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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