Sioux Nations: Lakota

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Sioux Nations: Lakota


Lakota (pronounced lah-KOH-tah) is the tribe’s name for themselves and may mean “allies” or “friends.” It comes from the Teton word Lakhota, sometimes translated as “alliance of friends.” Another meaning for the name is “those who consider themselves kindred.” The people are also known as Teton Sioux. Teton comes from their word Titunwan, meaning “prairie dwellers.”

The Sioux tribes (Dakota, Lakota, and Nakota) were once given the name nadowe-is-iw-ug, which means “little adders (snakes)” by their enemies, the Ojibway. The French mispronounced the Ojibway word as nadewisou and shortened it to “Sioux,” the name by which the tribes are collectively known. Because the name was intended as an insult, many of the people dislike being called Sioux.


At one time the Great Sioux Nation extended from the Bighorn Mountains in Wyoming to eastern Wisconsin. Their territory stretched from Canada in the north to Kansas in the south. The Lakota occupied an area in western Minnesota around the Great Stone Lake. In the mid-1700s the Lakota moved from Minnesota to the Black Hills region of western South Dakota, eastern Wyoming, and eastern Montana. In modern times they live on the Cheyenne River, Lower Brule, Pine Ridge, Rosebud, Crow Creek, and Standing Rock reservations in North and South Dakota, and at Fort Peck Reservation in Montana.


In the 1990 U.S. Census, 46,943 people identified themselves as members of Lakota Sioux tribes. An additional 44,354 people simply identified themselves as Sioux. The 2000 census indicated that 113,713 Sioux lived in the United States. Of that number, 69,722 lived on Lakota reservations, although the total population on some of these reservations also included people with Dakota or Nakota heritage. Canadian statistics in 2001 showed 3,880 Sioux.

Language family


Origins and group affiliations

Some Sioux creation stories trace their origins back to the Black Hills of South Dakota, but others say they originated in the Minnesota woodlands, where they and the Nakota were part of the Dakota tribe. In the mid-1700s the tribe broke into three groups after wars with the neighboring Ojibway. The Dakota remained in Minnesota, and the other two groups, calling themselves Lakota and Nakota, moved westward. The Lakota found allies among the Cheyenne and Arapaho as they they fought with the Kiowa, Crow, and Omaha.

The Lakota were once the most powerful tribe in North America, controlling a large area of the northern Great Plains. Lakota leaders—including Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse, and Red Cloud—were among the best-known Native Americans of the nineteenth century, and the tribe was involved in two of the most famous incidents in American history, the Battle of the Little Bighorn in 1876 and the Massacre at Wounded Knee in 1890. In recent times the Lakota have been at the forefront of the Native American rights movement.


Golden Age of the Lakota people

Before their move to the Great Plains in the mid-1700s the Lakota were part of the Dakota tribe and lived as woodland farmers in present-day Minnesota. Warfare with the Ojibway (see entry) divided the Dakota into three groups. The group that moved westward onto the Great Plains came to be called the Lakota.

The Lakota acquired horses from neighboring tribes and adopted the Great Plains lifestyle. They depended on the buffalo for food, clothing, shelter, weapons, and household objects, and followed the herds on their annual migrations. Though their migrations differed from their relatives, the Nakota and Dakota (see entries), who were more settled, the Lakota considered these groups allies and did not fight against them.

During the late eighteenth century the Lakota divided into seven bands and scattered throughout the region. After forming alliances with the Northern Cheyenne and Northern Arapaho (see entries) the Lakota became a powerful force on the Northern Plains. The years from 1775 to 1868 are sometimes called the tribe’s “Golden Age.”

The Seven Lakota Bands

Shortly after they settled in the Black Hills region, the Lakota divided into seven bands that dispersed throughout the area:

  • Oglala (which means “They Scatter Their Own”), the largest group, occupying western South Dakota, southeastern Montana, and northeastern Wyoming.
  • Sicangu or Brule (“Burned Thighs”), occupying northern Nebraska and southern South Dakota.
  • Miniconjou (“Planters by the Water”), occupying central and northern South Dakota
  • Oohenonpa (“Two Kettles”), occupying territory just west of the Missouri River in South Dakota.
  • Hunkpapa (“End of the Entrance”), Itazipco or Sans Arcs (“Without Bows”), and Sihasapa (“Black Feet”) occupying lands farther north.

Troubled American relations

In 1804 American explorers Meriwether Lewis (1774–1809) and William Clark (1770–1836) reached present-day Pierre (pronounced PEER), South Dakota. President Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826; served 1801–9) had sent Lewis and Clark to find a waterway to the Pacific Ocean. Lewis had orders from the president to seek out the Sioux, make a good impression on them, and secure them as allies.

The first meeting ended with misunderstandings on both sides. At the second meeting the Brule band was celebrating a victory over the Omaha tribe and treated Lewis and Clark to a performance of the first scalp dance ever seen by Americans. But after the Lakota expressed displeasure at the gifts Lewis and Clark gave them, relations soured. Lewis wrote that he found the Sioux to be “the vilest miscreants [evildoers] of the savage race.”

The Sioux did not realize it then, but Lewis and Clark’s visit foretold the U.S. intent to claim Sioux territory. Fur traders followed Lewis and Clark, and word spread in the East about the vast new lands. In 1825 the government sent soldiers to impress the Native Americans with American military might and to negotiate treaties.

Important Dates

c. 1770s: The Lakota move to the Black Hills, divide into seven bands, and disperse throughout the region.

1804: The Lakota meet the Lewis and Clark expedition. Trading posts are established in their territory.

1851: Fort Laramie treaties are signed, defining boundaries of Lakota territories and marking the beginning of westward movement by miners and wagon trains on the Oregon Trail.

1866–68: Red Cloud leads a successful fight to close Bozeman Trail, which leads through Lakota hunting grounds to the gold mines of Montana.

1868: The U.S. government gives up its claim to Lakota lands—including the Black Hills—in the Fort Laramie Treaty.

1874: Gold is discovered in the Black Hills. Goldseekers pour in.

1876: Lakota warriors defeat Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer in the Battle of the Little Bighorn.

1890: Sitting Bull is murdered. U.S. troops kill more than three hundred Lakota men, women, and children in the Massacre at Wounded Knee.

1973: American Indian Movement (AIM) activists occupy Wounded Knee and engage in a 71-day standoff with government agents.

1980: The Lakota are awarded $105 million for the wrongful taking of their territory. They refuse to accept the money.

Treaty era begins

In 1825 treaties were signed with three Lakota bands. The United States claimed the right to control trade in the region and agreed to protect the Lakota and their property against white trespassers. The Americans also agreed “to receive [the Native Americans] into their friendship” and to grant them “such benefits and acts of kindness as may be convenient” in the eyes of the president. Chief Wabasha (died 1836) expressed his wish that “this peace will last a long time.”

The Lakota enjoyed trading with American companies for goods that made their lives more comfortable such as guns and cooking utensils. Unfortunately, the newcomers brought diseases and alcohol, or “the water that makes men foolish,” as the Lakota called it. The tribe grew increasingly dependent on American goods and experienced epidemics (uncontrolled outbreaks of disease).

Wagon trains head West

Until the 1840s relations between whites and Native Americans on the Great Plains remained fairly peaceful. Then wagon trains headed West. More and more white settlers crossed Lakota territory and drove away the buffalo. The tribe was forced to expand their hunting territory and this took the them closer to the lands of their enemies, the Kiowa and the Crow (see entries), and made them targets for attacks. The tribe tried to discourage the pioneers: they threatened, they robbed, they attacked wagon trains, but nothing stopped the westward flow.

In 1850 the U.S. Congress offered to make treaties with “the wild tribes of the prairies.” Word was passed among the western tribes that representatives of “the Great White Father” (the American president) wished to talk peace at Fort Laramie, Wyoming. Thousands of Native Americans gathered at the fort, many of them starving because the buffalo were nearly gone.

Fort Laramie treaty made and broken

The Lakota signed the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1851, which recognized their rights to more than 60 million acres of land, including the Black Hills. In return the tribe guaranteed safe passage of settlers on the Oregon Trail, an agreement that would end their way of life. As author Edward Lazarus put it: “The treaty outlawed many essential aspects of plains life, the raiding, horse thieving, and warring that brought honor and authority to both a man and his tribe.”

The terms of the treaty were not kept for long. Violence erupted as tribes battled with each other over trade disputes and access to hunting grounds. Meanwhile the U.S. Senate changed the terms of the treaty. Instead of annual payments to the tribes for fifty years in the form of cattle, farming implements, seeds, and grains, the Senate decided to make annual payments for only ten years.

To war over a lame ox

For a few years settlers passed through Lakota lands unmolested. Then in 1854 a warrior named High Forehead spotted a lame ox at the end of a wagon train and shot it for food. A few days later the commander of Fort Laramie tried to arrest High Forehead, but he refused to surrender. In the bloody battle that followed the commander, his troops, and a Lakota chief named Conquering Bear were killed.

The U.S. government sent 1,300 armed troops, who attacked a Brule camp and murdered 86 men, women, and children. None of the dead had played any part in the lame ox incident. The Lakota had never experienced a loss of such magnitude. Confused and upset, they headed for the Black Hills.

In 1857 thousands of Sioux gathered in the Black Hills and vowed to protect their lands from the whites. But gold was discovered in Colorado in 1859, and by 1861 rumors indicated there was gold in Montana, too. Traffic increased on the Oregon Trail and on the Bozeman Trail into Montana. As settlers passed through many stayed and explored the Great Plains and prairies of the Lakota hunting grounds. War seemed unavoidable.

Red Cloud’s War

The Sioux wars began with the Dakota in Minnesota in 1862. Survivors fled to Lakota country, where they joined battles against U.S. soldiers. Across the West Native Americans fought white soldiers, who had orders to “attack and kill every male Native American over twelve years of age.” Women and children were not spared either.

In 1865 Congress decided to build roads into the Montana gold district where the Lakota hunted and to make peace with the Native Americans. Some Lakota groups who were starving signed treaties, but many thousands of Lakota warriors remained hostile toward the U.S. government. Their leader was the powerful and respected warrior Red Cloud (1822–1909). When he learned the Americans were talking peace while building forts and planning roads along the Bozeman Trail, the famous warrior declared: “I am for war.”

Red Cloud’s War (also known as the War for the Bozeman Trail) lasted from 1866 to 1868. Crazy Horse (c. 1840–1877) and other Lakota warriors led attacks against soldiers in American forts, outsmarting them at every turn. The U.S. government finally admitted defeat. In the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868 the Lakota received title to the Great Sioux Reservation, which occupied half of present-day South Dakota (west of the Missouri River and including the sacred Black Hills) as well as the Bighorn Mountain region of Wyoming and Nebraska. The Lakota were also given tools, cattle, and other materials designed to convert them into farmers and ranchers.

Gold discovery at Black Hills

Gold was discovered in the Black Hills in 1874, and miners and settlers again trespassed on Lakota lands. Responding to citizen’s demands for more land, the U.S. government tried to buy the Black Hills. Lakota leaders refused to give up the land they held sacred. Crazy Horse said: “One does not sell the Earth upon which the people walk.” Hunkpapa Sioux chief Sitting Bull (c. 1831–1890) stated: “We want no white men here. The Black Hills belong to me. If the whites try to take them, I will fight.”

In 1876 the U.S. Army tried to force the Lakota to become farmers and to give up land. Intense fighting followed in the war for the Black Hills (also called Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse’s War). Some of the most famous battles in American history were fought during this war.

Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse’s War

In 1876 the Lakota scored victories at Powder River in Montana, at Rosebud Creek in South Dakota, and in the valley of the Little Bighorn River in Montana. In the battle at Little Bighorn, which came to be known as “Custer’s Last Stand,” Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer (1839–1876) and 250 men attacked a camp of 2,500 Lakota and Cheyenne warriors. Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse, and Gall (1840–1894; Sitting Bull’s adopted son) led the counterattack, in which Custer and all his men were killed. This was the last great Native American victory on the Great Plains.

Custer’s defeat led to calls for the “extermination” of the Native Americans. Over the next six months the Lakota were beaten at War Bonnet Creek in Nebraska, Slim Buttes in South Dakota, and Wolf Mountain in Montana. They also lost the Battle of Dull Knife in Wyoming. By mid-1877 many Lakota chiefs had surrendered and were placed on reservations.

Lakota resistance broken

Crazy Horse went to Fort Robinson, Nebraska, in September 1877, to forge a peaceful settlement. Nevertheless the U.S. Army tried to imprison the great chief; he was killed when he resisted arrest. Sitting Bull and his followers fled to Canada.

The power of the Lakota and their allies over the Northern Plains was broken. On January 31, 1876, the U.S. Congress ordered the Lakota to move away from the Black Hills. When South Dakota became a state in 1889, white settlers pressured the federal government for more land. The Sioux Act of 1889 broke the Great Sioux Reservation into four smaller reservations. Under the allotment policy, each Sioux received an individual plot of land; leftover land went to white settlers.

Massacre at Wounded Knee

In 1890 Sitting Bull lived at the Standing Rock Reservation, and the U.S. government feared that he might lead another resistance movement. The government became uneasy when the Lakota took up the Ghost Dance (see “Religion”) in 1890. A law forbade the dance, but by November 1890 the people performed it anyway. The Indian agent sent a message to Washington, D.C.: “Indians are dancing in the snow and are wild and crazy.… We need protection and we need it now.”

In December 1890 U.S. troops under General Nelson Miles (1839–1925) tried to arrest Sitting Bull. A fight broke out, and the chief and seven warriors were killed. The grief-stricken people sought refuge at Pine Ridge Reservation, where Red Cloud was in charge and at the camp of Lakota leader Big Foot (c. 1825–1890). The U.S. government ordered the arrest of Big Foot. Planning to make peace, Big Foot made his way to Pine Ridge. When American troops intercepted him and tried to disarm his men, a rifle went off. In the battle that followed more than three hundred people were killed, most of them women and children. This Massacre at Wounded Knee marked the end of the Ghost Dance era and Indian wars.

Reservation years

Many Lakota resisted the allotment policy, but the U.S. government pressured them to turn to farming. People who refused did not receive the government money and goods the treaties had promised. They went hungry, and many died.

The tribe lost more land throughout the early 1900s as reservations were broken into individual allotments. During this period the Lakota also lost many aspects of their culture. Their children were sent to boarding schools and missionaries tried to convert them to Christianity. Traditional ceremonies and practices were forbidden until laws passed in the 1930s restored religious freedom.

Lakota in the twentieth century and beyond

The Lakota struggle to regain lost land is ongoing. They never accepted the 1877 order granting ownership of the Black Hills to the United States. Instead they believe that these sacred lands belong to the tribe as given them by the Creator and promised them by the U.S. government in the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868.

In 1980 the U.S. Supreme Court awarded the Lakota $105 million for the wrongful taking of their territory a century earlier. But despite their dire need for money the Lakota refused to accept the settlement and insisted that their traditional lands be returned.

Lakota Population: 2000 Census

In the 2000 U.S. Census, a total of 113,713 people identified themselves as Sioux. Some classified themselves as members of specific bands or reservations, but 22,988 failed to do so. They simply called themselves Sioux, without indicating whether they are Dakota, Lakota, or Nakota. Those who are members of Lakota Sioux bands or reservations are shown below. To further complicate a count of the people, some Dakota live on the Fort Peck reservation along with the Lakota.

Lakota Population: 2000 Census
Lakota groupPopulation
Cheyenne River9,635
Crow Creek2,593
Fort Peck2,383
Lower Brule1,467
Pine Ridge815
Standing Rock9,379

“2000 Census of Population and Housing. Matrix 7: American Indian and Alaskan Native summary file.” Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Commerce, Bureau of the Census, Data User Services Division, American FactFinder, 2004.


The Lakota believe that all life is interrelated. Their god, known as Wakan Tanka (the Great Mystery Power, or Creator) includes all elements of nature, so the Lakota have deep respect for their environment. The spirits of the Sun, sky, Earth, buffalo, bear, and four directions of the winds are particularly important.

According to Lakota sacred lore, a holy woman named White Buffalo Calf Woman gave the people their religious teachings, including the knowledge of the sacred pipe and how to use it in seven ceremonies that made the celebrants one with the universe.

In the 1850s Catholic priest Father Pierre Jean (“Black Robe”) De Smet (1801–1873) lived, preached, and taught among the Lakota. Though many Lakota became members of the Roman Catholic Church, and later the Episcopal Church, traditional religion under the guidance of Lakota spiritual leaders remains the primary form of worship.

In 1890 a Paiute (see entry) holy man named Wovoka (c. 1856–1932) taught the Native Americans that performing the Ghost Dance would return the Earth to a natural state, with huge herds of buffalo and all the dead ancestors returned. No whites would inhabit this world. Tribes conducted Ghost Dance ceremonies as a form of peaceful resistance. Two Lakota medicine men, Kicking Bear (1846–1904) and Short Bull (c. 1852–1935), claimed that dancing and wearing protective Ghost Dance shirts could shield people from white men’s bullets. The Ghost Dance offered hope as the tribe faced terrible conditions and starvation. Even after the U.S. government outlawed the ceremony the Lakota continued to sponsor large gatherings.


The Lakota speak one of three dialects (varieties) of the Siouan language family. The other two dialects are spoken by the Dakota and Nakota. Although there are some differences, all three groups understand one another.

The Lakota language is still spoken today by many people on the reservations. It is taught throughout the grade levels at reservation schools and is used in traditional ceremonies. As of 2007 the Lakota represented one of the largest communities of Native language speakers left in the United States. Between eight thousand to nine thousand people use the language.

Lakota men and women use different words to express similar commands or assertions.

Lakota Words

In some American movies Indians say “How” when they meet someone. This may be a shortened version of the Lakota greeting, Háu khola, which means “Hello, friend.” Below are some other common expressions and words:

  • han …“yes”
  • o han … “okay”
  • lo wa ‘cin …“I’m hungry.”
  • to ka ho? …“What’s wrong?”


The basic social unit of the Sioux was the tiyospe, an extended family group that traveled together in search of game. In the early days on the Great Plains the Lakota lived in these small groups without designated leaders. They respected older people’s opinions, but elders had no special authority. This changed in the 1800s when whites threatened the Lakota way of life. The tribe united in larger groups and pledged their allegiance to strong leaders.

On reservations government agents discouraged having one head chief. Soon many people declared themselves chiefs, and, as people divided their loyalties among the chiefs, they quarreled with each other.

Following the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934, the Lakota established elected tribal councils at several reservations. The U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs, however, often influenced the selection of leaders. Conflict arose between tribal council leaders and traditional leaders, who sometimes felt the tribal council was corrupt or was controlled by the federal government, so it did not fairly represent the Lakota people.


Before they moved to the Great Plains the Sioux economy depended on hunting, fishing, gathering, and farming. After moving and acquiring horses, they depended on trading in buffalo hides. Lakota raided for horses and drove other tribes away until they dominated much of the Great Plains trade.

After the earliest treaties were signed with the U.S. government most of the buffalo were gone, and many people became dependent on government handouts. Others became successful farmers and ranchers on the reservations until the Great Depression (1929–41; the period, following the stock market crash in 1929, of depressed world economies and high unemployment). Afterwards many Lakota were unable to recover economically and had to sustain themselves by leasing their lands to white farmers; some still earn money in this way.

Lakota reservations were among the poorest communities in the United States in the 1990s, with up to 80 percent unemployment—meaning that eight out of every ten people who wanted to work could not find jobs. Some farming and ranching are done, and tribal government is a major employer. Some small businesses opened, but the remote locations of the reservations make the prospects bleak so many people seek work off the reservations. Unemployment rates have dropped on reservations with casinos, and as a result many tribes are turning to gaming to improve their economy.

Daily life


Because the Lakota migrated, children learned about geography and plant life. Boys learned from a young age how to be successful competitors. At age three they raced ponies and participated in games that tested their skill and strength; top spinning and javelin throwing were popular. Later they learned survival skills by undertaking long, difficult trips into the wilderness.

Teenage boys could become warriors or buffalo hunters or join one of several societies (Kit Foxes, Crow Owners, or Brave Hearts, for example), whose members organized buffalo hunts or were in charge of moving the camp.

In the 1880s Chief Red Cloud petitioned the federal government to allow priests to start schools on the reservations. Generations of Sioux children were educated in Catholic schools begun by the Jesuits.

In modern times reservation schools emphasize Lakota language and culture, beginning with Head Start programs for preschoolers and continuing through college. Sitting Bull College on the Standing Rock Reservation has a Native American studies program. There are more than a dozen private and public schools at Pine Ridge Reservation, including Oglala Lakota College. Cheyenne River Reservation has two campuses for its Si Tanka Huron University, which attracts students from around the world.


Like many tribes of the Great Plains, the Lakota lived in tepees, which were easy to assemble and carry. They arranged a framework of wooden poles into a cone shape and covered it with eight to twelve buffalo skins, carefully prepared and stitched together. During the winter, stones held the tepees in place. In the summer, they rolled up the covers to let in fresh air. Sometimes Lakota men decorated the outsides of their tepees with paintings that recorded special events in their lives.

The Lakota also built sweat lodges for ceremonial purposes. They believed that sweating rid the body and mind of impurities and made one ready to deal with the spirits.

After about 1900 traditional Lakota tepees were replaced by tents and later by log cabins supplied by the U.S. government.


The great buffalo herds provided food and other necessities for the Lakota. Their diet consisted mainly of buffalo and chokecherries.

Lakota men handled most of the hunting, while women butchered animals, prepared hides, and cooked or preserved meat. The Lakota also hunted deer, elk, and small game. They collected roots and berries and traded for food with farming tribes of the region.

Sioux Plum Raisin Cakes

E. Barrie Kavasch, an authority on Native American culture and cookery, observed that tribes living in the north-central United States often hold midwinter celebrations that feature food. Kavasch’s recipe, similar to fruitcake, was inspired by a visit to the Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation in Eagle Butte, South Dakota, where wild plums are plentiful. Berries also work well in this recipe.

  • 1 cup dark raisins, cherries, or currants
  • 1 cup boiling water
  • 1 (16-ounce) can purple plums, drained and pitted
  • 1 cup toasted hazelnuts, chopped
  • 1/2 cup butter, melted, or corn oil
  • 4 cups sifted all-purpose flour
  • 3 teaspoons baking soda
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons salt
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons ground allspice
  • 1 teaspoon ground cloves
  • 1 cup honey
  • 1/2 cup maple syrup

Preheat oven to 350°F.

Place the raisins, cherries, or currants in a small glass bowl. Cover them with 1 cup boiling water; soak them until plump, for about 30 minutes. Lightly oil 24 or more muffin cups.

Mash the plums in a large mixing bowl. Add all the remaining ingredients to the plums and mix well.

Add the soaked raisins (or other fruit) and their liquid. Blend all together well. Carefully measure by tablespoonfuls, filling each muffin cup halfway.

Bake 25 to 30 minutes, until a toothpick inserted in the center of a muffin comes out clean. Cool for 10 minutes on a wire rack, then loosen the sides and turn out cakes. Serve warm with flavored honey.

Makes 24 cakes (muffins).

Kavasch, E. Barrie Enduring Harvests: Native American Foods and Festivals for Every Season. Old Saybrook, Connecticut: Globe Pequot Press, 1995, p. 147–48.

Clothing and adornment

The Lakota were famous for their colorful clothing, mostly made of deer or elk hides. The men wore fringed buckskin shirts and leggings, decorated with brightly colored porcupine quills or locks of hair. They also wore buckskin moccasins with tough, buffalo-hide soles. They adorned themselves with earrings, armbands, and bear-claw necklaces. Younger men shaved the sides of their heads and let the hair in the middle grow long. Lakota warriors painted both themselves and their horses with fierce symbols and patterns and wore eagle feathers in their hair as a sign of their acts of bravery.

Women wore buckskin dresses that reached almost to the ankle over leggings that extended to the knee. Their clothing, too, was elaborately decorated with fringes, porcupine quills, or beads. They usually wore their long hair in two braids woven with pieces of cloth or beads. Lakota children of both genders had their ears pierced at age five or six, and from then on wore strings of colored beads as earrings.

Healing practices

Many Lakota spiritual leaders and healers learned of their future role when they were children, when a buffalo spoke to them in a dream. Such children were called Buffalo Dreamers. The Lakota people consulted them about a variety of problems, including illnesses and injuries. Healers made medicine from herbs, tree bark, wild fruits, and ground buffalo hooves. They also appealed to the spirits for help in diagnosing and curing illnesses by singing, dancing, and praying in special ways.


Oral literature

Some Sioux stories say that the Dakota, Lakota, and Nakota peoples originated in the Black Hills. They were chosen by the Creator to protect the area, which they call He Sapa. According to their oral traditions, the Sioux emerged through Wind Cave in the Black Hills, leaving their leader behind. He then came aboveground as a buffalo, offering his body as everything the people needed to survive.

>The Shortest Tale Ever Told

Elders often told stories with morals to teach children right from wrong. In some the main characters acts foolishly; these are often humorous, but are intended to make the listener ponder deeper truths.

Grandmother Left Hand Bull was telling the story of the frog and the turtle. “And I will bet you,” she said, “that this is the shortest legend ever told.”

Keha, the turtle, and Gnaske, the frog, were old friends. One day the frog and the turtle were sitting on a rock by the lake gossiping. Suddenly a storm came up, and a few raindrops fell. The turtle looked up anxiously to the sky, saying, “I don’t want to get wet, that would give me the sniffles.”

“You are right,” said the frog, “it wouldn’t do to get wet. Let’s hurry!” And with that, they both jumped into the lake.


John Fire Lame Deer. Transcribed and edited by Richard Erdoes. The Sound of Flutes and other Indian Legends. (accessed on July 2, 2007).


War and hunting rituals

A Lakota war chief could be anyone who convinced others to follow him into battle. Upon returning from a successful battle the tribe held scalp dances to celebrate. William Clark described a Lakota scalp dance he witnessed in 1804 (the spelling is his):

A large fire made in the Center, about 10 musitions [musicians] playing on tamberins [tamborines] made of hoops & skin stretched. long sticks with Deer & Goats Hoofs tied So as to make a [jingling] noise and many others of a Similer kind, those men began to Sing & Beet on the Temboren, the women Came forward highly Deckerated in theire way, with the Scalps an Trofies of war of ther father Husbands Brothers or near Connection & proceeded to dance the war Dance. Women only dance—jump up & down.… Every now and then one of the men come out & repeat some exploit in a sort of song—this taken by the young men and the women dance to it.

During the annual wani-sapa, or “fall hunt,” hundreds of Lakota worked in large groups to supply the tribe with food for the winter. Group hunting methods included surrounding a herd of buffalo with a circle of fire lit on the grass or stampeding a herd over the edge of a cliff or into a corral made of stones and brush. Women and children participated in the stampeding method, shouting from the sidelines to frighten the buffalo.

Keeping of the Soul

One of the seven sacred rites brought to the people by White Buffalo Calf Woman is called Keeping of the Soul. In the old times, it marked the end of a one-year period of mourning following a death. After one year relatives of the deceased distributed gifts. In modern times such giveaways are held to celebrate important occasions, including births, marriages, graduations, and acceptance into the U.S. Armed Forces.

Sun Dance

Versions of the Sun Dance are performed by many tribes. The dance is one of the seven sacred rites given to the Lakota by White Buffalo Calf Woman, and its name refers to the fact that the dancers gaze into the Sun. U.S. authorities prohibited the Sun Dance from the late 1800s to 1935, and some tribes gave it up completely, but the Lakota revived the practice. The three- or four-day ceremony features fasting, dancing, singing, and drumming. Dancers have skewers inserted through the skin of their chests or backs (arms for women) and are tied to a center pole. As they dance they tear themselves away from the skewers. They believe this sacrifice pleases the Creator.

Vision quests

When they reached puberty all Lakota boys (and some girls) participated in a vision quest to connect with the supernatural being who would guide them through life. Young people first purified themselves in a sweat lodge. Afterwards they traveled to a sacred place, accompanied by two helpers who constructed a platform, then left them alone. The person seeking a vision paced around on the platform, prayed, smoked a sacred pipe, and fasted (ate and drank nothing). The vision seeker kept careful track of everything he or she saw and heard during this time.

After four days had passed the helpers returned and brought the seeker back to camp. There spiritual leaders explained the vision and provided special songs, prayers, and objects that represented the seeker’s connection with the supernatural. After completing a vision quest a Lakota gained power and became an adult in the eyes of the tribe.

Rites of passage

At the onset of her first menstrual period a girl was sent to a special hut outside the camp, where older women visited her to explain her adult responsibilities. A few weeks later her father hosted a ceremony that celebrated her passage into womanhood. During the ceremony the right side of the young woman’s face and the part in her hair were painted red, a sacred color, and a feather was placed in her hair for good luck in producing children.

When a young Lakota man participated in his first successful hunt or joined his first war party, his family celebrated his passage to manhood with a special ceremony and a feast.

Courtship and marriage

Marriages were usually arranged by a young couple’s parents. Sometimes, however, couples fell in love and decided to elope. The couple was formally recognized as husband and wife when gifts were exchanged between the two families and the couple moved into a tepee together. Infidelity in marriage was punished by disfigurement.

Death and burial

The Lakota placed dead bodies on a scaffold (a raised platform) or in the branches of a tree along with possessions and food for the journey to the next world. Though they faced their own death with dignity, they deeply mourned the loss of relatives. Mourners often inflicted slashes on themselves during burial ceremonies.

Current tribal issues

Some ongoing issues facing the Lakota today include the poor economic conditions on reservations and land disputes over the Black Hills. Although they could use the money the Lakota continue to fight for the return of their traditional lands rather than accept a cash settlement. The people are also divided between traditionalists who wish to retain the old Lakota ways and those who prefer to accept the mainstream American culture, government, and economy.

Alcoholism concerns many Native American tribes. In 2007 activists set up a blockade to stop the flow of alcohol into the Pine Ridge Reservation. Tribal police arrested the protestors, including Duane Martin Sr. of the Strong Heart Civil Rights Movement and Russell Means, an American Indian Movement activist. Still these groups remain determined to tackle the problem of alcoholism. Although the Lakota have set up prevention and treatment programs, substance abuse continues to be a serious problem for the tribe, as well as for many other Native Americans.

Notable people

Sitting Bull (c.1834–1890) was a great chief of the Hunkpapa band of Lakota. Born Tatanka Iyotake, he gained a reputation as a fearless warrior from an early age. As a young man he adopted an orphan boy, Gall (1840–1894), who became his best friend and partner in battle. In 1863, after seeing the deplorable conditions at the Santee Reservation, Sitting Bull believed only force could prevent white settlers from taking over Lakota territory. A medicine man, he inspired the warriors who defeated Custer in the Battle of the Little Bighorn in 1876, but the following year was forced to retreat to Canada. He surrendered to the United States in 1881 and lived at the Standing Rock Reservation, where he continued to resist efforts to Americanize his people. He was killed two weeks before the massacre at Wounded Knee.

Billy Mills (1938–) set a world record in track at the 1964 Olympic Games. He then returned to Pine Ridge Reservation and became a role model to Lakota young people. His story was made into a movie, Running Brave. In the mid-2000s he was a spokesperson for Native American causes and served as director of the charitable organization, Running Strong for Native American Youth.

Among the many other notable Lakota are: tribal leader and warrior Red Cloud (1822–1909), known for resisting white settlement of Lakota territory and later for attempts to secure peaceful relations with the U.S. government; spiritual leader Black Elk (c. 1863–1950), subject of a 1932 book Black Elk Speaks; military and tribal leader Crazy Horse (c. 1840–1877), called “Our Strange One” by his people because he kept to himself, wore no war paint, took no scalps, and would not boast of his brave deeds; Mary Brave Bird (also known as Mary Crow Dog; 1953–), who dictated two books about how the American Indian Movement gave meaning to her life—Lakota Woman and Ohitika Woman; Native American rights activist Russell Means (1939–); imprisoned activist Leonard Peltier (1944–); and political figure Ben Reifel (1906–1990), the first member of the Sioux Nation to serve in the U.S. Congress.

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Baker, Wendy Beth. Healing Power of Horses: Lessons from the Lakota Indians. Irvine, CA: BowTie Press, 2004.

Bray, Kingsley M. Crazy Horse: A Lakota Life. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2006.

Brown, Dee. Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1970.

Freedman, Russell. The Life and Death of Crazy Horse. New York: Holiday House, 1996.

Gibbon, Guy E. The Sioux: The Dakota and Lakota Nations. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2003.

Larson, Robert W. Red Cloud: Warrior-Statesman of the Lakota Sioux. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1997.

Lazarus, Edward. Black Hills White Justice: The Sioux Nation versus the United States 1775 to the Present.New York: Harper Collins, 1991.

Marshall, Joseph M. III. The Lakota Way: Stories and Lessons for Living. New York: Viking Compass, 2001.

———. The Journey of Crazy Horse: A Lakota History. New York: Viking, 2004.

Peltier, Leonard. Prison Writings: My Life Is My Sun Dance. New York: St. Martin’s, 2000.

Petrillo, Larissa, Lupe Trejo, and Melda Trejo. Being Lakota: Identity and Tradition on Pine Ridge Reservation. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2007.

Valandra, Edward Charles. Not Without Our Consent: Lakota Resistance to Termination, 1950-59. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2006.

Walker, James R. Lakota Myth. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2006.

Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe: Four Bands of the Lakota Nation. (accessed on August 12, 2007).

“Lakota-Teton Sioux.” Wisdom of the Elders. (accessed on August 12, 2007).

Lower Brule Sioux. (accessed on August 12, 2007).

Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. (accessed on August 12, 2007).

Gordon L. Pullar, Director, Department of Alaska Native and Rural Development College of Rural and Community Development, UAF, Anchorage, Alaska

Laurie Edwards

Brian Wescott (Athabaskan/Yup’ik)

Laurie Edwards

Amanda Beresford McCarthy

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