The Sioux Native Americans

BY KATE WEXELL (staff writer)

Prayer cloth tied on trees at Devil’s Tower National Park in honor of the Sun Dance Ceremony


The Sioux people were made up of the Seven Council Fires (or Great Sioux Nation), which was a nation of Native Americans in North America. Within the nation, there were three different dialects: Lakota (Western people; Titowan/Teton), Nakota (Middle People; Wiciyela), and Dakota (Eastern people; Isanta/Santi). The first written dialect was Dakota, Lakota is the most frequently spoken, and Nakota is the rarest dialect.

Within each dialect, there are multiple different divisions. Every division functioned as its own separate culture and lifestyle. The entire Sioux nation hunted from northern Canada to the Republican River in North Kansas and from the Mississippi River to the Bighorn Mountains. They would come together annually during the summer for the Sun Dance ceremony for leaders to discuss accomplishments and national interests; the other people would race horses, trade, and congregate to discuss the previous year.


Native Americans have lived on the continent of North America for about 15,000 years, crossing over the Bering Strait between current-day Russia and Alaska. After that, they spread across all of North America, developing different cultures, traditions, and rituals throughout Canada, the United States, and Mexico. Originally, the Sioux lived as Woodland Indians near Minnesota, Iowa, and Wisconsin. As the French started to inhabit that region, they were driven westward in the 1800s, resulting in the split into three different groups. Lakota, Nakota, and Dakota all mean “allies” or “confederates.” They were the largest Native American nation in the present-day United States.

When the Native Americans traded with French fur traders beginning in the 1700s, they discovered many new items. They would typically trade buffalo robes, pelts, hides, and horses for items like guns, ammunition, iron kettles, knives, needles, sugar, coffee, metal arrow points, glass beads, and cloth. Some of these devices weren’t used for the original purpose. Scythes were turned into hide scrapers, and nails were turned into awls.

Fortunately for the fur traders, Native Americans had already established trading routes with other tribes. The Lakota obtained pipestone from Minnesota, lead from Illinois, cowrie shells from the Northwest, and corn from the Eastern Dakota. Once fur traders made contact with the Native Americans, they used the pre-established routes to trade with many tribes using canoes to travel up and down rivers.

After the introduction to Europeans, Native Americans became acquainted with the horse. For the Sioux, this allowed them to travel greater distances, have better mobility for warriors and hunters, and relieve the work that women had when moving camp. Eventually, the horse became used in trade where they were scarce, and could be traded in exchange for buffalo robes or other commodities.

The Lakota met Lewis and Clark in 1804, and from that point, their contact with Europeans grew exponentially. It would eventually result in their contact with settlers, explorers, missionaries, the U.S. Army, Indian agents, and miners. At the beginning of the 1800s, many Native Americans died due to a smallpox outbreak as a result, and they would continue dying of smallpox, measles, and cholera.

Railroads started emerging across the United States in an effort to achieve Manifest Destiny during the mid-1800s. By the 1860s, they ran through Lakota territory, bringing miners, settlers, and the U.S. Army. That began the struggle between the Lakota and U.S. government. After the Homestead Act was passed in 1862, many people started moving westward for free land, creating a need to construct the first transcontinental railroad. It only took three years for legislation to allow settlers to inhabit Native American lands. In 1867, this led to Red Cloud declaring war on the U.S. government after they started to build forts in their territory. They were successful at that time.

Starting in the 1870s, buffalo hunters slaughtered millions of buffalo that had provided sustenance for the Sioux people. They were turned into coats, glue, and fertilizer. Many Americans also believed that by extinguishing the buffalo, they would gain greater control over the Plains Indians. In 1874, gold was discovered in the Black Hills during the Custer expedition, which was the most sacred place to the Sioux people. Because of that, there was a gold rush and many settlers moved to the hills, destroying hunting territory. The next year, the United States attempted to buy the Black Hills, but the Sioux people refused.

The government then created the Great Sioux Reservation, and after unsuccessfully buying the Black Hills, they decided to take them by force. In 1876, the United States declared war on the Great Sioux Nation. General Custer’s troops were wiped out at the Battle of Little Big Horn, so the government declared that the Lakota must “surrender the Black Hills or starve.” In 1877, the Teton Lakota surrendered to the government, and the Black Hills were seized from them. The government took away all their rights outside of the reservation, and they lost 45 million acres of territory.

At that point, Sitting Bull and his followers left for Canada, and Sitting Bull surrendered at Fort Robinson. He was later killed while being arrested by reservation police. Four years later, Sitting Bull returned, but the following year, the government banned Lakota traditions, like feasts, dances, giveaway ceremonies, practices of medicine men, and the Sun Dance. In 1883, the Supreme Court ruled that Native Americans were “alien and dependent,” stripping them of any rights they may have. At this point, Native Americans across the country were being forced into reservations.

On the reservations, Christian missionaries attempted to convert Native American children. They were forced to follow American values and attend boarding school. Upon arrival at boarding school, their hair was cut, they received European clothing, and they were no longer allowed to speak their native language. The missionaries attempted to teach the children vocational skills, but many rejected the teachings and returned as strangers to their tribe when they became adults.

Adults living on reservations were forced to give up their tipis and traditional clothing to work as farmers. Instead of governing themselves, they were governed by the Commissioner of Indian Affairs. They were also stripped of freedom of religion, land ownership, native languages, voting, and the right to travel. Special passports and permission from government agents were required for the Sioux to leave their reservations.

In 1887, the Dawes Act broke reservations into 160-acre allotments, and any surplus land was to be sold to white settlers. This resulted in the Great Sioux Reservation being divided into six smaller reservations. In retaliation, the Ghost Dance was formed, which was a new religion that acted more as a resistance movement than a true religion. Followers performed a circle dance that was meant to reunite the living with the dead, bring spirits to fight on their behalf, end American expansion, and bring peace to the native peoples. This dance frightened government officials, so they sent more troops to the area. Sitting Bull was killed for not stopping his people from completing the dance.

Because of this, the Massacre at Wounded Knee occurred, where over 300 men, women, and children were slaughtered by Army troops. After that, the government didn’t suffer any more conflict from the Sioux people.

Since then, the government has passed legislation to gradually give the Native Americans their rights back. In 1913, Sitting Bull’s followers were given their own reservation. In 1920, a court of claims was devised to file the tribes’ claims against the U.S. In 1924, Native Americans were granted full citizenship, and in 1934, the Dawes Act was repealed. Three years later, the Supreme Court ruled that the government must compensate tribes for taking their land. In 1968, the Indian Civil Rights Act was passed to extend rights to Native Americans living on reservations.

There have been attempts to return the Black Hills to the Sioux people, along with awarding them over $160 million, but these have been turned down. It is now illegal to misrepresent Native American art, and all artifacts have been returned to the tribes. Schools are now required to teach about Native American cultures in the United States. Several other acts were passed, but now Native Americans have full rights to practice their cultural traditions and religions while also being a part of the greater American culture and society if they choose to. In 2009, President Barack Obama signed the Native American Apology Resolution to acknowledge the wrongdoings of the United States against native tribes.

Crazy Horse Memorial in Crazy Horse, SD


The tepee was first developed by Native Americans in the Northern forests. Using a pole frame to create a conical shape, they then covered the skeleton with birch bark, caribou hides, and other materials. This was then adapted for use by the Plains Indians. To withstand strong winds, a slight adjustment in the frame was made, and caribou hides were exchanged for the more prevalent buffalo hides.

This kind of housing was useful because Plains Indians were always moving to different hunting grounds, and therefore their houses needed to be easily transportable. To take down a tepee, wooden lodge pins would be removed, and the tepee could then be folded. Two ends of the tepee supporting poles would be lashed to a horse, and the other ends would form a travois by being dragged on the ground. Then, the family’s possessions could be placed on a buffalo covering in the center. For thousands of years, dogs were also used to transport belongings. They could pull about 75 pounds of material on a travois.

Usually, tepees were created from 8-20 buffalo skins, and an opening was left at the top as a smoke hole. During the summer, the front openings could be lifted, while in the winter, it was easy to add additional lining. Because of the winds blowing across the prairie, the entrance always faced east. Within the tepee, Native Americans would burn a fire in the center for heat and cooking.

The Lakota had a deep appreciation for the tepee, viewing it as a “good mother” who protected her children. Inside the tepee, they would place bedding, rugs for a baby, backrests, cradleboards, cooking bags, a supply of fuel, and parfleches containing food, medicine, and other necessities. On the lining of the tepee, Native Americans would paint it with vibrant colors that recalled past events in the lives of those who’d lived in the tepee. On the walls, they would hang sacred objects, weapons, shields, and other items.

Model of the inside of a tipi (Buffalo Bill Center of the West)

Tribal Culture:

Children were the center of family life. They were not only the responsibility of their parents, but of the entire tribe to make sure that they were brought up properly. They were not assigned tasks until they were older, and there wasn’t frequent discipline, but rather, they commended children for doing something correctly or taking on tasks that weren’t given to them.

Male children typically learned their tribal duties through wisdom granted by their elders and through the form of games. Their games were based around speed, agility, and endurance that would be useful during hunting. By four years old, they were given bows and arrows to play hunting games. By seven or eight, they were granted horses or ponies to hunt on their own and explore. Gradually, their games would transition into real responsibilities in their tribe that they were adequately prepared for. As teenagers, they would become war messengers or tending to horses during a hunting party.

To become a man, they went through a rite of passage where they would be purified in the sweat lodge, followed by an action referred to as “crying out for a vision.” This meant that they would travel to a high place, like a hill or mountain, and they would pray, fast, and meditate for two to four days. Any visions that were seen would be interpreted by the holy man and would guide the course of the boy’s life.

Meanwhile, female children learned by example from young women who were admired by their elders. By watching the quiet yet responsible manner of young women, they were able to imitate this disposition. When they played, they would mimic the actions of their mothers, including folding tipis, or setting up toy camps. Many girls had toy tipis and dolls, and were praised by adults for copying them. They spent most of their time with their mothers, and were rewarded if they decided to participate in chores like collecting berries or braiding wild turnips.

When girls started menstruating, they would go through a rite of passage where they were secluded with other women who entertained her with soothing conversation. After, the family would throw a feast for her with a holy man.

Something that was important to Native Americans was the burning of tobacco. Although it wasn’t typically smoked alone, Plaints Indians cultivated large crops of tobacco to use for ritual purposes, usually with a pipe. Some pipe stems were made of wood, earth paints, porcupine quills, bird feathers, and horsehair to symbolize the different realms of life. They believed that uniting all of these through a stem would bring happiness to their Creator and that their prayers would be carried through the smoke of the pipe. They believed that everything in the universe was connected through the pipe, and that they sent their messages to Wakan Tanka. Sometimes, pipe stems would be five feet long, although they were typically thirty inches and carved out of ash or sumac wood. They were carried with the pipe bowl in a beaded pipe bag.

Pipes were sacred to the Lakota people for over three hundred years and were used for special ceremonies. Some of these ceremonies included declaring war, making peace, healing the sick, dispelling evil, or ensuring a successful hunt. Smoking also called upon the Great Spirit for protection and blessings. A commonly known practice was to craft calumets, which were a special type of pipe that weren’t used for smoking. Instead, they are referred to as “peace pipes” because they were made in pairs and were thought to have sacred power when two tribes or groups were bonding together. By using these pipes together, they would form peace treaties.

Another feature of Sioux culture that was important was a powwow. This was a gathering of musicians, dancers, and their families. After Europeans had infiltrated the Great Plains during the 1800s, the Great Plains and Great Lakes Native Americans would come together to celebrate their culture and traditions in secret. The origins of the powwow rested about a century sooner, when Native Americans began working on ranches in New Spain and learned about horsemanship. From there, the horse culture spread, and the first rodeos emerged. Powwows were then developed that featured several things in common with rodeos: beaded belts and gloves, bolo ties, cowboy buckles embellished with silver, and saddle blankets for horses. During powwow performances, dancers would wear a feathered headdress, gloves, gauntlets, moccasins, mirror bags, belts with pouches, ankle cuffs, and might carry a dance stick. Different shapes of dance sticks symbolized different accomplishments.

Finally, the buffalo was very important to the Lakota people. They used every part of the buffalo. Here were some uses they had for different parts of the animal:


A man was respected in his tribe based on his accomplishments as a warrior, hunter, and provider. Native American tribes would only wage war against other tribes in defense or retaliation against enemy attacks, to preserve hunting territories, and to capture horses for hunting and wealth. A man’s success as a hunter gained him prestige, and his success as a warrior was determined based on his number of “coups.”

Each warrior would have white lines and dots painted on their faces, which represented the number of enemies he had counted coup on. During battle, warriors would touch defeated enemies with a coup stick rather than killing them, which was viewed as much more honorable. Lines painted on their leggings would represent horses captured during battle.

Horses were important for warriors since they increased mobility and signified wealth. Many men would have a close bond with their horse. Being able to capture horses was a trait that was greatly admired. Warriors would decorate their horses with saddles, head ornaments and masks, bridles and headstalls, martingales, cruppers, saddle blankets, and saddlebags. Women would stuff the saddlebags with buffalo hair and create beautifully ornamented saddle pads for ceremonies or parades.

Warriors travelling through enemy territory might also build war lodges in heavily wooded areas. They looked like tipis that were built of timber and covered with bark so light wouldn’t be exposed from a small fire within. They served as scouting bases and a location to store supplies. When warriors were out, they carried bows and arrows, lances, and clubs. Even once guns had been introduced, they would still carry clubs, along with firearms and metal tomahawks.

As warriors grew older, they would still be respected for war accomplishments, but they would also be revered for becoming great leaders. One way that they could do this was by joining a men’s society. This encouraged men to defend their tribe, territory, and resources. A society might grant men a staff with distinctive adornments. Each staff would also be wrapped in the fur of an animal. It was said that if a warrior planted his staff in the ground, they would not retreat in the presence of an enemy. Some societies would even require men to sacrifice their lives for their fellow man.

The highest leaders donned eagle bonnets in war. The Sioux people believed that the eagle was the most powerful bird since it could fly the highest in the sky. Because of that, eagle feather bonnets symbolized status and honor, being the highest honor a man could obtain. The eagle bonnet was meant to inspire courage, remind other men of past war honors, and summon supernatural power to defeat their enemies.


One well-known facet of Native American art was the Winter Count. These were large blankets made of hide with pictures placed on them. Instead of keeping track of time using calendars, the Sioux people would count by winters, and each winter, the winter count keeper would place another image on the blanket. Tribal elders would decide on the most important event that occurred that year, and the event decided on would become part of their historical record.

Another method of artwork was with Native American clothing. The construction of their garments helps anthropologists determine which tribe a piece belonged to. Clothing would be sown together with different hides and painted or beaded. Fringe, beadwork, and other decorative elements might be added to symbolize different animals or connections with nature. Having a well-dressed family demonstrated a woman’s pride and love, and showed her aptitude for economic industry within the village.

Traditional men’s clothing (Ogka Lakota Museum)

Female children’s clothing (Ogka Lakota Museum)

This industrious spirit could be shown whenever a talented woman joined a women’s society. The Sioux people believed that women gained artistic talent through visions, and that they were gifts. Because of this, the Lakota and other Native American tribes formed quilling and beading societies that helped preserve tradition. Only very select women could join these guilds, and they received great honor in their tribe. Many members took pride in the number of hides they prepared for beading. Preparing a hide required a woman to strip the hair, scrape excess flesh, apply a dressing made of brain and fat, stretch the hide, and dry it. It would take almost four days to prepare a hide, and the women marked their tools with a notch for each hide they completed.

Warriors would also use art to decorate their shields. Their visions during their rite of passage would provide inspiration for the designs. They believed that petroglyphs and pictographs provided protective powers from nature, animals, spiritual beings, and the Milky Way. They would also record their war or hunting accomplishments through art and oral narratives.

When European missionaries arrived in North America, they brought quilts with them. Lakota women decided to create quilts as well, but they formed their own art style, including the eight-pointed Morning Star. It became the most common symbol on Native American quilts, symbolizing the separation between the dark of night and the light of day. Eventually, quilts replaced the significance previously held by buffalo robes at religious ceremonies.

Now, many decorative Native American items can be found that are created by traditional artists, including beaded necklaces, bracelets, painted clay or terracotta pots, moccasins, drum heads, and flutes. Much of Native American artwork includes vibrant paint on natural mediums, or colorful beads that were carefully threaded. Before Europeans arrived in North America, women would use bone beads. After encountering traders, they discovered small glass beads, called “pony beads” or “seed beads” in the 1800s that came from Venice and Eastern Europe that were used in many pieces of decorative clothing or jewelry.


The Sioux people believe that they are relatives of birds and animals. All animals carry messages of the Great Spirit, Wakan Tanka, and serve as models of behavior or have a certain meaning. For example, the badger represents strength and tenacity, while the wolf pack represents speed, wisdom, and solidarity. The swallow offers thunder power, and the bear has fearlessness and hunting power. They also believed that the bison was the chief of all animals.

The Lakota had seven sacred rites, including The Keeping of the Soul, The Rite of Purification, Crying for a Vision, The Sun Dance, The Making of Relatives, Coming of Age, and The Throwing of the Ball. They believed that the White Buffalo Calf Woman came and gave these rites to them and a sacred pipe and stone to use in the ceremonies. Smoking established a relationship between individuals, the four winds, and Wakan Tanka. They believed that when somebody smoked the pipe, they prayed for and with everybody.

In the Keeping of the Soul, the souls of the dead are reunited with Wakan Tanka. A lock of hair from the deceased is held over burning sweetgrass and then placed in a buckskin pouch. The Sacred Pipe is smoked, and then somebody is selected to be the Keeper of the Soul. They hold onto the pouch for a year, and when that time is over, they carry the bag outside, and the soul is released to Wakan Tanka.

During the rite of purification, a sweat lodge is used to represent the earth, sun, moon, and universe. Sweat lodges were made of a bent willow frame covered in buffalo hides. Hot rocks would be placed in the center. It was believed that these rocks had a spirit that was released when water was poured on them and steam emerged. Participants will smoke the Sacred Pipe, burn sweetgrass and coal, and pray.

In the rite of Crying for a Vision, usually a boy would become a man. With the help of a Holy Man, the recipient would smoke the Sacred Pipe and have a ceremony conducted on him. After that, he goes on his vision quest where he lays isolated in a high place. He spends a few days refraining from eating or drinking. If he has a vision during that time, he reports it back to the Holy Man to have it interpreted.

The Sun Dance is their annual religious festival celebrating the power and spirit of the Sioux people. They believed that a greater power in nature than all others was the sun, and so they must make sacrifices to the sun for their petitions to be granted. In the ritual, the Sun Dancer offered himself to the Great Spirit to improve his skills or talents. They would have a piece of bone shoved through their chest, and tied to a cottonwood tree. They would dance in an attempt to pull the bone loose. By willing to bear the pain, it would grant them more power or whatever talent they had desired.

The Making of Relatives ceremony represents the relationship between the Lakota and Wakan Tanka. It was originally used as a ceremony to unite the Ree and Lakota tribes in peace. Members of each tribe painted their faces to represent change, forgetting old troubles, and beginning new relationships. It is still used to make peace between groups today.

In the Coming of Age ceremony, the tribe celebrated the first menstruation of a young girl. In order to become a woman, a Holy Man purifies her and prepares her to become a child-bearing woman. There is a ceremony in a tipi with the girl’s family (usually the females) where the center of the ceremony is a buffalo skull. Then, the girl remains isolated with the women while smoking the Sacred Pipe and praying.

In the final ceremony, the Throwing of the Ball, a young girl, symbolizing innocence and purity, would throw a painted ball. She would throw it in each of the cardinal directions, and somebody would throw it back to her. Finally, she would throw it up in the air. It represented the notion that Wakan Tanka is everywhere, giving power to his people.

Unfortunately, in the 1880s, the government banned the Lakota from practicing the Sun Dance and other ceremonies. They were also dispelled from dancing and many other traditions. During the 1890s while Native Americans were being moved onto reservations, a Pauite Indian named Wovoka founded a new religion called the Ghost Dance. It promised to restore the earth to its prior state before the Europeans had intruded the continent: the buffalo would be returned, the ghosts of their ancestors would rise, and the white man would disappear. Unfortunately, this frightened the Indian Agents of the United States government, and the leaders of the movement were to be arrested. This resulted in the killing of Sitting Bull. After that, the Lakota were frightened of the government, and tried to move off the Pine Ridge Reservation with their leaders. At Wounded Knee Creek, soldiers intervened, resulting in the deaths of over 300 men, women, and children.

Model of how women moved camps (Buffalo Bill Center of the West)


Although the United States government severely wronged most Native Americans in the past, they have made an effort to try to correct some of these tragedies. Many Native American religious sites are specific geographical locations. Despite many of these places now being tourist attractions, the federal government has placed them under protection as National or State parks. Many holy places for the Sioux are located in Wyoming and South Dakota, such as the Badlands, Devil’s Tower, the Black Hills, the Grand Tetons, the Bighorn Mountains, and Yellowstone National Park. At Devil’s Tower, there are rules that climbers may not attempt to scale the formation during the month of June, when many Native American tribes host ceremonies there for the Sun Dance. In addition, many of these locations have rules protecting prayer cloths that are tied on trees by the native peoples.

In the Black Hills (Western South Dakota), which was the historic hunting ground of the Sioux people, the Crazy Horse Memorial and Museum has been erected for about a century, located only ten miles from Mt. Rushmore. The memorial is a statue of Crazy Horse being carved into the cliff face. When it is completed, it will feature Crazy Horse’s entire body riding on his horse, and will be the largest carving of its kind. Crazy Horse was determined as the subject by the elders of the Black Hills tribes, and the process of carving is completely funded by humanitarian projects with no government funding.

In addition, the memorial features a collection of museums that feature resources for the public. The museums contain information about Plains Indians, artifacts, an art museum of older and contemporary Native American artwork, and hold resident artists that are able to have public talks about their work in relation to their culture. During the summer, the museums also feature traditional hoop dancers who are able to discuss how they are keeping culture in their life. The site has also opened the Indian University of North America in 2010, which provides summer and fall programs that provide a paid work experience at the memorial and gives students twelve credit hours to learn about Native American cultures.

Other Native American tribes, like the Shoshone, have created language learning programs and even an app (Newe Daygwap) to help keep their native tongue alive. It also teaches students core values of their culture. This has been common amongst Native American tribes. Many learning and cultural centers have emerged to teach children language, culture, and dances, though many Native Americans have transitioned to more modern ways of life, including the use of cellphones, building brick and mortar houses, and going to college. Native American artwork in the contemporary era has also taken on a mixture between old styles and new ones, using different mediums or resources for their creations.


- Infographics within the Ogka Lakota Museum and Cultural Center (Chamberlain, SD)

- Infographics within the Crazy Horse Memorial and Museum (Custer, SD)

- Infographics within the Buffalo Bill Museum and Center of the West (Cody, WY)

- All photography by author (Kate Wexell)

- Buffalo infographic found from

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