Buffalo Becomes Center of Life for Lakota

Northern Great Plains, 1850

Seven Bands make up the Lakota people. They are the Hunkpapa (Campers at the Horn), the Minneconju (Planters beside the Water), the Sihaspa
Blackfoot), the Oohenopa (Two Kettles), Itazipcho (Those without Bows), the Sicangu (Burnt Thighs), and Oglala (They Scatter their Own.)

The Lakota, about 12,000 strong, began to move out of Minnesota and into the Plains in the late 1600s. By the late 1700s they had become the undisputed masters of the plains from Nebraska into North Dakota. Because of their decades of war with the Chippewa and their desire to displace native groups on the Plains especially the Arikara, the Lakota have developed into a warrior society. And, more than other tribes, they are resisting the coming of white people.

The Lakota have had to abandon their forest ways of living. The buffalo has become their major food source—it means life for the Lakota. The buffalo is more than food; it provides shelter, clothing, tools, sinew for sewing, cooking pouches and other containers, and sacred gifts.

Bison Dance of the Mandan Indians by Karl Bodmer.  Courtesy of the Lewis and Clark Fort Mandan Foundation.

Because the Lakota must always pursue the buffalo, they have abandoned permanent village organization. The tiospaye, a group of kinfolk, has become their most important unit. They no longer make pottery because it may break during their frequent moves. The tipi has replaced the bark house of the woods. No Indian people are more dependent on the buffalo than the Lakota.

The Lakota believe in the Great Spirit, Wakan-Tanka. Wakan-Tanka is in all things and all people. The Great Spirit is the Earth, Maka; the Sky, Skan; the Sun, Wi; the Rock, Inyan; the Moon, Hanwi; the Wind, Tate; and the Buffalo and the Bear—in all things. People are but a very small part of the universe.

They believe that good and evil powers control the universe. They know that the powers of good are more powerful; but they also realize that evil power, represented by Iya, the Cyclone, and Itom, the Trickster, have to be reckoned with. They call these competing good and evil spirits the Controllers.

The Lakota believe that people cannot succeed without power and that with power almost anything is possible. This power was a force coming from the Great Spirit. To a few it comes easily; to some, with great difficulty; and to many, it never comes. Power comes to people in dreams or visions. Once obtained, it becomes a part of the person.

The Sun Dance is the most important Sioux religious ceremony. It symbolizes their relationship with the Great Spirit. The dance is very complicated. Men might participate in the Sun Dance to fulfill a vow in return for a favor. Some dance to secure supernatural aid for themselves or for someone else. The Sun Dance ceremony is held during the moon of the ripening of chokecherries and lasts 12 days.

The Sun Dance is the center of the Lakota religious experience and is characteristic of the great importance of religion in their lives.



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