In Vol. 19 of The North American Indians, Edward Curtis writes: “there is a tendency, both by observers and the Indians themselves, to translate Wakónda (Wákan-tanka) as ‘Great Spirit.’ Such a translation is not borne out by the primitive use of the word nor by Siouan thought. The translation should be ‘Great Mystery.’ Without putting it in words, Siouan philosophy says, ‘We know not what it is, but we do know that it is.’”
I would suggest that the world would be a far better place if people everywhere, when speaking of “God,” “The Great Spirit,” “Tao” (or whatever other word they might use to refer to that which is the ultimate source of the world, of life, and of our selves) were to recognize and admit that “We know not what it is, but we do know that it is.”
The poet W. B. Yeats wrote in the Second Coming, “the best lack all conviction, while the worst are filled with passionate intensity.” The Siouan philosophy forms a wonderful middle ground between these extremes. It has great conviction that this ultimate source exists -- it is not agnostic in the least -- but it also recognizes that IT is a mystery, IT’s what we don’t know. What could be more absurd that being passionately dogmatic about a mystery?
I have to wonder if the reason people get so passionate about their religious beliefs is that it gives them the right to feel exclusive, that “I have the truth and you don’t.” Such spiritual egotism is the opposite of a genuine spirituality. If the Dakota tribes really adhered to an approach to God as Curtis suggests, they were spiritually superior to the average Christian (or Jew or Muslim or Hindu or Buddhist).