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Religious Beliefs
Social and Family Structure


Hollywood's version of Native Americans: The Sioux are used to portray all Native American tribes in Hollywood, anyone wanting to see a "real Indian" wants to see a war bonnet and a teepee.

The Sioux are a group of North American Indian tribes of theThe Sioux are a group of North American Indian tribes of the Great Plains area. Their Siouxan language is spoken in various dialects by tribes across the United States. The three main Sioux groups are the Lakota to the west, the Dakota to the east, and the Nakota between them. Each group is composed of several bands. The Lakota, or Teton Sioux, include the Oglala, Brule, Hunkpapa, Minneconjou, Itazipcho, Oohenonpa, and Sihasapa (Blackfeet). Together the Sioux numbered about 30,000 in the mid-18th century. They were outstanding warriors, fighting not only hostile tribes but also white intruders and the army troops that protected them. To the Sioux, fighting was in many ways a game based on valor and bravery; they might simply touch an adversary, representing a kill, and let him live. Prestige was won through deeds, validated by a recital of the facts, because truthfulness was a paramount virtue. Sioux culture is characterized by mobility on horseback, a buffalo economy, vision quests, soldier societies, and the Sun dance. After the Sioux massacre at Wounded Knee (1890), they remained on reservations in Minnesota, Nebraska, the Dakotas, and Montana and in Manitoba and Saskatchewan in Canada. Sioux leaders in the American Indian Movement (AIM) in 1973 protested against reservation abuses by taking over the village of Wounded Knee, S.Dak. In 1993, Sioux in the United States on or near reservations numbered more than 70,000.

The seven original bands of the Great Sioux Nation were joined in an alliance called the Oceti Sakowin or Seven Council Fires. This confederation of tribes spoke three dialects. The Santee spoke Dakota. The Yankton originally used Nakota, but many adopted the Dakota dialect in the mid-1800s. And the Teton spoke Lakota. The term Sioux, short for nadouessioux or little snakes, actually came from the Chippewa, a longtime foe. Over the years, it has been widely adopted. However, the people of the Great Sioux Nation prefer to be called Dakota, Lakota, or Nakota, according to their language group. A rich oral tradition relates the values, culture, and spirituality of the Great Sioux Nation. The stars, known as the Great Spirit's holy breath, the sun and the earth figure prominently in this tradition. Today, as yesterday, the people of the Great Sioux Nation seek to live in harmony with the universe.

Religious Beliefs

Religion stresses an omnipotent supernatural powerReligion stresses an omnipotent supernatural power (wakan) and the sacredness of the peace pipe, or calumet. Contrary to common belief, the Lakota Sun Dance was neither a form of solar worship nor a ritual ordeal or sacrifice. For the Lakota, the Sun was indeed a representative of the Great Mystery (wakan tanka), and was known as a wakan akanta (superior divinity) whose name was Wi. However, the Sun Dance is not for the purposes of offering blood or anything else to the sun. Even though many people have focused on the use of hooks being driven into the flesh of the dancers or their way of dancing until exhaustion, this was not an 'ordeal' in the commonly understood sense. Instead, the "probationer" or dancer volunteered to partake in the ritual in order to help put himself and his band in harmony with the cosmos. The Lakota hold their Sun Dance very year in late July or August. It is thought that the timing of the Sun Dance had more to do with the height of the buffalo herd population at that time of the year (that was when all the nomadic hunting bands could gather in one place) than with any specific astronomical or calendar event. A vertical connection (axis mundi) to the sun and the cosmos is necessary for the ceremony to continue, and this is symbolized by erecting a large cottonwood tree at the center of the dance ground. The tree is adorned with flags and artifacts of six colors, representing the six cardinal directions (east, west, north, south, above, below.) The dancing ground is surrounded by an arbor covered with boughs with an opening to the east, where the dancers and the Sun enter each day.

One of the more sensational aspects of the Sun Dance is, of course, the piercing of dancers with pegs through the chest; these pegs are connected to a rope, which is tied around the central tree. The dancer runs from the periphery of the circle to the center and back three times, building up speed. After the third flight, the dancer runs with such force that the pegs are torn out of his chest, ripping free from his flesh. Many Lakota point out that this part of the ritual simply emphasizes that at birth, people are "torn" this way from the Great Mystery and from their connection to the veridical dimension of the cosmos. It reinforces the idea that everything is ultimately dependent on the gifts of the Sun, and can't ever truly be free of the heat and light that it gives. According to the Lakota, the Sun Dance is one of the six great ceremonies, including the smoking of the holy Pipe, that was given to them by their culture-bringer, White Buffalo Calf Woman. Although it became something of a powwow-style tourist attraction around the middle of the century (after the U.S. government outlawed the more sensational aspects of it in the name of "decency"). Since the 1970s, AIM members and other Lakota traditionalists have tried to recapture some of the solemnness of the original ritual, and have subsequently banned tourists, alcohol, and other distractions, while restoring the piercing and rigor of the ritual. Non-Indians have been allowed to participate, but only if they are well known and agree to obey by all the rules and taboos of the ceremonies.

The counterpart of Wi, the Sun, was Hanwi, the Moon, whose name literally means Night Sun. The stars were regarded simultaneously as parts of Skan, the Sky, and were also thought to be supernatural people in their own right. Because Sun had abandoned his wife at a feast of the gods, Skan passed judgment on him. From then on, Sun was forced to rule over the day and Moon over the night. Wohpe, their daughter, was the White Buffalo Calf Woman. In Lakota cosmology, there were quadripartite divisions of everything: four colors (red, green, blue, yellow) four superior mysteries (sun, sky, earth, rock), four classes of gods (superior, associate, subordinate, spirits), four elements in the sky (sun, moon, sky, stars), four parts of time (day, night, month, year), and four winds corresponding to the four cardinal directions. All of these are symbolized by the Lakota cross-within-a-circle, a symbol which appears throughout the Americas. For the Lakota, it is the "sacred hoop" and represents the totality of their people. The user of the Sacred Calf Pipe faces east toward the rising sun at dawn, west toward the setting sun at dusk. The Sun was recognized as one of the greatest of the Lakota's divine Controllers. Inktomi, the trickster-spider, mediates between gods and men. According to this text, Wohpe is Falling Star, and she marries the South Wind as her husband. The Morning Star is said to represent the light of knowledge as a counter to the darkness of ignorance. The eastern part of the teepee symbolizes the source of light. The south represents death and the spirit path. The west represents darkness and thunderbirds. The north represents the path of forefathers. The Buffalo People are said to reside in the north. The Lakota claim to see a woman, rather than a man's face, in the moon, and she is said to be stirring a kettle by the fire. The moon is explicitly linked to a woman's menstruation cycle and to pregnancy and fertility.

The stars are said by some Lakota to be very remote from human affairs. People are not to concern themselves with their business because the stars are wakan. However, this is contradicted by stories which suggest that the star people come to earth to look for brides, and the fact that heroes and other important ancestor figures go to join the stars. Lakota society was very individualistic, and so were the visions that were granted to all Lakota people.


The three dialects of the Sioux are Dakota, Nakota, and Lakota. The Nakota is now almost extinct. All three dialects can understand each other, the differences being the initial consonant sound. Basic rules for the Lakota language: Lakota words have the same number of syllables as they have vowels. Therefore, by counting the total vowel sounds (basic and nasal) one can identify the number of syllables. There are 32 Lakota consonants. The Lakota language is spoken differently by each of the genders female speakers talk differently than male speakers. For example: To ask "how are you?" a female Lakota speaker would say, "To ni ktu he?"while a male Lakota speaker would say, "To ni ktu wo?" Also in the Lakota language, it is essential to understand pronunciation in order to fully express emotions and to make a statement with feeling. Feelings are important in the Lakota language. We can say a thousand words and not mean a single one if our feelings are not in it. Listening to Lakota speakers, you can tell when they effectively use their language because you can feel their feelings. In addition to emotions and feelings, language reflects environment. It expresses philosophy. It affirms spirituality. It supports music, dances, good times, sad times. All those feelings are held within it. It is the life force of the culture. Also note that some words have the same spelling, but different intonations change the word's meaning, and therefore accents are important.

In the tiyospaye (village), communication served a very important role. It was the means of establishing and maintaining proper relationships. It was considered rude to speak another name boldly therefore you addressed them by a kinship term. This was the way to show courtesy, kindness and good will. To address a relative one must first avow their own status, being mindful of duties incumbent on himself and remind the relative of his. When done, reciprocal trust and confidence was guaranteed. Among the Lakota, they had a non-demonstrative emotional bearing. What this translates to is an over statement of action and an understatement of words. The rule was "don't tell me, show me." When a person was acknowledged, it was done publicly with attendant gifting of people. When children were named, a "naming ceremony" was held with public acclaim and the parents had a "give away," gifting the people to honor their daughter. Modest decorum was the proper way one conducts himself in public and boasting or bragging were intensely discouraged. It was considered in bad taste to blow your own horn. Your peers and tiyospaye acknowledged your deed and abilities, you did not. Respectful eye contact was the norm. Respectful eye contact meant you only make full eye contact when you first meet a person to acknowledge their presence, after that you kept your eyes downcast to show your respect. Children were asked, "do you hear with your eyes?" to teach them not to stare. In many of Lakota life practices, they mimicked the animal's behaviors. Among animal such as the wolf, elk and coyote, staring is done as a challenge when males intend to fight. Among the Lakotas, to stare meant you were challenging or did not believe the speaker. Respectful eye contact was always afforded one older than you, an elder or one in authority. Small talk was not a part of Lakota social graces. Among today's majority culture, small talk is a cornerstone of their social graces. Proper decorum or social graces, meant you were quiet and attentive, without staring. You listened intently to what the other said to determine what they wanted. When that became clear, you tried to give to them what they wanted. Among relatives, visiting took place except with avoidance relationships, but this is not the same kind of "small talk" that is a part of the majority cultures social graces.

Social and Family Structure

While the Sioux were known to be great warriors, the family 
While the Sioux were known to be great warriors, the family was considered the key unit of Sioux life. Lakota family groups and extended families came together to form a tiyospaye. Such a group of families, bound together by blood and marriage ties, lived side by side in the camp circle and operated as a single unit in practically all activities. They came together for the basic purpose of survival and belonging. The Lakota married between the ages of 12 and 15 years old. Children, called wakanisha (Waka meaning sacredness) were of primary importance to the Sioux family and were therefore the center of attention. The Lakota norm is monogamy. The roles of men and women were clearly defined. While the men were expected to provide for and defend the family by hunting and making war, the women were the matriarchs, ruling the family life and the domestic life of the tepee. When a man married a Sioux woman, it was expected that he would move into her home. A grandfather, whose wisdom and knowledge would be greatly respected, would bring up his grandson teaching him the basics of horse riding and the use of a bow and arrow and lance. A grandmother would help to bring up her granddaughter, teaching her how to cook, clean, skin buffalo, make clothes, etc. Grandparents were very important to a tribe as their wisdom enriched the next generation of children. However, one of the customs of the Lakota practiced what they called exposure. When an elderly person, male or female, considered that he/she was of no use to his/her family any longer and that they were using up important food and giving nothing in return, they would go out at night to an area outside of the tribal village, preferably in poor weather, and wait to die from exposure to the cold and lack of food. Their family would not insult them by attempting to persuade them to change their minds. This was a custom of the Lakota but the white settlers found it inhuman and barbaric.

From the earliest of ages, boys were taught how to ride a horse. This prepared them for the time when they would become a warrior for the tribe. They were also taught how to use tomahawks, bows etc. Older boys might be allowed to join and experience a buffalo hunt. Young girls were taught how to look after a man. They played no part in hunts other than the hard task of cutting up the carcasses of the dead buffalo. A young girl would be considered a potentially useful wife if it was known that she was a good cook, clothes maker, etc. Children were never physically punished for doing wrong. This again fitted in with the belief that tribal harmony could only be maintained if everybody was happy including the children. The worst punishment for children in Lakota was for a bucket of water to be thrown over them by angered parents. A family would live in a teepee. These were made from buffalo hides. The buffalo herds moved throughout the year and the tribes had to follow the herds if they were to survive. It did not take long to put up or take down a teepee. A hole was left in the top so that smoke from a fire could escape. When the weather was poor, cooking was done inside a teepee. Buffalo hides were also used as blankets - the Plains of America can become very cold at night and the tepees were not well insulated.

The Sioux were a deeply spiritual people, who communed with the spirit world through music and dance. The Sun Dance was considered one of the most religious ceremonies of the Sioux. This twelve-day summer ritual of self-sacrifice was a testimony to individual courage and endurance in serving the Great Spirit. As a shared experience among men, the Sun Dance also instilled a sense of tribal unity. By dancing and enduring the pain of self-inflicted wounds, each participant reasserted his identity as a Lakota warrior. Going on the warpath was part of a rite of passage for males. War was the underlying principle of the Sioux people, because through it men gained prestige, and their prestige was reflected in the family honor.

For the Sioux, the title of Chief was viewed as a medal earned for outstanding performance during times of war or peace. To be Chief was considered an honorary title. It did not mean, however, that the Chief was solely "in charge" of his people. Rather than a linear chain of command, the Indians traditionally ruled by unanimous vote of a council of Chiefs of "Headmen" from a variety of bands. Decisions made by the council served to guide rather than command the people.

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