July 4, 2013

Meanings attributed to animals by the Oglala Lakota


Being closely tied to nature and all living things, the Oglala Lakota believed strongly in animal powers and the supernatural. Observance of animal behavior was incorporated into everyday life, creating a belief system that protected all who sought their animal powers. Learn about the spiritual powers attributed to animals by the Oglala Sioux and see how that influenced their daily lives.


To the Oglala, there was no real distinction between living or supernatural beings. All were believed to be joined together by the earth and created for a single purpose. Animals (the four-leggeds), birds (the winged ones), and even the crawlers with no legs, all teach about life. Humans (the two-legged) can learn lessons from all of them by observing closely. The Oglala people learn from childhood that all beings depend on one another or perish and there are lessons to be learned from all forms of life.

The bison was the chief supernatural animal

The bison, more commonly called a buffalo in the US, was deemed to be the chief animal over all the earth because it provided their principle food, shelter, and warmth.

Buffalo were believed to radiate feminine power, and had virtues such as chastity, productiveness, and hospitality, so the same qualities were expected of Oglala women. Great care was used in protecting women and a celebration was created to honor a young girl’s entrance into womanhood. This ceremony is called the Buffalo Ceremony.

When a calf is born during winter, the cow blows a red substance over her newborn to seal in body heat. In the Buffalo Ceremony, a medicine man dances in a circle and blows red dust onto a young girl to bless and sanctify her journey into womanhood.

Elk have strength, speed, and courage.

The elk’s ability to maneuver massive antlers that can be six feet wide through dense foliage is amazing and graceful. Beauty, gallantry, and protection, became the emblems of the elk. The Oglala admired the elk’s ability to attract a mate with one mating call, and used this as inspiration to create the love flute. Thought to bestow amorous medicine, this flute mimicked the elk mating bugle call to attract the woman that would be a perfect match for the suitor playing the flute.

From the elk, the Lakota learned about relationships between men and women, and the supernatural power called into being at creation.

Deer have a gentle nature, yet at the same time they are cunning

Deer skins were highly prized for use in clothing and they make a tasty meal, but hunting deer wasn’t always easy. They have an excellent sense of smell and can see for more than a mile. These qualities, along with a swift stride and the ability to hide and endure thirst for long periods, make them quite difficult to hunt for the unskilled hunter.

While deer were thought to aid men on their journey through life, they could be cunning and wary. It was believed a deer had the ability to change form, to appear as a young woman, lead men astray with intoxicating perfume, and then unexpectedly return to original form.

When men found themselves fooled by the deer, they often had the urge to kill it. If they did, they would be seen as weak and would most likely meet an untimely end or be driven insane. If a man walked away from the deer completely unscathed, he was seen by other members of the tribe to possess great power and self-control.

Deer were sometime conjured up by a medicine man during certain ceremonial songs.

Bear represents a masculine character and is known for healing and knowledge.

The bear is chief of the underground supernatural forces, and masculine in nature in perfect balance to the bison’s feminine nature.

Because bears dig for roots and herbs, and are one of the few wild animals who use medicine on themselves, bears are thought to be the chief healers among animals.

The bear’s habit of digging underground for roots and hibernating during winter demonstrated his supremacy and fearlessness, and Oglala men sought bear medicine powers fiercely. It was believed that women should have nothing to do with the bear because of his masculine nature.

The bear is also known for his unpredictable contrary nature, fierce and brave one moment and ready to charge any enemy, cranky and growling his displeasure the next, or curious and playful the next.

If a man dreamed of bears, he was expected to behave aggressively when needed and be fearless, yet he should also show unusual kindness, be peaceful when he could, and be filled with the knowledge of herbs and medicines.

Badger symbolizes strong medicine for children and warriors

Because of it’s enormous claws and tenacious combat techniques, the badger represents warfare. Because the badger is stubborn and never backs down from a perceived enemy, warriors formed Badger Societies that emulated these qualities in battle.

The badger is also a medicine animal that digs and has healing qualities, but because he is small, Badger Medicine is usually reserved for children.

When skunk raises his tail, he tells the world there will be no retreat

The skunk is courageous and determined, self-assusred and unafraid of foes many times his size. Skunk will even stand his ground with an approaching bear. When skunk fearlessly turns his back and raises his tail, every foe knowns what that means.

For this reason, war chiefs sometimes lined the heels of their moccasins with skunk skin to give them the courage to take on all comers.

Wolf’s supernatural powers are organization, wisdom, and cooperation
Observing wolf packs gave humans valuable lessons on unity of the family structure, cooperating for the good of the community, strong observation skills, and using wisdom to adapt quickly to unusual circumstances and avoid unnecessary battles.

The wolf’s supernatural power was highly prized by the Wolf Society, an elite warrior society that protected the people in times of war.

Oglala scouts wore wolf hides, prayed to the great hunters for advice, sent scouts ahead of the main pack to observe, and scrutinized everything a second time just like their animal guides.

Fox has similar powers to the wolf, but is a gentler spirit

The fox was also thought of as a medicine animal and had the power to reveal locations of herbs needed by the medicine man. The fox also shared expertise on how to swiftly escape enemies. It taught men how to travel through dangerous territory and to understand courage under fire.

While the Wolf Society fought battles further from home to keep enemies away from the home villiage, the Kit Fox Society focused more on policing around the home camp, to keep order and harmony, and they also did much of the hunting.

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