The Lakota Inipi

The Lakota Inipi

Photography (Sacred Fire) and Text by Jules Steffen


I have the privilege of knowing some inspiring American Indian Spiritual leaders: Arvol Looking Horse is the 19th generation keeper of the "White Buffalo Calf Pipe Bundle" and has the responsibility of serving as spiritual leader for the Lakota, Dakota and Nakota people. Merle Whistler is a traditional medicine man and Sun Dance chief of the Lakota tribe. Melvin Minor is the Assistant Curator of the Sioux Indian Museum in Rapid City, SD, and is a traditional craftsman and Sun Dancer. Michael Fitzgerald has written and edited publications on American Indian spirituality and is the adopted son of Thomas Yellowtail of the Crow tribe, currently teaching religion courses at Indiana University. Given my Cherokee grandfather lived long years on the reservation in Oklahoma and held his ancestral heritage dear to his heart, I feel very connected to these individuals and the stories, traditions, and sacred practices they offer me.

 On that sacred day, these Lakota friends guide the construction of the ceremonial Inipi in an spacious area of land known as the Bird Sanctuary, at The Culver Academies, a private coed college-prep boarding school, where I served as director of psychological services for 17 years. We enter a wetland grove of young willow trees and offer prayers to the18 saplings that we cut to be the “bones” or framework for the ceremonial lodge. These sagious “bones” mark the four corners of the universe, and blankets offered containment and a covering for the ceremonial lodge, being for us the womb of Mother Earth. The lodge door opens to the east, creating a sacred path to the earth mound altar and then to the “Fire of No End” that heats the rocks which are placed in the center pit of the lodge as the ceremony begins and the door to the lodge is closed. There is a call for purification and rebirth within the darkness, and the potential for one's healing is created as prayers and songs mix with the smokey steam from hot lava rock, burning herbs, and sacred water. Taking in the outward expressions of sacred prayers, feeling held within the prayer songs and stories told by my Lakota friends, and breathing in the intense heat from the purifying rocks and spiritual energy amidst the lodge - are all significant within this sacred practice.

 As Keeper of the Sacred White Buffalo Calf Pipe Bundle, Arvol Looking Horse, he has written a response to those who abuse the ceremonial ways of this sacred rite. In his response, he writes: "19 generations ago, the Lakota/Dakota/Nakota Oyate (people), were given seven sacred rites of healing by a Spirit Woman ­ Pte San Win (White Buffalo Calf Woman). She brought these rites along with our sacred C’anupa (pipe) to our People, when our ancestors were suffering from a difficult time. It was also brought for the future to help us for much more difficult times to come. They were brought to help us stay connected to who we are as a traditional cultural People. The values of conduct are very strict in any of these ceremonies, because we work with spirit. The way the Creator, Wakan Tanka told us; that if we stay humble and sincere, we will keep that connection with the inyan oyate (the stone people), who we call the Grandfathers, to be able to heal our selves and loved ones. We have a gift of prayer and healing and have to stay humble with our Unc’i Maka (Grandmother Earth) and with one another. The inikag'a is used in all of the seven sacred rites to prepare and finish the ceremonies, along with the sacred eagle feather. The feather represents the sacred knowledge of our ancestors. Our First Nations People have to earn the right to pour the mini wic’oni (water of life) upon the inyan oyate (the stone people) in creating Inikag’a - by going on the vision quest for four years and four years Sundance. Then you are put through a ceremony to be painted – to recognize that you have now earned that right to take care of someone's life through purification." (Entire Response by Arvol Looking Horse)

 I continue to be amazed by the power of the spiritual energy that is created within this sacred rite. Many prayers are verbalized by all who are held by Mother Earth within the lodge. Various languages are used as prayers are voiced, bridging all nations and peoples, breaking down all boundaries, and unifying all of us as a collective One. A friend offers up the words of his mentor's experience with the Lakota: “I felt my consciousness as it were, extend itself out of my body and pass over into their consciousness…I could look back at my own world and see its values in a clearer light – but also its limitations.” My friend and longtime faculty colleague, Dr. Richard Davies, relates to his mentor's experience with these words: “we pass over from one culture to another, from one way of life to another, from one religion to another” – and this “passing over and coming back…is the spiritual adventure of our time.” I concur that this “passing over and coming back” is healing for those who experience the sacred Inipi ceremony. May we carry these words of "passing over and coming back" with us, and may we discover its meaning in our life. May it be for us the Middle Ground: Where Sages Dwell.

Jules Steffen, LMHC

Middle Ground: Where Sages Dwell


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