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Leaders - Introduction

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Leaders

History has characteristically cast Indian leaders in strong leadership roles. In their traditional homelands, and prior to 1862, all the Dakota who comprised the Oceti Sakowin, Seven Council Fires, did not place all of the decision-making in the hands of one leader. It was through the process of oratorical debate, the ability to shape a vision for Dakota society, and build a consensus among the people, that leaders or spokespersons were chosen. All the bands of the Dakota were communal people. As a result, tribal and family identity was a critical factor because individual leaders needed to possess the desired skills to provide for the well-being of the tribe. The people depended upon them.

Many tribal people were similar in their social and political organization. In non-hierarchical societies, leaders “ascended.” Very often, individuals became leaders because they made “wise” decisions over long periods of time. Other leaders established status recognition through prominence within their kinship group, or because they were descended from “medicine” or “leadership” clans. These clans or bands often served to carry on the tribe’s history and/or religion. In some instances, leaders were chosen in the order in which they were born. Generally, the eldest son of the leader of a band, or clan, was chosen for the leadership role.

The form and substance of Dakota leadership was greatly influenced by the events following and 1862–1863 Dakota Conflict. Several bands of the Sisseton and Wahpeton, reluctant to take part in the conflict, were inadvertently drawn into it. Others, who refused to participate, were forced to flee because of the general outcry for retribution of all Dakotas. Many Dakota leaders and their bands, to be protected, were subjected to reservation life, while their land base diminished and government policy persistently attempted to assimilate them. A decentralized form of leadership was further dispersed as many traditional leaders were killed, deposed, fled, or replaced by those chosen by the government to act as spokespersons. From roughly the late 1860s to the early 1920s, many of the long lines of hereditary chiefs ceased to exist or, if they survived, were limited in their ability to function in that capacity on the Spirit Lake Reservation.

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