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An Introduction to Dakota Culture and History

Kevin L. Callahan
University of Minnesota


buffalo dance

The Buffalo Dance

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"Many of the lodges or societies of the Lakotas were social in character, while others arose for very serious puposes, particularly those brought into existence by dreams or visions. The Buffalo Lodge was a social order which held no secret meetings. Its members, who joined only upon invitation, were braves, mostly old or middle-aged men, who met for the purpose of keeping alive their war records, telling stories, singing the lodge songs, dancing, and playing games. Their gatherings were very popular, the exploits of the braves - scouts, warriors, and icimanis [news-walkers who went from band to band with the news] - always holding much interest for the people. A favorite sport was enacting the Buffalo Dance, in which all members danced, but only those who had performed some outstanding act of bravery took the part of buffaloes. The warriors danced about the circle, those impersonating the buffalo bumping and butting the others. Those with lesser records of bravery endevored to keep beyond the reach of the buffalo dancers, but if outnumbered would have to step pretty lively. This dance called for much activity, and sometimes there was much leaping back and forthover the fire, providing a great deal of fun for the onlookers" (Standing Bear 1978:142). Listen to Frances Densmore's Audio Recordings of Dakota Music.

Sources and suggested reading:

Luther Standing Bear
1. Land of the Spotted Eagle Luther Standing Bear 1978 reprint of 1933 publication.University of Nebraska Press: Lincoln and London.
Luther Standing Bear published Land of the Spotted Eagle in 1933 after returning to the Pine Ridge Reservation (Reservations Map) and being shocked by the loss of Dakota culture and "the physical and mental stautus of the reservation Sioux" (Standing Bear 1978:vii). He attempted to record the life and culture he had known and he described many of the religious and spiritual beliefs and values that were commonly held when he was growing up (Map of present day Dakota areas).

Click for a larger image

2. Lame Deer Seeker of Visions John (Fire) Lame Deer and Richard Erdoes. 1994 Washington Square Press: New York.

3. Lakota Belief and Ritual James R. Walker, 1991, Edited by Raymond j. DeMaillie and Elaine A. Jahner. University of Nebraska Press: Lincoln and London.

4. Minnesota's Sacred Red Rock Boulder Kevin L. Callahan.

5. Dakota Religion and Sacred Boulders Kevin L. Callahan.

6. Dakota Spirituality, Stone Dreamers, and Face Painting: an interpretation of the Dakota practice of painting boulders with vermillion stripes Kevin L. Callahan

7. The Seven Council Fires (Page One); The Seven Council Fires (Page Two)

8. "Teton Sioux Music and Culture" Frances Densmore, 1992, University of Nebraska Press: Lincoln and London. Listen to Frances Densmore's Audio Cylinder Recordings (RealAudio Player - loads fast).

9. Information on stopping the slaughter of the last wild buffalo herd by the MT Dept. of Livestock. Send an email from the Buffalo Nation website before October 16, 1998.

10. Visit The Art Gallery

11. The Little Bighorn Indian Memorial Design Competition (70 architectural designs)

TBird animation

The Dakota language family and general definitions of terms

The terms Dakota, Nakota, and Lakota refer to dialects of the Siouxan language and also groups of people. Lakota, for example, is generally spoken in the western part of South Dakota (The Oglala on the Pine Ridge Reservation are an example). Nakota is spoken in the eastern part of South Dakota, Montana, and Canada and Dakota is generally spoken in Minnesota. The original homeland during historic times for the Dakota people was in Minnesota. The dialects changed as the Dakota people moved west. The word "Sioux" is thought by many to be a disparaging term created by the Ojibway meaning "snakes" and is generally not now preferred by Dakota people for that reason although it so permeated the historical literature that it is still used in terms like the "Siouxan language family." The Eastern Dakota were woodland people with canoes, wild rice harvesting, etc. The later plains culture resulted in part from the wars with the Ojibway and partly from the Dakota Conflict in 1862 (the largest Indian War in American history with about 500 white casualties. The number of Dakota casualties is not known) and the subsequent removal of the Dakota from Minnesota. It has been estimated that about 500 treaties were entered into with the United States government by Native Americans. About 270 these were never ratified. About 230 treaties were ratified but then the edicts were broken. To review the history of the last century is generally painful for both sides. Problems with chemical dependency, alcoholism, poverty, hopelessness and despair, and dysfunctional families are also continuing present day problems in many areas. There have been many gross misrepresentations and inaccurate stereotypes of the Dakota throughout history and this has been a real problem both with the lurid press and with negative representations of the Dakota in film. The Dakota culture as described by Luther Standing Bear arguably had many superior qualities and many superior customs and ways of doing things to the culture that frequently replaced it. A review of the oppression of the Dakota people and their difficult history which includes many horrible episodes is in some ways not dissimilar to the oppression and holocausts of other people such as the Jews or Irish.

Tatanka Iyotake
"...the more I think about it, the more I believe that the only real medicine man is the wicasa wakan -- the holy man. Such a one can cure, prophesy, talk to the herbs, command the stones, conduct the sun dance or even change the weather, but all this is of no great importance to him. These are merely stages he has passed through. The wicasa wakan has gone beyond all this. He has the wakaya wowanyanke -- the great vision. Sitting Bull was such a man. When he had his sun-dance vision at Medicine Deer Rock he saw many blue-coated soldiers fall backward into the Indian camp and he heard a voice telling him, 'I give you these, because they have no ears.' Sitting Bull knew then that the Indians would win the next battle. He did not fight himself, he commanded no men, he did not do anything except let his wisdom and power work for his people" (Lame Deer 1994: 160).

The Dakota view of nature and "wildness"

Europeans and Euro-Americans were very conscious of the Judeo-Christian belief that according to the Bible God had commanded Adam to "subdue the Earth." (See Genesis) For example, explorers like Sir Francis Drake consciously wrote about this duty when describing his voyages and explorations. Luther Standing Bear eloquently described the differences between the way the Dakota viewed nature and the way Euro-Americans viewed nature when he wrote: "We did not think of the great open plains, the beautiful rolling hills, and winding streams with tangled growth, as 'wild.' Only to the white man was nature a 'wilderness' and only to him was the land 'infested' with 'wild'animals and 'savage' people. To us it was tame. Earth was bountiful and we were surrounded with the blessings of ther Great Mystery. Not until the hairy man from the east came and with brutal frenzy heaped injustices upon us and the families we loved was it 'wild' for us. When the very animals of the forest began fleeing from his approach, then it was that for us the 'Wild West' began" (Id. at xxvii).

The Jewish idea that God selected a "chosen people" and that man was apart from and above the animals was also in sharp contrast to Dakota beliefs. As Standing Bear pointed out, "the Lakota belief [was] that man did not occupy a special place in the eyes of Wakan Tanka, the Grandfather of us all. I was only a part of everything that was called the world. I can now see that humaneness is not a thing which can be ordered by law. It is an ideal to be lived" (Id. at 22).

James Walker's Outline of Oglala Mythology

James Walker was a Physician and Anthropologist who worked on the Pine Ridge Reservation and who became an Oglala medicine man. He outlined Oglala Mythology as follows:
"The category of the Gods as held by the shamans place them in four ranks with four in each rank, having prestige and precedence according to rank and place in rank.
The first rank is of the Superior Gods who are Wi (the Sun), the chief of the Gods; Skan (the sky), the Great All-powerful Spirit; Maka (the Earth), the ancestress of all upon the world and provider for all; and Inyan (the Rock), the primal source of all things.
The second rank is of the Associate Gods who are Hanwi (the Moon), created by Wi to be his companion; Tate (the Wind), created by Skan to be his companion;Unk (Contention), created by Maka to be her companion, but who was cast into the waters and is the Goddess of the Waters and ancestress of all evil beings; and Wakinyan (Winged One), created by Inyan to be his active associate.


The third rank is of the four Subordinate Gods who are Ta Tanka (The Buffalo God), the patron of ceremonies, of health, and of provision; Hu Nonp (the Bear God), the patron of wisdom; Wani (the Four Winds), the vitalizer and weather; and Yum (the Whirlwind), the God of chance, of games, and of love.
The fourth rank is of the Inferior Gods who are Nagi (the Spirit); Niya (the Ghost); Sicun (the Intellect); and Nagila (the immaterial self of irrational things).
These sixteen Gods are each but a personal manifestation of one Supreme Being and that being is Wakan Tanka, the Great Mystery.
Skan created of his essence a daughter to be the Mediator and named her Wohpe. He endowed her with God-like attributes and made her the patron of harmony, beauty, and pleasure. She is more beautiful than any other being.
Inyan has two offspring. The older was brought forth full grown from an egg in an antinatural manner by Wakinyan. His name was Ksa and he was the God of wisdom but he became the imp of mischief and his name is Iktomi.
The second son of Inyan is Iya, who is utterly evil and the chief of all evil beings.. He committed incest with his mother Unk and their offspring is a very beautiful, very enticing, and very deceitful demon whose name is Gnaski.
These are the characters that appear most often in Oglala mythology. The mythic legends give the genesis of the Gods and of all creation. A brief of those relative to the four Superior Gods is this:

Taku skan skan

Before there was any other thing, or any time, Inyan was, and his spirit was Wakan Tanka. Han was then but she is not a thing for she is only the black of darkness. Inyan was soft and shapeless but he had all powers. The powers were in his blood and his blood was blue. He longed for another that he might exercise his powers upon it. There could be no other unless he would create it of that which he must take from himself. If he did so he must impart to it a spirit and give to it a portion of his blood. As much blood as would go from him, so much of his powers would go with it.
He concluded to create another as a part of himself so that he could retain control of the powers. So he took from himself that which he spread over and around himself in the shape of a great disk whose edge is where there is no beyond. He named this disk Maka and imparted to it a spirit which is Maka-akan (the Earth God).
To create Maka he took so much from himself that he opened all his veins and all his blood flowed from him and he shrank and became hard and powerless. As his blood flowed it became waters and it is the waters.
But powers cannot abide in waters, so they separated themselves and became a being in the shape of a great blue dome whose edge is at but not upon the edge of Maka. The powers are a spirit and the blue dome, the sky, the Great Spirit Skan. Inyan, Maka, and the waters are the world and Skan is the sky above the world.
Maka was contentious and upbraided Inyan because he did not create her a separate being and demanded that he banish Han. He replied that he was powerless and then she taunted him with his impotency and nagged him until he agreed to appeal to Skan. Skan heard the complaint of Maka and the plea of Inyan that she be appeased. Thus Skan was created a judge and is the final and supreme judge of all things.
He decreed that Maka must remain forever attached to Inyan as she was created. To appease her he created Anp, who is not a thing for he is only the red of light. Skan banished Han to the regions under the world and placed Anp on the world. Then there was light everywhere on the world but there was not heat nor any shadow.
Maka saw herself, that she was naked and cold, and complained to Skan of this. Skan then took from Inyan and from Maka and from the waters and from himself that which he created a shining disk. This disk he named Wi and imparted to it a spirit which is Wi-akan (the Sun God). He placed Wi above the blue dome and commanded him to shine on all the world, giving heat to everything, and to make a shadow for each thing. Wi did as he was commanded and all in the world was hot.
Maka had no comfort except inshadow and she implored Skan to return Han upon the world. Then Skan commanded Anp and Han to follow each other and remain for a space upon the world. He commanded Wi to go before Anp to the regions under the world and follow him above the world. All did as they were commanded.
Thus there wer the four Superior Gods and there was established Anp-etu and Han-yetu, the first [two] of the four times, the daytime and the nighttime.
There are several legends that together give the genesis of the third of the four times, the Moon time. A brief of them is this:
The Gods had their feasts in the regions under the world. There Skan created mankind to be the servants of the Gods. Mankind increased and became many, so Skan named them the Pte people. The chief of the Pte, Wa, and his wife, Ka had a daughter whose name was Ite"(Walker 1991:50-53).

Dakota Spirituality

In general terms, and like some other Native American groups, Dakota spirituality centers around certain customs and beliefs, concepts, events, and objects. These include the sweatlodge, pipe, drums, singing, the naming ceremony, prayer, vision questing and guardian spirits, the ceremonial pow wow (such as the Sun Dance), the medicine man or woman (shamans), medicine bags, dream articles and traditional stories regarding the Great Spirit. Ritual and spiritual objects include sage,sweetgrass,tobacco, and cedar. Dogs were often used in religious feasts and were akin to the sacrifical lambs of early Christianity. Four is a sacred number. There are 4 seasons and four powers of the universe sit at the four cardinal directions of North, South, East, and West. The symbolic "four colors of man" are red,yellow,black, and white. Stones are considered the oldest people and spiritual people talk to them and refer to them in curing and finding lost objects. Frances Densmore wrote a whole chapter including songs in her book The Teton Sioux and their Music.

Important Dakota Terms and Concepts

Traditional people call North America "turtle island" because it is shaped like a turtle (Florida is one hind leg, Baja California is another, Mexico is the tail). Minnesota place names derived from the language include: Minnesota (whitish water, land of sky tinted water, etc.), Chanhassen (birch trees), Chaska (oldest son or first born male child), Winona (oldest daughter or first born female child), etc. As Luther Standing Bear noted with reference to males: "In the natural course of events every Lakota boy became a hunter, scout, or warrior. It was necessary that every boy should choose one of the three callings and by the time he had reached eary manhood he was ready, by training to follow the one for which he seemed most fitted. The selection was his. . . . Most young men at some time in their lives tried to become medicine-men. They purified themselves and held the vigil hoping for direct communion with spirit powers, but in this few succeeded" (Standing Bear 1978: 39). Traditional Dakota spiritual leaders are creationists and do not believe in the Bering Strait hypothesis for the peopling of North America nor the evolution of human beings in a Darwinian sense. According to Luther Standing Bear, "our legends tell us that it was hundreds and perhaps thousands of years ago since the first man sprang from the soil in the midst of these great plains. The story says that one morning long ago a lone man awoke, face to the sun, emerging from the soil. Only his head was visible, the rest of his body not yet being fashioned. The man looked about, but saw no mountains, no rivers, no forests. There was nothing but soft a nd quaking mud, for the earth itself was still young. Up and up the man drew himself until he freed his body from the clinging soil. At last he stood upon the earth, but it was not solid, and his first few steps were slow and halting. But the sun shone and ever the man kept his face turned toward it. In time the rays of the sun hardened the face of the earth and strengthened the man and he bounded and leaped about, a free and joyous creature. From this man sprang the Lakota nation and, so far as we know, our people have been born and have died on this plain; and no people have shared it with us until the coming of the European" (Standing Bear 1978:44-45). This creation story, of course, is one of many Native American and European creation stories and contrasts sharply with the perspective of anthropology concerning the evolution of homo sapiens and the peopling of the americas from Asia.

The Dakota Conflict

Chronology of the 1862 Uprising (Kenneth Carley 1976).

Dakota Conflict Map

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Start date: 9/26/98

Links to other sites on the Web

Kevin L. Callahan's Home Page
Upper Midwest Rock Art Research Association (UMRARA)
Index of Native American Resources on the Internet (megalinks)
Native American Resources (megalinks)
Native American Dancing (information on Native American dance styles, plus information and resources on Pow Wows such as etiquette and a calendar of upcoming events.)
Native Web (megalinks)
American Indian Studies (Links page)
Native American Resources on the Web
Native American Sites
An Introduction to Ojibway Culture and History (My website on the Ojibway)

KLC's Home Page



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