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The Sioux Nation

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December 7, 2019 by Pamela Nowak


For those unfamiliar with the Dakota (many of us), understanding the Dakota Conflict of 1862 often becomes a very generalized interpretation. The Dakota are not a single group nor are they the same as the Sioux and the events of 1862 had roots that stretched back centuries with complicated cultural undertones.

The “Sioux” are comprised of three language groups, two regional divisions, thirteen modern political subdivisions, seven original tribes and nine current federally-recognized tribes. Some of the terms used for language groupings also relate to geographic groupings. The term “Sioux” comes from an Ojibwe term and was not used by this group of people until they began to interact with Whites. Members of the Sioux Nation may refer to their language group, geographic group, band within geographic group, village, or tribe. Through history, Whites sometimes recorded the groups in error. The term “tribe” is often applied to more than one grouping, which complicates matters considerably.

This week, I hope to explore this complex identity a bit, toward greater understanding and as a reference point for future posts on the history of Minnesota and the Dakota Conflict.

Looking at Sioux groupings and identity, it might be helpful for some of those who are not Sioux to view it from a European cultural stance. While there are differences and this might be a simplistic and Euro-centric way to analyze the complexity, it does provide a framework that is more familiar to those to whom the Siouxan terms are not familiar. I am hopeful my Dakota and Lakota friends will allow me the loose analogy toward the aim of increased understanding.

Think of the Scandinavian people. Scandinavian is a term applied to a group of people from a geographic area comprised of three countries where people speak languages with similar roots and practice similar customs. The term also applies to a geographic region. A person might be a Swede and a Scandinavian yet not all Scandinavians are Swedes and a Norwegian would take great exception to being labeled as one. And then there is Finland, once part of Sweden, where Swedish is spoken but identity is Finnish, which is not considered part of Scandinavia today. People living in that area also have identities related to their unique regions and towns. The Scandinavian countries are also Nordic countries but not all Nordic countries are Scandinavian. Complicated? Of course.

Like Scandinavians, members of the Sioux Nation identify variously by language group, tribe, geographic division, and traditional reference. Thinking about it this way may help in sorting through the unfamiliar terms and names.

Traditionally, according to the Akta Lakota Museum, the proper term for the Sioux Tribe is “Oceti Sakowin” (Och-et-eeshak-oh-win) meaning “Seven Council Fires.” The original Sioux Nation had seven “council fires,” each of which was made up of differing bands and based on kinship, dialect, and geography. The term “council fire” refers to the PETA WAKEN or sacred fire, which was preserved by moving coals when the group relocated. The sacred fire was a symbol of unity and keeping it was important. The Seven Council Fires were the Mdewakanton (Dwellers by the Sacred Lake), the Wahpekute (Shooters Among the Leaves), the Sisitonwan/Sisseton (People of the Marsh), the Wahpetonwan (Dwellers Among the Leaves), the Ihanktown/Lower Yanktonai (People of the End), the Ihanktowana/Upper Yanktoni (People of the Little End), and the Tetonwan (People on the Plains).

Understanding the sub-divisions within the Sioux is more complicated than the traditional Seven Sacred Fires, however. Over time, identity became associated with language, geographical areas, bands, villages, and leaders.

There are three language groups among the Sioux, which evolved as the larger group spread across a wider geographic area. Dakota is spoken in the eastern areas of Minnesota and Iowa, Lakota is spoken in the western area of the Missouri River and beyond in South Dakota, and Nakota (today spoken by only a few with most of the original Nakota speakers shifting to Dakota) which was generally spoken by those  west of the Dakota speakers. All three languages share a similar culture and the difference in language results primarily from pronunciation of the letter “L”.

Within the Sioux, there are also three major geographic divisions, each comprised of its own subdivisions. The Eastern Dakota are known as the Santee. Within the Santee are the Mdewakanton, Sisseton, Wahpekute, and Wahpeton. The Santee lived in Minnesota in 1862. The Western Dakota are also known as the Yankton (sub-divided into Yankton, Upper Yanktonai, and Lower Yanktonai). The Lakota include the Ogalala, Sicangu/Brule, Hunkpapa, Miniconjou, Sihasapa/Blackfoot (not the same as the Blackfoot tribe), Itazzipacola/Sans Arc, and Oohenupa/Two Kettle. The Nakota do not recognize by geographic area. Each geographic sub-division (referred to as either bands or tribes by Whites and Sioux alike until recent federally recognized tribes became the norm) had villages named for the village leader or location. Today, there are nine federally recognized tribes within the Great Sioux Nation with original east/west patterns disrupted by government removals and resettlements after 1862.

With the complex identities within the Sioux Nation, any individual might refer to himself/herself with any one of several terms, dependent upon the meaning desired. Historically, this was a concept Whites did not understand. Multiple nicknames were used and original errors made by explorers were repeated. Europeans, who more often than not, did not consider Native Americans to have such complicated identities, it was difficult to sort out with whom they were dealing. A Santee might be representing the Santee or the Sisseton or a single village. And, while that individual might be a recognized leader, the powers involved with being a leader were very different from the powers bestowed to an elected official within White culture.  One can see why negotiations on any issue were often doomed before they began.

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As I count down to my July 2020 release of NEVER LET GO, I’ll be posting weekly blogs about the history of Lake Shetek, the Dakota Conflict or the people and cultures involved. Or, I may touch on the writing process or interesting tidbits included in the novel.

For more details on the novel, please visit my HOME page. 

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