There was a time when the land was sacred, and the ancient ones were as one with it. A time when only the children of the Great Spirit were here to light their fires in these places with no boundaries…
In that time, when there were only simple ways, I saw with my heart the conflicts to come, and whether it was to be for good or bad, what was certain was that there would be change.
– The Great Spirit
The Sioux are a confederacy of several tribes that speak three different dialects, the Lakota, Dakota, and Nakota. The Lakota, also called the Teton Sioux, are comprised of seven tribal bands and are the largest and most western of the three groups, occupying lands in both North and South Dakota. The Dakota, or Santee Sioux, live mostly in Minnesota and Nebraska, while the smallest of the three, the Nakota, primarily reside in South Dakota, North Dakota, and Montana.
The name Sioux derives from the Chippeway word “Nadowessioux” which means “Snake” or “Enemy.” Other definitions trace it to early Ottawa (Algonquian) singular /na:towe:ssi/ (plural /na:towe:ssiwak/) “Sioux,” apparently from a verb meaning “to speak a foreign language”, however, the Sioux generally call themselves Lakota or Dakota, meaning “friends, allies, or to be friendly.”
The Sioux were a proud people with a rich heritage. They were the masters of the North American plains and prairies, feared by other tribes from the great lakes to the Rockies.
Migrating west from Minnesota, the Sioux became nomads of the plains, taking advantage of horses that were originally brought to the Americas by the Spanish in the 1500s. Following the buffalo, they lived in teepees to allow them quick mobility.
Though the Sioux were known as great warriors, the family was considered the center of Sioux life. Children were called “Wakanisha” which meant sacred and were the center of attention. While monogamy was most often practiced, Indian men were allowed to take on more than one wife. However, infidelity was punished by disfigurement.
The roles of men and women were clearly defined with the men expected to provide for and defend the family. Hunting was taken very seriously and infraction of the hunting rules could lead to the destruction of a man’s teepee or other property. Women were the matriarchs, ruling the family and domestic lives of the band.
The Sioux were a deeply spiritual people, believing in one all-pervasive god, Wakan Tanka, or the Great Mystery. Religious visions were cultivated and the people communed with the spirit world through music and dance. Rituals of self-sacrifice, by inflicting slashes upon themselves or other self-inflicted wounds, asserted their identity as Indian warriors. This was also practiced by mourners during burial ceremonies.
War and battles were another underlying principle of the Sioux people because, through it, men gained prestige, and their prestige was reflected in the family honor.
Sometimes also spelled “Lakhota,” this group consists of seven tribes who were known as warriors and buffalo-hunters. Sometimes called the Tetons (referring to their dialect and location west of the Dakota on the plains) the seven tribes include:
- Ogalala (“they scatter their own,” or “dust scatterers”)
- Sicangu or Brule (“Burnt Thighs”)
- Hunkpapa (“end of the circle”),
- Miniconjou (“planters beside the stream”),
- Sihasapa or Blackfoot (Ntote confused with the separate Blackfoot tribe)
- Itazipacola (or Sans Arcs: “without bows”)
- Oohenupa (“Two Boilings” or “Two Kettle”)
This band was found in the upper Mississippi Region in the late 16th and early 17th centuries. There were about 20,000 Lakota in the mid 18th century, a number which has increased to about 70,000 today, of which approximately 1/3 still speak their ancestral language.
The Lakota were located in and around present-day Minnesota when Europeans began to explore and settle the land in the 1600s. Living on small game, deer, and wild rice, they were surrounded by large rival tribes. Conflict with their enemy, the Ojibwa eventually forced the Lakota to move west. By the 1700s, the Lakota had acquired horses and flourished hunting buffalo on the high plains of Wisconsin, Iowa, the Dakotas, and as far north as Canada. The Tetons, the largest of the Lakota tribes dominated the region.
As white settlers continued to push west onto Sioux lands and multiple treaties were made and broken, the Sioux retaliated, resulting in three major wars and numerous other battles and skirmishes
The first major clash occurred in 1854 near Fort Laramie, Wyoming, when 19 U.S. soldiers were killed. In retaliation, in 1855 U.S. troops killed about 100 Sioux at their encampment in Nebraska and imprisoned their chief. In 1866-1867, Red Cloud’s War was fought that ended in a treaty granting the Black Hills in perpetuity to the Sioux. The treaty, however, was not honored by the United States; gold prospectors and miners flooded the region in the 1870s. In the ensuing conflict, General George Armstrong Custer and 300 troops were killed at Little Bighorn on June 25, 1876, by the Sioux Chief Sitting Bull and his warriors.
After that battle, the Sioux separated into their various groups. The massacre by U.S. troops of about 150 to 370 Sioux men, women, and children at Wounded Knee in December 1890 marked the end of Sioux resistance until modern times.
Today, the majority of the Lakota live at the 2,782 square mile Pine Ridge Reservation in southwestern South Dakota.
The Dakota Sioux, also called the Santee Sioux, originally migrated northeast into Ohio and Minnesota. The name “Santee” comes from camping for long periods in a place where they collected stone for making knives Woodland people, they thrived on hunting, fishing and some farming. It was from the Dakota, that the Lakota stemmed, moving further west into the great plains.
In the 19th century, the railroads hired hunters to exterminate the buffalo herds, in order to force the tribes onto reservations. As the buffalo quickly came almost extinct, both the Dakota and Lakota were forced to accept white-defined reservations in exchange for the rest of their lands. Domestic cattle and corn were given to the Sioux in exchange for buffalo, making the Sioux dependent upon the government for food and payments guaranteed by the treaty.
Fort Buford, North Dakota: site of Sitting Bull surrender 1881.
Fort Laramie, Wyoming: Site of Treaty of 1868.
Battle of Little Bighorn, Montana, 1876.
Wounded Knee, South Dakota, 1890
Battle of Wolf Mountain, Montana: Site of Crazy Horse surrender 1877.
In 1862, after a failed crop the year before and a winter starvation, the federal payment was late to arrive. The local traders would not issue any more credit to the Dakota and the local federal agent told the Dakota that they were free to eat grass. As a result on August 17, 1862, the Sioux Uprising began when a few Dakota men attacked a white farmer, igniting further attacks on white settlements along the Minnesota River. The US Army put the revolt down, then later tried and condemned 303 Dakota for war crimes. President Abraham Lincoln remanded the death sentence of 285 of the warriors, signing off on the execution of 38 Dakota men by hanging on December 29, 1862, in Mankato, Minnesota, the largest mass execution in US history.