The Great Sioux Nation is an umbrella definition of what is actually a number of different tribes that lived separately and had different languages as well.
We’ll talk about the three largest divisions of the Sioux nation, the Lakota, the Dakota and what has now become to be known as the Nakota. In actuality, the Nakota is made up of an American tribe called the Assiniboine and its Canadian neighbor the Stoney Indians.
All three tribes were spread across what is now the northern United States, with the Dakota Indians settled in the East, and the Lakota inhabiting the prairies of the West. In the middle of those two were the Nakota, or middle Sioux, who favored the areas around Montana and what is now Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Canadian Alberta.
There was not a lot of migration among these tribes prior to the arrival of the European settlers. Like most Native American tribes, they had settled into a stasis that allowed them to have more permanent living structures. They did, however, move around when it became necessary to find wild game abundant enough to keep the tribes fed.
Not surprisingly, history shows that the first Sioux to encounter the white man were the Dakota Indians settled around the Mississippi River source waters and the Great Lakes area. Those Europeans were steadily pushing West, and possessing lands that were causing a great variety of tribes to relocate West as well. And because land is scarce, some of that relocation resulted in intertribal wars that caused even more disruption.
The Dakotas especially were accomplished trappers, and both English and French fur traders were anxious in expanding relationships with them. In particular, the French enjoyed a strong relationship with the Dakota Sioux, to the point where they would regularly winter with the Indians in and around Wisconsin.
Relationships with Other Tribes
It’s fair to say that the Sioux tribes had contentious relationships with other first Nations people. In particular, the Sioux fought savage battles against their rival the Pawnee Indians. This long-standing conflict with not just about warriors squaring off on the battlefield. Women and children were considered fair game in a vicious tug-of-war that began over issues involving everything from land rights to wild game and fur trade territories.
In August 1873, the battle at Massacre Canyon marked a final chapter in the struggle. According to stories on both sides, the Pawnee were returning to their reservation lands from a largely successful hunt when ambushed by several Sioux chiefs and their warriors who were frustrated that the Pawnee continued to hunt near the Republican River.
While it’s true that the Pawnee had sold the rights to the land to the United States some 40 years earlier, it came with the stipulation that they continue to have the right to hunt buffalo in that area. This had aggravated the Sioux tribe for some time and regularly stoked a string of battles.
The Pawnee were overwhelmed at Massacre Canyon and even the women and children were pursued in retreat. Estimates of the number of dead fluctuate from 50 all the way up into the range of 300, but captives were taken as well.
Mediation between the US government and the two tribes eventually led to the return of the captives. There’s very little documentation of fighting between the Pawnee and the Lakota from that point forward, however.
Relationship Between the Sioux Indians and the White Man
In the second half of the 19th century, agitation between the Sioux Indians and the US government began to grow. It boiled over in 1862 with a combination of a failed crop that had led to significant winter starvation. On top of that, federal payments due to the tribe were late and prominent local traders began to withhold credit from the Indians.
One such trader, Andrew Myrick, was famously quoted as saying “if they are hungry, let them eat grass” in the spring of 1862. Not surprisingly, this infuriated members of the Santee tribe who were watching their kinfolk starve all winter.
Shortly thereafter, in August 1862 the Dakota Indians lashed out by murdering a substantial white farmer and his family. This was the beginning of a number of attacks against white settlements on and around the Minnesota River. In fact, Myrick was eventually found dead during the conflict, with a large patch of grass stuffed in his own mouth.
While historians call this the Dakota War, estimates of the death toll are all over the place. What we do know is that, in November 1862, 303 Santini Sioux were convicted of both rape and murder. Court documents indicate that hundreds of American settlers were victimized.
Those Santini Sioux who had been charged were not allowed any witnesses, nor attorneys, to argue their case. In fact, most of their cases received less than five minutes of judicial consideration before the guilty verdicts were handed down.
All those convicted were ordered to be hanged, but then Pres. Abraham Lincoln issued orders to commute the death sentences of 284 warriors. 38 Santee men were hanged on a frozen morning after Christmas at the end of 1862.
Those who had been pardoned by the president were transported to a federal prison in the state of Iowa, where at least half of them died after a short period of incarceration.
Further aggravating relationships between the Sioux and the US government, Lincoln suspended annuities to the Sioux that were part of earlier treaty agreements, awarding them instead to the families of the white victims for a period of four years. It could not have happened at a more desperate time for the desperate Sioux.
There were a number of armed conflicts between the Sioux nation and the US government forces still to come. Celebrated Sioux chief Red Cloud fought for Lakota control of Powder River Country between 1866 and 1868. The conflict ranged over both Wyoming and Montana territory until US government losses force them to enter into the Treaty of Fort Laramie in 1868.
Less than 10 years later, The Great Sioux War of 1876 found the Lakota allied with the Cheyenne and some other minor tribes against the US military. Some call this the Black Hills War, with the final battle in what everyone regards a United States victory being at Wolf Mountain in 1877.
Just 13 years later, the Wounded Knee Massacre marked the final ugly showdown between the Lakota and government forces. 500 troops of the seventh cavalry Regiment, supported by heavy and sophisticated artillery surrounded a Lakota encampment as part of an order to escort the Indians to the railroad so that they could be transported to Omaha Nebraska.
The Lakota resisted this removal, and in the ensuing confrontation more than 150 natives were killed. It’s believed that an equal number fled the battle, many of them destined to become victims of hypothermia in the cold, December frontier weather.
To this day, the massacre that occurred at Wounded Knee represents a significant stain on the reputation of the United States. Despite a litany of violated treaties and forced removals, the United States military had in general sustained its honor as a legitimate fighting force. But at Wounded Knee, far too many of the victims were defenseless women and children. It was behavior by military forces of which no American can ever be proud.
Where Does the Sioux Nation Reside Now?
In broad terms, the many bands of the Lakota tribe occupy reservations in South Dakota and North Dakota. The middle Sioux, or Nakota as we discussed earlier, stretch from Saskatchewan and Manitoba down into Montana of the United States. The Eastern bands, or Dakota, are found from Minnesota down to Nebraska.
What Are Current Living Conditions like?
Lakota descendants are noted for paying great respect to the legacy of their ancestors. To this day, they are vocal advocates for native rights in the United States.
Throughout the summer of 2016, Lakota bands marshaled support to fight against the Dakota Access oil pipeline (known also as the Bakken pipeline). Although that pipeline was never designed to disrupt reservation land, Lakota concern that hydro-fracking would eventually place the reservations drinking water at risk found significant support from other legislators and even Hollywood stars.
Almost 90 tribal governments executed letters of support for the Standing Rock Sioux, and even 2016 presidential candidate Bernie Sanders endorsed their effort to alter the pipeline’s planned route.
The Lost Children, Shattered Families Investigation
National Public Radio (NPR) did an investigative piece recently that highlighted policies by South Dakota’s Department of Social Services that are resulting in an inordinate number of Lakota children being removed from their parents to be raised by white foster families.
Native American advocacy questions why grandparents can’t play the parental role if a parent or parents are found unable to properly raise their own children. After all, this is the case in non-reservation lands.
Therefore, the NPR investigation exposed this disparity of treatment that had been challenged by several prominent Lakota activists and even the People’s Law Project. The ultimate goal is to redirect the federal funding used by South Dakota’s Department of Social Services to create more effective foster care programs within the tribe itself.
Tribal leadership believes this to be well within the spirit of all previous treaties, which were aimed at creating as much self-reliance (not to mention self-sustaining cultural and historical knowledge) as possible on reservations throughout the United States.