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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

Ways of believing

While the material culture of the Sisseton, Wahpeton, and Yankton who settled at the Devils Lake (Spirit Lake) Reservation, changed, they retained many of their old ways. religion, culture, and social organization.


Religion played a primary role in bringing up Dakota children. For the Dakota, religion encompassed a reverence for all daily life and death. Dakotas believe in an afterlife. At the center of Dakota existence and understanding is "Wakan", the Great Mystery or Great Spirit. Numerous spirits took shape under the umbrella of Wakan. Wakan Tanka was a neutral deity who also played a role in creation.

The animals were thought to represent good omens and were spoken of with deep reverence. The Dakotas believed that they were related to the animals and to all of life. Through dreams and visions, the powers of certain animal spirits were given by Wakan Tanka. Dreams or visions of the animal, was equal to the power given. For example, Bear medicine was the most powerful. Medicine men and powerful leaders were often recipients of these spirits. Religion was based upon a philosophy of reciprocity and subsistence.

Prior to traders coming onto the Dakota woodlands, game was taken to provide for the immediate and seasonal needs of the people, and no more. After reaching adulthood, a Sioux warrior would take only parts of a deer carcass, leaving the remainder to others or distributing the rest in the village. He then thanked the spirit of the deer for giving life to the people. Generosity was essential to the survival of the village.

Young children were told that ancestors became great hunters and providers because of the power and strength gained from the Great Spirit. Boys were taught to give up bows and arrows and other small items. Those things would soon give way to much larger contributions that would keep relatives alive. In this way, young warriors gained honor within the village, and they were looked upon as important men.

The village, in turn, reinforced the generosity of these young men by sending criers out to proclaim good deeds and making them known to all. Elder relatives reinforced the communal contributions by young hunters by congratulating them on their success at killing small game. The birds and small animals the young children hunted were added to the village food supply. In this manner, sharing and responsibility for the group was reinforced among young children.

Chief White Thunder's Treaty Pipe. For more info, visit


The pipe was the vehicle for offering prayer and was considered Wakan. Pipe bowls of the Dakotas were made of red stone (pipestone) and were as large as a man's fist, and as long as his hand. The pipestem was made of a five-foot long hollow reed or branch which was as thick as a large thumb. This type of pipe, called a calumet, was decorated with painted eagle tail feathers which opened like a fan. The tobacco, known as kinnikinnick was made from the inner bark of the red willow bush. Kinnikinnick also had numerous other uses. The pipe was used to conclude solemn ceremonies, including treaties with other nations and the government. For more information and history, go here (page 45).


The Dakota kinship system provided a place for everyone in the society, regardless of age or sex. The role of elders was respected, for they kept the story of the people alive and were respected for their wisdom. Women and young girls took care of the lodge, gathered food, and were responsible for preparing hides for its varied uses. Middle aged and young men defended the people, hunted, and provided food for the village. The kinship system was structured around relatedness through the mother. The term for mother applied to the females of the birth mother's generation, her sisters, her parallel female cousins, and female cross-cousins. The Dakota term for father, was applied in a similar manner and applied to the biological father, his brothers, his parallel male cousins and his male cross-cousins. When Dakotas used the term children, it referred to their own offspring, as well as parallel cousins, nieces or nephews.

The people placed considerable importance on relationships. Male relatives were viewed by Dakota boys as important as their biological parents, for they were the individuals who defined their limits. They were also their teachers and role models.

The kinship system assured a strong sense of community and belonging to the group. The word for this is tiospaye. Within the tiospaye, or lodge, individuals were expected to be generous, kind and loyal to other kin, especially grandparents and parents. They were expected to secure their approval for actions, and to seek their advice. Dakota men knew the necessity of complete cooperation with cousins, brothers and other relatives, because their lives depended upon each other, and this meant the protection and continuation of the village.

Young men, as they reached puberty, underwent a spiritual cleansing. The ceremony, the hanbdeceya, or rite of passage, was meant to produce a vision and through this vision, a young man was provided personal power. A medicine man, or wicaiaiwakan directed the purification. This four-day ceremony included participating in the inipi, the sweat lodge, and fasting. During this ceremony, the young man symbolically left life as an adolescent and emerged as a young adult.

The Impact of Reservations in the Culture

When the Reservation was established by the 1867 treaty, the Sisseton, Wahpeton, and Yankton Dakota had already considered the area a part of their favorite hunting area. They often camped in the area during the winter. When the military post was established in 1869, the Dakota stayed away from the soldiers, because they did not trust them. With much of the buffalo gone from the great plains by this time, the Dakotas were starving. The following account, first printed in the American Indian Curriculum Development Program, in 1975, gives an account of early life on the Reservation:

"My grandfather had two wives and several children, but some of the children died before the family reached this place. I think they starved. There was no wild rice here, and the game was not always plentiful. The government had promised to send cattle, but none had yet been sent. Sometimes they lived on prairie grass seed and fish from the lakes. They had dogs and often ate the young, half-grown puppies. Generally, they ate puppies only when a feast was given for some special occasion.

My grandfather's two brothers and four sons lived close together in the woods near the river. They built houses out of poles and mud. They had flat pole-roofs with dirt piled on top. They were warm in winter but they leaked mud when the snow melted or when it rained. The men all worked together to build houses and hunt game. The food was shared with everyone, when there was any to share. In the summer they lived mostly out of doors. The women did the cooking over one fire near the leaf-shelter. We sat on the ground under the leaf-shelter to eat and visit together. When any relatives came to visit us, they brought buffalo-skin tipis and set them up near the house.

We were more than 20 miles away from Fort Totten, where the White soldiers finally made their garrison (fort) when they took command of the reservation. We seldom saw any of the soldiers. A major came to see my grandfather once, but we children ran into the woods and hid by the river bank. We were afraid of the Big Knives, as we called them. They were called that because the officers had swords. The major came to enroll all of the Sioux in the reservation book. Each of us had a separate name, but the major enrolled us all under the name of my grandfather, and we have had that for a surname ever since".

Wahpeton Man

(United Tribes Technical College, Indian Country: Histories of the Five Northern Plains Tribes, AlCDP (1975)

During the 1870's to the early 1900's, the Dakota's lifestyle changed from living in a nomadic lifestyle to dependence on the military at Fort Totten. The gradual loss of the buffalo, followed by a series of severe winters and summer droughts, and the influx of annuities secured as a part of the reservation's maintenance, brought about a dependence on the reservation system.

Between 1878 and 1930, the boarding school phase of American Indian education took roots. Boarding schools, such as those at Fort Totten, "cut into the fabric of Indian cultures like a million little knives." (Ahern, 1983, pp. 108, 11 1).

Dakota parents did not appreciate having their children pulled away at an early age. They were subjected to harsh forms of discipline, and taught values that were contrary to those of the community and their kinship system. The Dakotas, who remained free from interference and coercion by agents, participated least in the schooling program. Resistance to this form of schooling at Fort Totten became routine. Rations, in some instances, were withheld.

Between 1897 and 1926, the enrollment of children at Fort Totten Industrial School (Cavalry Square) varied between 230 and 400 children. Discipline was harsh and children were punished by forced marching in sub zero temperatures. By 1910, the school enrollment was 473 students, one-half of which were Chippewa and Matis children from North Dakota and Montana. During this time period, disciplinary policies became less physical, but still very harsh.

Between 1926 and the late 19307s, large enrollments forced children to be housed in huge cramped dormitories, often poorly heated and ventilated, and because of little resources, diets were poor and inadequate. Under these conditions, children contracted infectious diseases such as trachoma, whooping cough, and tuberculosis and many children died.

Meanwhile, Indigenous children were subjected to schooling alien to their own culture. Religious training was seen as the vehicle to assimilation into the white society. Of the boarding school effect on these children, Mark Twain once offered, "Soap and education are not as sudden as a massacre but they are more deadly in the long run." (Twain, 1899, p. 350; in Remele, 1986, p. 24). The Fort Totten boarding school closed in 1935.

The material culture of the Dakota during the early part of the 20th century showed that they had adapted somewhat to the reservation environment. Standard annuity items included sugar, flour, meat (when available), coffee and dried goods. Gardens produced vegetables. Fresh meat was available when game was near.

Many Dakota lived on homesteads, a legacy of the allotment era. They built frame houses, but many preferred to live in log houses. The women often cooked in sheds removed from the living quarters or outdoors. Food included roasted dried meat, pounded and mixed with the tallow grease. The Dakota considered it honorable to be brought up on hot bread, which they referred to as "cowboy bread." This bread was made with baking powder, rolled and cooked in a frying pan over the open fire. Often the bread was spread with "bone grease" (bone marrow) which had the consistency of a margarine.

Other foods included ground corn, chokecherries, June berries, and wild turnips. These wild turnips, called tipsina, were tubers, a favorite food of many Dakotas. Wild turnips were plentiful in various parts of the prairies. In the spring they dug, braided, and stored them for the winter months. They dried rock hard, but boiled in a soup, expanded to twice their original size.

The Dakota also dried squash. The squash was peeled, sliced, and laced on string. They were then hung on drying racks, made of four poles stuck in the ground and covered with canvas. The racks were also used to dry corn, and choke cherry patties.

The dried chokecherry patties, which the Dakota and Lakota called woiapi, were considered a dessert. The chokecherry patties were prepared by soaking them overnight, cooked to a pudding-like consistency to which flour and sugars were added, as was a tablespoon of fat. Utensils for cooking included wooden sticks for stirring and grasping food. Parfleches or Wopiun, (rawhide boxes) were used for storing pemmican, corn, and other dried food items. Skunk oil was used as a cough syrup, and as a decongestant. The down fluff of the cattail was used as a diaper for babies. The down was stuffed into a sack made of cloth and tied around the baby.


While certain aspects of the culture of the Dakota have been impacted, much of the language, certain ceremonies, and other elements have been retained. Through oral language, basic values and principles, the Dakota culture has survived for hundreds of years and governs today's people's culture.

One value of the Dakota is quietness. They have a quietness about them and often do not speak out in public. This can be traced back to the time before treaties and before contact with whites. All communications and recollection of history were orally transmitted and not based on written text. Documentation by writing was not a method of communication. Therefore, all learning was through listening.

Dakota ancestors believed that each cycle of life must complete its full cycle. By documenting a segment of that cycle - there was a breaking of that cycle. The cycle was sacred (Wakan). Therefore, it was not something to break. Their language has many of its words have multiple meanings, depending on the context they were used. If one wanted to learn the language, one had to listen. "By not taking shortcuts, one learns patience. In order to live this life, one has to have a strong belief and faith in Wakan Tanka." (Lambert, 1996).

Several ways that the culture survives today are through adaptations of the kinship system. While not readily visible, kinship practices include demonstrated respect for elders, by caring for them in the home of the extended family.

The culture of the Dakota, and of all tribal people, is exemplified through their relationship to the Earth. The Earth is viewed as the mother of all, because she nourishes and provides for the growth and sustenance of all people. This relationship with the earth and nature has to be nurtured. Indigenous people expressed this relationship by acting in a stewardship manner when they took and received sustenance from the earth.

Ceremonies are methods of communicating with the Great Spirit. Most of the ceremonies require the participant to endure hardships as a part of the process of communication. The Dakota still participate in the sweat lodge, the vision quest, and the sun dance. A cultural renaissance occurred on the Spirit Lake Reservation in the early 1990s. For the first time in more than 70 years, the Sun Dance was revived after being absent from the reservation. The year 1993 marked the first Sun Dance ceremony held on the Reservation since the 1920's.

The Sweat ceremony, continues to be practiced. The purpose of the sweat lodge is to purify and return the participant to the state of purity or grace. By communicating with the Great Spirit through prayer and song, strengthened by the use of tobacco, the body and mind are cleansed. The vision quest is undertaken to request of the Great Spirit a sign and special gift to be given to the participant. This "gift" is a guiding vision, or power to govern one's life. The participant must fast for four days and four nights without food or water. He is totally alone and is one with the Great Spirit as his protector.


The most visible elements of Dakota culture today, are the annual celebrations and pow wow's which are held throughout the year. These events, generally, last from one to four days and most often are held on weekends. They bring together tribes and other people and are designed to strengthen and reinforce the culture of the Dakota. Culture awareness is a part of the education of the school. Each spring a medicine man will talk with the children, in April. The cultural instructors at the school reinforce his teachings.

In May, Sully Hill National Wildlife Preserve Park, maintained by the United States Department of Interior and located just east of the community of Fort Totten, provides self-guided auto tours that are available throughout the park, where visitors can view bison, deer, waterfowl, and other wildlife. There are a number of nature trails located in the park as well.

In July, there's an annual Pow-Wow. The pow wow, known as Fort Totten Days, was changed in 1994 to "Akicita Honoring" to honor modern day veterans. The term "Akicita" is the Dakota term for warriors who guarded the camp. This celebration is usually the last weekend in July. Indigenous people from various tribes attend. This event, which is also open to the public, celebrates through dance, songs, parades, Indigenous games, softball tournaments, and rodeos. A Sobriety Run is held in conjunction with this event.

In October each year, the Four Winds Elementary sponsors a spiritual strengthening program for the school.

To learn more about their leaders, both traditional and contemporary, go here (starting on page 51)

Relevant videos, that talk in detail about the Sundance ceremony

Other videos of people talking about the culture and their way of life

To see the channel where I found these videos, and watch more of them- you can go here in YouTube, or visit their website.

Next week we'll continue this series with information on the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians,

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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