Of Lakota Starscape
Mark. The Spirit and the Sky: Lakota Visions of the Cosmos.
Lincoln, NB: University of Nebraska Press. 2017. 276 + xii
pages. $50.00 (hardcover). Illustrations, tables, photos,
notes, bibliography, and index.
The title of Hollabaugh's The Spirit and the Sky calls to mind
Norman Greenbaum's 1969 psychedelic/gospel classic rock anthem Spirit
in the Sky. I contacted the author about this, and he personally
assured me that the title of his book is inspired by Lakóta
star knowledge (which is touched on at the end of chapter 9).
Hollabaugh's bibliography draws heavily from non-native resources
who've spent considerable time learning Lak?ól Wichó?'a?
(Lakota language, tradition, lifeways, philosophy) direct from the
Lakóta themselves. These resources reach back through the
years with specific references to winter count (pictographic records)
years, and recorded oral tradition.
What makes The Spirit in the Sky special is that Hollabaugh
draws on carefully constructed relationships with contemporary Dakhóta
and Lakóta people since the 90s, and fully acknowledges
lasting friendships with scholars, native and non-native in his
A chapter on Telling Time gives readers an insight into how
the Lakóta reckon a year (generally thirteen months), a month
(a lunar month; from new moon to new moon), and seasons (winter
is the longest, and why a year is called a "winter"). The times
of the month are explained (phases of the moon) as well as times
of day (position of the sun). Counting sticks are touched on briefly
insofar as the Lakóta attempts to measure the months and
years, which is frustrating to any who try to tack down exact times.
The general acceptance of natural time in the Lakóta tradition
encourages a non-reliance of exactness. What matters is Wókiksuye,
A chapter on Eclipses and the Aurora Borealis examines Lakóta
beliefs of the two events. The eclipse is regarded as the sun's
death by many Lakóta, and some reacted with fear. Some said/say
that a great serpent swallows the sun, but the sun proves victorious
and lives again, and some fire their guns or holler into the air
in triumph. The Northern Lights have several names, and several
narratives none more important than another. Surprising to
this reviewer is the connection of the Northern Lights to Wohpé
(Falling Star Woman) of Lakóta myth-history, and to the Hunkáyapi
(the Making-of-Relatives; when one is taken as a relative).
A chapter on Stars and Constellations explores the cultural
narratives of the night sky. Many of the same familiar Greek and
Arabic constellations have Lakóta counterparts with equally
interesting stories. The children of the Sun and Moon dance forever
around one wakhán (with-energy; "holy," or "sacred") star,
Wicháhpi Owánila (The Star That Does Not Move),
and those who do not, fall down as Wicháhpi Hinhpáya
Hollabaugh doesn't conclude his study with the establishment
of the reservation era. His work breaks that tired trope and includes
an entire chapter dedicated to the living tradition of Lakóta
star knowledge. It's necessary to show the Lakóta as they
are today, survivors of a system that has tried to extinguish language,
culture, and tradition. Some of Hollabaugh's native resources and
informants are still alive and still sharing.
What makes The Spirit in the Sky an essential for studies of
the North American Plains is that the Lakóta relationship
with the land is reflected in the sky. The Lakóta star stories
are indigenous and to hear them, one must go to an elder to hear
them. This book is a good place to become acquainted.
The only thing that would make reading this resource better
would be to read, deconstruct, and interpret each topic as it's
mentioned with a Lakóta elder or other knowledgeable person.
It would be a wonderful supplement if Hollabaugh or his publisher
included a slideshow or an interactive online feature or smartphone
application to articulate the heavens as one goes through each chapter.
The Spirit in the Sky isn't hearty enough for college instructors
to develop an entire course around Hollabaugh might even
agree with this, but it is solid enough to pique anyone's interest
whether he or she have a passive or deep interest in the stars or
Lakóta views of the heavens and earth. Make certain your
local library has a copy, or get yourself one.