Colors of the Directions
There have been many discussions and debates over the colors associated with the four directions within Lakota spiritual practices in the last few years, and recently I was asked in a PM what colors are used in Lakota spiritual practices. I hope that the following information will help put some things into perspective.
First, let me say that there is not one set form of Lakota spirituality sometimes referred to as the Pipe way or the way of the Pipe. Because of this fact, there is not any one individual, be it a Sundance Leader, a Holy Person, a Medicine Man, a Spiritual Interpreter, a Ceremonial Chief, a Tribal Chairman, or even the Keeper of the White Buffalo Calf Pipe, who has the knowledge, the authority, or the right to dictate in what manner Lakota spiritual practices are followed.
The nature of Lakota spiritual practices within the Lakota Pipe way traditions are dictated by supernatural or spiritual guidance provided to select individuals. Therefore, Pipe way practices on Pine Ridge may be slightly different than they are on Rosebud or Standing Rock or Cheyenne River. Even on one reservation, there may be slight differences in the style, practice of ceremonies, or other variations of the Pipe way traditions, depending on the Holy Person leading them and what their vision(s) have guided them to do. People in a Community gravitate to one Holy Person or another, depending on how they connect with that Holy Person's style, their effectiveness, personality, beliefs, values, etc.
With this in mind, let me then say that the idea of certain colors being assigned to represent the four cardinal directions is only a recent addition to the Lakota Pipe way traditions, which are always evolving and changing, as is the nature of culture, and the people the traditions are designed to serve.
Among the Lakota during the Buffalo Days, there were certain meanings ascribed to colors, which can be traced back to the use of paints. In many ceremonies, earth paints were used to color sacred items, and the bodies of individuals. During the Sundance for example, dancers were painted in colors, which were associated with their dreams or visions, in Black, Red, Yellow, White, Blue or Green, or various combinations. For example, in 1911 one Sundancer named Teal Duck also known as Eagle That Frightens, stated that when he was 21, in 1843, he took part in a Sundance and his face and body were painted yellow, with dark blue lines extending down his arms and legs and branching at the wrists and ankles. There was also a dark blue line across his forehead and down each cheek, and a black deer's head was painted over his mouth. On his chest was painted a red disc, and on his back was painted a black crescent. Artwork, first in quillwork, then in beadwork, frequently reflected the meanings originally attached to certain colors of paint.
It would not be until the writings of John G. Neihardt (Black Elk Speaks: Being the Life Story of a Holy Man of the Oglala Sioux - 1932), and Joseph E. Brown (The Sacred Pipe: Black Elk's Account of the Seven Rites of the Oglala Sioux - 1953), that the world learned of this one Holy man’s interpretation for the colors assigned by "his vision" to the four cardinal directions. "His vision" dictates meanings, which were, Black for West, White for North, Red for East, and Yellow for South.
However, by the 1960s and 1970s, the next generation of Lakota Holy men such as George Plenty Wolf, Willie Wounded, Ellis Chips, Henry Crow Dog, Pete Catches, Sr., John Lame Deer, Charles Kills Ree, Dawson Has No Horses, Norbert Running, Joe Eagle Elk, Rudy Runs Above, Martin High Bear, Mark Big Road, John Iron Rope, Richard Moves Camp, Selo Black Crow, Matthew King and Frank Fools Crow all had become accustomed to using colors to indicate meanings for the four cardinal directions. However, they were not always the same color for each direction, nor did they have the identical meanings.
Frank Fools Crow ascribed meanings as: Black for West, Red for North, Yellow for East, and White for South. In addition, Frank Fools Crow went on to tell Thomas Mails in the 1970s that colored ribbons on his Pipe stood for the four cardinal directions, and he was quoted in the 1979 book titled Fools Crow that "...in modern times have become a prayer for the well-being of all the races of mankind."
Unfortunately, many have stretched this quote out of proportion, so that it has become a popular urban myth, that the four colors (red, yellow, black and white) are now purported to be representative of the four main races of the world, although this is not a primary Lakota tradition.
Recently, a new generation of Lakota Holy men, such as Rick Two Dogs, Floyd Hand, Jr., Howard Bad Hand, Godfrey Chips, Pete Catches, Jr., Curtis Kills Ree, Wilmer Stampede Mesteth, Joe Flying Bye, Troy Brave Heart, Marvin Helper, Vern American Horse, Milo Yellow Hair, Ernest Afraid of Bear, Leonard Crow Dog, Joseph Chasing Horse and others, ascribe to the use of colors as representative of the four cardinal directions. Many seem to follow Frank Fools Crow's ascribed colors being Black for the West, Red for the North, Yellow for the East, and White for the south, but there are some exceptions of the order, and in one or two cases, Blue is sometimes used in place of Black.
Keep in mind that there a many different tribal traditions involving the four directions and four colors associated with them. There is no one tradition that is more right than any other. It is all "symbolic." I will also add that sometimes blue is used to represent the above direction and green is used to represent the below direction.
However, I would suggest that a person learn "a" tribal tradition, and stick with it. Problems can arise when tribal traditions are mixed with traditions from other tribes or other sources. You never know what the outcome may be, and someone could get hurt, have a problem with their health, their family, or their home.
Thanks for the Lakota history lessons.......you must feel very proud of your culture and people?...lets hope that your ancestral heritage isn't lost in time and your tribal heritage is kept alive......
Traditions are fluid and ever evolving, to meet the needs of the newer generations.