Douville wants to preserve the Lakota people's knowledge of
the stars and their movements for future generations. He teaches
Lakota studies at the Sinte Gleska University on the Rosebud
Indian Reservation within the U.S. state of South Dakota.
(photo by Binesikwe Means, GPJ Tribal Nations, Rosebud Indian
One Sicangu Oyate Lakota
man has studied his tribe's star knowledge for decades, keeping
ancient beliefs and science alive for younger generations.
ROSEBUD INDIAN RESERVATION Whether the stars, the sun
or the moon, the Lakota people have always been avid watchers of
the sky. They called the stars the "Woniya of Wakan Tanka:" the
holy breath of the Great Spirit.
This ancient tradition has held fast in modern Lakota culture
in part because Victor Douville, an elder and member of the Sicangu
Oyate Lakota Tribe, which is formally known as the Rosebud Sioux
Tribe and based on the Rosebud Indian Reservation within the U.S.
state of South Dakota. He's been a Lakota studies teacher at Sinte
Gleska University on that reservation since 1971, but his interest
in the stars started many years before that.
"Star knowledge for me started when I was a young boy laying
out in the haystack looking up at the Big Dipper and my uncle said
'Oceti Sakowin,'" Douville says.
Oceti Sakowin, in the Lakota language, means "Seven Council
Fires." The phrase refers to the seven council fires among the Lakota
people that are represented in the sky in what many astronomers
call the Big Dipper.
The Sicangu Oyate Lakota people traditionally watched the movements
of the night sky to determine the best times for planting and harvesting
and other seasonal activities. A working knowledge of astronomy
was key to survival, and they did it all without telescopes or other
Understanding Tribal Nations:
The Rosebud Sioux Tribe is one of nine Native American tribes
within the U.S. State of South Dakota that are formally recognized
by the U.S. federal government. The U.S. government is required,
under the terms of the treaties it signed with the tribes,
to allocate funding for education, health care and other services,
but there are deep disputes over whether the federal government
is fulfilling its treaty requirements.
Eight of the nine tribes within
South Dakota are formally known as Sioux tribes, by the name
used colloquially during the pioneer era to describe the Lakota
people and other groups. The name Sioux is still used formally,
but many people who are members of those tribes prefer to
use their traditional tribal names. The Rosebud Sioux Tribe,
which is based on the Rosebud Indian Reservation, is often
referred to as the Sicangu Oyate Lakota Tribe.
Douville wanted to keep that knowledge alive. In 1984, the university
launched a Lakota astronomy course, and Douville worked with Ronald
Goodman, who had written about Lakota star knowledge, to gather
traditional stories and teachings from Lakota elders and medicine
"There were a lot of challenges," Douville says. "There were
a lot of skeptics out there saying that [Lakota star knowledge]
was just made up recently."
Douville says the biggest challenge was to ensure that Lakota
astronomy aligned with modern science.
"That way, we can make it more legitimate," he says. "So that
was the challenge there, to make people believe and realize that
this is also equal to what they had."
The larger astronomy world has long had a fascination with Lakota
star knowledge, including grappling with who knew what, and when.
One event in particular captured the interest of the Smithsonian
Institution, a group of museums and research centers administered
by the U.S. government, when researchers curated an online exhibit
called "Lakota Winter Counts." For Lakota people, winter counts
are histories or calendars in which events are recorded on hides,
cloth or paper, with one picture for each year.
One winter count noted in that exhibit is "The Year the Stars
Fell," which a Smithsonian researcher discovered referred to an
1833 Leonid meteor storm that was widely recognized by the larger
astronomy community. That discovery led to broader connections between
Lakota star knowledge and modern astronomy.
Today, many astronomers examine star charts and other artifacts
from tribes across the continent for signs of a connection between
modern and ancient knowledge.
"There are a lot of cultures around the world that perceive
the arrangement of the stars in the sky in different ways than we
do in some of our Anglo-European perspective," says Judy Vondruska,
who teaches astronomy and physics at South Dakota State University.
modern tipi is a landmark at Sinte Gleska University, located
on the Rosebud Indian Reservation within the U.S. state of
South Dakota. Students at the university can learn about Lakota
star knowledge. (photo by Binesikwe Means, GPJ Tribal Nations,
Rosebud Indian Reservation)
Different cultures use their knowledge of the stars for different
reasons, and for some cultures those reasons might be more practical.
For many indigenous groups in what is now the U.S., the stars indicated
when certain animals would move or became historical markers for
"That's slipped away from the Anglo-European perspective, because
for us it's more just stories we've inherited from Greek and Roman
mythology," Vondruska says. "It wasn't as embedded in our everyday
existence as it was for many of these other cultures."
For Douville, it's important to pass Lakota star knowledge to
younger people so that it continues to have every day use. And the
younger Lakota people who learn under Douville say his passion for
teaching them is always evident.
"Leksi Victor is a definite treasure to Sinte Lakota Oyate,"
says Damon Leader Charge, one of Douville's former students. Leader
Charge uses the term "Leksi," or uncle, as an honorific in referring
to Douville. Sinte Lakota Oyate means "Lakota family."
Douville practices the traditional values he teaches, Leader
"He is always ready and willing to give, to share his knowledge,
to ensure those teachings live on for generations to come, just
as our ancestors did in the past," he says.
The next big challenge, Douville says, is to finish developing
a traditional calendar based on Lakota star knowledge.
Douville's connection to his people and his dedication to preserving
Lakota culture is what motivates him.
"I try to get the student to know that connection between what's
here and what's above," he says, referring to the stars. "What we
do down here impacts above, and what happens up there impacts down
here. I want them to know that."