David C. Posthumus, Ph.D., is Assistant Professor of anthropology and Native American studies at the University of South Dakota and is the author of All My Relatives: Exploring Lakota Ontology, Belief, and Ritual (July 2018).
We Are All Related
Mitákuye oyás’į is a ubiquitous prayer and ceremonial benediction heard among the Lakotas or Western (Teton) Sioux, historically equestrian nomadic hunter-gatherers who hunted bison on the plains and throughout the Upper Missouri country. Linguistically, mitákuye oyás’į breaks down into mi- (my) + takúye (relatives, relations) + oyás’į (a quantifier meaning everyone or all of a kind) and translates freely as “all my relatives” or “we are all related.” But the cultural significance of this axiom runs much deeper and could be thought of as the foundational interpretive principle of Lakota culture and society, with roots in kinship and spirituality, but also pervasive in philosophy, biology, physiology, ecology, ad infinitum (see E. C. Deloria 1998; V. Deloria 1999, 34, 50–52).
The late Albert White Hat, Sr., a Sičháŋǧu Lakota linguist and educator, says the essence of Lakota ritual, philosophy, and life is based on mitákuye oyás’į, which he refers to as the “relative concept” (White Hat 2012, xx, 33, 44, 75n1, 80n6). According to White Hat, “This goes back to our origin story, to Iŋyaŋ [Rock, grandfather of all things], who began creation by draining its blood. Iŋyaŋ’s blood is in every creation, and this makes us all relatives” (White Hat 2012, 37). “That is the most fundamental belief in our Lakota philosophy,” explains White Hat (2012, 33), “that we are related to everything on earth and in the universe. We were all formed from the blood of Iŋyaŋ: humans, animals, trees, water, air, stones. Everything in the universe, we are all related.” The recent groundbreaking work of anthropologist Philippe Descola can aid our understanding of the powerful relational ontology of the Lakotas poetically expressed by mitákuye oyás’į.
In Beyond Nature and Culture (2013, 247–51) Descola revisits animism, stripping it of its problematic (and racist) nineteenth-century social-evolutionary connotations and bias. Briefly, Descola distinguishes between interiority (soul, spirit, mind, subjectivity) and physicality (body, manifest form, habitus), positing that this basic distinction is made by all societies the world over. Descolian animism is an ontological orientation that recognizes a similarity of interiority and a dissimilarity of physicality. In other words, animist societies recognize that other species share a common interiority or soul that is similar or identical to that of human beings. This commonality of interiority allows for the extension of personhood and sociality to nonhumans, thus abolishing the divide between nature and culture in animist societies. It is the physicality that distinguishes humans from nonhumans and specific human groups from others. In animist regimes, physicality distributes various species into collectives or social groups. There are as many collectives or tribes-species as there are different physical forms and the associated behavior patterns they permit, but each is characterized by a social system.
It is this animist relational ontology, the extension of personhood and respect to all things, human and nonhuman, that is so poignantly expressed in Lakota culture by their axiom mitákuye oyás’į. According to Vine Deloria (2009, 117), “First and foremost in the Sioux mind was the idea that other creatures were ‘peoples’ like us.” This interpretive principal based on kinship and relatedness influenced and permeated the entire worldview of the Lakota people, providing an epistemological and methodological basis for life and expressing normative cultural values (V. Deloria 1999, 34, 52). It is symbolized by the sacred pipe and the circle, two of the most significant symbols in Lakota culture. In Black Elk’s account of the gift of the sacred pipe the holy White Buffalo Woman (Ptesą́wį) said, “With this pipe you will be bound to all your relatives” (Black Elk in Brown 1989, 7). Through the pipe White Buffalo Woman established kinship between the human and nonhuman persons of the universe and instituted the sacred rites of the Lakotas. Mitákuye oyás’į is central to Lakota ceremonial life. As White Hat explains, “Our rituals are designed to help us stay focused on Mitákuye Oyás’į” (White Hat 2012, 74). Hearing the phrase as a ceremonial benediction concluding all ritual performances and feasts reinforces the centrality of mitákuye oyás’į in Lakota life and thought, reminding individuals and groups to take the relational principle with them into every aspect of life.
In a recent panel discussion at the University of South Dakota about the opposition to the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline in Cannon Ball, North Dakota, Lakota educator and elder Gene Thin Elk articulated the conflict in a particularly powerful way. He saw it as a struggle between two sets of competing values or ideologies. On one side, the indigenous water protectors, mainly Lakotas, acknowledged the life and spirit in all things, while the other side acknowledged only the life and spirit of human beings. Mní wicʿóni (water is life), as the Lakota rallying cry goes, is a natural extension of the foundational relative concept mitákuye oyásʾį.
Thin Elk’s analysis coincides with Descola’s distinction between animist and naturalist ontologies. The former is characteristic of many indigenous peoples, who make few sharp distinctions between nature and society and relate to other life-forms as persons or subjectivities with common interiorities worthy of respect. The latter ontology, characteristic of the West, sees human beings as superior to all other life-forms, encouraging the objectification and exploitation of the natural world. The naturalist assumption that only humans possess souls reduces nature to little more than a lifeless repository for human consumption. In an era of ecological crisis we must acknowledge how much we can learn from the Lakotas and other indigenous peoples in terms of the relative concept, abolishing the destructive and shortsighted nature/culture dichotomy, and living respectfully with other life-forms in a multispecies world. In the end, indeed we are all related as human and nonhuman beings sharing our experiences and our world. Mitákuye oyás’į. Hó, hécʿetu weló (Well, that is it).
 For more on Į́yą see Walker 1917, 82, 132, 160 and Posthumus 2018, 73–84.