The Sioux

by Willard Rhodes
Music location

Of the many and various tribes of Indians that inhabit North America, none has appealed to the imagination of the white man more vividly than the Sioux. With his trailing warbonnet of brilliant feathers, fringed buckskin leggings and a shirt, and bow and arrow, the tall handsomely proportioned Sioux warrior has become the symbol of the American Indian. His classic profile with its hawk-like nose, so accurately reproduced on the buffalo nickel of our currency, conceals beneath its dignified exterior a warmth of spirit and richness of feeling and though which few white men have had the privilege to share. Picturesque as is their physical appearance, it is the bold, indomitable spirit of this proud and adventurous people that commands our sympathy and admiration.

It was not economic necessity and pressure from the hostile Cree and Ojibway alone that prompted the Sioux to leave their woodland home at the headwaters of the Mississippi late in the seventeenth century and move out onto the tall-grassed plains of the West, where buffalo roamed in large hordes. A pioneering urge and a strong desire to occupy new land must have been dominant factors in their westward movement.

The acquisition of the horse from southern tribes, who had acquired this domestic animal indirectly from the exploring Spanish conquistadors of the sixteenth century, brought momentous social and economic changes to the Sioux, changes not unlike those which we as a nation have experienced in the twentieth century with the development of cheap automotive transportation. Hunting boundaries were extended, and the economy of the Sioux, so dependent upon the buffalo for food, shelter, and clothing, entered upon a period of prosperity that was unprecedented in the history of the tribe.

For a long time contacts with white people were limited to a few explorers and traders who were welcomed for the attractive trinkets, guns, knives, and cooking post which they brought as presents and mediums of exchange for furs and buffalo hides.

In 1849 the Gold Rush to California brought a continuous stream of immigrants who cut a path through the heart of the Sioux hunting grounds. Alarmed by the menace of the advancing white man and governed by a code of ethics and tradition which the travelers poorly understood, the Indians attacked these parties. The discovery of gold in the Black Hills and the subsequent influx of soldiers of fortune who took possession of that territory in violation of a treaty guaranteeing the Black Hill to the Sioux provoked fresh outbreaks.

In 1868 the government negotiated a treaty with the Sioux whereby the tribe agreed to cease hostilities and to settle themselves on a large reservation provided for them. Adjustment to the new life was difficult and was not accomplished without bloodshed. Most famous of the battles during this period was that of the Little Big Horn River in which Gen. George A. Custer and his small force of 264 men were completely annihilated by a war party under the renowned chief Sitting Bull.

The Sioux (Dakota) is the second largest Indian tribe in the United States and comprises three related major divisions that speak the Siouan language and are differentiated by dialect as well as geographical location and history. The Eastern, or Santee Sioux, speak the Dakota dialect and consider themselves the original Dakotas. The Middle, or Wiciyela, Sioux speak the Nakota dialect. The Western, or Teton Sioux, "men of the prairies," whose dialect is Lakota, is the largest division and is composed of seven bands. Of these the Oglalas, living on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, are the most numerous and are considered the most resistant to white culture. The music on record AFS L40 was recorded on the Pine Ridge Reservation between 1939 and 1952.

The Sioux formerly lived in tipis, a tent made of animal skins stretched over a conical frame of poles. It was women's work to erect the tipi and to disassemble it when camp was moved. As the buffalo became scarce due to the increased hunting by the Indians and white hunters who found a ready market for their buffalo robes in the East, one room log cabins took the place of the tipi. Today modern frame houses have replaced the log cabins of the past.

The men were brave, adventurous warriors with a moral and ethical code that served the needs of the society. Their social and political life was centered in societies not unlike white men's fraternal lodges and organizations. Unlike those of some of the Plains tribes, they were not age-graded, and a man could belong to several societies at the same time. The akicita Societies performed community service in policing the camps and maintaining order. The Headmen's Societies were composed of older men who did not perform Akicita service. The War societies were made up of able-bodied warriors who vied with one another for war honors. Each society had its own songs, dances, paraphernalia, and ceremonies.

Ewers in describing these societies notes the following characteristics common to all Sioux men's societies:
1. All were assumed to have originated in mystic experiences of shamans, as a result of which certain attributes were associated with various rituals.
2. All had from two to four leaders of equal rank, supported by a definite number of officers or councilors.
3. With one or two possible exceptions, all selected their members in secret meetings.
4. No women were admitted, except a few to assist in the singing.
5. All were independent in that membership in one was not a stepping stone to any other society.
6. Age qualifications were similar, except that boys and very young men rarely were taken in the Chiefs' or Ska Yuha organizations.
Like the Kiowa, the Sioux kept a winter count that served as a record of the history of the tribe. The outstanding event of each year was recorded by a painting on the buffalo hide winter count. Decorative paintings of a representational nature were often made on the skin coverings of the tipis.

The women expressed their aesthetic taste and interest by decorating wearing apparel and objects with an embroidery of porcupine quills. The quills were flattened with the teeth, dyed, and used like thread. The quills were graded into four sizes - the largest and coarsest from the tail of the animal, the finest from the belly.

Buffalo berries were used to produce a red dye, wild grapes for black, and wild sunflower for yellow. The brightly colored beads introduced by white traders tended to displace the older quill work. The beadwork of today is of a high order of craftsmanship and represents not only the continuation of a cultural tradition, but its acculturated adaptation to a new medium. The quill and beadwork of the women provide a welcome source of income.

The men satisfied their aesthetic sense in a flamboyant display of their ceremonial costumes. Brightly colored feathers were used lavishly to decorate the long trailing warbonnets of chiefs, and feather bustles of the dancers, anklets of bells, body painting, and the roach headdress contributed to an impressive appearance and reflected a sense of pride and self-respect.

The Sioux recognized a hierarchy of Supernatural Beings in which the Sun was first among the Great Mysteries (Wakatanka). Of almost equal rank were the Sky, the Earth, and the Rock. Next in order was a group of four - the Moon (female), Winged-One, Wind, and the "Mediator" (female) - followed by beings of another order, buffalo, bear, the four winds, and the whirlwind. The list goes on, adding up to a bewildering complexity.

It is doubtful that any Sioux today is completely cognizant of the system, for a century of more of Christian missionary activity, Catholic and Protestant, has tended to efface native religious beliefs. The Peyote Cult (Native American Church) is active with the Sioux of all generations and is regarded by its followers as their true Indian religion.

It was customary for men to have their own guardian spirit as a source of protection and power. Adolescent boys were instructed by shamans to retreat to a hill, where they would fast and pray for several days and nights in their quest for a vision. If successful, they were usually visited in their vision by an animal who taught them a song that became their personal property.

The major religious ceremony of the Sioux was the annual Sun Dance which was celebrated in midsummer. This ceremony brought together the scattered bands and camps for this important event. Men celebrants in either their appeal for help, or as an expression of thanks for mercy, made vows to Wakantanka to dance at this ceremony. The dancers attached to the Sun Dance pole with leather thongs that were inserted through the flesh of the chest and were required to dance until they had torn themselves free. The dance was outlawed by the government in 1891 but has been allowed in recent years.

The tiospaye, which was a camp or settlement of related families under a headman, functioned in the past as a social and political unit. A strong sense of family that functions horizontally as well as vertically is a characteristic of the Sioux. Generosity is a virtue and one shares one's substance be it large or small, with those in need. Families are proud and conscious of their position in the community, and gifts to honor persons at public gatherings give status and recognition to the giver as well as to the recipient.

The settlement of the Sioux on reservations during the second half of the nineteenth century was for them as well as for the government a catastrophic experience. The government, in it efforts to civilize the Sioux, gave them plows and attempted to convert them to farming, an occupation that was foreign and repugnant to them. After the drama and excitement of riding horseback in pursuit of buffalo and in warfare with other tribes, following a horse-drawn plow failed to interest them and they resisted the government's program. They suffered decades of depression, in which they were reduced to dependence upon government rations for food and clothing. With the passing of time, the Sioux gradually adjusted to the ways of the modern world.

After years of unsuccessful attempts to solve the "Indian Problem," Congress enacted the Wheeler-Howard Bill in 1934. This legislation encouraged Indian tribes to become self-governing by the establishment of tribal councils, democratically elected by members of the tribe. The new approach became known as the New Deal, and for the first time a structure was set up enabling Indian tribes to manage their own business in cooperation with the Bureau of Indian Affairs in Washington, D.C.