe plums" and the hunters work hard to bring in what they need.
Fall
When the leaves turn yellow, the plums turn scarlet, and the calf grows hair, it is time to break up the large summer encampment. Bands separate, and they move back to their familiar territories, led by a camp leader who will determine where they will set up fall camps. The Wico-ti are constructed again, following all the same rules.
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Girls riding, near Rosebud
courtesy Rosebud Sioux Tribe

During this season, the women are busy with their daughters collecting nuts, gathering vegetables, and drying buffalo meat or "papa" for winter months. The men continue to hunt the massive buffalo herds so there will be enough meat to last through the winter. In October, or the "moon of falling leaves" or "changing seasons," camp life is very active. The men hunt and they search the valleys for good winter camps where wood, water, and shelter will see them through the winter moons. During the "moon of the hairless calves" or November, when the buffalo cows are butchered, women dress hides and make new robes and other items needed for the cold winter months.

Winter

In winter, the people follow Mother Earth's example, and they rest. Children learn the knowledge of the elders as they sit around the evening camp fire, in the cold darkness filled with the howling voices of animals and the whining and moaning winds, listening to the oral history of their relatives. Old stories are told, the same that have been told since the beginning of time, and new stories of warfare and other exciting adventures are added to the litany.

In the morning, inside the warm buffalo tipi, the family awakens to the smell of breakfast being cooked by the women. While the women gather wood for the fire, the children play outside in their winter clothing that their female relatives have sewn for them.

The men, during the winter moons, made bows, arrows, and other tools. An elder, the keeper of the calendar sticks, is in his lodge teaching a younger man the sacred lessons associated with this important responsibility. They cut notches in his stick, counting the sunsets to the winter solstice, which comes during the "moon of frost in the tipi".

Frigid temperatures usually come after the solstice, during the "tree popping moon," when the cold causes trees to split with an intense noise. After weeks of squinting against the sun reflected off the snow, people suffered snow blindness, during the "Sore eyes moon" or "moon of the dark red calf."

The "moon when grain pops up," March, marks the transition from winter to spring. The "winter count" is drawn on the buffalo hide during this month. The tiyospaye listen for the camp crier to announce, once again, that it is time to begin the journey to the Black Hills.

Background drawn by Oglala Chief Standing Bear (Standing Bear: 1928)