Date of Award


Document Type

Dissertation - Restricted

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)



First Advisor

Keith J. Egan

Second Advisor

Alice B. Kehoe

Third Advisor

Patrick J. Burns

Fourth Advisor

William Kelly

Fifth Advisor

J. Coert Rylaarsdam


This cross-cultural study investigates and analyzes the religious symbols and beliefs of the Oglala for the purpose of discerning, interpreting and reflecting theologically upon the spiritual content. The content derives from this people's concept of ultimate reality and the manner in which this transcendent reality is revealed. This study focuses upon the phenomenology of symbolism, and the procedure for analysis of symbols is based upon the methodology of Victor W. Turner. This study also focuses upon the disparity between Oglalan religious concepts and Christian theology discerned through theological reflection.

Part one of this study discusses the methodology of symbol analysis, and the various problems arising in this cross-cultural investigation. This section also includes an evaluation of the various sources of information and data on Oglala religion and culture. Careful evaluation and selection of sources is necessary to avoid the common errors noted in many contemporary writings on Oglalan culture: the tendency of investigators to describe traditionally secret shamanistic speculations as general tribal beliefs, and to classify certain cultic activities as religion rather than as religiously-oriented societal functions.

The research and writings of Alice Fletcher, Frances Densmore, Ella Deloria, J.R. Walker, J. Mooney, J.O. Dorsey, C. Wissler, J. Neihardt, S.E. Feraca, J.H. Howard, W. Hurt, and L. Spier are widely recognized as excellent and reliable sources for factual evidence relating to Oglalan rituals and religious beliefs. The contributions of Ella Deloria are of particular value because of her bilingual proficiency. These sources provide the basis for this study on symbolism. A recently published book by William K. Powers entitled Oglala Religion (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1977), a structural analysis of Oglalan culture, contributes no new information directed toward the recovery of the historical meaning of traditional Oglalan religious symbolism, the focus of this study.

The evaluation of sources precedes an overview of historical Oglala religion and the overview consists of a brief introduction to this people's religious system.

Because Oglala religious symbols are discovered and selected from the realm of nature, part two describes the derivation of these symbols from experiences with and beliefs about natural phenomena. This general exposition discusses not only the Oglalan understanding of each selected representation but, in some instances, includes the myth pertaining to a specific symbol or group of symbols.

The survey of symbols prefaces an analysis of the central public symbols and the referents that contribute to their total meaning in the symbol complex. After describing the structure of the symbol complex, an analysis of the use of symbols and symbolic activity in selected religious rituals and in general societal application discloses not only the purpose and importance of specific symbols when ritually manipulated; it also demonstrates the complete integration and interdependency of religion with all other facets of societal structure and cultural formulations.

Part three of the study focuses upon the historical process and its effects upon the symbol system. In the historical process, the major impact of ecopolitical forces, Christianity, and pan-Indianism are the factors considered in determining the influences that directly or indirectly caused changes in the content, choice, retention or disappearance of symbols within the religious complex.

Selected Oglalan religious beliefs, discerned through the exegesis of symbols and rituals, comprise the theme for part four. These beliefs are juxtaposed with Christian theological concepts and categories for the purpose of demonstrating the uniqueness of each tradition.



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