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Sioux Culture for Non-Natives (as it relates to the Dakota Conflict)

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December 21, 2019 by Pamela Nowak


One of the largest barriers between cultural groups is a lack of understanding about values, traditions, and cultural practices. It’s impossible to understand what is happening if one does not have a basic grasp of motivations. And interpreting based on one’s own cultural systems often leads to grave errors. I hope this week to share small insights into Sioux culture. They will be small glimpses since entire books have been written on the topic and I am neither an expert nor a member of the culture. I will fail to do them full justice and beg forgiveness in advance for the surface explorations. My selection of topics is related to those elements that I explored in writing NEVER LET GO as I sought to place my captive characters within Dakota culture. I wanted to fairly represent values, motivate behaviors, and provide context. My information comes from books, articles, and discussions with Dakota tribal members. 

At the center of Sioux culture is kinship. No one exists outside of inter-relationships. Everyone is defined not by individual identity and personal goals, but by kinship relationships. One must be a good relative and kinship extends beyond bloodlines. Each person is part of a family, a band, a tribe and this “belonging” forms social structure and expectations of behavior. Kinship extends to newcomers, who are to be welcomed into community (and who become one with the community). Extended relatives are respected as though immediate family. Consensus of the community forms the basis of group life.

Initially, the offering of kinship to Europeans brought them into Sioux communities. Regionally, fur traders established relationships and sometimes married Natives. However, European identity was more individualized and many Whites did not understand the obligations of kinship nor did they understand that they were now part of a community. This laid a base of distrust. Later, when White governments began to broker treaties, they had no understanding the everyone in the community had an expectation of being heard and that no single person could represent everyone—the treaty system was flawed. Related to kinship was the extension of hospitality and sharing food. During 1862, the refusal to release annuity food stores made no sense within Dakota culture: those who had food shared with those who had none. At Lake Shetek, settlers echoed behavior of other Whites. Most were fearful of or hostile to Dakota who appeared at their homes rather than extending hospitality to them while the Dakota were insulted by the lack of kinship.

Warfare was an act of survival for the Sioux, especially in response to actions that threatened community. Months of starvation took the events of 1862 into that category and the failure of Indian agents to release food stores further exacerbated the situation.

Violence was an accepted practice within warfare and centuries of fighting with the Ojibwe had taught the Sioux that enemies who were killed in battle were unable to one day return to fight again. Traditionally, Sioux warfare was not a prolonged fight between armies on a battlefield in the European tradition. Rather, warfare consisted of small raids on an enemy bands (which was what a settlement equated as). Once war was decided upon, raiding White settlements was part and parcel of the decision. For the Whites, it was not a war since there was no official declaration of war on the U.S. When the Sioux pursued traditional warfare practices, the Whites saw the action as isolated barbaric attacks (eventually, the U.S. government responded with official action and sent troops).

Within all societies, warfare spurs violence. This occurred within both the Sioux and the White cultures during the Dakota Conflict. Hatred and revenge were fueled during and after the initial raids. For the Dakota, that rage led some to violence toward captives that would have been frowned upon under traditional kinship practices. Whites attacked Sioux being held for trial and widely repeated false allegations of atrocities fueled by the newspapers of the day—many of these news accounts were simply repeats of outrageous unsubstantiated stories with the names changed (one story resurfaced from five years earlier—false then as well).

Still, Sioux warfare WAS intense. Those who encountered their enemy up close displayed more bravery, an honored trait, so fighting was extremely personal in nature. Revenge by family members was common, sometimes brutal as rage took over. Women participated in the defense of their people when necessary. Survivors were seldom left to die or crawl away with the more common practice being either to take them captive or kill them, as the situation warranted. Scalping (encouraged by the offering of bounties by European leaders during the French and Indian War and growing into a more common practice over the century that followed) was not unknown.

The taking of captives during the Dakota Conflict challenged cultural norms for the Dakota. Within the Sioux kinship system, slavery per se had no place. It was a practice that varied among different tribes and though some eastern tribes did take slaves, the Sioux did not. Because Europeans and Americans practiced slavery, they assumed this was the practice among all tribes they encountered. In my discussions with tribal members, I was told that the Dakota might take a captive with the intent to adopt that individual into the tribe—either ceremonially or otherwise—and that the intent would not have been to have the captive be a slave. Whites saw captives as being taken as slaves but the Sioux viewed them as incoming family members.

That practice of extending kinship and welcoming captives as family was severely challenged in the Dakota Conflict. In 1862, there was intense hostility between the cultures and the conflict was, literally, a war, leading to captives being taken on a large scale and some tribal members feeling conflict between the tradition of kinship and the practices of warfare. As well, many Whites were taken captive for the purpose of ransom. This alien concept left tribal members unsure of how kinship was to be applied. If adopted into the tribe as kin, the captives could not later be traded back to the Whites for food or used as leverage. Many Dakota were unsure how to navigate the contradiction between their traditional cultural practices and this new reality. This resulted in differences in how captives were treated during that time.

Captives taken during the 1862 Dakota Conflict did not understand what was expected within Sioux camps. They often did not comprehend the value placed on hard work. Everyone was required to work and when a band was travelling, the work was often very hard and very different from their pre-captive lives. No one waited to be asked to do something and tasks were shared. In addition, work was expected to be done well. Industry and precision were admired traits. White captives often did not know what was anticipated of them and many were not used to the strenuous types of labor that were part of nomadic culture nor did they comprehend the speed at which the bands needed to move after the Dakota Conflict began. The Dakota saw the Whites as lazy and the Whites saw the labor demanded of them as akin to what one would expect of servants or slaves.

In particular, White women did not comprehend the gender roles that were part and parcel of Dakota culture. Women were valued and revered, taking the role of the mother and nurturer with full responsibility for camp life. This included constructing/dismantling tepees, while Whites saw “housing” and, often “butchering” as male tasks. Men were hunters and protectors who exhausted themselves providing for the band and were often allowed to rest upon their return—a practice White women saw as indolence. White captives saw women as doing all the work because they did not see the hunting and warfare done by the men and were oblivious to the honor within the female role.

Whites often completely failed to grasp that roles were really shared equally. Women were pivotal to the community, controlling food and property, holding political influence, and passing on tradition and knowledge to the children. As contact with European-based cultures continued, however, gender status began to shift so that by the time of the Dakota Conflict, behaviors that reflected male superiority were becoming more common and may have been evident to the captives.

Sioux marriage customs were also very misunderstood by captives. Already seeing themselves as slaves and accustomed to monogamy, White women did not understand the acceptance of multiple wives. For the Dakota, polygamy fit into kinship practices and eased workloads. Captives also didn’t understand that within Dakota culture, a man might participate in a formal marriage ceremony or he might simply declare aloud that he was marrying a woman or suggest the idea of marriage. If the woman did not object, the couple would be considered married. Conception of children was part of the culture. Therefore, a White captive might become married (as would be a normal part of kinship practices) without even realizing it. That captive would view marital relations as an act of rape while she was really a participant in the same act she had been expected to perform with her White husband.

Religion was very important within Sioux culture. However, rather than rituals like church and prayer, the Dakota practiced religion in all they did. Ritual was alive in within daily tasks and the Great Spirit was honored in how one performed those tasks. For White captives, tasks were chores. Ritualized dancing was part of religious practice as well as traditional communication and community. Many Whites saw it as barbaric and aggressive and that lack of understanding prompted them to apply labels that didn’t exist.

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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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