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Spotlight on Culture

People that call this area Home: The Indigenous Nations, our first inhabitants

Post #2- The Lakota, their history, their art, dancing, music, and religious traditions.

Watercolor by Karl Bodmer, ca. 1833

Before European settlement of the Northern Plains began in the 19th Century, the land had already been occupied for many centuries by various thriving cultures.

Archeological investigations document the presence of big game hunting cultures after the retreat of the continental glaciers about 10,000 years ago, and later settlements of both hunting and gathering, and farming people, dating ca. 2000 B.C. to 1860. Ancient Lakota history is depicted in the pictorial calendars famously known as “Winter Counts” which are seen on hides. the Lakota have historically been nomadic people who organize their lives and ceremonies around the movement of the sun and stars

When the first white conquerors arrived, distinct Indigenous groups existed in what is now North Dakota. These included the Dakota or Lakota nation (called "Sioux" by those who feared them), Assiniboine, Cheyenne, Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara. Groups of Chippewa (or Ojibwe) moved into the northern Red River valley around 1800, and Cree, Blackfeet, and Crow frequented the western bison ranges.

Winter Count on a Bison hide

These people represented two different adaptations to the plains environment. Nomadic groups depended primarily upon vast herds of American Bison for the necessities of life. When the horse was brought to the Northern Plains in the 18th Century, the lives of the Dakota, Assiniboine, and Cheyenne changed dramatically.

It is said that around 1730, horses were introduced to the Lakotas by the Cheyenne people. They called these horses “dogs of power, wonder or mystery”. After this, they became more efficient bison hunters, riding on horseback, because these bands quickly adapted to them, and their new mobility enabled them to hunt with greater ease.

Lakota warrior on horseback

Horses became a hallmark of Plains cultures, and the images of these mounted Indigenous people created an image of power and strength that has survived in stories, films, and songs. In contrast, the sedentary Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara lived in relatively permanent earthlodges near the Missouri River and supplemented produce from extensive gardens they managed with hunting.

In the late 17th century, the Lakotas who were living in the upper Mississippi region were forced to the Great Plains on the west of Mississippi and then to the Dakota Territory due to conflict that occurred over the fur trade. As renowned bison hunters, disagreements over their fur trade and the collection of said fur, were inevitable among the tribes. Around 1720 they split into sects and scattered in the region, but by about 1760 they relocated in close proximity on the east bank of the Missouri river. However, they couldn’t cross the river for over a decade, due to the influence of powerful tribes (Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara). After a great small-pox epidemic killed three quarters of the people in these tribes, the Lakota crossed the river and settled in the grass prairies of the high plains.

By 1775 all the Lakota sects were settled in the high plains and a year later they defeated the Cheyenne people and captured the Black Hills (Paha Sapa) and made it their home.

The Lakota and other groups that originally inhabited the area came into contact with the Europeans during the 18th Century. The first recorded one was La Verendrye, a French explorer who reached the Missouri River from Canada in 1738 while searching for a water route to the Pacific Ocean. Others followed, including La Verendrye's sons in 1742. However, most contact resulted from the Canadian fur trade until Lewis and William Clark led the American "voyage of discovery" up the Missouri from St, Louis in 1804, where the Lakota did not allow them to trespass into their territory to head upstream the Missouri river. The conflict ended without casualties after a standoff.

Gen. Sherman and his staff negotiating the Treaty of Fort Laramie with representatives of the Sioux and Arapaho tribes in what is now Wyoming. National Archives

In 1851, the Fort Laramie Treaty was signed between the Treaty Commissioners of the US and the Indigenous Tribes, with the US government acknowledging that the land belonged to these tribes, and naming it as Indian Territory. In return, these tribes agreed to assure safe passage for the Oregon Trail settlers that passed their territory, and they in turn asked for the government's protection against unwanted settlers in their lands. The US government did not honor its part of the deal.

Instead, using the excuse of conflict between the Lakota and other tribal bands with the emigrant trains and settlers, they moved to take their territory from them, and started armed attacks against them by the US Army. In 1855, a battle with General William Harney killed more than 100 Lakota people. What followed was a chain of battles, which resulted in even more chaos as refugees started fleeing west- increasing illegal settlement, which in turn caused more conflict. This war, commonly referred as the Sioux Wars, included defeating the 7th Cavalry Regiment at the Battle of Little Big Horn. The armed conflicts with the US Government ended with the Wounded Knee Massacre.

Monument at the site of a mass grave for the victims of the Wounded Knee Massacre

The Wounded Knee Massacre, referred as the "Battle of Wounded Knee", was a massacre of nearly three hundred Lakota by soldiers of the United States Army near Wounded Knee Creek (Čhaŋkpé Ópi Wakpála) on the Lakota Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, where more than 250 men, women and children were killed, and 51 others were wounded (4 men and 47 women and children, some of whom died later). It occurred on December 29, 1890.

The next conflict was over the intentions of the US Government of mining in the Black Hills . The Black Hills are sacred to the Lakota, so they were against their destruction in such a way. The US Army waged war against the Lakota along the Bozeman trail because of it, but the Oglala chief led the Lakota to a famous victory in Red Cloud’s war. This resulted in the US signing the Fort Laramie treaty of April 29, 1868- prohibiting white settlement in the Black Hills. They did not honor this treaty either, and the US army continued to wage war against them, until they finally defeated the Lakota in a series of battles called the Great Sioux War, confining the Lakota to reservations, and allowing them to take the Black Hills a year before it ended.

These lands were pledged to the Sioux Nation, but the treaty was effectively nullified without the Nation's consent, in the Indian Appropriations Bill of 1876. That bill “denied the Sioux all further appropriation and treaty-guaranteed annuities” until they gave up the Black Hills. Their interest in these sacred lands was due to them finding gold.

Black Hills, South Dakota. Rock formation known as Needles

The Black Hills land claim, is an ongoing land dispute between the Sioux Nation and the United States government. A Supreme Court case was ruled in favor of the Sioux Nation in 1980. They have outstanding issues with the ruling, as the land was never for sale to begin with, and have not collected the funds, demanding instead the return of their land. As of 2018, the award was worth over $1 billion.

Throughout the 20th and 21st centuries, the Dakota and Lakota would continue to fight for their treaty rights, most notably in recent times as Dakota Access Pipeline protests, also called by the hashtag NoDAPL, that began in early 2016 in reaction to the approved construction of Energy Transfer Partners' Dakota Access Pipeline. The pipeline was projected to run from the Bakken oil fields in western North Dakota to southern Illinois, crossing beneath the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers, as well as under part of Lake Oahe near the Standing Rock Indian Reservation. Many in the surrounding communities consider the pipeline a serious threat to the region's water. The construction is also seen as a direct threat to ancient burial grounds and cultural sites of historic importance.

At present, the Lakota people inhabit five major reservations in the western Dakota region.

Artistic expressions
Art objects

Most American Indigenous art objects are basically intended to perform a service—for example, to act as a container or to provide a means of worship. That particular utilitarian form that their art takes, often reflects the social organization of the cultures involved.

Generally, but not always, the best artwork was applied to those objects intended to please a deity, soothe the angry gods, placate or frighten the evil spirits, or honor the newly born or recently deceased. Through such means, they sought to control the environment and the human or supernatural beings that surrounded or threatened them.

Some articles were solely for religious uses, and some were for secular needs alone. Decoration does not always provide a clue as to these uses. Some of the most highly revered religious artifacts are completely devoid of ornamentation, while others are highly embellished. Some used plainware bowls for food preparation, while others used polychrome bowls for the same purpose.

Many objects served a dual function: normally, they were used for everyday household purposes, yet under a different set of circumstances they could fulfill a religious function.

The idea of these artists was not to merely set down realistic records, but to create semi-magical designs- something also very common in the art of non-Western cultures. The artists quickly realized that they could not draw as perfectly as it could be made by the Creator- and, with common sense, they did not try. Instead, they sought to portray the spirit or essence of what they wanted, and represented this in the design.

Carvings, paintings, effigies, or realistic portraits are not simply pictures of people or objects; they embody the essence of that particular subject as well. This semi-magical character of Indigenous American art is difficult for some to understand. It's important to mention that they incorporate their spirituality into every aspect of their lives, and that includes their art expressions. Sometimes, a non-Indigenous American person would ask what a design means, but Indigenous Americans often attach names to designs largely for convenience. Viewers may be confused when an artist calls a given design a “leaf,” or an “arrowhead,” when what is actually meant is that the design is “leaflike,” or “leaf-shaped,” and so on. But the other person immediately translates this to mean that the design signifies a leaf or an arrowhead and tries to impart a narrative to the overall visual concept that is not relevant to the original artist’s work.

Ritual was often interwoven into the very process of creating art. Western assessment of Indigenous American art often centers on the product rather than the process; American indigenous artists, however, give exacting attention to the creative process and interact with their materials at all stages of creation.

Such prescribed ritual is of equal importance to the artistic skill employed in the production of the work. This aspect is extremely complex and must be considered throughout the creation of the work of art.

Not all of their art, however, was religious or political. There was also a considerable amount of mundane, humorous, and even profane art produced. Although most of the eroticism has disappeared, sufficient examples remain from prehistoric and recent times to indicate a wholly relaxed freedom of expression reflecting a healthy, naturalistic outlook.

The art made by the Lakota must include information on the Ghost Dance of 1890, because it had a great influence on leather, bead shirt designs. See "Ghost Dance" for more information. The women of the Lakota Sioux tribe were known for their quill and beadwork, and the Lakota men made beautiful painted images on carefully cured hides from the bison they hunted. They created beautifully decorated hide shirts that were symbols of bravery, and earned only by the most courageous in battle.

Heavily fringed and embellished with porcupine quills, paint, ribbon, hair and later tight patterns of colored glass beads, the shirts took on the spirits of their owners and even today are made for wearing at powwows and in recognition of other accomplishments. Here you can find a video of the 32nd annual Oglala Lakota Wacipi Rodeo Fair, where you can see modern works from the Lakota, along with music and dancing.

Patterns were fashioned into geometric shapes and frizzy fringes of dyed magenta and yellow hair finished the fine works of art.

They would use sacred symbols such as the bison, but also added other things- for example, a United States Army insignia, as seen in an 1890 Lakota shirt. They also worked with porcupine quills and metal beads.

Here's a compilation of Lakota artists, both from the past and present times. You can find examples of their art for sale in websites such as Etsy, like this artist, or by searching online.

They also make beaded jewelry and Dream Catchers, and there's local artists that teach the art of making them in our community. To take classes on how to make dream catchers and a beaded choker with Christy Goulet, go to this page.

The Plains Art Museum also does great series on local Indigenous people's art periodically.

Owinja - Star Quilts

Owinja means quilt in the Lakota language. In the past century, Lakota women have raised their star quilts to an art form much in demand. The majority of these quilts are dominated by a single star; however, multiple and broken star patterns are not uncommon.

The single star is made of small diamond-shaped patches pieced together in eight sections. When these sections are joined together, the eight-sided star is formed. This star pattern is derived from early bison robe designs. The extermination of the bison herds coincided roughly with the implementation of the first mission schools where the craft of quilting was taught. The pattern bears a resemblance to various Anglo-American designs dating to the 18th century.

The morning star is an important figure in Sioux ceremonies. It represents the direction from which spirits travel to earth and is a link between the living and the dead, and symbolizes immortality.

At funerals, the quilt is draped behind the casket, replacing the traditional red-painted bison hide.

star quilt by Creator Jon Orlando

Today, star quilts are one of the most valued gifts of the Lakota people, often made for events such as memorial feasts, celebrations, naming ceremonies and marriages. For the newly married couple, the star quilt is considered an essential gift, bestowing upon them recognition and respect.

Music and Dancing

Every art expression from the Lakota is infused by their spirituality and way of life. They do not separate this spirituality from their daily lives, so their music and dance showcase ways in which they connect with the Divine spirits and the Universe.

David Swallow Jr. sings and writes great songs, and does ceremonial teachings that people can learn from. Here you can find videos of his songs, among other things.

Here are videos found online that give an example of both:

Religious Traditions

The notion of a religious system is more applicable to Western ideology and Christian missionaries’ efforts to understand a spiritual philosophy different from their own, than it is to the beliefs of the Lakota. For them, religion is not compartmentalized into a separate category.

White buffalo calf woman, by Daniel Eskridge

Lakota traditions can be characterized as a system of spirituality that is fully integrated into a rhythm of life that includes all aspects and patterns of the universe. At the center of this rhythm is Wakan Tanka or Tunkashila, sometimes translated as Grandfather and often as Great Spirit or Great Mystery, but better left untranslated.

Cannupa Wakan (the sacred pipe) and the subsequent smoke carries messages from humans to Wakan Tanka. The system is based on respect and emphasizes that the virtues or values of bravery, fortitude, wisdom, and generosity be followed and perpetuated.

For the Lakota, the nature of the universe is a whole, and above, below, and around are all part of that whole. Life is seen as a series of recurrent travels, and each person has a purpose to fulfill, one that will support and benefit the community.

People live through four generations: childhood, adolescence, maturity, and old age. When a person dies, one of his four souls travels southward, along the Wanagi Tacanku (spirit path, identified with the Milky Way), where it meets with an old woman who examines its earthly virtues, directing the soul either to the spirit world, where there is an unending supply of buffalo and where people rejoin their kin, or back to earth where they are reborn and given another chance to live in harmony.

Because of this the birth of children is a joyful event since they are closest to the spirit world and considered sacred. Twins are particularly auspicious and considered intellectually mature at birth. Many rites help develop the proper behavior of children through observation and listening.

The sacred is the domain of the wicasa wakan (holy men), who conduct all spiritual ceremonies. The most important symbol is the sacred pipe, whose smoke represents prayers offered to Wakan Tanka. In addition to its general interpretation as something like “great spirit,” this single name refers to important beings and powers, half of which existed prior to the creation of the earth, and half as a result of it.

Wakan Tanka, in the sacred language of the medicine men, underscores the belief that all sacred things come in fours. The root wakan (sacred) is a dynamic concept indicating the potentiality of anything to transform from the secular to sacred. Iktomi the trickster named all things, taught culture to humans, and remains on the earth to continually deceive them. The trickster is smart and works to fool humans for his own benefit. His is the power to deceive. Iktomi stories are told with humor and serve as lessons for young children as well as adults since Iktomi often plays the fool. But he is capable of bringing real danger and destruction, as well.

The Seven Sacred Rites

According to contemporary Lakota oral historical accounts and discussions with elders, the following is a description of the Seven Sacred Rites of the Lakota and of how these rites came to the people:

White buffalo calf woman's sculpture by Lee Leunig and Sherri Treeby

Many years ago, during a period of starvation, there appeared to the Lakota a beautiful woman who was met by two hunters. One hunter lusts for her, and is covered by a mist and reduced to bone. The other hunter, who possesses a good and pure heart, is instructed to return to camp and tell the chief and people that she, Ptehincalaskawin (White Buffalo Calf Woman), will appear to them the next day for she has something of importance to tell them.

He obeys, and a great council tipi is constructed. Ptehincalaskawin presents to the people a bundle containing the sacred pipe and tells them that in time of need they should smoke and pray with the pipe for help. The smoke from the pipe will carry their prayers upward. She then instructs them in the great Wicoh’an Wakan Sakowin (Seven Sacred Rites), the basis of Lakota spirituality, which have been recorded by Joseph Brown in the words of Nicholas Black Elk in The Sacred Pipe: Black Elk’s Account of the Seven Sacred Rites of the Oglala Sioux.

Ptehincalaskawin pledges to watch over the people and to return someday. Upon leaving, she walked a short way off and lay down in the grass. When she stood again she had turned into a white buffalo calf, and walked over the hill, out of sight. The Sacred Buffalo Calf Pipe remains among the people today.

Sacred pipe

First rite.

The first of the Seven Sacred Rites (though they are not chronological) is Inikagapi or Inipi (to renew life). A sweat lodge is held in a dome-shaped structure made of saplings and covered with hide or tarps that symbolizes the shape of the universe and/or the womb of a pregnant woman. Heated stones are placed in a central hole in the lodge and water is poured over them by an itancan (leader) to create steam. The purpose of the ceremony is to pray for health and well-being, spiritually and physically. The lodge utilizes all the Powers of the Universe: earth, and the things which grow from the earth, water, fire, and air.

Second rite.

Crying for a Vision ©1979 Vera Louise Drysdale

The second rite is Haŋblečeya (crying for a vision). The vision quest is undertaken by an individual with the help and guidance of a holy man. A person elects to go on a vision quest to pray, communicate with the spirits, and attempt to gain knowledge, strength, and understanding.

The person pledges to stay on an isolated hill for one to four days with a blanket and a pipe, but without food or water. Upon returning, the vision may be discussed with the wicasa wakan (holy man). Often the meaning of the vision is not readily apparent and the individual may be told to wait for knowledge and understanding.

Third rite.

Soul Bundle ©1977 Vera Louise Drysdale

The third rite is Wanagi Wicagluha or Nagi Gluhapi (Keeping of the Soul or spirit). Spirit keeping is a rite performed by mourners for one year, to grieve for a lost loved one.

When a person dies the spirit can linger around the family and community. According to Black Elk, “this rite purifies the souls of our dead, and our love for one another is increased”.

A special place is set up for the spirit, who is fed every day. Members of the family and community can come and visit, eat, and sit with the spirit and family. After one year the spirit is ceremonially released and the mourning period is formally ended. It is usual for the mourning family to refrain from attending or participating in secular activities, gatherings, or events during this formal grieving period.

Fourth rite.

The fourth rite is Wiwanyang Wacipi (sun dance). The Sun Dance is often considered the most important rite, and it is held during the summer when the moon is full. A video of it can be found here and below.

In the past a number of Plains bands of the Lakota would gather at a prearranged location for the annual meeting of the Oceti Sakowin; this was the occasion prior to Greasy Grass. It was during this annual gathering that the Sun Dance ceremony was held. During the ceremony, dancers pledge to make offerings of their flesh so that “much strength would be given to the nation” and to fulfill personal vows.

The choice to participate is solely that of each individual. It is usually the result of receiving a sacred dream or is undertaken to seek assistance in healing a sick loved one. The sacred tree that is placed at the center of the dance area symbolizes Wakan Tanka, the center of the universe.

Fifth rite.

The fifth rite is Hunkapi (making relatives). It establishes a “relationship on earth, which is a reflection of that real relationship” with Wakan Tanka. It was usually performed to unite a younger person with a family, and it can be a way of solidifying relationships with other individuals as well as Wakan Tanka. This ceremony represents the formal adoption of people as relatives.

Sixth rite.

Her Alone They Sing Over ©1979 Vera Louise Drysdale

The sixth rite is Isnati Awicalowanpi (coming of age ceremony). The ceremony takes place after a girl’s first menstrual cycle, and prayers are said to ensure the girl will grow up to have all the virtues of a Lakota woman and understand the meaning of her new role, and to formally announce her eligibility as a potential wife and mother.

Seventh rite.

The Throwing of the Ball ©1980 Vera Louise Drysdale

The seventh rite is Tapa Wankayeyapi (throwing the ball), a game “which represents the course of a man’s life”. A young girl stands at the center and throws a ball upward and to the four corners as people vie to catch it. The person to catch the ball is considered more fortunate than the others, for the ball is symbolically equated with knowledge.

All of the Seven Sacred Rites are still performed, with the exception of Tapa Wankayeyapi. In addition, a vital religious practice known as Yuwipi became popular in the twentieth century. It encompasses a number of cultural concepts related to traditional life and problems confronting contemporary Lakota peoples. This rite is performed in a darkened room under the supervision of a Yuwipi man or wicasa wakan. The object is to cure a person and at the same time to pray for the general welfare of all Indigenous people and for long life for the kinship group.

Some Yuwipi men possess an exceptional ability that allows them to locate lost items or people.

Importance of Bison to the Lakota People

Tatanka as they were known in Lakota, the buffalo was a sacred and vital animal for the Lakota people. Their nomadic life was woven around the bison as they followed their migration in order to hunt. Hence, their lives were physically and spiritually interconnected with the bison’s.

Lakotan people adopted the ways of the bison as well. As warriors, they were fearless like the bison and understood that survival was dependant on numbers, just as they did. Also, the Lakota were good family men, as the bison are.

In almost every sacred ceremony a bison head or symbol was used. In the most important of these ceremonies, the Sun Dance, a head was mounted on the central pole of the lodge and a another was used as an altar on which the offerings were made.

For the Lakota, this animal was a symbol of self-sacrifice, who gave everything until there was nothing left.

This trait is also reflected in the Lakota people as Wacantognaka or generosity.

Apart from being a sacred animal, the bison was very useful in almost all the aspects of a Lakota’s day to day life and it was the main source of meat for them. They consumed every part of it and the meat was used to make many delicious dishes. Its bones were used to make knives, arrowheads, splints, war clubs, scrapers, saddle trees, and paint brushes. Bison horns were used to make cups, spoons, toys, ladles, and headdresses.

Bison hair and fur were used in pillows, headdresses, ropes, ornaments, and halters. Its Rawhide was of immense use to the Lakota in many ways; as containers for clothing, headdresses, food, medicine bags, buckets, shields, drums, rattles, drumsticks, splints, ropes, saddles, bull boards, knife cases, and horse masks. Its tongue was considered the best part of the meat and the hind leg skins were used as boots. Bison stomach was used as water containers and cooking vessels and its bladder was taken as quill pouches and medicine bags.

Lakota Spiritual Symbols

The Lakota base much of their culture on symbolism, especially the number four and the circle.


Lakota spirituality is based on the circle. The Lakota saw the journey of life and death as a circular process. They also interacted with one another in a circular fashion, rather than in a struggle for domination.

The Lakota even used the circles symbolism in their architecture. Their houses (which are known as tipis) had circular foundations.

The Number 4

Lakota culture is also based on the number four, which the Lakota used symbolically to apply to such things as:

  • The elements: earth, fire, air and water

  • The seasons: winter, spring, summer and fall

  • The directions: north, south, east and west

Next week we'll continue this series with the Mandan, Hidatsa, & Arikara Nations (Three Affiliated Tribes). Stay tuned for more information, and more cultures in future posts. Our area is blessed to be called home by many people of many cultures, and they deserve to be acknowledged.


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