Ancient Sioux Tribes, A Ghost Dance, and a Savior That Never Came
In the old, old days, before Columbus ‘discovered’ us, as they say, we [Sioux tribes] were even closer to the animals than we are now. Many people could understand the animal languages; they could talk to a bird, gossip with a butterfly. Animals could change themselves into people, and people into animals. It was a time when the earth was not quite finished, when many kinds of mountains and streams, animals and plants came into being according to nature’s plan.
From this first paragraph of the story “Rabbit Boy,” we can see that the aboriginal White River Sioux had a mysterious, fluid way of looking at the world . The story is told in the book American Indian Myths and Legends, edited by Erdoes and Ortiz.
Many Sioux Tribes
The White River Sioux were just one of many Sioux tribes, or bands, stretching across much of what we call today Canada and the United States of America.
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‘Sioux Playing Ball’ (1843) by Charles Deas. ( Public Domain )
Perhaps pagan Europeans had thought similarly to the White River Sioux about nature many centuries before. But by the time of the “discovery” of America by Christopher Columbus, the worldview and beliefs of many were shaped more by Christianity than by animism. And a large majority of the Europeans who made contact with Native Americans wanted to force them to adopt their worldview too.
A Different Way of Thinking
European people didn’t just live differently, they also thought differently than the Native Americans. As they came and displaced the Sioux peoples into smaller and smaller territories, they also killed many of them through disease or violence and deliberately suppressed Sioux culture, knowledge, language, religion, and life ways.
One of the main Sioux websites says their way of life has been broken but is not beyond hope. Where possible, Sioux people speak their ancestral languages, practice their religions, and live in traditional ways. Some Sioux leaders and scholars are salvaging, repairing, constructing, and reinventing as many of the old Sioux ways as they can, the website says. They seek to recover Sioux gods, symbols, arts, and languages for their people.
Pictographic Dress, Lakota (Teton Sioux), North or South Dakota, c. 1885 - Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. ( CC0)
Looking for a Savior
The Ghost Dance and similar movements of the 19th century, which were very popular among the Sioux tribes, held that Native Americans would regain their lands, legacy, and heritage by invoking the native savior. The resurrection of the dead would bring back ancestors to restore knowledge of the old ways.
The Ghost dance by the Oglala Lakota at Pine Ridge Agency-Drawn by Frederic Remington from sketches taken on the spot. ( Public Domain )
The savior did not come. The Sioux people, now numbering about 170,000, once lived over a huge area, but are now on much smaller reservations. They still speak three main languages, Lakota, Dakota, and Nakota and are differentiated into tribes on many reservations.
Sioux is not their real name. It is an abbreviation of the word na-towe-ssiwa, which the Ojibwa people applied to them as an epithet meaning “people of an alien tribe.” Sioux people call themselves Očhéthi Šakówiŋ.
Forced West into Different Lives
Earlier in history, the Santee Sioux and the Ojibwa shared territory around Lake Superior, until the Ojibwa forced the Sioux to southern and western Minnesota in the mid-17th century. The Santee displaced two other Sioux tribes that lived in Minnesota, the Teton and Yankton, into the Dakotas. The Ojibwa themselves had been forced West by European settlers.
Around Lake Superior, the Santee people had gathered wild rice, hunted deer and buffalo, and fished. The Teton and Yankton tribes had been farmers, but when they were displaced to the Plains and Rockies they took up a nomadic life and centered their economy around hunting buffalo from horses. Some of those Sioux bands also farmed corn.
1844 Hunting Bison in USA by George Catlin. ( Public Domain )
The main Sioux tribes were:
- The Santee or Eastern Sioux, who spoke Dakota and were divided into the Mdewkanton, Sisseton, Wahpeton, and Wahpekute tribes.
- The Yankton, who spoke Nakota and comprised the Yankton and Yanktonai tribes.
- The Teton or Western Sioux, who spoke Lakota and were divided into the Sihasapa or Blackfoot, Hunpapa, the Upper and Lower Brulé, Oglala, Miniconjou, Sans Arcs, and Oohenonpa or Two-Kettle.
The Sioux had a reputation for being great horsemen, bison hunters , and warriors in the Old West in the Plains and Rocky Mountains. But Sioux ancestors had lived without horses for hundreds of years in the woodlands around what are now Minnesota and Wisconsin, says the book The Sioux: The Lakota and Dakota Nations . Archaeologists and anthropologists have postulated that these people, who became known as the Sioux, made tribal alliances in the 13th or 14th centuries in the northern Midwest woodlands, the book says.
"The siege of New Ulm, Minn.", a painting by Henry August Schwabe. It depicts an attack on New Ulm on August 19, during the Dakota War of 1862. ( Public Domain )
Sioux Gods, Heroes, Tricksters and Fairies
Some stories of Sioux gods, heroes, and tricksters have been preserved . Among the Sioux gods still known are:
- The outrageous Iktomi, a trickster spider who seems to do wrong but helps order the world better.
- Wakan Tanka, the Great Mystery Power who created the world and reigns supreme though unpersonified.
- White Buffalo Calf Woman , a culture hero who gave the Sioux the sacred peace pipe and the arts of civilization.
- The Canoti, little people similar to the fairies or elves of old Europe.
As the Europeans moved into Minnesota there were conflicts, slaughters, suppression of Sioux culture and theft of Sioux territory. Missionaries and other non-Native people wanted to force the local population onto small reservations, replace their gods with the Trinity of Christianity, teach them Western reading and writing habits, and European culture.
‘Funeral scaffold of a Sioux chief’ by Karl Bodmer. ( Public Domain )
As the 19th century progressed, the Sioux were forced farther and farther westward, until only one small reservation remained east of the Mississippi River, in Minnesota. The rest of the Sioux tribes are now west of the Mississippi.
The Sioux War
The dire situation came to a head with the Great Sioux War, between seven Sioux Teton bands and Cheyenne warriors and the U.S. military. The war began in March 1876 with Custer’s Last Stand, when a large troop of native warriors killed 200 U.S. cavalrymen. Those cavalrymen were among U.S. military contingents who had established forts to oversee confiscation of Indian territory. The war lasted until September 1877, when the U.S. military defeated the natives.
An act of the U.S. Congress, the Manypenny Agreement of 1877, seized the Black Hills for the European colonizers. That land had been promised to the Native Americans in a treaty, but was reneged when gold was discovered there. The natives still consider the Black Hills of South Dakota sacred homelands.
Inyan Kara mountain, a sacred space for the Lakota people. ( CC0)
Subjugation and deaths of the Native Americans continued until December 29, 1890. Then the Indian Wars came to an end at Wounded Knee, Pine Ridge Reservation, in South Dakota. It has been said that U.S. Cavalry killed some 150 to 300 (estimates vary) Ghost Dancers of the Sioux at Wounded Knee. The slain victims were allegedly starving and cold old men, women, and children.
Two weeks earlier, there had been another tragedy on the Standing Rock Reservation in the Dakotas. There, reservation police murdered Sitting Bull, a chief and hero of the Lakota Sioux who had led his people in war against the invaders. He was 59. It is said his killers thought he was involved in the Ghost Dance.
Portrait of chief Sitting Bull (1831-1890). ( Public Domain )
A Hope for Peace and Love
Four of the most famous Native American heroes and leaders came from Sioux tribes—Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse, Red Cloud, and Black Elk. These four men lived in recent Sioux history. Natives consider it a tragedy that the knowledge and medicine of earlier teachers have been lost.
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Red Cloud, 1899. ( Public Domain )
Red Cloud, who died at age 87 in 1909, said:
I am poor and naked, but I am the chief of the nation. We do not want riches, but we do want to train our children right. Riches would do us no good. We could not take them with us to the other world. We do not want riches. We want peace and love.
Red Cloud and his people wanted peace and love. No sadder or more eloquent statement could be uttered in the face of any human tragedy in history, in this writer’s opinion.
‘View of Chimney Rock, Ogalillalh Sioux Village in Foreground’ by Albert Bierstadt; 1860. ( Public Domain )
Top image: An 1845 painting of a group of Sioux people by Charles Deas. Source: Public Domain
By Mark Miller