The Sioux — Part I


What makes the study of Native Americans interesting, and challenging, is that there is no “one” human group to study.  There are many American Indian groups, and while they possess commonalities, the various tribes developed independently according to their own unique traditions and their physical environment.

The Sioux are one of these Indians groups, conveniently referred to by some as the Great Sioux Nation (GSN) — which is actually a linguistic category through which scholars attempt to understand who they were, and how they became who they are.  The Sioux language is spoken by around 30,000 people today (in the United States and Canada).  It is the fifth most spoken language among the Indians, behind Navajo, Cree, the Inuit languages, and Ojibwe.

Whenever scholars speak of the GSN,[1] they are referring to one of three cultural groups: (a) Northern, Central, and Southern Lakota (also known as Teton and Teton Sioux); (b) Western Dakota (also known as Yankton and Yanktonai Sioux); and (c) Eastern Dakota (also known as Santee and Sisseton Sioux).

Scholars also examine the GSN according to the region or environment in which they live.  There may be 18-20 regional (non-political) designations, all of which are found in Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Wyoming.

The word Sioux is an English language adaptation from the French word, Nadouessioux which originated around the year 1640.  In recent times, some Sioux tribes have reclaimed their traditional names, such as the example of the Rosebud Sioux, among whom some refer to themselves as Sichanjgu Oyate.  Likewise, some people within the Oglala Sioux call themselves Oglala Lakota Oyate.

The Dakota (Eastern) Sioux

Anthropologists believe that Dakota Sioux lived in the Central Mississippi Valley around 3,000 years ago.  Through a succession of devastating Indian wars, notably with the Iroquois between 500-800 AD the Sioux were pushed steadily westward into present-day Minnesota and Wisconsin.  By 1300 AD the Sioux had already become a northern tribal society and referred to themselves as the Seven Council Fires.  As late at the 1500s, Santee Sioux lived adjacent to Lake Superior and sustained their populations through gathering wild rice and hunting woodland animals.  Tribal conflicts between the Santee Sioux and Ojibwe Indians[2] pushed the Santee into lands belonging to the Western Dakota.  As the Sioux developed into a horse culture, the Lakota expanded their territories westward, leaving the Dakota Sioux to defend the eastern territory.

Late in the 17th Century, the Indians entered into an alliance with French explorers and merchants who were attempting to dominate the North American fur trade against the British.[3]  The Ojibwe, Potawatomi, and Ottawa were the first to trade with the French; Dakota Indians joined the alliance later.  Trade with the French gave the Dakota access to European goods.  The first encounter between the Dakota and French occurred when Radisson and Groselliers[4] reached present-day Wisconsin between 1659-1660.

One consequence of French and Indian interface was ever-escalated hostility between tribal groups.  The Dakota resented the fact that the Ojibwe traded with their traditional enemies, the Cree and Assiniboine and this anger led to hostilities between 1720-1736.  This conflict pushed the Dakota out of their Leech Lake territory, south along the Mississippi River and St. Croix River Valley.  Quite suddenly, French trappers and merchants were in great danger from the Indians, who would kill any Frenchman discovered trading with a tribal enemy.  It was this set of circumstances that led to the massacre of Jean Baptiste de La Verendrye and twenty others near Toronto.

Indian animosities last far longer than tribal friendships, as evidenced by the fact that the Dakota and Ojibwe were still at war in 1770.  The fighting began when the Meskwaki (Fox) Indians engaged their traditional enemy, the Ojibwe.  Although there was never any deep affection between the Sioux and Meskwaki, the Sioux accepted the Meskwaki offer to join with them in their war with the Ojibwe — as a reserve force.  The Meskwaki initially believed they could easily overpower the Ojibwe.  When the Ojibwe proved themselves too strong, Dakota Indians joined in and it seemed certain that this alliance would win the day.

After Ojibwe reinforcements arrived from Sandy Lake, the Dakota were driven back, over the rocks at a fall, many falling to their death in the crushing water below.  Other Dakota, seeking to escape by canoe, capsized, adding more souls to a watery grave.  Heavy losses were experienced by both the Ojibwe and Dakota, but the Meskwaki were so thoroughly destroyed that survival forced them to join with their relatives, the Sauk Indians.[5]  The Dakota and Ojibwe subsequently agreed to an informal boundary at the mouth of the Snake River.

As the Sioux were pushed further into the northern plains, they adopted many of the customs of their neighbors, notably the horse culture, while at the same time retaining many of their woodland features.  By 1803, the Sioux were well-established in their new environment, and this enabled them to develop their distinctive social norms.  Notwithstanding these differences, a renewed sense of community bound the Sioux together as an extended family.  This relationship continues today.

The Dakota signed their first treaty with the American government in 1805.  Zebulon Pike wanted to establish military outposts in the area of the St. Croix River (present-day Hastings, Minnesota) and at the confluence of the Minnesota and Mississippi rivers (near present-day St. Paul, Minnesota).  In exchange for the use of 100,000 acres of land, Pike offered the Dakota a new (non-French) opportunity for trade.  In their agreement, the Sioux stipulated that Pike must allow Sioux access to the land for the purpose of hunting and travel.

The US government asserted an interest in stopping inter-tribal warfare among the Dakota, Ojibwe, Menominee, Ho-Chunk, Sauk, Meskwaki, Iowa, Potawatomi, and Ottawa.  Warring tribes would interfere with the westward migration of white settlers.  What followed was the 1825 Treaty of Prairie du Chien (Wisconsin).  A second treaty followed in 1830 involving the Western Dakota, who ceded their lands along the Des Moines River.  A third treaty in 1858 created the Yankton Sioux Reservation in South Dakota.  The Yankton Sioux Chief named Struck by the Ree realized that the onslaught of white settlers could not be stopped.  He told his people:

“The white men are coming in like maggots.  It is useless to resist them.  They are many more than we are.  We could not hope to stop them.  Many of our brave warriors would be killed —  our women and children left in sorrow, and still, we would not stop them.  We must accept it, get the best terms we can, and try to adapt to their ways.”

When United States created the Minnesota Territory in 1849, the Eastern Dakota were pressured to cede more of their land.  For these Indians, the reservation period began in 1851 with the Treaty of Mendota (which in return for their relocation to the Lower Sioux Agency on the Minnesota River, the US government promised Mdewakanton and Wahpekute Indians $1.4 million).  Also in that year, the Treaty of Traverse des Sioux (which, in exchange for 21 million acres of land, the Sisseton and Wahpeton Dakota would receive $1.6 million).  Somehow, I suppose through a system called “creative financing,” (or fraud) the US government managed to retain 80% of these funds with only the interest (about 5%) being paid to the Indians over 50 years.[6]

The US government set aside two reservations for the Sioux along the Minnesota River, each measuring around 20 miles wide and 70 miles long.  The government later stipulated that these reservations were only intended as temporary because (unknown to the Indians at the time) it was the government’s intent to force the Sioux out of Minnesota.  Apparently, this was necessary because Minnesotans were making plans for the arrival of Somalians.

Minnesota Statehood

After Minnesota became a state in 1858, representatives from several Dakota Sioux bands accompanied Chief Little Crow to Washington to discuss broken treaties.  Meanwhile, state officials divided Indian land into townships and established plots for white settlers.  Logging and agriculture eliminated surrounding forests and prairies — all of which disrupted the Dakota’s annual farming cycle.  Hunting settlers dramatically reduced available game for the Indians and diminished the Indian’s ability to trap and trade furs for goods.

By 1858, the Dakota Indians were clinging to a small strip of land along the Minnesota River.  The white land-grab forced the Dakota to become reliant on the government’s “treaty payments,”  The problem was that the government payments were always late — and neither Indian Agents or local merchants would sell them food on credit.  In this environment of much suffering, the Dakota understandably became increasingly discontented with their arrangement with the whites.  Starving braves began stealing food from settlers to feed their families.

On 1 January 1861, George Day (Commissioner for Dakota Affairs) wrote a letter to President Lincoln that outlined his findings concerning the Indian’s complaints.  He reported numerous violations of law, fraud committed by government agents in excess of $100,000.  He named the corrupt officials.  As expected, the government did nothing to punish corrupt officials.

On 4 August 1861, tribal representatives of the northern Sisseton and Wahpehton met at the upper Sioux agency and successfully made their case for a much-needed increase of food.  Eleven days later, southern Mdewakanton and Wahpekute made their way to the lower Sioux agency for supplies, but agency officials turned them away.  Minnesota State Senator/Indian Agent Thomas Galbraith refused to distribute food to the Indians without cash payments.  White settlers had no sympathy for the Indian’s situation.  One merchant, Andrew Myrick, suggested, “If they’re hungry, let them eat grass.”

Tribal payments finally arrived in St. Paul on 16 August 1862 and were promptly dispatched to Fort Ridgely the next day — but the cash shipment arrived too late to prevent hostilities.  The Dakota War began the next day when a few Santee Sioux murdered a white farmer and most of his family, pillaged their home, and made off with their livestock.  The Santee then urged raids on white settlements all along the Minnesota River.

On 18th August, Little Crow led a band to attack the Lower Sioux Agency.  The body of Andrew Myrick was later discovered with his mouth stuffed with grass.  In total, there were around 4,000 members of the Sisseton and Wahpeton bands scattered throughout Minnesota — most of whom wanted nothing to do with raiding white settlements and did not participate in the early killings.

Afterward, battles took place at Fort Ridgely (18 August)[7], and Birch Coulee (2-3 September).[8]  After the Battle of Wood Lake on 26 September,[9] most Dakota fighters surrendered.  Little Crow was forced to a retreat into Canada.  On 5 November, a court-martial was convened to consider the murder and rape charges filed against 303 Dakota Sioux.  All these men were sentenced to be hanged.  They were afforded no legal counsel, were denied the right to call or provide witnesses, and many of these men were convicted in less than five minutes.  President Abraham Lincoln later commuted the death sentences of 284 Dakota men while approving the execution of 38 Santee Sioux.  The hanging was the largest mass execution in American history on US soil.  Of those who went to prison, half died while confined.

Little Crow was eventually killed on 3 July 1863 near Hutchinson, Minnesota while gathering berries with his teenage son.  Little Crow had wandered onto the land of Nathan Lamson, who shot Little Crow for the reward.  When the Indian’s identity was confirmed, white settlers scalped his remains, decapitated him, and put his head on display in St. Paul.  City officials retained this gruesome trophy until 1971.  For killing Little Crow, Lamson was paid $500.00.

In the aftermath of the uprising, the federal government suspended all treaties with the Dakota; the Forfeiture Act of 16 February 1863 stripped the Dakota of all lands, and all annuities to them were forfeited to the U. S. government.  The actions of some Dakota Indians and the federal government’s reactions caused many Sioux to flee to Canada.  By 1867, fewer than fifty Dakota Sioux were living in Minnesota.

(Continued next week)


  1. Chaky, D.  Terrible Justice: Sioux Chiefs and US Soldiers on Upper Missouri, 1854-1868.  University of Oklahoma Press, 2014.
  2. Gibbon, G. E.  The Sioux: The Dakota and Lakota Nations.  Blackwell Publishing, 2003.
  3. Harring, N.  Crow Dog’s Case: American Indian Sovereignty, Tribal Law, and the United States Law in the 19th Century.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994.
  4. Hassrick, R. B.  The Sioux: Life and Customs of a Warrior Society.  University of Oklahoma Press, 1977.
  5. Hyde, G. E.  A Sioux Chronicle.  University of Oklahoma Press, 1993


[1] Excluded are the Nakota who refer to themselves as Assiniboine (Hohe) Indians in the United States, or Stoney Indians in Canada.  They are Dakota-speaking people who broke away from the main branches of the Sioux.

[2] The Ojibwe Indians speak a branch of the Algonquian language and affiliate with Algonquin, Nipissing, Oji-Cree, and Potawatomi Indians.  Always one of the more dominant tribes in Canada and the Northern United States, the Ojibwe today number around 340,000 people, 170,000 of which live in the United States.

[3] Although the French had a monopoly on Canadian fur trade, two enterprising French explorers learned from the Cree Indians that the best fur country lay north and west of Lake Superior.  Pierre-Esprit Radisson and Medard des Groselliers sought backing from French authorities to establish a trade center in the Upper Great Lake region.  Although refused, the determined Frenchmen set out anyway.  A year later they returned with premium furs to prove the worthiness of their suggestion.  Rather than congratulating them, French authorities arrested them for trapping without a license, fined them, and confiscated their furs.  Undeterred, Radisson and des Groselliers approached a group of English businessmen in Boston, who introduced them to Prince Rupert of England.  Rupert, who was a cousin to King Charles II, financed the establishment of the Hudson Bay Company in 1688.

[4] Pierre-Esprit Radisson and Medard des Groselliers were brothers-in-law noted in history as explorers and fur traders in French Canada in the mid-to-late 1600s.

[5] The Sauk are an Eastern Woodlands culture who primarily lived in the area of present-day Green Bay, Wisconsin.  Sauk tribes today number three federally recognized affiliations, including the Meskwaki, and can be found in Iowa, Oklahoma, and Kansas.

[6] Proving that the untrustworthiness of the US federal government is its one consistent feature.

[7] Captain John Marsh (later killed) commanded 210 soldiers facing 800-1,000 Dakota braves.  This battle resulted in the death of four white soldiers, and 13 wounded; Dakota casualties were 2 killed, 5 wounded.

[8] Captain Hiram P. Grant with around 150 men faced off against 200 Dakota, resulting in the death of 13 white soldiers/civilians, 47 wounded, with the loss of 90 horses; Dakota casualties were two killed and an unknown number of Indian wounded. 

[9] Colonel Henry Sibley commanding around 2,000 soldiers defeated a Dakota force of 700.  Sibley lost 7 men killed with 50 wounded, and Little Crow lost around 30 killed with roughly twice that number wounded.

About Mustang

Retired Marine, historian, writer.
This entry was posted in HISTORY, NATIVES. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to The Sioux — Part I

  1. MaddMedic says:

    And today the Federal Government continues to screw over certain groups of folks living in the US …Go figure ..


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