Essential to balance and happiness, there are 12 Lakota Virtues that were a part of everyday life for our Native American ancestors. These are lessons that were taught by storytellers who lived the lessons they imparted. They practiced what they preached. These virtues were and are the foundation of Lakota culture. The teaching is that our quality of life is not measured by material possessions but by how well our life’s journey flows and dances through these virtues. In Lakota “wicozani” is a word which describes wealth by living a happy well balanced life with physical and mental health in harmony with creation. We remember how our ancestors lived, remaining true to ourselves and to them by listening to the stories while being mindful of these important specific teachings.
These are the 12 Lakota Virtues:
1. Humility (Unsiiciyapi) – The first and most important step in life and especially on the spiritual path is humility which is the opposite of pride. In terms of spirituality, if the step of humility is skipped it results in delusions of grandeur. Humility is the foundation of all the other virtues. If you brag about your generosity then it spoils the generosity.
2. Perseverance (Wowacintanka) – In spite of difficulties we persist in our efforts which is a deeply empowering source of strength rising from within. To taste success we sometimes are forced to pick ourselves up and the gift is feeling how much life is worth living as we accomplish what we have set out to do. Many of our ancestors were faced with challenges that could only be helped through spiritual strength. This perseverance was what carried them through even to the afterlife.
3. Respect (Wawoohola) – A basic teaching among all tribes was that of respect towards all beings (sentient and insentient) which includes plants, animals, stones, wind, little people, and all of creation. In our present culture this important virtue has become lost with a general message of excess as well as intolerance for those who are challenged, elderly, or different in any way than ourselves. Our Lakota ancestors would ceremonially hunt their bison which would provide clothing, shelter, and food for the people. Every part was used and their spirit was honored by placing their skull facing east to meet the rising sun in unison with the rhythm of life.
4. Honor (Wayunonihan) – Being honorable means having strength of character by being a good person. Honor goes hand and hand with respect and many of the other virtues. To live the virtues it shows that someone has the integrity and dignity that makes up honor. Humility waters the roots of the tree of honor which then bears the fruit of love. By having honor means that one would choose the path of non violence and compassion rather than dishonorable actions.
5. Love (Cantognake) – More than just compassion, love is having the flame of emotion in one’s heart. Love rules over all things. The whole universe exists because of love, it is the motive of all creation. It is not attachment because love can even be the incentive to be unattached. Love represents the balance that exists in everything. The warmth of the sun’s rays is the sun’s love for us. The ultimate love is spiritual joy which is responsible for life. Deep within each one of us and everything is this basic emotion known as Spirit.
6. Sacrifice (Icicupi) – Sacrifice is giving of oneself. The fruit of love is sacrifice. In the beginning the Creator sacrificed itself to make all that there is and through this humble act we can understand the significance of offering ourselves. In order to accomplish anything, one must be able to make a sacrifice. Whether it be the small sacrifices in your daily life or major sacrifices of your lifetime, we all reap what we sow by this fundamental act. We sacrifice our time and effort every day just to get things done but on a larger spiritual scale we can give of ourselves and give back to the Creator and Creation.
7. Truth (Wowicake) – Truth is being honest about yourself and the world around you. There is ultimate truth and then there are all of our individual truths. In this world of illusion we must rely upon our inner truth to know which way to go. Through gaining an understanding of life we learn to see beyond the illusions into what is real for us. We all have our own individual perspectives, it is relying upon our own perception within the greater reality that allows us to be in truth.
8. Compassion (Waunsilapi) – Doing what is right in caring for others as you would yourself is what makes a person compassionate. One need not feel sorry for or sympathetic to anyone in order to live this virtue. In fact it is that inner strength that allows us to have the unconditional love that creates true compassion.
9. Bravery (Woohitike) – When an understanding of destiny and chance matures within the mind there is a dawning of faith within the heart. This is true courage. Bravery is born of the wisdom of life and death as well as one’s honor. It is not blind or reckless and can come from the very depths of our being in times of need. This open act of vulnerability despite circumstances can help us defy even the worst odds.
10. Fortitude (Cantewasake) – After learning patience and inner endurance one gains the strength necessary to have fortitude. Emotional stability, being alert, and having determination can help in having this persistent integrity. This is not an inflexible force. It is a quiet, gentle voice of a Grandmother with deep faith, trust, and understanding.
11. Generosity (Canteyuke) – “To have a heart” is the literal translation of this Lakota word which is a timeless virtue residing in the heart. True generosity has always been encouraged and exemplified in Lakota society while accumulating material possessions was greatly discouraged. As our Earth Mother gives everything, we should in turn do the same. True generosity embodies love and the understanding of impermanence.
12. Wisdom (Woksape) – Only after one has learned about life and is able to act on all the other virtues, can one be considered wise. First we attain knowledge then we learn to apply that knowledge. Wisdom is acting on what you know. Our gift to life is wisdom as well as life’s gift to us. It is knowing the difference between truth and the illusion. One can have knowledge without wisdom but one cannot have wisdom without knowledge. Wisdom is a reward from life for persevering through all of the virtues.