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The Sioux Native Americans Series - Tribal Culture

BY KATE WEXELL (staff writer)

[This article is one part of a series of articles by Kate Wexell about the Sioux Native Americans, developed in honor of National Native American Heritage Month this November. Read more in other articles of this series!]

Yankton Sioux

The Sioux Native Americans lived a rich tribal life across the Great Plains of North America. Much of their lands stretched from the Rocky Mountains near Montana and Wyoming through the Great Lakes in the Midwest. Since they covered such a vast territory, they were broken up into many smaller groups that differed in their customs. The Sioux refers to an alliance that was made between tribes that spoke the three Siouan languages: Nakota, Lakota, and Dakota. The Santee were the Eastern Sioux, and they spoke Dakota. The Yankton lived in the middle, speaking Nakota. The Teton were the Western Sioux, and they spoke Lakota, being the most prevalent group of Sioux Native Americans.

The Dakota started off living near Lake Superior, but were driven out by the Ojibwa. This resulted in them living in what is now Minnesota, North Dakota, and South Dakota. They had to give up their lifestyle of gathering rice, hunting deer, and spearing fish from within canoes. Instead, they joined the Yankton and Teton in their nomadic lifestyle of following and hunting buffalo. The buffalo was the focus of Sioux culture. Tribes would move their villages and camps during different seasons to follow the buffalo herds and regarded them as being sacred. When using buffalo, the Sioux would consume every part of the buffalo they could, and use the rest for tools or clothing. No part of a buffalo was left behind.

Within the Sioux tribes, they followed many customs of other Plains Indian societies. They lived in tipis, wore leather or fur clothing, traded buffalo products, and raided other tribes. Within their villages, different genders and ages carried different roles.

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.

Sioux doll

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, Plains 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.

Smoking a peace pipe

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.

Dancer at a powwow

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.


Center of the West Museum (Cody, WY)

Akta Lakota Museum and Cultural Center (Chamberlain, SD)

Crazy Horse Memorial (Custer, SD)

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