The Lakota Sioux

Information on the Lakota Sioux Indians
Recorded by Members of the Lewis and Clark Expedition 1804-1806

The following excerpts from the journals of Lewis and Clark and their men present a picture of the Lakota Sioux as the Anglo-Americans saw them. The modern reader must be careful to understand that what these white men saw and recorded was not necessarily correct from the Indian perspective. The Lakota Sioux were one of three groups of people who spoke a related language. They were called "Sioux" by the French in an adaptation of the Chippewa word Nadouessioux, a word which means "adder" or "snake." Since the Chippewa were the enemies of the Sioux, it is understandable that the people they were describing did not also call themselves snakes. Lakota, meaning "allies," is the term these westernmost Sioux use to describe their own people. The Nakota, composed of the Yankton and Yanktonais tribes, were the middle of the three Sioux nations, the eastern being the Dakota.

The Lakota are the people most often associated with the public's image of an Indian. They were a semi-nomadic tribe of tipi-dwelling Indians who followed the buffalo herds to obtain the necessities of life.

Lewis and Clark's descriptions of the tipi provided some of the earlier "word pictures" of this type of dwelling. The tipi was one of the most perfect architectural solutions to the problems posed by harsh environment, ready mobility, and comfort ever devised. Historically, a plains Indian woman could set up a tipi in 15 minutes time. The women made the tipis, owned them, and were responsible for moving them from place to place. The tipi was erected so that the back was higher than the front, with the doorway oriented toward the East; the back braced the tipi against the westerly winds and helped the fire to draw. The tipi also faced east so that it might greet the rising sun. Within the tipi, items were arranged according to the simple division, men on the right and women on the left. The guest of honor would have the space at the back midpoint of the tipi. Most original tipis were small compared to modern recreations with canvas sides. A typical tipi of brain-tanned buffalo hide such as the Lakota lived in when visited by Lewis and Clark stood about 14 feet tall. The hides weighed about 95 pounds, or 6.5 pounds per hide. A tipi would last about 10 years, and wore out through ultraviolet damage to the hides, usually not through weather, hard use or other conditions. With the demise of the buffalo in the 1870s, substitutes of steer hides were used in tipi construction during the 1880s - 1900s. In the 20th century canvas tipi covers have become the most prevalent from of cover. The inside temperature could be maintained at 50 degrees Fahrenheit, even in the dead of winter. By hanging all the way to the ground, an inside liner of nine hides stopped drafts from coming under the exterior cover and getting into the living area. It also assisted in the draft of smoke out the smoke hole. Tipis were made from buffalo hides from the upper back of the animal. Hides were dehaired with a scraper made of elk antler in long, vertical strokes repeatedly over an area until all the hair was removed. Two scrapings were needed, the first to remove the hair and the second to remove the stubble. The hides were tanned with the brain of the animal, one brain to one hide. The brain, which weighs about 3 pounds, could be cooked in water for about 15 minutes, or until it turned white. Uncooked brain could also be used, but it would not last as long if stored. While still warm the brain matter was applied to both sides of the hide much like rubbing soap onto something being washed, until it was used up. All sections of the hide were covered by the brain paste. Then the broth in which the brain was cooked was applied with a large brush to the thin paste surface, causing better absorption. The hide was then pulled and moved by see-sawing it over a stretched rope or by stepping on it. It was worked in this fashion for one hour, then put into a bag for an hour, then worked again. This cycle lasted for a 24 hour period. Once the hides were stretched on the lodgepoles, they would be smoked by the fire. Smoking filled the pores of the hide with pitch and formaldehyde; this preserved the hides for a longer period of time, and completed the tanning process. If a smoked hide gets wet, it will dry soft, whereas without smoking the hide would dry stiff and rubbing would be required to soften it again. A group of women, supervised by a matriarch of the tribe, gathered together to make a tipi, in much the same fashion as a "quilting bee" in Anglo societies. The hides were sewn together with sinew. Wood for the tipi was lodgepole pine for the western Sioux tribes. These pines grew straight and tall, stayed small in diameter despite their age (a 75 year old tree can still be 3" to 4" in diameter), which only increased toughness.

Most of the tribes associated most strongly with the Great Plains did not originally live there, and migrated from other areas. Migration was hastened by white settlement in the east, which produced a domino effect of westward movement by Native Americans. The horse was probably a factor in the adaptation of American Indian tribes to a truly semi-nomadic, plains lifestyle, and away from their farming village roots. The Lakota did not farm at all by the early 1800s, and depended entirely on consuming the bounty of the land, hunting and gathering all they needed for their existence.

The Sioux people are comprised of three separate tribes who share a similar language.

Lakota [Teton] Nakota [Yankton] Dakota [Santee]

Seven Bands:

Two Bands: Four Bands:
Sicangu (Brule) Yankton Mdewakanton
Oglala Yanktonais Wahpekute
Hunkpapa Wahpeton
Minneconjou Sisseton
Sihasapa (Blackfeet)
Oohenumpa (Two Kettle)
Itazipo (Sans Arc)

For the Lakota people, years were named, not numbered. For instance, "The winter Good White Man Came (1807)", "The winter Little Beaver's tipi burned (1809)". The winters of 1818, 1845, and 1850 were known simply as "Smallpox."

Lakota Calendar:

April - Moon of the Birth Calves
May - Moon of Strawberries
June - Moon of Ripe Juneberries
July - Cherry Ripening Moon
August - Moon of the Ripe Plums

September - Moon of the Yellow Leaves

October - Moon of the falling Leaves
November - Moon of the Hairless Calves
December - Moon of Frost in the Tipi
January - Tree Popping Moon
February - Sore Eyes Moon

March - Moon When the Grain Comes Up

To the Lakota, the family group was all-important. Membership changed, but the family remained intact through the years. They camped together in circular camps. The family hunting unit, tiyospe was the building block of Lakota society. A "good family" was judged by wealth in horses, success in hunting, membership in fraternal societies and the sponsorship of multiple religious ceremonies. Supernatural power, obtained through dreams and visions, was also important. A man was expected to adhere to the four cardinal virtues: bravery, fortitude, wisdom and generosity. A woman was expected to adhere to these four cardinal virtues: bravery, truthfulness, childbearing and generosity.

As will be seen, Lewis and Clark met with the Lakota people under a cloud of great tension and apprehension. It is best to read Lewis and Clark's accounts of this interaction when one has some background of the reasons for the behavior of the Lakota, none of which were understood or even guessed at by Lewis and Clark. President Jefferson had singled out the Lakota or "Sioux Tribe" as one which Lewis and Clark should take extra care to cultivate good relations with. An alliance with this tribe, known for making trouble with traders from St. Louis, was essential to U.S. Government plans to create a fur trade network into the Northwest and maintain peace between individual plains tribes. Lewis and Clark failed in their mission; in fact they failed so badly that they feared for the crew which would return with goods from the Mandan Villages under Cpl. Warfington in early 1805, and also for their own journey down the Missouri in 1806. Where had they gone wrong?

In terms of politics and trade, the Brule band of the Teton (Lakota) Sioux occupied an important place in the region. Each year they traveled to the Dakota Rendezvous on the James River in South Dakota to trade with the Yankton and Sisseton bands of Sioux. The latter two bands had manufactured goods they had received from the British traders at posts on the Des Moines and St. Peters Rivers. Next, the Brule traded these manufactured goods, along with buffalo robes, to the Arikara village Indians farther up the river for the food the Arikaras grew in surplus in their gardens; corn, beans and squash. Thus, the Brule controlled the flow of European trade goods to the Arikara, ensuring that their growing population would receive enough food each year. What Lewis and Clark did not realize was that the Brule Sioux were threatened by the possibility of the Arikara people gaining direct access to St. Louis traders; the Brule role as middlemen would be erased.

Lewis and Clark arrived on the scene well-armed, representing the interests of the United States and St. Louis traders rather than the British. They stated that they were determined to open the Missouri River to equal trade for all Indian tribes. They were determined to proceed further up the river to make direct contact with the Arikara, Mandan and Hidatsa tribes. It is easy to see how all of this posed a threat to the Sioux.

Additionally, there was a power struggle going on within the tribe. Black Buffalo, chief of the most powerful of the three bands of the tribe, was being challenged by the Partisan, who Lewis and Clark called the "2nd Chief." The winner of this struggle would place or maintain their band at the top of the heap. Both chiefs, in their addresses to Lewis and Clark and in their behavior during the three and a half days the explorers were with them, were "playing to the galleries" of public opinion among members of their respective bands. They were trying to show strength and not weakness, trying to show that they were doing the best job that they could do to represent their people and keep these intruders from upsetting the fragile balance of trade. Lewis and Clark unwittingly became embroiled in this struggle in their first meeting with the Indians, when they gave the Black Buffalo more presents than the Partisan. The Partisan then tested the resolve of William Clark by feigning drunkenness and ordering his warriors to seize the cable of the boat. In the past, a simple show of force had frightened St. Louis traders away from the region. But Clark did not back down; he drew his sword and threatened a confrontation. So far so good - but Lewis and Clark's plans for initiating peaceful relations with the tribe were foiled. Lewis and Clark were no longer in a bargaining position, and were more worried about getting away or past the Sioux than they were about their original diplomatic intentions.

The following day the Sioux changed their tactics, since they realized that they were not going to easily stop the explorers from sailing on by force, perhaps they could win them over by showing kindness. So an elaborate ceremony and feast was put on, ending with dances which emphasized the military power and prowess of the tribe. Due to poor interpretation of the language, the explorers did not fully understand the speeches made by the chiefs, which may have been asking them not to trade with the Arikara. Women were provided for the explorers, but they refused them.

On the final day, the Sioux once more tried to stop the explorers in what may have been a power struggle between the Partisan and Black Buffalo more than an attempt to stop the explorers by force. Lewis and Clark felt this attempt was designed specifically to harm them, however, and Lewis especially seemed at the end of his patience in regard to demands for presents from these Indians. Luckily, the confrontation ended without bloodshed. Brule attempts to stop Lewis and Clark probably ended here, but the Captains continued to think that any Sioux they saw represented the possibility of hostile intentions, as we shall see. Both chiefs came out of the confrontation saving face before their people. After all, Lewis and Clark only manned three boats, and were not traders. There would be more boats in the future, easy to stop, easy to intimidate. The Brule may not have stopped Lewis and Clark, but they certainly scared them mightily, and threatened to stop the entire expedition cold.

The following passages have been freely adapted and excerpted from the original texts, and the spelling has been corrected to make them easier to read. For students wishing to quote these passages, the Journals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, edited by Gary Moulton and published by the University of Nebraska Press, is the recommended source. For those who wish more in-depth information about Lewis and Clark's relations with various Indian tribes, including background from the Indian perspective, the best book is James P. Ronda's Lewis and CLlark among the Indians. incoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1984. The very best way to obtain accurate information from the tribal perspective is to contact tribal councils for individual tribes - in other words, to consult the people themselves.

Contact Information:
Chairperson, Lower Brule Tribal Council
Lower Brule, South Dakota 57548

Chairperson, Standing Rock Sioux Tribal Council
Fort Yates, North Dakota 58538

Journal Excerpts:

[Clark - below modern Pierre, South Dakota]
Sunday the 23rd September 1804
Soon after we landed three Sioux boys swam across to us, those boys informed us that a Band of Sioux called the Teton of 80 lodges were camped near the mouth of the next river, and 60 lodges more a short distance above them. They had that day set the prairies on fire to let those camps know of our approach. We gave those boys two twists of tobacco to carry to their Chiefs & Warriors to smoke, with directions to tell them that we wished to speak to them tomorrow, at the mouth of the next river.

Sunday 23rd Sept 1804
Towards evening we saw 4 Indians on the sand beach starboard side. We camped on the north side & 3 of them swam over to our camp. They belonged to the Sioux Nation. They informed us that their camp was near where there was a Grand Chief and a number of their nation. The Capts. gave them some tobacco & we set them across. They returned to their camp.

Monday the 24th of September 1804
We prepared some clothes [and] a few medals for the Chiefs of the Teton Band of Sioux we expected to meet at the next river. Soon after we passed the island Colter ran up the bank & reported that the Sioux had taken his horse. We soon after saw five Indians on the bank, who expressed a wish to come on board. We informed them we were friends, and wished to continue so, we were not afraid of any Indians. Some of their young men had stolen a horse sent by their Great Father to their great Chief, and we should not speak to them any more until the horse was returned to us again. We came to off the mouth of a small river. The Teton of the burnt woods is camped 2 miles up this river. This river we call Teton is 70 yards wide and comes in on the southwest side. I went on shore and smoked with a chief called Buffalo Medicine, who came to see us here. The Chief said he knew nothing of the horse &c &c. I informed them we would call the grand Chiefs in Council tomorrow, all continued on board all night.

24th September Monday 1804
Our pirogues went to the island for the meat. Soon after the man on shore run up the bank and reported that the Indians had stolen the horse. We soon after met 5 Indians and anchored out some distance & spoke to them. Informed them we were friends, & wished to continue so but were not afraid of any Indians. Some of their young men had taken the horse Sent by their Great Father for their Chief and we would not speak to them until the horse was returned to us again. The Tribes of the Sioux called the Teton is camped about 2 miles up on the northwest side and we shall call the river after that nation, Teton. This river is 70 yards wide at the mouth of water, and has a considerable current. We anchored off the mouth. The French Pirogue came up early in the [NB: (morning) day], the other did not get up until in the evening. Soon after we had come to, I went & smoked with the Chief who came to see us here. All well, we prepare to speak with the Indians tomorrow at which time we are informed the Indians will be here.

Monday 24th Sept. 1804
While they were dressing and getting the meat on board the Indians stole the horse & some salt out of his bag &c. We saw 5 Indians on shore. Colter came running along the shore, informed us that the Indians had stole the horse & bridle &c. Took Colter on board. Sailed up opposite to the 5 Indians, halted, anchored out 100 yards from shore. One of our Frenchmen spoke to them in the Nemaha language and asked them who their chief is. They could understand but little. They informed us that the Grand Chief's name is the Black Buffalo. The Captains told them that they or some of the young men had stolen our horse, and if they would bring the horse we would speak to them, and if they did not we would not speak to them. They said they knew nothing of the horse, but if their young men had stolen him they must find him & return him again. The Capts. told them it was well & we would speak to their chiefs tomorrow. We then proceeded on to the mouth of Teton River where we encamped on the starboard side. We anchored out 100 yards from shore. All remained on board except the guard, cooks & Frenchmen who remained on shore with one pirogue. The 5 Indians stayed with the guard all night, very peaceable. We had an old Frenchman with us who could speak a little of the Sioux language. He found that one of them was a chief. The Capts. gave them some tobacco, shook hands and smoked with them &c. This chief's name is [Buffalo] Medicine. He told us that all their lodge would come tomorrow. They ate and slept with us friendly. A flagpole hoisted.

Monday September 24th
We had among the French Canadians that were with us one man that could speak and understand a little of the language that was spoken to us by those 5 Indians that came to the bank of the river. By him we learnt that they said their Chiefs would come and see us tomorrow; and added, if their young men had taken the horse they would get him again.

25th of September 1804 off Teton River
Raised a flagstaff and formed an awning & shade on a sandbar in the mouth of the Teton River to council under, the greater portion of the party to continue on board. About 11 o'clock the 1st & 2nd Chief arrived. We gave them to eat; they gave us some meat, (we discover our interpreter does not speak the language well). At 12 o'clock the council commenced & after smoking agreeable to the usual custom [Capt. Lewis] delivered a written speech to them, I some explanations &c. All party paraded. Gave a medal to the grand Chief, in Indian Un-ton gar-Sar bar, or Black Buffalo. 2nd Torto-hongar, Partisan (Bad fellow), the 3d Tar-ton-gar-wa-ker, Buffalo Medicine. We invited those Chiefs & a Soldier on board our boat, and showed them many curiosities, [with] which they were much surprised. We gave them ½ a wineglass of whiskey, which they appeared to be exceedingly fond of. They took up an empty bottle, smelled it, and made many simple gestures and soon began to be troublesome. The 2d Chief, affecting drunkenness as a cloak for his villainous intentions (as I found afterwards,) reeled or fell about the boat. I went in a pirogue with those Chiefs, who left the boat with great reluctance. My object was to reconcile them and leave them on shore. As soon as I landed 3 of their young men seized the cable of the pirogue, one Soldier hugged the mast and the 2d Chief was exceedingly insolent both in words and gestures to me, declaring I should not go off, saying he had not received presents sufficient from us. I attempted to pacify (him) but it had a contrary effect, for his insults became so personal and his intentions evident to do me injury, I drew my sword (and ordered all hands under arms). At this motion Capt. Lewis ordered all in the boat under arms, the few men that was with me having previously taken up their guns with a full determination to defend me if possible. The Grand Chief then took hold of the cable & sent all the young men off. The Soldier got out of the pirogue and the 2nd Chief walked off to the party at about 20 yards back, all of which had their bows strung & guns cocked. I then spoke in very positive terms to them all, (but) principally addressing myself to the 1st Chief, who let the rope go and walked to the Indian party. I again offered my hand to the 1st Chief who refused it - (all this time the Indians were pointing their arrows). I proceeded to the pirogue and pushed off and had not proceeded far before the 1st & 3rd Chief & 2 principal men walked into the water and requested to go on board. I took them in and we proceeded on about a mile, and anchored near a small island, I call this island Bad Humored Island.

25th Sept.
All well, raised a flagstaff & made an awning or shade on a sandbar in the mouth of Teton River for the purpose of speaking with the Indians under. The boat crew on board at 70 yards distance from the bar. The 5 Indians which we met last night continued, about 11 o'clock the 1st & 2d Chief Came. We gave them some of our provisions to eat, they gave us great quantities of meat, some of which was spoiled. We feel much at a loss for the want of an interpreter; the one we have can speak but little. Met in council at 12 o'clock and after smoking, agreeable to the usual custom, Capt. Lewis proceeded to deliver a speech which we [were] obliged to curtail for want of a good interpreter. All our party paraded. Gave a medal to the Grand Chief called in Indian Un ton gar Sar bar, in French Beefe nure Black Buffalo, said to be a good man, 2nd Chief Torto hon gar, or the Partisan. The 3rd is the Beffe De Medison [NB: Beuffle de Medicine] his name is Tar ton gar wa ker.
1. Contesabe [NB: Considerable] man War zing go
2. do Second Bear = Ma to co que pan
Invited those Chiefs on board to show them our boat and such curiosities as was strange to them. We gave them ¼ a glass of whiskey which they appeared to be very fond of, sucked the bottle after it was out & soon began to be troublesome, one, the 2d Chief, assuming drunkenness as a cloak for his rascally intentions. I went with those Chiefs (which left the boat with great reluctance) to shore with a view of reconciling those men to us. As soon as I landed the pirogue three of their young men seized the cable of the pirogue. The Chief's Soldier hugged the mast, and the 2d Chief was very insolent both in words & gestures declaring I should not go on, stating he had not received presents sufficient from us. His gestures were of such a personal nature I felt myself compelled to draw my sword. At this motion Capt. Lewis ordered all under arms in the boat. Those with me also showed a disposition to defend themselves and me. The Grand Chief then took hold of the rope & ordered the young warriors away. I felt myself warm & spoke in very positive terms. Most of the warriors appeared to have their bows strung and took out their arrows from their quivers. As I was not permitted to return, I sent all the men except 2 [interpreters] to the boat. The pirogue soon returned with about 12 of our determined men ready for any event this movement (in the last instance after landing pointed their arrows blank &c which) caused a number of the Indians to withdraw at a distance. Their treatment to me was very rough & I think justified roughness on my part. They all left my pirogue and counseled with themselves; the result I could not learn and nearly all went off. After remaining in this situation some time I offered my hand to the 1 & 2 Chiefs who refused to receive it. I turned off & went with my men on board the pirogue. I had not progressed more the 10 paces before the 1st Chief, 3rd & 2 Brave men waded in after me. I took them in & went on board (proceeded on 1 mile &c.) We proceeded on about 1 mile & anchored out off a willow island. Placed a guard on shore to protect the cooks & a guard in the boat. Fastened the pirogues to the boat. I call this island Bad Humored Island as we were in a bad humor.

Tuesday 25th Sept. 1804
About 10 o'clock A.M. they came flocking in from both sides of the river. When 30 odd was selected under the American Colors Capt. Lewis & Capt. Clark went out to speak and treat with them. Gave the 3 Chiefs 3 new medals & 1 American flag, some knives & other small articles of goods & gave the head chief the Black Buffalo a red coat & a cocked hat & feather &c., likewise some tobacco. We had no good interpreter but the old Frenchman could make them understand tolerable well. But they did not appear to talk much until they had got the goods, and then they wanted more, and said we must stop with them or leave one of the pirogues with them, as that was what they expected. Capt. Lewis showed them the air gun, shot it several times. Then the Captains brought the 3 chiefs and one warrior they had with them, gave the warrior a certificate, then showed the chiefs some curiosities. Gave them a dram. They brought a quantity of fat buffalo meat and offered us; the Captains accepted of some of it & gave them pork in return. Then the Captains told them that we had a great ways to go & that we did not wish to be detained any longer. They then began to act as if they were intoxicated. With some difficulty Capt. Clark got them to shore. They then began to show some signs of stopping or attempting to stop us. One of them stayed on board the pirogue when Capt. Clark & the chiefs went out of it. The head chief, the Black Buffalo, seized hold of the cable of the pirogue and set down. Capt. Clark spoke to all the party to stand to their arms. Capt. Lewis, who was on board, ordered every man to his arms. The large swivel loaded immediately with 16 musket balls in it, the 2 other swivels loaded well with buckshot, each of them manned. Capt. Clark used moderation with them, told them that we must and would go on and would go, that we were not squaws but warriors. The chief said he had warriors too, and if we were to go on they would follow us and kill and take the whole of us by degrees or that he had another party or lodge above this and that they were able to destroy us. Then Capt. Clark told them that we were sent by their great father the president of the U.S. and that if they misused us that he or Capt. Lewis could, by writing to him, have them all destroyed as it were in a moment. They when requested that we would stay all night; they wished to have their women and children see the boat as they never saw such a one. The Capt. told them that we could not go far as the day was far spent, but we would let them see that they should not stop us and that we should go a short distance and camp for the night. The chief then let go the cable, and said that he was sorry to have us go, for his women and children were naked and poor and wished to get some goods. But he did not think we were merchants, nor that we were loaded with goods, but he was sorry to have us leave them so soon. They wished to come on board. Capt. Clark took the chief and warriors on board to stay all night with them. We then set off and proceeded on about 1 mile and camped, anchored out.

Tuesday 25th. We stayed here to wait for the Indians, who were expected to arrive, and at 10 o'clock they came, about 50 in number. The commanding officers made three of them chiefs and gave them some presents. Five of them came on board and remained about three hours. Captain Clark and some of our men in a pirogue went ashore with them; but the Indians did not seem disposed to permit their return. They said they were poor and wished to keep the pirogue with them. Captain Clark insisted on coming to the boat; but they refused to let him, and said they had soldiers as well as he had. He told them his soldiers were good, and that he had more medicine aboard his boat than would kill twenty such nations in one day. After this they did not threaten any more, and said they only wanted us to stop at their lodge, that the women and children might see the boat. Four of them came aboard; when we proceeded on a mile, and cast anchor at the point of an island in the middle of the river. The Indians remained with us all night.

Tuesday 25th Sept.
We delayed to wait for the Indian chiefs and warriors to come which we expected. About 10 o'clock they came, about 50 in number. Our officers made three of them chiefs, and gave them medals & some presents. 5 of them came on board & stayed a long time. Capt. Clark and some men took them to shore in a pirogue. The Indians did not incline to let us go on any further up the river. They held the cable of the pirogue and said that they wanted one pirogue at least to stay, as they were poor. Capt. Clark insisted on going on board, but they resisted for a long time. They said they had soldiers on shor

Last updated: April 10, 2015

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