A Special Report: Whites Say Sioux, "Kota" People say "Friend"

The name Sioux was given to the people who call themselves Dakota, Nakota, or Lakota by the Chippewa, their traditional enemies, who called them “snakes.”  The “kota” people themselves have widely used the term but many prefer to identify themselves by the dialect of the Siouan language they speak. 

Generally, non-Indians, as well as some native people, lump together all the Siouan-speaking people who lived from southern Minnesota to the Black Hills—these are the Sioux. The inference is that these people were all historically alike.

Wahktageli,  A Yankton Warrior, by Karl Bodmer.  Courtesy of the Lewis and Clark Fort Mandan Foundation.

It is not that simple. Yes, they were all members of the Great Sioux Nation. Yes, they were all kota or allies (friends). No, they were not all alike. Actually, there are three distinctly different groups. They differed in their ways of life, their histories, and even their language dialect.

uneral Scaffold of a Sioux Chief Near Fort Pierre by Karl Bodmer.  Courtesy of the Lewis and Clark Fort Mandan Foundation.

The easternmost Siouan people are the Dakota. They are sometimes referred to as the Eastern Sioux or the Santee, but most accurately are called the Dakota. They spoke the Dakota dialect of the Siouan language. They lived in the forests of Minnesota along the Mississippi and Minnesota rivers and west of there. They were people of the woods who lived in permanent villages. Their livelihood was largely based on deer and wild rice and to a lesser extent, buffalo.

The westernmost Siouan people are the Lakota. Sometimes people call them the Western Sioux of the Teton Sioux. They are the Lakota because they spoke the Lakota Siouan dialect. They lived on the Great Plains from Nebraska into North Dakota. They were people of the plains who abandoned permanent villages and used the portable tipi so they could follow and hunt the buffalo. The buffalo was the center of their lives. The Lakota was a hunting society. They were the masters of the plains, a powerful people led by such men as Crazy Horse, Gall, Sitting Bull, and Red Cloud.

Horse Racing of Sioux Indians near Fort Pierre by Karl Bodmer.  Courtesy of the Lewis and Clark Fort Mandan Foundation.

Between the Lakota and Dakota are the Yankton/Yanktonai. Sometimes called the Middle Sioux or the Nakota, which is their Siouan dialect, these people called themselves Yankton/Yanktonai. They lived on the edge of the plains along the James River of South and North Dakota. They hunted, grew some crops, and were traders.

The Dakota, the Lakota, and the Yankton/Yanktonai—three distinct parts of the Great Sioux Nation.




By Dr. D. Jerome Tweton


Originally published as The North Star Dakotan student newspaper, written by Dr. D. Jerome Tweton and supported by the North Dakota Humanities Council.

Subject Matter

Social Studies

North Star Dakotan:

Journals and Art Work: The Indian People, The Trade, and The Land

The Indian People

The Purchase and Exploration of Louisiana

The Fur Trade

Dakota Territory

The Military Frontier

The Reservation System

George Armstrong Custer and the Battle of the Little Bighorn

The Great Dakota Boom, 1878-1890

Reservation Troubles, 1886-1890

The Making of a State and a Constitution

The North Dakota Economy, 1890-1915

Life on the Indian Reservations

The North Dakota National Guard and the Philippines

North Dakota, The Great War and After

The Nonpartisan League's Rise to Power

The Nonpartisan League in Power

The Nonpartisan League's Decline

The 1920s

1930s: North Dakota's Economic and Political Climate

The New Deal in North Dakota

The Road to World War II

North Dakota and American Society

North Dakota Optimism and Economic Developments

North Dakota and Political Change