Written by Ben Baird ~ Photography by Christine Peterson
There are two explanations for cross cultural mythological or spiritual similarities. One explanation for this phenomenon is diffusion, where one idea or image is physically brought from one culture and adopted by another as a result of mixing and contact. The problem with this theory is that it cannot account for correspondence between cultures with no contact. There has been no historical contact or communication between the distant Scandinavian Sami and the North American Sioux, and yet their spiritual mythologies share varied and rich symbols which correspond to a degree of detail which cannot be mistaken for coincidence or chance. One theory that explains the ubiquity of spiritual symbols, introduced by Carl Jung in the first half of the twentieth century, states that the human psyche is essentially the same all over the world. Out of this common ground or collective unconscious come the various archetypes which can be observed in cultures all over the world regardless of time and place. For the Sami and the Sioux, this incredible parallelism of mythic themes can be observed through the three main features of their spiritual worldview: animism, polytheism and shamanism.
For the indigenous groups of North Eastern American plains, the Sioux, or Dakota as they are sometimes referred to, and the indigenous Scandinavian people, the Sami, nature was recognized as sacred. The sacred places were not man-made temples or churches, but particularly spectacular or prominent features of the natural landscape. For the Sami these sacred places tended to be large rocks (called sieidi), the sides of lakes, rocky crevasses or caverns or mountaintops. These sacred mountains were somewhat isolated and had a jutting tall peak. A sacred mountain named Haldi, which rests among a group of mountains near Alta and an 814 meter-tall conical sacred hill named Tunnsjøguden in central Norway are examples. In general, the word saivu is applied to sacred mountains in the South while the terms bassi, ailigas and haldi are used for sacred mountains by Northern Sami. Similarly, mountaintops were also of spiritual importance to Sioux groups who lived in their regions, for instance the sacred mountain Harney Peak in modern day South Dakota.
While natural surroundings create special sacred places, for the Sami and the Sioux the whole world is animated with the divine source of life. This idea finds expression in the Lakota Sioux Black Elk’s beautiful and profound vision of standing on the central mountain of the world:
Then I was standing on the highest mountain of them all, and round about beneath me was the whole hoop of the world…And I saw that the sacred hoop of my people was one of many hoops that made one circle, wide as daylight and starlight, and in the center grew one mighty flowering tree to shelter all the children of one mother and one father. And I saw that it was holy.
And then he added “But anywhere is the center of the world” (Neihardt+ 33). On one level this vision is about cooperation between tribes. On a more subtle level, Black Elk’s vision is important because it illustrates the larger connotation and meaning of the spiritual imagery of his culture. The image of the central mountain comes to be understood as the central point of existence for all things which is manifesting everywhere and through all ephemeral reality. For the Sami this is the eternal source or “soul” which is imbued in all natural phenomena: lakes, boulders, mountains, animals, plants, etc. The Sioux commonly characterized this all pervasive consciousness or spirit as Wonka Tonka. This term referred to a fluid category that held numerous connotations including, incomprehensibility, transcendence or, more generally, Great Spirit. The physical world was viewed as the manifestation of this animating force and therefore the Sioux, like the Sami, viewed all natural objects as indistinguishable from this sacred spirit. Both the Sami and the Sioux also express this existential truth through the symbol of the world pillar or world tree. This image, common among many circumpolar peoples, connotes the central point around which all else revolves, which is neither up nor down, right nor left. The axis mundi, that which is beyond the world of duality yet holds the world up, is found in the spiritual imagery of the Sami as the “world tree.” In the northern regions of Sami territory this world tree is said to be both a source of life and knowledge and to hold up the sky. For the Sioux, this central tree is beautifully described in Black Elk’s vision as the “one mighty flowering tree to shelter all the children of one mother and one father.” Phenomenally, both cultures use the same exact mythological symbol to express the same truth.
In contrast to monotheistic religions, practitioners of polytheism believe in and worship more than one god. In these nature-based religions, divine power is attributed to natural phenomenon and the gods are the personifications of elemental or natural forces. An important deity in the Sami pantheon is Horagallis, the god of thunder who is depicted as a person carrying a hammer or an axe. Horagallis was revered for the life-giving rain of his storms which cleansed the air, nurtured the lichen and grass and drove away evil spirits, but he was feared for the forest fires and injuries to people and animals caused by his storms. As a result of this fear of thunder, Horagallis was regularly worshipped and sacrificed to. For the Sioux, thunder is personified loosely as the “thunder beings” who were active participants in the everyday events of the tribe. Black Elk describes how the tribe “could hear low thunder rumbling all over the village outside, and we knew the thunder beings were glad and had come to help us.” (Neihardt 125) The thunder beings could additionally act as aids by darkening the sky if needed for hiding from enemies. The Sioux also personify thunder as Haokah, the god of thunder who is also god of the hunt. Haokah, a double-horned figure, laughs when he is sad, and cries when he is happy, thus creating the rain. The sun, known as Wi-Dakota to the Sioux and beaivi to the Sami, was of primary importance to both mythologies. In the center of the Sami shaman or noaidi’s drum is the sun (beaivi) drawn as a rhomboid with four rays which spread to the sides. Along the rays spreading outward and surrounding the sun are the various gods which are the personified forces of nature. In this sense, the sun symbolizes the same central, animating source of the world as personified by the world tree or pillar and all the gods are shown as subsidiary representations of this one central source of existence. A traditional Sioux mythological tale states that the White Buffalo Woman gave the Sioux people a pipe through which they could communicate with the divine reality or spirit world. When a Sioux Indian would smoke from this pipe, also called a calumet, a specific ritualistic act was always preformed. The possessor of the pipe would always hold it up to the sky to allow the sun to take the first draw from it and then he would address the four directions. This is the exact spiritual expression found on the face of the Sami shaman’s drum with the central sun with four rays, symbolizing the four directions, spreading from it. So it is clear that ultimately the Sami did not worship the natural phenomena themselves, nor did they idolize the personifications or gods, which represent those phenomena in and of themselves. Rather, they revered the mysterious power that manifested itself through them. This is the central spiritual idea of the ancient nature religions of man. The Sioux had many different names for this omnipresent Great Spirit, including skan, wakonda, wagi tonka and wonka tonka. Black Elk explains this understanding: “But these four spirits are only one Spirit after all, and this eagle feather here is for that one, which is like a father…” (Neihardt 2) The Sun as the father of all creatures is an important symbol in the ancient mythology of the Sami as well. One of the two main Sami creation epics “The Son of the Sun’s Courting in the Land of the Giants” describes the Son making love to his bride and begetting the the Gállábártnit, the ancestors of the Sámi. A passage from the poem describes the Son as father of the people: “On skin of bear and young reindeer doe / Bride is transformed to a Sámi / Becomes a human in size. / And with an axe from her own chest /Her doors become wider / The room made larger. / To the Sun’s sons she gave birth” (Gaski 101)
The ancient spiritualities of both cultures contain the same fundamental ideas and use virtually identical symbols to convey those ideas. Both spiritual traditions metaphorically describe the Sun as the father of all and the Earth as the mother of all. In both spiritual traditions, the symbolically masculine Sun represents the father-like central source point which is transcendent of the transitory physical world of the four directions. In both traditions this eternal consciousness or source pours into the field of time through the symbolically feminine mother Earth and is characterized through a vast array of gods which are all ultimately part of this one mysterious thing represented by the Sun.
For the Sioux and the Sami, all of nature is viewed as being “alive”; they both possess an animistic perception of the universe. Their worldview is thus radically different from a modern perspective, emphasizing a sacred connection and interdependence of all things— including their prey and their enemies. Sioux society was primarily based on the buffalo, from which they derived everything they needed to survive. The itinerant patterns of the buffalo forced the Sioux to live nomadically in impermanent settlements, and their existence as a tribal unit was based on the movement of the buffalo herds. The Sami were herders of another animal, the reindeer, whom they developed an almost symbiotic relationship with over many centuries. As the Sioux did with the buffalo, the Sami always made maximum use of the reindeer as food and commodities were often scarce in the harsh winter environment. It is as impossible to separate the Sami from their reindeer as it is to separate the Sioux from their buffalo and a deep bond of dependence and spiritual connection existed between each pair. Rather than a context of prey and predator, this relationship was one of coexistence within a sacred and interconnected universe. This worldview based on interconnection is further emboldened by their unwavering adherence and insistence upon it in times of discord, and their humble attitude in the face of great suffering imposed by others. Both the Sami and the Sioux have faced historical conflicts with encroaching outside groups which resulted in violent confrontations. In the 18th and 19th century, the Sioux were forced from their land and had to continuously evade the superior forces of the U.S. Cavalry. As their lands shrank it became increasingly difficult to find a safe place to live in peace. When the Sioux and forces of the U.S. military did meet, the mass devastation was not surprisingly shouldered by the indigenous peoples unprepared for war, outnumbered and lacking modern technology and weapons. At the Battle of Wounded Knee in 1890, four hundred Sioux men, women and children were massacred. Yet on that terrifying day, the men ran into battle knowing they would be killed with the war cry “It’s a great day to die!” This deep knowledge of the interconnectedness and sacredness of all life had totally freed them from a materialistic conception of self and the fear of death.
For many hundreds of years, the Sami have faced encroachments by the Norwegian, Swedish, Finnish and Russian governments which have attempted to assimilate the Sami, levy taxes on them, divide the land they once freely roamed and impose restrictions on movement between borders. The Sami also faced more violent and overt forms of oppression, especially in Norway and Sweden, where in the early part of the twentieth century the Norwegian government implemented efforts to wipe out Sami culture. Additionally, the Sami faced confrontation by roaming groups of armed warriors known as the Tsjudes. This conflict is the focus of Nils Gaup’s 1987 film Pathfinder. Though based partially on legend, as a work of art the film contains many scenes which capture the heart of the Sami spiritual philosophy and its resilience in the face of adversity. In one of these scenes Aigin, a boy who has recently witnessed the slaughter of his entire family by the Tsjudes, is consulted by Raste, the shaman. Raste, instead of consoling Aigin, tells him to do away with his feelings of revenge because he is connected by invisible bonds to the Tsjudes and all other things through an infinite brotherhood. Raste explains that the Tsjudes have simply forgotten this fundamental truth and warns Aigin that to forget it would make him a Tsjude. For both groups, this deeply held conviction in the underlying unity of all life not only places their relationship to enemies and prey into a radically different framework than conventional or modern perspective, but it is a crucial component of their cultural identity.
The shaman, the Sami noaidi, was an important feature of Sami culture and spiritual tradition. The shaman was able to fulfill many practical purposes with his special talent and function as a leader in the community. Although the shaman had no formal authority, he traditionally held a dignified position and was well respected. By listening closely to the drum (called a meavrresgarri) to its “speech” or watching the particular pointers (arpa) while drumming with his hammer, it is said that a shaman could predict future events. The drumming of the shaman also served practical purposes for reindeer herding, finding lost objects and hunting. Most important, however, the shaman served as a spiritual guide or priest, a mediator between this world and the spiritual realm, and a healer of illnesses. According to the Sami, illness was caused by a person’s soul becoming lost or the invasion of a hostile object into the person’s body. The shaman would either retrieve the lost soul while in trance or expel the foreign object by invoking the aid of spirits or powers. Although the Sioux do not specify a specific cause for all illness, the shaman or medicine man employs a generally similar technique of entering into a trance-like state and calling for the assistance of natural powers. Black Elk recalls how he was “drumming as I cried to the Spirit of the World, and while I was doing this I could feel the power coming through me from my feet up, and I knew that I could help the sick boy” (Neihardt 154).
One important distinction between Sioux shamanism and that of the Sami is how one becomes a shaman. An old chieftain of the Oglalla Sioux, Chief Piece of Flat Iron, describes how shamans are chosen by a higher power:
To the Holy Man comes in youth the knowledge that he will be holy. The Great Mystery makes him know this. Sometimes it is the spirits who tell him…he goes into the hills in solitude. When he returns to men he teaches them and tells them what the Great Mystery has bidden him to tell. He counsels, he heals, and he makes holy charms to protect the people from all evil. (Campbell 243)
While these shamans are selected by their nature, Sami shamanism is most often passed down through family lineage. The noaidi is trained within the family by an elder and the training is initiated after the pupil reaches adolescence. After a period of time, the aspiring shaman must demonstrate to other noaidi control over his powers and practice.
Despite this distinction, however, the shamanism of the Sioux contains basic thematic elements that also exist in the shamanism of the Sami. One of these themes is a cyclical conception of time. Rather than being linear, time operates in the same manner as the natural world. Just as the day, the month, the year, and the seasons all move in a perpetual cycle, so time is viewed with an understanding of the movements of celestial bodies—the earth, the moon and the sun. This cyclical movement of time also applies to the lives of humans and other living beings as all things come into being, live, and then come to an inevitable end. However, there is also the notion that the cycle of time does not ultimately exist, and that the flux of the temporal world rests on the eternal source of being which is infinite and always “now.” This concept is expressed beautifully in the words of Nils-Aslak Valkeapää, a contemporary Sami poet:
and time does not exist, no end, none…and time is, eternal, always, is…rises, falls…is born, dies…thus,…days, years are rounded…snow melts…buds push…the river of life…into deep pools…in motion…the trek in the heart…land…rounded off…life’s circle…infinite…without…beginning…or end…fulfills…changes…colors…life (Valkeapää #566).
Additionally, shamans’ accounts of experiences while in trance are astonishingly similar in Sioux and Sami culture. The spiritual realm is described as existing in three levels: the upper world of the gods, the physical level of the world and living things and the lower world where people and things go after death (known as Saivo to the Sami). Although these realms have slightly different meanings for each culture, the detail to which the imagery is in agreement suggests a common experience among shamans, which is transcendent of cultural and geographical boundaries.
References to Sami and Sioux spirituality in this work are directed at pre-Christian heritage and culture. Today the subtle, intricate and sublime mythologies, rituals and spiritual practices of these indigenous peoples are all but lost. Their relevance has been marginalized if not lost completely. The Sioux battled for centuries for their land and the maintenance of their cultural and spiritual practices. This battle was lost, however, as Western civilization forced the cultural extinction of one of the most spiritually enhanced peoples in world history. In Scandinavia in the 17th century, Christian missionaries murdered shamans in the name of spirituality and burned the sacred drums. Today only seventy-three of these drums remain preserved in museums. For centuries, Christian missionaries have used violence and intimidation to attempt to convert the Sami. However, hundreds of years of subjugation under the boot of Christian hegemony have not totally crushed the ancient Sami spiritual worldview. Some remain critical of the form of spirituality brought by Christian missionaries and skeptical of missionaries’ ability even to understand their own spiritual symbols: “ you speak of eternal life…without knowing…what eternal is…what life is…and even you contain…infinity…the universe…strength, power…undiscovered…unused” (Valkeapää #432). Today, some facets of the ancient spirituality of the Sami live. In the post-World War II era, some elements of Sami culture have been revived and there is an emerging self-identification with Sami ethnicity accompanied by a sense of cultural pride. Today, the spiritual experience of the Sami continues to manifest through the sacred interaction between the Sami and their environment and will remain until modernity and Western religion squeeze their anorexic physical and spiritual space to total annihilation—as occurred with the tragic death of the Sioux people and their sacred world.
Gaski, Harald. Sámi Son of the Sun. Vasa: Arkmedia Oy, 2003.
Campbell, Joseph. The Masks of God: Primitive Mythology. New York: Penguin Books, 1969.
Hætta, Odd Mathis. The Ancient Religion and Folk Beliefs of the Sami. Alta Museum: 1994.
Neihardt, John and Black Elk. Black Elk Speaks. London: University of Nebraska Press, 2000.
Valkeapää, Nils-Aslak. The Sun, My Father. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1997.
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