Lakota Tribes Inhabited Two Rich Wildernesses, Both were Stolen, But The People Resisted
The Lakota tribe of the Sioux people are vivid in the world’s imagination as buffalo hunters and warriors who fought the U.S. Calvary from horseback in feather bonnets on the Great Plains and Wild West. It may be a surprise to learn the Sioux were first woodland people who lived farther east in the Great Lakes region
The Lakota people and their Sioux cousins are survivors of one of the worst historical events in the Americas and the Caribbean. European colonists arrived in the 15th century and soon they began stealing land and killing Native Americans, both intentionally and through the spread of disease. But the three Sioux groups—the people who speak Lakota, Dakota, and Nakota—fared better than some native groups and they still survive.
George Free Spirit Medina, photographed in 2015 in Pueblo, Colorado, at a gathering of North American Native people. (Public Domain)
Some Native American tribes did not survive and are now known only in legend or from archaeological evidence. Though the Sioux were pushed out of their ancestral homelands around the Great Lakes, about 170,000 of them now live on reservations in the U.S. states of North Dakota and South Dakota.
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Four Lakota women hold three infants in cradleboards, with a Lakota man on horseback, in front of a tipi, on or near Pine Ridge Reservation in 1891. (Public Domain)
Little is known about Lakota tribe history before the 17th century because the Sioux didn’t have written language, as far as we know. Archaeologists and anthropologists say the Sioux and Lakota lived around the Great Lakes hunting, gathering and farming. They called themselves the Oceti Sakowin nation and came together as a nation (or tribe) around the 13th or 14th centuries.
Then Cree and Ojibwa tribes, who themselves were displaced in the East, pushed the Sioux west in the 17th century. Some Cree and Ojibwa warriors had firearms that they obtained in the French fur trade, so the odds were stacked against the Oceti Sakowin.
Scenes of battle and horse raiding decorate a muslin Lakota tipi from the late 19th or early 20th century. (Public Domain)
Lakota Sioux Buffalo-Hunting Economy
The Lakota tribe and the other Sioux groups then moved onto the Plains and began hunting buffalo.
The Lakota or Teton tribe moved the farthest west of all the Sioux people and lived in the area just east of the Rocky Mountains and somewhat in the mountains.
The three main Sioux groups became more differentiated culturally in the vast space of the American West. They had been more homogeneous in the Great Lakes region earlier in their history.
A brief history of the Lakota and Dakota people says buffalo became the basis of their livelihoods. When they entered the Plains, they acquired horses and hunted and ate buffalo and used the hides, bones and tendons for housing, clothing and to make implements and tools.
Skin effigy of a Buffalo used in the Lakota Sun Dance. (Public Domain)
The Middle Sioux settled along the Missouri River by 1750. The Lakota-speaking Teton Indians were farther west, in the Black Hills and what we now call the states of Montana, Nebraska and Wyoming.
Around the early 1800s, the Sioux tribes lived apart long enough that their politics and cultures differentiated so much they were divided into Eastern, Middle, and Teton (Western) groups.
The U.S. government considered the lands the tribes lived on to the west of Minnesota to be of little value, mere wastelands. But everything changed when gold was discovered. Then settlers rushed in. The lands promised to the tribes were taken back and their territory became smaller and smaller.
Map indicating the Lakota (Sioux) Indian territory as described in the Treaty of Fort Laramie (1851). (Public Domain)
Lakota Traditions of War Change
The Lakota way had been to not kill in battle. As the website states: “It is important to understand the main object of Plains Indian warfare was never to acquire land or to control another group of people. Plains Indian warfare focused on raiding other tribes’ camps for horses and acquiring honors connected with capturing horses.”
In these raids, very much like contests, men sought to out-smart the enemy and gain individual honors by counting coup, or striking the enemy with the hand or a special staff.
Plains warfare emphasized out-smarting the enemy, not killing them. With the advent of the horse onto the Plains, warfare traditions became institutionalized among tribes. This style of warfare, described by one author as comparable to a rough game of football, changed dramatically after encounters with the U.S. Army in the 1850s.
Young-Man-Afraid-of-His-Horses (Tashun-Kakokipa), an Oglala Sioux; standing in front of his lodge, Pine Ridge, South Dakota. (Public Domain)
For a brief history of what happened to the Sioux people in general, see this Ancient Origins article.
Sitting Bull, An Honored Lakota Leader, Slain
Perhaps the most famous Lakota person known to history was Sitting Bull, who valiantly fought the encroachment onto his people’s land, the suppression of their culture and the outright decimation of his people.
Sitting Bull fought with Red Cloud, another famous Lakota man, in Red Cloud’s War from 1866 to ‘68, in the later Great Sioux War of 1876, and at the Battle of the Little Big Horn (Custer’s Last Stand).
Lithograph showing the Battle of Little Bighorn, from the Indian side. (1903) by Charles Marion Russell. (Public Domain)
An Indian agent in the employ of the U.S. government shot Sitting Bull during a botched arrest in 1890 on the Standing Rock Reservation. The settlers thought Sitting Bull was involved in the Ghost Dance movement, which tried to invoke the native savior.
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The Mysterious Lakota Tribe Gods
Had Sitting Bull time to pray to the Lakota savior before his death, he might have prayed to Wakan Tanka. A wonderful Web page, A Lakota Pantheon, tells about this mysterious being or force,
Wakan Tanka (Great Mystery Power):
“Often designated by non-Indians as "the Great Spirit". In a certain sense, Wakan Tanka is the supreme power of the Lakota universe. The term has a double meaning - technically it refers to all the spiritual powers of the universe, as if assembled together around a council fire […] The spirit underlying Wakan Tanka itself is Inyan, who caused all things to be by sacrificing His own nature, and thereby infusing all things with His nature. Wakan Tanka can be addressed directly in prayer and ritual, but His influence within the world is diffused through His elements and aspects.”
A ledger drawing by Lakota Sioux Chief Black Hawk, depicting a horned Thunder Being (Haokah) on a horse-like creature with eagle talons and buffalo horns. The creature's tail forms a rainbow that represents the entrance to the Spirit World, and the dots represent hail. Accompanying the picture on the page were the words "Dream or vision of himself changed to a destroyer and riding a buffalo eagle". (Public Domain)
A Lakota Pantheon has brief synopses of many Lakota tribe gods, beings, and creatures and is well worth a read.
The Pantheon webpage states that of all the Indian tribes, “Lakota culture has seized the imagination of many in a way that few other tribes have managed.” When people think of Native Americans, they often imagine natives in feather headdresses, on horses fighting the U.S. cavalry or hunting buffalo - as the Lakota did on the Great Plains of the American Midwest and West.
Also they tend to remember some of the most famous native leaders from the Lakota tribe: Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse, and Black Elk.
Chief Bone Necklace of the Oglala Lakota tribe. Photographed in 1899 by Heyn Photo. (Public Domain)
Top Image: This is an untitled ledger drawing in pencil and colored pencil by a Lakota tribe artist and leader named Black Hawk, born ca. 1832. This work also appears in Janet Catherine Berlo's ‘Spirit Beings and Sun Dancers: Black Hawk's Vision of the Lakota World.’ Source: Public Domain
By Mark Miller