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Spotlight on Culture

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

Tribal Nations in North Dakota:

Mni Wakan Oyate

A Dakota woman and her children, about 1920. Source: MNHS Collections.

The "Dakota" which means "friends" "Oyate" - which means "the people," or Sioux, as they sometimes are called today, comprise the membership of the Spirit Lake Reservation, formerly Devils Lake Sioux Reservation. The reservation lies within North Central North Dakota. The Dakota at Fort Totten are called the Mni Wakan Oyate - "the people of the Spirit Water".

The term "Sioux" is a corrupted version of an Ojibwe -Algonquian term "Naud-o-wa-se-wug," meaning "like unto the adders." The term was later corrupted resulting in the retention of the syllable that sounds like "Sioux.". However, the Ojibwe always called the Dakotas "A-boin-ug" or "Roasters".

White ethnographers' interpretations of Dakota origin narratives, place the Dakota origin in many eastern parts of the United States. These narratives are many and are well documented. However, they are not what their people believe. These documents can be found in Indian Studies Departments or in the Minnesota Historical Society archives.

However, recent findings in the Granite Falls and Browns Valley Man archeological sites, and Waconia evidence confirms that aboriginal ancestors of the Dakota have lived in Minnesota from 8,000 to 10,000 years. According to Dakota oral history, they were always in the area around the Minnesota River at Mille Lacs Lake. According to their philosophy, the belief

is that all living things originated from a great mysterious creator (God). In this philosophical context, the origin of the Dakota comes from the Creator and is a mystery - a truth only the Creator knows. If the Creator should want his people to know this, he would surely give them a sign. Dakota oral historians and holy men living in Dakota communities and reservations may share this information.

Dakota people at Mnihaha (Minnehaha Falls), 1857–1863.

Of the seven original council fires of the great Dakota Nation, the two that make up the Mni Wakan Oyate are the Sisseton and Wahpeton bands. While the term Santee (Isanti) has been applied by non-Indigenous writers to both the Nakota and

Lakota and all the Eastern Dakota as a group, the word Santee or Isanti only applies to the Bdewakanton, Sisseton, Wahpeton, and Wahpakute. Two treaties were made in 1851, one at Traverse Des Sioux with the Sisseton-Wahpeton and one with the Isanti (Bdewakanton-Wahpakute) at Mendota (different bands). Therefore, the term Santee is not commonly used when referring to the Spirit Lake people. When the Sisseton and Wahpeton took possession of the land on the present day reservation, there was a group of the "Cut Head band" of the Ihanktowana (Yankton) Dakota living in the Grahams Island area, as were many mixed bloods, Metis, and workers for the cavalry. The Cut Heads integrated and became a part of the Spirit Lake people.

For more information on their migration patterns, treaties and history go here. This was prepared by the North Dakota Department of Public Instruction in 1997 and is part of a collaborative project between the North Dakota Department of Public Instruction and the Tribal Nations of North Dakota. Most of the research for the development of it was provided from several significant resources made available through the Minnesota Historical Society, the North Dakota State Historical Society, books and materials on the Dakota and from interviews with elders and Indian educators on the Spirit Lake Reservation. There's also information in a page at the ND Studies site.

Culture of the Mni Wakan Oyate People


"There was a band of people who lived under the earth, even under the water. There was a young brother and sister, who always played together in the same area. One day, the young boy went exploring. But this time, he went a little farther than he ever did before, until he came to a very different area. When he looked up, he could see something blue. So he reached up and it took him. It was a whirlpool. It took him up to the surface of the earth. He couldn't swim, but he did his best to stay on the surface of the water. When he got to the shore, he was very tired. The water threw him up onto the shore. He did not know where he was or how he even got there. He began looking around. He found this was a very beautiful place. He wandered away from where he surfaced. As he did, he lost this place. He again began to wander around.

Meanwhile, his sister was looking for him. After many days, she went where he usually went, but he was not there. She noticed there were tracks and followed them. She hoped to find her brother. The tracks kept going and she kept following. She came to the same whirlpool. She was also very curious. So she reached up and the whirlpool took her. Just as her brother, the water put her on the shore. She looked around, but she did not see her brother. She did see trees and hills. This was a very different place. But she thought to herself how beautiful all of it was, because it was not much different from where she had come.

She began to walk in the direction that she thought he might have gone. She was also looking for shelter. As all young people of this time, she knew the skills of survival. She did not need much to eat for there were berries and roots. The weather was warm.

After many, many days, she came to a stony ridge. From walking for so many days, she became very thirsty. To keep from getting too thirsty, she put a small stone into her mouth. By accident, she swallowed the stone. This stone traveled through her body and developed into a child. When the boy child was born, she named him "STONE BOY." This is how the Dakota people began on the surface of the earth. This is why the Dakota honor a stone. In both stories, we began from a stone"

(Creation narrative retold, by Alvina Alberts, Tribal Elder).


In their Woodlands environment, the Eastern Dakota lived in permanent villages only during the spring and summer. They fished in nearby lakes and streams, hunted deer or waterfowl when game was available. They gathered berries, plums, roots and tubers, such as the wild turnip, the bdo (which resembled the sweet potato). After the corn was harvested, they left their villages for the hunt.

The men took part in the fall muskrat hunt, while the women and some of the men gathered wild rice. In October, the deer hunt began. It was the most important hunt of the year. Assembling their household goods and their skin tipis, the entire population left their villages for a three-month search for deer and other game, such as elk, or bear. They generally stayed in one place for several days or weeks.

In January, the band returned to their villages or settled down in a sheltered spot, sometimes under a bluff, where they lived for several months. They subsisted on the venison they killed, and the foods they preserved from the previous summer's crop. In March, the men went on the spring muskrat hunt. This hunt was important because hides were better in the spring. The women tapped maple trees and boiled the sap for sugar. When the men returned, the cycle was repeated.

  • FOOD

Traditional corn

The Sisseton and Wahpeton raised corn near the mouth of the Minnesota River. Their livelihood was dependent upon hunting, fishing, and wild-rice gathering. On hunting trips, bison were driven off the bluffs and into the river where they could be killed. In times of scarcity, fish eggs were smoked and then cooked in water in earthen pots. Early in their woodlands environment, the Dakota harvested wild rice, their principal food. Other foods included corn and other grains. They tilled the soil and harvested corn and tobacco. Soup was made of corn meal and boiled meat. Some of the corn was dried, shelled, and stored underground in bark barrels for use in the winter.


Sioux traditional Tipi Dwelling

Their winter homes were made in a clearing with boughs of trees laid on the ground. Women were responsible for erecting the tipis. In the winter, women would collect marsh grass for use as floor covering and insulation of tipis. In their native woodlands, they lived in "bark cabins" covered with deerskins, carefully dressed, and sewn together. These bark structures were made of elm walls and roofs. Although they varied in size, they could accommodate two dozen people. At the entrance, large wood platforms were constructed for food drying, sleeping, bdo storage.

Dakota summer lodge, 1846–1848. Watercolor painting by Seth Eastman.

Their lodges were bison-hide tipis with a three-pole foundation. The Isanti and Wahpeton used the square bark house in summer and the hemispherical lodge in winter. The winter lodge was heavily built and covered with earth. The Dakotas never made benches around the inner walls of the lodge. Parts of the lodge were named and were used in a formal manner.


For important ceremonies, the Dakota painted their faces several colors, burned their hair off except for a tuft, and saturated the hair with bear grease mixed with reddish earth. The tuft was ornamented with some small pearls and stones thought to be turquoise by historians.

Warriors dressed in light deerskin robes or white robes of painted beaver skins. Their shirts were made of fringed buckskin. Their leggings were tight, with large ankle flaps, and a seam in front. This was fastened with a short fringe, half an inch long. Only the Isanti wore beaded garters below the knee. The leggings and moccasins were embroidered with porcupine quills and decorated with a piece of bison hide that trailed more than a foot and a half behind them. Elders wore buffalo robes which swept the ground.

Each carried a long-stemmed pipe, and a medicine pouch. Their faces were not painted, but their hair was dressed in the same manner. Men and women wore clothing decorated with sea shells, and their moccasins (hard-soled) were decorated with pieces of brass or tin. These were attached to leather strings an inch long, which made a tinkling sound when they walked.

Women wore the two-piece Central Algonkian dress. The Sissetons were more inclined toward the prairie styles. Men parted their hair in the middle and wore two braids which were wrapped with otter skins. Their shirts and leggings were decorated with

extremely long fringes, to which strips of weasel skin were attached.


The Dakota made cooking vessels of black clay and stone. Bowls and dishes were also made of the knots of maple or other wood. Their spoons were made of bison-horn. Wooden spoons were short-handled and broad-bowled, like those of the Algonkian. Bowls and spoons used in medicine ceremonies, feasts, and dances, especially wakan wacipi, had animal-head handles, and were held as sacred. Pottery was made of pounded clay tempered with burnt flint which had been pounded. The vessel was built by pinching the clay from a flat bottom. It was stamped on the sided with a paddle and lugs were placed on it.


Bison Hide Shield

The early weapons of the Dakota included hatchets, wooden clubs, bows, arrows, and shields which were elaborately decorated with figures of the sun, moon, and various animals resembling terrestrial beings.

Before 1766, the knives used by the Dakota, were made of flint or stone, and were one and one-half feet long. After that time, these knives were made of iron, and measured ten inches long and three inches wide at the handle. The Dakota traded for knives and steel which they used to strike fire.

Traditional hunting knife


Order was critical. A strict division of labor was followed. The men hunted, while the women were responsible for practically all of the other work.

Around the late 1890s, the Dakota material culture changed. They acquired steel weapons and tools which soon replaced bone and stone. They still used many utensils of wood and bark, but had almost given up the making of pottery. The use of skins gave way to the use of trade cloth and trader blankets. Burial customs during this time period also changed.


Child dressed in regalia dancing at a Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community powwow, 1970. Source: MNHS Collections.

Dance and songs were critical elements of Dakota culture. Like most plains' tribes, song and dance were expressions of the people's beliefs. These were carried out in a daily context.

There were songs for every occasion. There are honor songs (songs which are created specifically for an individual, or songs sung to honor the deeds of that individual); sun dance songs; inipi (sweat) songs; vision-quest (hanbdeceya) songs; courting (wincinyan odwan) songs; hunting and working songs; death songs, and victory songs.

Dance was the highlight of the customs of the Dakota. Historically, for ceremonial dancing, warriors painted their faces and bodies with the symbol of some animal appropriate to his clan or of his vision. Some wore their hair short, full of bear grease, and decorated with red and white feathers. Others sprinkled their heads with the down of birds which clung to the bear grease. The Dakota danced with their hands on their hips striking the soles of their feet on the ground. The Wicasa Wakan, holy or medicine man, retained his influence in the tribe through his knowledge of dance and religious ceremonies.

Next week we'll continue this series with more information on the Spirit Lake Nation

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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