Wakan Tanka (great mystery)

In Native American mythology, Wakan Tanka (great mystery) is the supreme being and creator of the Lakota Sioux. Sometimes called Great Spirit, he is similar to the supreme beings found in the myths of many other North American peoples.

According to Lakota myth, before creation Wakan Tanka existed in a great emptiness called Han (darkness). Feeling lonely, he decided to create companions for himself. First, Great Spirit focused his energy into a powerful force and formed Inyan (rock), the first god. Next, he used Inyan to create Maka (earth), and then mated with that god to produce Skan (sky). Skan brought forth Wi (the sun) from Inyan, Maka, and himself. These four gods were separate and powerful, but they were all part of Wakan Tanka.

The first four gods produced four companions—Moon, Wind, Falling Star, and Thunderbird —to help with the process of creation. In turn, these companions created various gods and spirits, including Whirlwind, Four Winds, Buffalo, Two-Legged Creatures (humans and bears), Sicun (thought), Nagi (spirit of death), Niya (breath of life), and Nagila (shadow). All of these beings were aspects of Wakan Tanka. Together, they created and oversee everything that exists.

The idea of Wakan Tanka reflects a common view among American Indian tribes that the natural world is part of a spirit being, or is infused with spirit. Wakan Tanka is not just a specific, defined being, like the various gods in Greek mythology , but is a spirit force that can be found in all things, from corn to canyons to cockroaches. In modern times, due to the influence of Christian missionaries, Wakan Tanka is often compared to the all-powerful God of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. Some dismiss this comparison as simplistic, but some American Indians have incorporated Christian beliefs, such as the appearance of Jesus, into their existing mythology of Wakan Tanka.

The main theme of the myths of Wakan Tanka is the interconnected nature of the world. Wakan Tanka is present in all things as a sacred energy, and the original gods—from whom all other things in the world originate—were made from part of Wakan Tanka. This also suggests unity and harmony with the natural world, as opposed to viewing some natural events, such as storms or floods , as hostile or evil.

Wakan Tanka remains a central part of American Indian belief, particularly among the Lakota people. The Great Spirit was popularized by the book Black Elk Speaks (1932) by John G. Neihardt, and is also mentioned in the popular book Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West (1970). Like many American Indian deities, however, Wakan Tanka has not yet penetrated mainstream popular culture in a significant way.

In mainstream American culture, Wakan Tanka—the Great Spirit—is perhaps best known from Black Elk Speaks (1932), an autobiographical account of Black Elk, an Oglala Sioux medicine man, written from conversations between himself and author John G. Neihardt, a poet and amateur ethnographer. The book documents important events in the history of the Sioux people, such as the battle at Little Bighorn and the massacre at Wounded Knee, both witnessed by Black Elk. It also contains a wealth of information about Sioux beliefs and myths.

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