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Cultural Overview - Creation Narrative

Creation Narrative | Ways of Believing | Impact of Reservations | Dakota Culture Today | Annual Events

Creation Narrative

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!” 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)

Some people believe the western and eastern bands of the Sioux moved onto the plains before 1679. In a three-day battle with the Chippewa (1790), known as the battle of Kathio, the Eastern Dakota lost their traditional homelands around Mille Lacs Lake (Minnesota). This is identified as the event by which the Eastern Dakota began transforming from a typical eastern Woodlands culture to that of a Plains Indian culture. After the battle of Kathio, those who remained in the homelands fled south. The Wahpekutes, who may have split off after the battle, became nomadic and did not settle in permanent villages. The Mdewakantons continued their village life in new surroundings near the mouth of the Minnesota River, but soon scattered to a number of sites. (Meyer, p. 21) The Sissetons and Wahpetons, like the Mdewakantons, adapted to their new lands and had permanent villages of bark houses.


In their woodlands environment, the Eastern Dakota lived in permanent villages only during the spring and summer. They fished in nearby lakes and streams and 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. (Samuel W. Pond, “the Dakotas or Sioux in Minnesota as they were in 1834,” Minnesota Historical Collections, pp. 342–346), Edward D. Neill, “Dakota Land and Dakota Life,” Minnesota Historical Collections, I (1850–1856, pp. 205–240), (Meyer, Chapter 1, pp. 1–23)


The Sisseton and Wahpeton raised corn near the mouth of the Minnesota River. Their livelihood was dependent upon hunting, fishing, and gathering wild rice. On hunting trips, buffalo 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.


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, some could accommodate two dozen people. At the entrance, large wood platforms were constructed for food drying, sleeping, and storage.

Lodges were buffalo-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. (Skinner, p. 165)


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.” (Meyer, pp. 209–211)

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. (Skinner, 1919, p. 164) The leggings and moccasins were embroidered with porcupine quills and decorated with a piece of buffalo 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 from buffalo-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. (Skinner, p. 165) Pottery was made of pounded clay tempered with burnt flint which had also 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.


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.


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.

Dance and Song

Dances and songs were critical elements of Dakota culture. Like most plains tribes, songs and dances were expressions of the people’s beliefs. These were carried out in a daily context. There are 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.

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 nearly 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.

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