All My Relatives

Exploring Lakota Ontology, Belief, and Ritual

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David C. Posthumus
New Visions in Native American and Indigenous Studies Series
  • Lincoln, NE: 
    University of Nebraska Press
    , July
     294 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


All My Relatives: Exploring Lakota Ontology, Belief, and Ritual, David C. Posthumus’s rich analysis of Lakota ontology and worldview, combines Philippe Descola’s distinction between interiority and physicality with Bruce Kapferer’s notion of virtuality to explore the ontological construction of persons—human and nonhuman—in relation to the function of ritual as a means of communication and empowerment between persons. Posthumus argues that his research demonstrates a continuity in Lakota culture and worldview that is both widely held by Siouan people, and which has endured from the 19th century into the present. Posthumus’s knowledge of the Lakota language, as well as the phonetic spellings of Lakota words and their breakdown, enables him to perceptively unpack critical concepts central to the Lakota worldview. However, this structure can present a challenge for the reader who is not already familiar with his presentation of Lakota words. Fortunately, the reader will benefit from the extensive glossary Posthumus provides.

Posthumus draws on A. Irving Hallowell’s seminal work on Ojibwa ontology and worldview to argue that the Lakota extend the category of personhood to a vast array of beings and phenomena that, as Graham Harvey would say, constitute the Lakota neighborhood. This follows my earlier work on the Lakota concept of personhood in which I made the same argument (Fritz Detwiler, “’All my relatives:’ Persons in Oglala religion,” Religion, 1992). With contributions by Kenneth Morrison and Melissa Pflüg, that issue marks the beginning of the ontological turn in the study of Native American traditions. Posthumus focuses on the phenomenology of interspecies communications drawing mainly on James R. Walker’s source materials, Ella C. Deloria’s ethnographic work, and Vine Deloria’s writings.

Using Descola’s distinction between interiority and physicality, Posthumus argues that all beings (or persons) share the same interiority or essence. For Descola, interiority refers to the essential nature of the self. This includes the soul, spirit, mind, and intentionality—and all that flows from those aspects of the self. Physicality refers to the form or body which gives a physical presence to persons. Since all persons share the same interiority, all beings have a common basis upon which interspecies communication can occur. Such interactions can involve reciprocal relations of exchange in which humans receive powers, or “medicines,” from nonhuman persons and, in return, human persons extend thanks and give offerings or sacrifices to the nonhuman persons. In addition, the interiorities of persons—human and nonhuman—can assume, or put on different physicalities in order to become other persons. This naturally facilitates understanding between humans and nonhumans, and often occurs in ritual.

Posthumus provides a detailed analysis of the nature of human persons by differentiating among the four different “souls” that the Lakota attribute to humans. This discussion is particularly valuable for the way in which it locates the self in relation to other cosmological phenomena such as ghosts and animating power. The use of the term “souls,” while common in the literature and, more particularly, in the Walker materials, detracts from Posthumus’s analysis since it is a Western theological construct and can thereby be misleading. To his credit, Posthumus does suggest that “soul” refers more accurately to interiority of different types or aspects of human personhood.

Posthumus then turns to an analysis of nonhuman persons. His discussion appropriately begins with “Rock” since, in Lakota mythology, Rock or Inyan is the source of all life. Further, Inyan provides the power of purification in the form of the Sweat Lodge that precedes most ceremonies. Posthumus then focuses on spirits and ghosts which populate the Lakota world and have significant interactions with humans.

Finally, Posthumus focuses on ritual as one of the most important means and context by which humans and nonhuman persons enter into communicative mutuality. Here Posthumus employs Kapferer’s notion of “virtuality.” For Kapferer, virtuality is contrasted with actuality. As Posthumus describes it, the former “is a kind of phantasmagoric, self-contained, imaginal space, a dynamic or plane of immanence that allows for all kinds of potentialities of human experience to emerge and actualize” (103). The latter refers to the everyday lived realities of the Lakota people. In the context of ritual, the virtual dimension becomes actualized in physicality, thereby transforming the myth and dream and vision experiences into the actual lived experiences of the Lakota.

While Posthumus’s emphasis on interiority is appropriate given his purpose, more attention could be paid to physicality. For example, to what degree do wings that are physical characteristics of this eagle affect its ability to fly, or does the interiority of this eagle give it the power of flight without the physical attribute of wings? Here I think the issue might be a little more complicated than “putting on clothes,” a point Posthumus acknowledges but does not develop. Additionally, might the act of “putting on clothes” draw a little more from Eduardo Viveiros de Castro’s perspectivism in going beyond interspecies interactions to expanding the implications of taking on the viewpoint of the other. 

All My Relatives is not an easy read given the theoretical models Posthumus employs and the depth of his discussions about Lakota cosmology and ontology. That being said, the serious reader will be richly rewarded in working through the book given Posthumus’s sophisticated explication of Lakota interspecies relations and their implications for ritual enactment. Even though Posthumus states that he does not identify with the ontological turn in anthropology, his work clearly demonstrates the promise of the new animism for indigenous research, and its application to Lakota lifeways specifically, and to Native American sacred traditions in general.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Fritz Detwiler is Professor in the Department of Philosophy and Religion at Adrian College.

Date of Review: 
April 22, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

David C. Posthumus is Assistant Professor of Anthropology and Native American Studies at the University of South Dakota.


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