Originally located in the Great Lakes, or Woodland area, the people were allied in what was known as the Seven Council Fires or Oceti Sakowin. This was comprised of the Santee division (Dakota speakers) with four groups, the Middle division (Nakota speakers) with two groups, and the Teton or Western division (Lakota speakers) originally consisting of one group. These subdivisions were not culturally distinct from each other in their Woodland home, but became more distinct as the people moved westward. In the Woodland region the people were semi-sedentary and their Woodland economy was based on fishing, hunting, gathering, and some cultivation of corn. In the 17th century the Sioux were pushed westward by tribes, particularly the Ojibwa and Cree, who obtained guns through the French fur trade. The Teton and Middle Sioux began a trek westward with the Teton in the lead. With the emergence onto the Plains the people became almost totally involved in a buffalo hunting economy. The buffalo supplied the main source of food as well as many material needs such as housing, clothing, and implements. With the acquisition of the horse in the same period, the Teton quickly developed a culture that centered around the horse and buffalo. By 1750 the Middle Sioux were settled along the Missouri River while the Teton pushed farther west into the Black Hills and beyond to present-day states as Nebraska, Wyoming, and Montana. By the early 19th century, political and cultural differences between the Sioux groups became pronounced and true Eastern, Middle, and Teton (Western) divisions emerged.
Both the Dakota and Lakota at Standing Rock relied almost exclusively on the buffalo as a major source of food, shelter, and material items. Both groups had complex spiritual ceremonies, and placed much emphasis on family and doing things that benefitted the people rather than the individual; these cultural and spiritual values remain important among the people to the present day. Once the people acquired the horse, in the mid 1700s, there was an impact on the material culture as well as the social customs of the people. Tepees became larger, there was greater mobility, and hunting became more productive. Additionally, the horse had a direct impact on the integration of the warfare in the fabric of the people’s lives. It is important to understand the main object of Plains Indian warfare was never to acquire land or to control another group of people. Plains Indian warfare focused on raiding other tribes’ camps for horses and acquiring honors connected with capturing horses. In these raids, very much like contests, men sought to out-smart the enemy and gain individual honors by counting coup, or striking the enemy with the hand or a special staff. Plains warfare emphasized out-smarting the enemy, not killing them. With the advent of the horse onto the Plains, warfare traditions became institutionalized among tribes. This style of warfare, described by one author as comparable to a rough game of football, changed dramatically after encounters with the U.S. Army in the 1850s.
These lifeways and warfare customs were followed until the discovery of gold in California in 1849. Up until this time the U.S. government considered the west a “permanent Indian frontier”—an inhospitable land with little economic value inhabited by Indians. In the early 1850s, overland travelers who were enroute to gold fields began to cross through Lakota territory. However, the discovery of mineral wealth in the west caused the U.S. to extend its boundaries to the Pacific Ocean, encroaching on the Indian lands and threatening the buffalo herds. This in turn set off a series of confrontations between whites and Indians of the trans-Mississippi West. Fortune seekers moving along the Platte River Road cut right through traditional Lakota territory and although generally left alone, the white travelers were frightened by the turmoil and commotion caused by the intertribal raids and they demanded government protection.