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ETHNONYMS: Dakota, Lakota, Sioux, Teton Sioux, Titunwan, Western Sioux


Identification. The Teton are an American Indian group now living predominantly on reservations in South Dakota and in Saskatchewan. The name "Teton" is a corruption of Titunwan, which conventionally is glossed "dwellers of the prairie" but which actually connotes the setting up of campsites. The root ti gives rise to the name of the popular dwelling tipi. Teton designates seven subdivisions of Lakota-speakers who migrated from aboriginal homes in the Great Lakes Region to the Northern Plains. They are called "Oglala," "Sicangu" (or "Brule"), "Hunkpapa," "Itazipco" (or "Sans Arcs"), "Sihasapa" (or "Blackfeet Sioux"), "Oohenunpa" (or "Two Kettle"), and "Mnikowoju." The Teton in turn are one of seven larger divisions collectively known as the Oceti Sakowin," or "Seven Fireplaces," all of which lived originally in the Great Lakes region. The others are known as "Mdewakanton," "Sisseton," "Wahpeton," and "Wahpekute," collectively known as "Santee" and who speak Dakota; and the "Yankton" and "Yanktonais," who are called "Wiciyela" and speak Nakota, a dialect today associated with the Assiniboins. The only proper tribal designation for this group is "Titunwan," the Anglicized form "Teton," or the linguistic designation, "Lakota." All other terms are misnomers or redundant.

Location. Although the Teton's parent stock migrated from the Southeast, arriving in the region of Milles Lacs, Minnesota, in the sixteenth century, the term Teton and its variant forms, particularly the erroneous designation Dakota (proper for the eastern division only), were not identified until 1640, after which time migrating bands occupied a large swath of the northern plains in what is now North and South Dakota, parts of Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, and Nebraska. Today, most Teton live on reservations in South Dakota, while others, mainly descendants of fugitives of the Custer battle, fled to small reserves in Canada. A large segment of the population lives in urban areas such as Chicago, Denver, Los Angeles, Rapid City (South Dakota), and San Francisco.

Demography. Early population estimates are meager and largely unreliable. In 1825, however, the Brules were estimated at three thousand; the Oglala at fifteen hundred; and the combined other five at three thousand. These estimates are probably much too low. The current population is similarly difficult to estimate because of intermarriage between Teton and other Indians and non-Indians. But based on estimates derived from population figures for the predominantly Teton reservations in South Dakota and Canada, a current population of sixty-five thousand seems reasonable.

Linguistic Affiliation. The Teton speak a dialect of a newly proposed subfamily of the Siouan language family called Shakowinian, whose other two members include Dakota and Nakota. Today Nakota (or Nakoda) is spoken almost exclusively by the Assiniboins, and most Yankton and Yanktonais speak Dakota. Traces of the Nakota dialect, However, are still found among contemporary Lakota- and Dakota-speakers.

History and Cultural Relations

By the beginning of the sixteenth century the Teton and other members of the Oceti Sakowin had established themselves on the headwaters of the Mississippi River, where they lived in semisedentary villages raising maize, squash, and beans and supplementing their diets by hunting and fishing. They were first encountered by Jean Nicolet, who named them "Sioux," a French corruption of an Algonkian word, Nadowesiih, meaning "snakes" or "enemies," which, despite its prevalent use in historical and anthropological literature, is a derogatory term.

After wars with Cree and Ojibwa enemies, who by 1750 were better armed through European contact, some of the Oceti Sakowin began migrating onto the prairies and plains. Within a generation they became acclimated to a nomadic, bison-hunting way of life. By this date they also had obtained horses from the Arikara and other riverine tribes and soon became adapted to an equestrian way of life.

Although the term Lakota translates as "allied" or "affiliated," early observers reported that when the Tetons were not fighting other tribes, they were fighting each other. By 1778, according to their own hide-painted calendars known as Winter counts, they had chased out almost all aboriginal inhabitants of the Black Hills region except the Cheyenne and Arapaho and had taken over the land as their own.

The Teton are also known for various skirmishes and battles with the U.S. government during the Indian wars of the 1860s and 1870s. Most notable of these was the Battle of the Little Big Horn, or "Custer's Last Stand," when on June 25, 1876, Custer and most of the Seventh Cavalry were annihilated by a combined force of Tetons, Cheyennes, and Arapahos. Most infamous was the Wounded Knee Massacre of December 19, 1890, where 260 men, women, and children mainly of Big Foot's band were massacred by remnants of Custer's Seventh and Ninth Cavalries during the Ghost Dance movement of 1889-1890. The names of great Teton leaders include Red Cloud, Crazy Horse, Sitting Bull, Rain in the Face, Gall, American Horse, and Young Man Afraid of Horse.


In aboriginal times, the Teton lived in tipi camps that fluctuated according to the seasons. During winter, camps were smaller and clustered in wooded ravines where small herds of bison and other game were hunted. In summer, the bands joined for their annual religious ceremony, the Sun Dance, and for the communal bison hunt. In 1868, the Treaty of Fort Laramie between the Great Sioux Nation and the U.S. Government established the boundaries of the Great Sioux Reservation located primarily in South Dakota. The roving bands settled down to form the nuclei of the present towns on the reservations. After 1887, Indian land was divided into Individual ownership and the Great Sioux Reservation was severely diminished. Today, the Teton live predominantly on six reservations: Pine Ridge (the second largest reservation in the United States), Rosebud, Cheyenne River, Lower Brule, Crow Creek, and Standing Rock (the latter lying partly in North Dakota). Other Tetons live on small reserves in Saskatchewan, mainly remnants of Sitting Bull's band, who fled to Canada after the Custer battle. Over time, tipis gave way to four-walled tents, and then to log cabins and frame houses. Although tipis and tents are still used at ceremonial events, most Tetons live in frame and brick houses on the Reservations.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. The Teton are primarily associated with bison hunting. In aboriginal times, men, women, and children stampeded herds over cliffs where they would be killed in the fall and then butchered. Later, after the advent of the horse, bison hunting was an equestrian pursuit, both dangerous and thrilling. Most bison were originally hunted with bows and arrows and lances, and later with rifles. The entire bison was utilized for food, clothing, and shelter. Additionally, various species of roots and berries, such as pomme blanche or prairie turnips, and chokecherries, buffalo berries, and sand cherries were dried and used through the hard winters. Small game, deer, and elk were also stalked by individual hunters, and their meat and hides were utilized.

After the establishment of the reservations and land allotments, many Teton turned to farming and ranching, both successful enterprises until the Great Depression hit, when many lost their source of income and were never able to recoup. Since World War I, many Teton landowners have made their living by leasing their rich pastures to non-Indian ranchers. Others have invested in individual enterprises such as service stations, grocery stores, and small appliance stores, although many of the larger businesses such as supermarkets are owned by non-Indians. Arts and crafts provide a living for a few who continue to make quillwork and beadwork. About one-third of the work force is employed by the federal government in various agencies of the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Indian Health Service. An undisclosed number are welfare recipients. Pursuant to treaty stipulations, all enrolled members of the various Teton reservations are eligible to receive annuities, mainly in the form of food, each month.

Industrial Arts. Aboriginal crafts include pictographic hide painting and ornamentation with porcupine quillwork. After the introduction of trade goods, Teton women were particularly known for their elaborate and voluminous bead-work. One of the most outstanding art forms associated with Teton today are their handmade star quilts, originally learned while at school and modeled after those made by the Amish of Pennsylvania. The star quilt is used for all sorts of traditional occasions from cradle to grave, and many of them are in great demand by trading posts and stores catering to the South Dakota tourist trade. The Red Cloud Indian Art Show, sponsored by the Holy Rosary Mission at Pine Ridge, is one of the largest in the country and has produced a number of outstanding Teton artists.

Trade. During the latter part of the eighteenth century, the Teton engaged in trade fairs with other Plains tribes. Trade with Europeans began at the turn of the nineteenth century, and for the first quarter of that century trade was monopolized by French traders from St. Louis. Many Teton bear French surnames today as a result of marriages between French traders and Teton women. Later, the Teton traded with the American Fur Company and the Rocky Mountain Fur Company, and by 1850 trade goods such as beads, blankets, hair pipes, and metal axes, blades, and cooking utensils dominated Teton culture.

Division of Labor. The harsh vicissitudes of the plains required cooperation between males and females. Although men actually hunted bison, women and children accompanied them on the hunt to help kill animals wounded in the chase. Butchering was the primary job of women, but men assisted them when necessary. Women were responsible for collecting fruits, berries, and tubers, but some fruits were collected by men. Making the tipi and clothing was in the domain of females, but men made and decorated ceremonial and war objects. After marriage, however, the tipi and its belongings were considered the property of the woman, and hunting and war implements were owned by men. Today, both men and women share equal positions in the business place as well as in tribal politics, the judicial system, the Indian Health Service, and the reservation school system. A fairly larger percentage of women attend colleges and Universities located on and off the reservations.

Land Tenure. Being nomadic, the Teton did not have a concept of land tenure until after the Indian Allotment Act of 1887, when reservation lands were issued in fee patent.


Kin Groups and Descent. Although kinship terminology suggests that the Teton earlier were organized into matrilineal clans, once they had migrated onto the plains their descent system gave way to a bilateral form of organization. Somewhat reminiscent of an earlier clan system is the Teton unit called tiyospaye, a named unit into which people are born and within which men and women cannot intermarry. Although age stratification exists among a number of surrounding plains tribes, the Teton do not exhibit such characteristics.

Kinship Terminology. Traditional kinship terminology follows the Iroquoian system.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Although there is evidence for an earlier form of preferred cross-cousin marriage, once the Teton reached the plains males and females who did not share a common Grandfather were eligible to marry. The ceremony itself was essentially an exchange of gifts between the parents of the couple. Frequently, the marriage was solidified when the groom gave horses to his prospective in-laws, and the female made a tipi and moccasins for her intended husband. Occasionally, the husband provided bride-service for his in-laws for a year. Upon marriage, the parents of the couple adopted a special relationship of co-parenthood. Polygyny was socially acceptable but rare.

Domestic Unit. Tiyospayes were divided into groups of extended families called wicotis, a pattern maintained today.

Inheritance. Inheritance was irrelevant to nomadic living. After the establishment of the reservation, however, Inheritance followed local American law.

Socialization. Values were instilled in girls by their mothers and grandmothers, and in boys, by their fathers and grandfathers. Ridicule was the strongest form of control, and corporal punishment was eschewed.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. The Teton were divided into seven tiyospayes prior to the reservation period: the Payabya, "head circle"; Tapisleca "spleen"; Kiyaksa, "breakers of the rule"; Wajaje, "Osage"; Itesica "bad faces"; Oyuhpe, "untidy"; and Wagluhe, "loafers." Each tiyospaye was in turn divided into a constantly changing number of wicotis, themselves composed of extended monogamous or polygynous families. The minimal social unit is called tiwahe, "family."

Political Organization. Prior to contact, Teton wicoti were under the ad hoc leadership of a chief proficient in hunting and warfare. In the summer, however, when the bands came together for the communal hunt, the entire camp was under the supervision of a group of chiefs called wakicunze, who determined when the camps should move and hunts and ceremonials begin. After the reservation period, some of these wakicunze represented their tribes in treaties with the United States. But it is generally accepted that the position of head chief never existed in aboriginal times. After the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934, the Teton reservations formed tribal councils whose officers were elected by ballot every two years. This is the present form of government.

Social Control. During the summer encampments, rious sodalities called akicita (soldier or marshal) were in charge of policing the camp and ensuring that the bison hunt would not be jeopardized by overzealous individuals. Under the authority of the wakicunze, the akicita could severely punish or even kill offenders. A number of these sodalities, known by such names as Strong Hearts, Foxes, Crow-Owners, and Badgers, also waged personal vendettas against tribes in retaliation for those lost in battle. Members were elected, and great prestige accrued to them.

Conflict. After the establishment of the reservation, conflict arose between several of the Teton chiefs. Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse, both heroes of the Custer battle, were assassinated by their own people as a result of jealousy and a rising fear among Whites that they might regain power. Red Cloud was perhaps the most controversial in that he advocated friendly relations with the United States after earning the reputation of being the only Indian to win a war against the U.S. government. A number of tiyospayes engaged in rivalry with each other, and much factionalism on the Teton reservations still persists along earlier lines of social and Political organization.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. The Teton have a subterranean origin story in which humans were led to the surface of the earth by Inktomi, the trickster-culture hero, who then abandoned them. The earth and sky were formed after the supernaturals were sent there by Takuskanskan, the prime mover, partly as punishments and rewards for social transgressions. All animate and inanimate objects are capable of having a soul, and supernatural beings and objects are propitiated to maintain or restore harmony between good and evil. The earth is called the lodge of the wind, in which reside the Four Directions, the spirits of the zenith and nadir, and the center of the universe, each of which maintains animal and bird guardian spirits whose help may be invoked through smoking the sacred pipe. Although nearly every Christian denomination is represented on the reservations, most Tetons are only nominal Christians and still respect the beliefs of their ancestors.

Religious Practitioners. Teton differentiate between wapiye, or people who mediate between the common people and supernaturals through prayer and self-abnegation, and pejuta wicasa/winyan, medicine men and women who cure by means of prayer and herbs. Many of the men and women became active in the Ghost Dance movement of 1889-1890, and still later as lay catechists at mainly Jesuit missions. To a much lesser extent, some Teton also conduct meetings of the Native American church.

Ceremonies. There are seven major ceremonies believed to have been brought to the Teton by the White Buffalo Calf Woman in aboriginal times: Sweat Lodge, Vision Quest, Sun Dance, Ghost-Keeping Ceremony, Making of Relatives, Girl's Puberty Ceremony, and Sacred Ball Game. Other Contemporary ceremonies include the pipe ceremony and Yuwipi, a modern curing ceremony.

Arts. Music and dance play an important part in Teton performance arts. Songs continue to be composed in the Native idiom, and the Teton produce some of the best singers on the northern plains. Individual reenactments of visions, such as the Horse Dance, are still occasionally performed.

Medicine. Although the Indian Health Service maintains hospitals and clinics on Teton reservations, Native wapiye and medicine men and women continue to provide treatment to patients through the implementation of at least eighty kinds of herbal medicines. The sweat lodge is still used for spiritual and salutary purposes.

Death and Afterlife. The Teton believe that each Individual has four aspects of soul. The last may be inhered in another individual at birth, and thus this constitutes a reincarnation system. Some deceased are forever required to be ghosts. Twins are considered special and are believed to preexist and select the families into which they wish to be born. The Milky Way is considered the path of the campfires of the deceased en route to the Spirit Village. In aboriginal times, the dead were buried mainly on scaffolds, but since the Reservation, Christian cemeteries have been used. Funeral rites tend to be a mixture of traditional and Christian belief and ritual, and traditionalists continue to ritually keep the spirit of the deceased for one year, after which it is released at a memorial feast.


Hyde, George E. (1937). Red Cloud's Folk: A History of the Oglala Sioux Indians. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.

Hyde, George E. (1961). Spotted Tails Folk: A History of the Brule Sioux. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.

Powers, Maria N. (1986). Oglala Women: Myth, Ritual and Reality. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Powers, William K. (1977). Oglala Religion. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.

Powers, William K. (1982). Yuwipi: Vision and Experience in Oglala Ritual. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.

Vestal, Stanley (1957). Sitting Bull: Champion of the Sioux. 2nd ed. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.