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Standing Rock Tribal Government - Traditional Tribal Government

Traditional | Modern

Traditional Tribal Government

After permanently moving onto the Plains, the Lakota and most Dakota were nomadic hunters who traveled over vast areas of land in pursuit of the buffalo. The buffalo provided the basic needs of the people—food, hides for shelter and clothing, and bones for weapons and utensils. Dependence on the buffalo required that the people be highly mobile so most of the year they lived in small, related family groups called the tiyospaye. The tiyospaye was the basic unit of Dakota and Lakota society. Each tiyospaye, which consisted of approximately thirty households, was led by one or more headman, or leader. A headman was recognized as a leader by fully living a spiritual existence and demonstrating the values of his people—bravery, fortitude, generosity, and wisdom. Headmen sponsored ceremonies and sought to preserve the well-being of all the people. Among the Dakota and Lakota the headmen guided the people; they did not order people around. The position of a headman was not permanent. A man served at the will of the people, and if a man did not prove to be a good leader he was replaced. Decision-making was by consensus, all members of the tiyospaye contributed their input and a collective accord was reached. The process of achieving consensus insured all the people had a say in decision-making. Initially the men came together to discuss a matter; then they returned home and discussed it with their families; then at a later time the men reconvened to discuss the issue again. Although women did not customarily attend council meetings, their ideas and input were solicited and represented. This pattern would repeat until everyone was able to agree on a direction to take.

Sitting Bull's Council
Sitting Bull’s Council Lodge. (Photo
courtesy of State Historical Society of
North Dakota, C-1427)

At least once a year the headmen from the various tiyospaye would come together to discuss issues that affected them as a whole. This level of governance, acting to promote the best interests of the various tiyospaye, was on a band level. The Hunkpapa and Sihasapa are different bands of the Lakota, and Ihanktonwana and Hunkpatina are bands of the Yanktonai. When the headmen from the various tiyospaye came together they functioned as a tribal council and were known as the Naca Omniciye. Here too the council could act only by consensus. They had a responsibility to look out for the needs of all the people and preserve the harmony of the group. Responsibilities of the Naca Omniciye were broad, and included determining and coordinating the time and place of tribal hunts and tribal moves, appointing men to assist around camp in various ways, and approving raids against enemies.

Seven to ten members of the Naca Omniciye who were thought to possess the greatest wisdom and maturity were appointed as wicasa itancan. Members of this group acted as an executive committee and were responsible for interpreting and making sure council decisions reflected the will of the people. Two to four wicasa, or “shirt wearers,” headed up this smaller council. The wicasa were highly respected and their duties involved those things that insured the well-being of all the people. Duties of wicasa ranged from reconciling quarrels between individuals or families, to negotiating with other tribes or nations.

During the summer months, the bands came together to visit and renew social bonds, conduct various spiritual ceremonies, and hunt. At these large summer encampments a national council, four men designated as wicasa yatapika led the discussions about matters that had national importance and affected all the people. Here too the decision-making was by consensus. The men designated wicasa yatapika were responsible for formulating national policy, providing guidance to the headmen and band leaders, and making sure the good of the people was preserved. They, like all leaders among the Dakota and Lakota, served at the will of the people and could be replaced if they ignored the people’s wishes. In return these leaders were highly respected by the people and their advice and council was sought out and carefully weighed before the people made decisions. (O’Brien, Sharon, 1989, pp. 23–26)

In a traditional Dakota and Lakota government group, well being was paramount to individual need, and at all levels group harmony was insured by a government run by consensus. Achieving consensus is slow and deliberate, and it insures all people are given a chance to have input and it prevents rash decisions.

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