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Cultural Overview - Introduction

Introduction | Ways of Believing | Reservations | Culture Today


The Lakota/Dakota people were the last to battle the United States government and surrender their homelands. Hence, it is these people who most often epitomize all American Indians. The image that most people have of an American Indian is either that of a stoic warrior sitting on a horse wearing a “warbonnet” and “warpaint,” or that of a beautiful “Indian princess” wearing braids and sitting in front of a tipi.

Today, we should know that this Hollywood stereotype of the Lakota/Dakota people is not only inaccurate but is also only one image of the many diverse American Indian nations across this continent. Each tribal nation had—and still has to some degree—their own manner of dress, their own type of dwelling, their own language, and their own customs and traditions. This section will briefly discuss some of the cultural lifeways of the Lakota/Dakota people.

Pre-Reservation Life

Although the migrations of the earliest Lakota/Dakota people are hazy, it is generally agreed that they were once a woodland people who made their homes east of the Missouri River. Warfare with other tribes and the advent of the horse, however, shifted and expanded their territory to the northern plains.

The introduction of the horse significantly changed and enhanced the entire lifestyle of the Lakota/Dakota people. Called “sunkawakan” or “mysterious dog,” the horse made it possible for the people to travel over a larger area, become adept raiders and warriors, and more effectively hunt the ever-roaming buffalo.

It would be difficult, indeed, to talk about the subsequent life of the Lakota/Dakota people without mentioning the importance of the buffalo. In fact, the lifestyle of the people depended upon and revolved around the buffalo. Campsites were chosen based partly on their relation to the buffalo herds, homes were made to accommodate the roaming of the buffalo and every part of the buffalo was used in some way. “Pte,” as the people called them, were the primary source of food, utensils, clothing, and homes.

Way of Living

The Lakota/Dakota people were the first to invent and own “mobile homes.” For the nomadic hunters of the plains, the portability of the tipi made it the ideal dwelling. Basically, the tipi consisted of several buffalo hides sewn together and wrapped around a conical frame of poles. A small tipi would take seven or eight hides to fit while a large, family tipi or council lodge could take up to eighteen hides.

In addition to portability, the shape of the dwelling was ideal for cold northern plains winters. Because of its conical shape, the air volume at the top of the lodge reduced the amount of heat required to warm the lower living space. In the summer months, the edges of the tipi could be rolled and tied up to allow the cool summer breezes to flow through the lodge.

While providing skins for tipi covers, the buffalo also provided skins for clothing. The Lakota/Dakota women wore mid-shin length dresses made of elk, deer or buffalo hides, knee-high leggings and moccasins. The Lakota/Dakota men wore a leather breechcloth and moccasins during the hot summer months. In the winter months, the men wore long buckskin leggings and a buckskin shirt. Both men and women also wore thick buffalo robes in winter.

Like most utilities in the Lakota/Dakota lifestyle, clothing and robes were decorated with either porcupine quills or paint derived from various plants or berries. Later, fur trappers and traders brought the quickly-adopted beads.

The buffalo provided more than clothing and shelter, though. Various parts of the buffalo provided everything from eating utensils to sewing thread. For example, buffalo bones were used for a myriad of items such as knives, arrowheads, fleshing tools, scrapers, awls, paintbrushes, toys, shovels, sleds, shovels, splints, and war clubs. The buffalo horns were used for such items as spoons, cups, ladles, and fire carriers. Even buffalo chips were used for fuel.

Although the buffalo was the primary food source for the Lakota/Dakota people, their diet was varied. Deer and other wild meat were also cooked with a variety of native plants, berries, roots, and herbs. For example, chokecherries and wild turnips were used in many different dishes. In addition, the people would either trade with, or raid, other tribes for agricultural items such as corn or beans.

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