Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


The Sioux, and most particularly the Lakota Sioux, are the iconic warrior horsemen of the Northern Plains. They have become perhaps the best known of all Indian nations through paintings and photographs, confrontations with the U.S. military, Wild West shows, and hundreds of Hollywood movies. Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse, Red Cloud, and other Lakota Sioux leaders are among the most famous of all Native Americans, and the Battle of the Little Bighorn in 1876 and the Wounded Knee Massacre in 1890 are among the most widely known events in U.S. history. But the Lakotas are only one division of the Great Sioux Nation.

The Great Sioux Nation, known as Oceti Sakowin, or "Seven Council Fires," is a confederation of closely allied cognate bands. They speak three mutually intelligible dialects of the Siouan language family: Dakota, Nakota, and Lakota. They became known as the Sioux, or a word like it, in the seventeenth century, when their enemies, the Ojibwas, told the French that that was what they were called. The word derives from the Ojibwa term Na dou esse, which means "Snakeline Ones" or "Enemies." The French spelled the word Nadousioux, and the English and Americans shortened it to Sioux. In recent years, the Sioux, like many other Native peoples, have made a concerted effort to replace their imposed, derogatory name by the names they called themselves. Self-identification is commonly based on either band or sub-band names (e.g., Santee, Oglala, or Sicangu), linguistic groups (Lakota, Dakota, or Nakota), or, increasingly in the twentieth century, by the name of the reservation of origin (e.g., "Rosebud Sioux" or "Cheyenne River Sioux").

The Great Sioux Nation has seven primary divisions, based on their respective places in the Seven Council Fires. The Isantis (Santees), Dakota speakers, occupy the east and are comprised of four council fires: the Mdewakantunwan, the Sisitunwan, the Wahpetunwan, and the Wahpekute. The Wiciyelas, Nakota speakers, occupy the middle division and are composed of two council fires: the Ihanktunwun (Yanktons) and Ihanktunwanna (Yanktonais). The western council fire is occupied by the Titunwans (Tetons), Lakota speakers, composed of seven sub-bands: Oglala (Scatter One's Own), Sicangu or Brulé (Burnt Thigh), Hunkpapa (Those Who Camp At the Entrance), Mnikowoju o Minneconjou (Those Who Plant By the Stream), Itzipco or Sans Arcs (Without Bows), Oohenunpa (Two Kettles), and Sihasapa (Black Feet).

Europeans first encountered the Sioux in the seventeenth century in the mixed hardwood forests of central Minnesota and northwestern Wisconsin. In the mid-seventeenth century, the Sioux began moving westward and southward, pushed by the Ojibwas, who gradually infiltrated into Minnesota from the Lake Superior area, and pulled by the abundant Plains bison herds and the diffusion of horses from the Southern Plains. While some bands had a few horses by 1707, if not earlier, the Lakotas did not fundamentally become Plains horsemen until 1750-75, by which time they had crossed the Missouri River, displacing the previous residents of the region. By the mid-eighteenth century, the Lakotas and Nakotas were closely associated with the Central and Northern Plains. The Dakotas (Santees) remained primarily in Minnesota, where they received reservations in the nineteenth century. The Sioux Uprising of 1862 resulted in the relocation of many Santees to small reservations in South Dakota and Nebraska, although others remained in Minnesota.

As each of the Council Fires adapted to different Plains environments, their lifeways changed and diverged from one another. Yet they maintained their political, economic, and social ties through intermarriage, trade, religious ceremonies, communal hunting, and military alliances.

The Yanktons and Yanktonais, who eventually settled in the eastern Dakotas, became middlemen in a far-flung trade system between the Lakotas, who had pushed westward as far as Wyoming and eastern Montana, and the eastern Santees, who were closely involved in the French fur trade in Minnesota. While the Lakotas became buffalo-hunting, nomadic horsemen, and the principal grain grown by the Santees shifted from wild rice to corn, some Yanktons and Yanktonais adopted many of the traits of the semisedentary Plains villagers, such as the Mandans and Arikaras, including the building of earth lodges. With the horse for transportation and vast herds of bison, the Lakotas prospered and their numbers grew until, by the nineteenth century, they outnumbered all other bands of the Great Sioux Nation combined. By the mid. nineteenth century, the Lakotas and their allies presented a formidable military and political barrier to European American expansion into the Central and Northern Plains.

The Lakotas eventually controlled a vast hunting territory stretching from the Platte River north to the Heart River and from the Missouri River west to the Bighorn Mountains. Their highly flexible social and political organization was well suited to the demands of maintaining such an empire. The basic unit of Lakota society was the tiyospaye, a small group of bilaterally related kin, informally led by a headman. Each of the seven Lakota subbands had societies, including akicitas (police) and nacas (civil leaders). Nacas from each of the sub-bands formed a tribal council (Naca Ominicia) with executive committees commonly known as wicasa (shirt wearers). When the seven sub-bands congregated each summer for the Sun Dance, the nacas of each of the seven sub-bands constituted a national council. Holy men and medicine people were also consulted on important matters, revealing the centrality of Lakota spiritual and ceremonial life.

The belief systems and rituals of the Lakotas and Nakotas reflect many of the values essential for successful nomadic bison hunting in the Northern Great Plains (e.g., individuality, bravery, sacrifice, vision seeking). The Lakotas are further anchored to the Great Plains by their conviction that they were created by Wakan Tanka (Grandfather, the Great Spirit) and emerged from a cave (Wind Cave) in Paha Sapa, the Black Hills of South Dakota. This place, more than any other, is sacred to the Lakotas. It was in the Great Plains that the Lakotas received their Sacred Pipe and the Seven Sacred Rites, including the Sun Dance, from White Buffalo Calf Woman.

Life within the tiyospaye centered around daily subsistence tasks divided by age and gender. Hunting, raiding, and making tools and weapons were the responsibilities of men, with time leftover for trading, counsels, ceremonies, and leisure activities, such as wagering on foot and horse races. Women's responsibilities included gathering wild resources, such as prairie turnips, processing and tanning hides, cooking, sewing, quillwork, and managing the daily needs of the household. Women were responsible for breaking camp, packing belongings on travois, and setting up camp again at the end of the day. Older children and youth frequently had responsibility for gathering firewood and water and tending to horses and dogs. Grandparents and elders were often entrusted with the primary responsibility for caring for small children and infants and assisting with household tasks. In Lakota society, men were allowed to have more than one wife, and men of high status frequently had several wives, ideally sisters or women from the same tiyospaye.

During the first half of the nineteenth century, at the very time the horse-riding nomadic way of life of the Lakotas was flourishing, the grasslands were being invaded by European Americans. The U.S. government initiated an aggressive military policy in the Plains during the 1860s. This policy included building additional military posts and pursuing Indian groups characterized as "hostile," activities that inflamed already tense relations between the federal government and the Lakotas and their allies. The Great Sioux Nation and its allies proved formidable opponents, militarily and politically, and brought the U.S. government to the negotiating table twice at Fort Laramie (1854 and 1868) to sign treaties. The 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie established the Great Sioux Reservation, spanning more than half of the modern state of South Dakota (west of the Missouri River), and provided annuities and rations for the Sioux. Economic relief was welcomed by the tribe. Bison were an increasingly scarce resource in the Plains by the mid- 1870s, and by the mid-1880s they were virtually extinct. The eradication of the bison, mainstay of their economy, had a devastating impact on the Sioux.

By the 1870s intolerable pressures led to a series of "Indian Wars," the most famous of which was the annihilation of Gen. George Armstrong Custer's Seventh Calvary at the Battle of the Little Bighorn in 1876 by Sitting Bull's Lakotas and their Cheyenne allies. Retribution was swift, and even those Lakotas who held out, including the bands of Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull, were eventually settled on the Great Sioux Reservation. In 1889 Congress broke up the Great Sioux Reservation into several smaller reservations in North and South Dakota. These reservations were loosely based on membership of the sub-bands. Their holdings were further diminished and scattered by allotment in severalty in the 1890s, which forced nuclear families onto small acreages and opened the remaining ‘‘surplus'' land to non-Indian settlement. Many Lakotas selected their allotments near other members of their tiyospayes, maintaining a semblance of their old organization. The massacre of Big Foot's band at Wounded Knee Creek in 1890 and the killing of Sitting Bull by Indian policemen the same year marked the end of freedom and the preferred nomadic way of life for many Lakotas.

The 1890s were difficult years for the Sioux. Confined to reservations, where indifferent and self-serving Indian agents controlled them, they were expected to farm arid land. Their children were shipped to boarding schools, such as Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania, where they were urged to abandon their Indian ways. The Sun Dance, which had always served as an integrating mechanism for the Lakotas, had been banned along with other Lakota rituals in 1882. Although it was banned, the Lakota Sun Dance was never eradicated; it simply went "underground" to await a more tolerant era. In the 1890s other religions, such as the Ghost Dance and peyotism, helped fill the gap.

The first two decades of the twentieth century were periods of adjustment to reservation life on scattered allotments. Some reservations even began to prosper, to a degree, in the 1920s, only to be devastated during the Dust Bowl and Depression of the 1930s. Still, the catastrophe provided an opportunity to introduce radical reforms. These well-intentioned reforms were introduced by John Collier of the new Roosevelt administration and enacted as the Indian Reorganization Act (IRA) of 1934. The IRA was designed to improve subsistence and employment opportunities on the reservations and to ensure that tribal councils were democratically elected (counter to the traditions of the Lakotas and others). Collier and his staff targeted the Sioux reservations in the Dakotas and pressured them to adopt IRA-style governments and constitutions, which they did. The IRA reforms resulted in short-term moderate relief, as the Lakotas took advantage of some of the economic development programs, but they had negligible long-term benefits, with the exception that allotment policy was ended, which allowed the Lakotas to halt the erosion of their land base.

The second half of the twentieth century was a time of far-reaching change and renewal for many Sioux. Reduction in mortality and high birthrates almost doubled their population, which strained employment on reservations. As part of the termination policy, the Eisenhower administration encouraged Indians to leave their reservations with the 1952 Voluntary Relocation Program. In the 1950s and 1960s regional centers such as Denver, Cheyenne, Bismarck, Minneapolis, Sioux Falls, and Sioux City became home to many Sioux. Poorly educated and discriminated against, many young Sioux soon returned to their reservations. The turbulence of this period in federal Indian policy, coupled with the civil rights movement, encouraged the birth of the American Indian Movement (AIM). AIM has maintained a close connection to the Great Sioux Nation, with many leaders—Russell Means, Leonard Peltier, and John Trudell—claiming Sioux ancestry.

By the 1970s the once radical position that Indians should be able to follow their own cultural traditions—rather than be forced to assimilate to European American traditions— became more widely accepted. The publication of Dee Brown's immensely popular Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee in 1971 and a new confrontation at Wounded Knee in 1973 led by AIM, heightened public consciousness of the plight of the Sioux. Moreover, this era confirmed that the sacred Black Hills were not, nor had they ever been, for sale. In 1980 the U.S. Supreme Court reviewed the fifty-seven-year- old Black Hills land claims case of the Great Sioux Nation and concluded that the taking of the Black Hills by the U.S. government was illegal and that the Great Sioux Nation was entitled to compensation for the taking. That award has now grown to more than $600 million and continues to draw interest in the U.S. Treasury because the Great Sioux Nation has refused the settlement, demanding the return of Paha Sapa, the Black Hills, instead.

Despite the gains reaped from the political and economic programs of the self-determination era, the Sioux reservations in North and South Dakota remain some of the poorest places in the United States. Many reservations have chosen to open casinos, and some have enjoyed the benefits of large-scale capital infusions into their local economies; others, because of their remoteness from urban population centers, have seen little improvement in their economies, besides improving joblessness rates, as a result of casinos. Today, although transformed through decades of hardship and deprivation, the Great Sioux Nation is in a vigorous, if difficult, renaissance. Many Lakotas continue to speak their language and practice traditions such as the Sun Dance. Tribal community colleges, frequently named after important Lakota leaders, have sprung up on the reservations and are educating tribal members in the skills required to engage the global economy and simultaneously recapture their tribal heritage and traditions.

See also IMAGES AND ICONS: Wild West Shows / LAW: United States v. Sioux Nation of Indians / PROTEST AND DISSENT: American Indian Movement / SPORTS AND RECREATION: Mills, Billy / WAR: Crazy Horse; Little Bighorn, Battle of the; Red Cloud; Sioux Wars; Wounded Knee Massacre.

Guy Gibbon

University of Minnesota

DeMallie, Raymond J., and Douglas R. Parks, eds. Sioux Indian Religion. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1987.

Howard, James H. The Canadian Sioux. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1984.

Price, Catherine. The Oglala People, 1841–1879: A Political History. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1996.

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