“Dakota” is a word that means “ally” and is likely derived from the Oceti Ŝakowiŋ (the Seven Council Fires) - or main political units - of the Dakota people (sometimes referred to as the Sioux). Historically, the Mdewakanton, Wahpeton, Wahpekute and Sisseton people comprised the Eastern (Santee) Dakota, while to the west lived the Yanktonai and Yankton (sometimes collectively referred to as the Nakota) and the Teton (Lakota). During the early 1800s, the Santee Dakota lived primarily in the central and western parts of what would become Minnesota, while the Western Dakota lived mainly in present-day North and South Dakota.
Little Crow's Village on the Mississippi, Seth Eastman, 1846-48.
Historically, the Santee Dakota moved their villages and varied their work according to the seasons. They spent the winter living off the stores of supplies they built up during the previous year. Women gathered wood, processed hides and made clothes while men hunted and fished. In the spring, villages dispersed and men left on hunting parties while women, children and the elderly moved into sugaring camps to make maple sugar and syrup. During the summer months families gathered in villages and men hunted and fished while women and children cultivated crops such as corn, squash and beans. Once the corn had been harvested, families focused on gathering wild rice along the rivers. In autumn families moved to the year's chosen hunting grounds for the annual hunt. This traditional lifestyle of communal support was the basis for Dakota society and culture, which changed dramatically after contact was made with Europeans in the mid-1600s.
Traditionally, Dakota theology was passed on through an oral tradition. Charles Eastman (Ohiyesa), a Santee Dakota, wrote that Dakota spirituality centered around the belief of the unity and oneness of the world - everything was animated by a single, universal force, referred to as "wakan" or the "Great Mystery." Later, Christian missionaries encouraged the Dakota to stop following their traditional beliefs to become practicing Christians.
Prairie near the Mouth of the St. Peters-Buffalo Hunt, Seth Eastman, 1846-48.
Historically, daily life for the Dakota centered on survival. A harsh climate, tenuous food sources and potential conflict with neighbors made it essential for Dakota communities to work together at such tasks as hunting and gathering food, cultivating crops, processing animal skins for clothing and shelter, and providing for communal defense. Close bonds of kinship were formed within these communities and was reinforced through reciprocal giving of gifts, including clothing, food, tools and other useful items.
Kinship formed the basis for traditional Dakota social structure and brought with it certain expectations for behavior; to be considered truly Dakota, a person needed to be generous and act as a good relative to everyone. Newcomers could be welcomed into Dakota communities through ritualized ceremonies where the obligations of kinship were bestowed upon the individuals involved. Community governance was accomplished through consensus with all concerned parties being able to speak and be heard. European and European-American fur traders, and later the U.S. government, would utilize these kinship networks to foster trade and establish political relationships with the Dakota communities in the region during the early 1800s.
Bibliography / Resources
Anderson, Gary Clayton. Kinsmen of Another Kind: Dakota-White Relations in the Upper Mississippi Valley, 1650-1862. St. Paul, MN: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1997.
Deloria, Ella. The Dakota Way of Life. Sioux Falls, SD: Mariah Press, 2007.
Deloria, Ella. Speaking of Indians. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 1998.
Eastman, Charles Alexander (Ohiyesa). The Soul of the Indian. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 2003.
Gibbon, Guy. The Sioux: The Dakota and Lakota Nations. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2003.
Oneroad, Amos E., and Alanson B. Skinner. Being Dakota: Tales and Traditions of the Sisseton and Wahpeton. St. Paul, MN: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2003.
Pilot Knob Preservation
Spector, Janet D. What This Awl Means: Feminist Archeology at a Wahpeton Dakota Village. St. Paul, MN: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1993.
Waziyatawin. Remember This!: Dakota Decolonization and the Eli Taylor Narratives, Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2005
Waziyatawin. What Does Justice Look Like?, St. Paul, MN: Living Justice Press, 2008
View a selection of American Indian objects in the MNHS collections.