From The Last Days of the Sioux Nation by Robert M. Utley


Chapter Two:  "The Old Life"


Many varieties of Sioux:  Dakota and Sioux are the same people--Dakota means allies and Sioux is a name given them by their enemies, meaning enemy.


            Teton Sioux or Teton Dakota


Originally the Sioux were forest people who dwelt in the lake region around the head of the Mississippi River.  They lived in semi-permanent houses of pole, earth, and bark.  They subsisted on berries, fish, and game procured on foot.


Early 1700s French traders gave the Chippewas guns.  The Sioux were forced to move westward, some continuing to the treeless prairies.


By early 1800 there was a well-defined Sioux confederation consisting of seven divisions:





            Mniconjou         Each of these "tribes" had numerous bands

            Sans Arc

            Two Kettle



Two gifts of the white man changed the Sioux life forever: guns and horses.  The Sioux were literally catapulted into the "modern" age when the buffalo disappeared and the train and fences appeared.  One people's expansion generally means the destruction of another culture.  In this case the conquest was not simple nor complete. 


The Sioux were dependent upon the herds of buffalo that roamed the plains.  Because the buffalo were migratory, the Sioux became nomads.  Each spring they would rendezvous.

Sioux were also dependent upon trading with other Indians and with the white traders.  Irony was that when the white wagon trains began to traverse the plains (1840s) the Indians did not generally act in a hostile way with them.  They traded with the emigrants for food and other supplies and assisted them as guides and at river crossings.  But the pioneers brought more diseases: cholera, measles, and scarlet fever.  Emigrants hunted and frightened away game and exhausted timber resources, while their stock wore out grazing lands along the trails.


"This country was once covered with buffalo, elk, deer, and antelope, and we had plenty to eat.  But now since the white man has made a road across our land and has killed of our game, we are hungry, and there is nothing left for us to eat.  Our women and children cry for food and we have no food to give them." -- Washakie


Tensions naturally escalated.  Indians regarded emigrants as trespassers, and the U.S. was determined to protect its citizens.



·        Main supply of food

·        Hide was used for clothing and moccasins, bed covers and "bull boats", and for every type of container.

·        Dressed hides sewn together and stretched over a conical framework of poles former the familiar tipi

·        Horns, hoofs, and bones were used for cooking utensils, work tools,

·        Intestines and bladders were used to carry water.

·        Sinews furnished rope, thread, and bowstrings

·        Even the droppings were used as fuel.


For the plains Indians, the disappearance of the buffalo was a catastrophe.


Character of the Sioux warrior: 

·        Despised restraint

·        Highest values of the Sioux centered on war.  This was the way to wealth, prestige, and high rank.  Indian raids usually consisted of 30 to 40 men.  The object was to take as many scalps and horses as possible

·        Skilled horsemen and hunters with bow, tomahawk, knife, shield.

·        Initiation to manhood:  went alone into the plains, stripped to a breechcloth, fasted, prayed, tortured himself, and humbly appealed for strength.  Had to eventually experience a vision which was interpreted by a shaman.  May have a guardian spirit represented by some token (totem) (animal, bird, etc.)



Political organization


Each band had a chief but he was not an absolute despot ruling the destinies of his people.  His duties were to carry out the will of the majority and to guard the band's customs, traditions, and religion.


Chief acted only with the mandate of the people.  Authority and power resided in the council.  Members of the council had responsibilities to make sure the hunts were conducted properly, etc.  Paradoxically, the whites gave the chiefs more power than what they truly had.




·        Performed vital labors of cooking, preparing skins and robes, making clothing and lodgings, and moving camp.

·        Inspired the men (admiration for warriors successful hunts and raids.


Social Skills


·        Men tended to be shy and circumspect.  When he wanted to marry he deposited as much personal wealth as he could afford in front of the tipi of the girl's father.  If the suitor was accepted, the girl moved in with him without further formality.  No ceremonies or vows sanctified the contract.  Divorce was equally simple and accomplished without ceremony.




All gods merged to become Wakan Tanka, the Great Mysterious.  Individual "gods" had their own powers but they collectively constituted Wakan Tanka.  All were benevolent gods.


·        Wi -- Sun

·        Skan -- sky

·        Maka -- earth

·        Inyan -- Rock

·        Tate -- Wind


There were "evil" gods:  Mini Watu (symbolized as a maggot) made things "rotten.


From their gods, totems, and fetishes the Sioux derived every kind of psychological power needed to make them individually and nationally strong, confident, and untroubled.


Shamans:  great knowledge--looked to for instruction and guidance in spiritual matters (psychologist)

Medicine Man -- in charge of physical maladies -- used home remedies and prayers and chants (psychiatrist)  Both the shaman and the medicine man would accept payment for their services, although if the patient died, they would return the gift.

Other Plains Indians: 




Arikaras           These people lived semi-sedentary farming tradition  Inhabited earthen lodges--successful hunters and farmers








Arapahos            Relative recent entrants to the Great Plains