Lakota Life Wisdom
By Erica Zelfand

I recently had the honor and good fortune of attending a women’s sweat lodge ceremony. Lead by a woman named JJ Crow, we gathered on a rainy day shortly before the New Year. We came together to sweat, cry, sing, pray, and praise.

Having completed my undergraduate studies with a doctorate in World Religions, I have always been intrigued with the guidelines-for-living as outlined by the various faiths and cultures of this world. Admittedly having learned very little about Native American philosophy in my formal training, I was intrigued to hear JJ’s recounting of the Seven Commandments as explained by Lakota elder Martin High Bear.

I was so moved and inspired by these guidelines for living that I wanted to share them with you here, as health and life truly do go hand-in-hand.


{1} Wichozani – To Live Your Life with Good Health

In the Lakota view, we receive our bodies in good condition at birth and must therefore do what we can to return our flesh to Mother Earth in likewise good condition. This precept tells us to teach our children to take care of not only their bodies, but also their minds and spirits.

I think it is simply amazing that this commandment of health is the first commandment described by Martin High Bear. When I shared this with JJ, she warmly smiled at me and said, “What good can you do in the world if you aren’t taking care of yourself?”

I was so inspired by this being the first precept. Maybe it’s just because the New Year is upon us, but right now is the best time for us to begin taking our health seriously.

{2} Wic’oncoqc – To live from Generation to Generation

This precept instructs us to make our best efforts to ensure that those born after our time may enter into a beautiful world. It also guides us to honor those who came before us and to learn from their wisdom.

Whether it’s recycling, buying fuel-efficient vehicles, supporting local businesses, feeding our children healthy diets, or visiting our parents more often, we can all honor the cycle of life by looking both backwards and forwards.


{3} Inila – You Shall Live Your Lives with Quietness

American culture is biased in favor of extroverted personalities. We often encourage our youth to speak up, show off what they know, and assert themselves. Perhaps it is for this reason that other cultures view Americans as obnoxious.

Nevertheless, it is important to teach our children to believe in themselves and speak their truths. But it is also important to balance this confidence with the skill of silence, for it is when we are silent that we may best listen.

Even when we pray, we often ask for things and expect God (or whatever you put your faith in) to hear us, but it is often when we are silent that we sense and receive Divinity.

This is but one of the many reasons I encourage my patients to integrate some form of mindfulness practice (such as Freeze Framing or meditation) into their daily lives. Amazing things come to us when we are still and present enough to receive them.


{4} Wi’yuskin – The People Shall Live With Happiness

Martin High Bear explains that happiness is linked to laughter. The art of making people laugh is therefore thought to be a very good gift!

We have our bodies, our flesh, our blood, our brains, and our spirits – we might as well use them to generate happiness within ourselves and in our communities.

We often fixate on “success.” But what is the point of success if you are miserable?


{5} Okiciyapo – The People Shall Help One Another

The people are blessed when they can help one another. Martin High Bear explains that the Natives would have never been able to move their tipi villages to follow the buffalo if the people hadn’t helped one another.

In mainstream American society, we value independence and even push ourselves to compete with one another. But this can undermine our motto of “United We Stand.”

For me, I love that every day of my life I get to go to my clinic and help others heal. I love my job!


{6} Wowasake – The People Shall Live With Power

When life gets hard, don’t give up. Stay strong. Stay powerful. You are in charge of your life, and with the grace of God-or-whatever-you-believe-in, you can move forward on the Road of Life.


{7} Ahokipa and Yuonihanyan – To Live With Respect and Honor

This precept guides us to respect and honor all people as God’s creation. For us to live together in peace, we must respect each other. We must honor our elders for their wisdom, and we must respect our children as the future of humanity.

Martin High Bear said,

“We may honor a veteran with a song and have the people shake their hands and dance behind them to respect and honor them.”

Imagine a world where we all danced behind veterans! It’s a sweet image for me to picture.

If I may, I’d like to offer a spin on this precept. This seventh commandment instructs us to honor all. This must invariably include respecting ourselves. When we respect ourselves we invariably end up honoring all of the preceding precepts. When we respect and honor ourselves, we take good care of ourselves so we can improve our chances of staying healthy. We hold ourselves accountable for keeping the earth clean for our offspring. When we respect ourselves we know how to both give and receive through silence. We certainly are more likely to feel healthy and spread joy when we respect ourselves. We are inspired to ask for help when we need it, and support others where we can.

Self-respect is power, and without it, we cannot truly respect or honor others. No wonder then that Martin High Bear said that this commandment was the most important of the Seven.


Excerpts taken from Martin High Bear, 1919-1995, Native American Authors Project, The Internet Public Library.

Many thanks to Beautiful Dancing Crow, one of my Naturopathic mentors and spiritual teachers, for connecting me with JJ and this beautiful ceremony.

Blessings to JJ and her daughter Charlotte for so warmly receiving me in their circle.