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Cultural Overview - The Impact of Reservations

Introduction | Ways of Believing | Reservations | Culture Today

The Impact of Reservations

The culture of the Lakota/Dakota people changed dramatically with the encroaching settlements. Traders brought rifles to replace bows and arrows, cloth to replace tanned buffalo skins, and iron kettles to replace traditional cooking methods. In addition, the constant skirmishes and wars between the people and the U. S. Army and the near-extermination of the buffalo took a heavy toll on the Lakota/Dakota way of life.

In the late 1800s government policy shifted from “removal” of American Indians to “assimilating” the American Indian people into the white society. This policy had a devastating effect on the Lakota/Dakota culture.

After the Lakota/Dakota people were relegated to reservations, the solution to the new “Indian problem” was to turn them into farmers and ranchers. Indian agents were appointed to oversee individual reservations and reform “their” Indians. The agents, who also served to undermine the traditional leadership of the Lakota/Dakota people, sought to do this by discouraging the “heathen” and “barbaric” cultural practices.

Soon, however, it seemed that discouragement was not enough. In 1883, Secretary of the Interior Henry M. Teller (with support from some Christian religious organizations) established what came to be known on Indian reservations as “courts of Indian offenses.” These offenses consisted of all public and private traditional religious and cultural activities such as the Sun Dance, give-aways, naming, and becoming-woman ceremonies. Although practicing their own cultural ways was considered criminal, many Lakota/Dakota people continued to hold their ceremonies and events in secrecy. While the people outwardly adopted the trappings of non-Indian life, such as the clothing and the log-cabin dwellings, they continued to live and teach the traditional Lakota/Dakota culture.

During this same time period, the philosophy was that the American Indian people would assimilate faster and more thoroughly by going to school. Thus began a most destructive experiment for the Lakota/Dakota culture—the boarding school. Colonel Richard Pratt, founder of the first Indian boarding school, revealed the prevalent attitude in his statement, “I believe in immersing the Indians in our civilization and when we get them under, holding them there until they are thoroughly soaked.” In addition to teaching another way of life, boarding schools also made it difficult for parents to teach their children their cultural lifeways since parents rarely saw their children.

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