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Spirit Lake Tribal Government - Traditional Dakota Government

Traditional | Contemporary

Traditional Dakota Government

Government among traditional Indian cultures made little distinction between the religious and political world. Political decisions were made with spiritual guidance and served to fulfill both political and spiritual means. (O’Brien, 1989)

Harmony among all elements—the land, people, animal, plant life—is an important value among the Dakota Sioux. Human beings are not considered above other living things, but connected to them as a part of all life and thus are responsible for all aspects of life. Rights and privileges are never greater than one’s duties and responsibilities. Power, in traditional tribal governments, flowed from the community to the leaders. In a traditional context, an individual’s status was based on that individual’s ability and performance. In many instances, leaders existed to serve the will of the people and the village. Because tribal cultures were historically classless, government was highly decentralized and democratic. (Meyer, 1993)

Fraternal societies played a significant role in maintaining the governing structure of Dakota society. The Dakota “soldiers lodge” was a society organized in the mid-1800s for the purpose of governing the hunting expeditions of the Dakotas. It assumed a more active role at the Mdewakanton, Sisseton, and Wahpeton villages after 1862. (Anderson, 1986)

The village council was the standard forum for political discussion and decision-making. In the earliest times, Dakota elders brought the more important issues before the council. While anyone could speak in council, younger men generally listened to the advice of elders. Consensus was arrived at by allowing each council member an opportunity to speak. When a particular issue or course of action was agreed upon, the council then moved onto other issues. When a consensus was not reached, the issue was delayed until such time as an honored elder or leader could bring it up again.

While individual chiefs had no special privileges in a counsel, they generally announced decisions, opened council meetings, and focused attention to the issues. They developed influence, by showing good oratorical skills and possessing good sense. In this way, they assumed the position of “speaker,” a very important rank. Although historically the role of the speaker is unclear, they played important roles in a council. By the mid-19th century they appear to have obtained the honor through a process of election.

During the late 1850s, a number of major societies emerged. Among the most important were the Bear Dance society, the Elk Lodge, the Raw Fish Eaters Lodge, the Dog Liver Eaters Lodge, and the Sacred Dance Lodge. (Anderson, 1986, page 117) These societies organized to maintain the Dakota culture, to oppose Christianity and the loss of Dakota Sioux territory. The “soldiers lodge” grew to such prominence at the Sisseton and Wahpeton village that it controlled the chiefs.

The traditional government of the Dakota Sious was made up of a leader and his advisors. The Dakota had four “Akicitas” (warriors) who enforced the decisions. They all made up the “Tiyotipi” (Tent of tents, e.g., council tents). In the council tent, they provided a stick for each warrior in the camp. This stick was used for counting and often used in the moccasin game. (Lambert, 1996)

In social order, discipline on the hunt was a necessity. If a warrior pushed ahead of the rest on a buffalo hunt, his tipi was pulled down and his meat confiscated by the “soldiers lodge.”

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