Sioux Indian Tribe: History, Facts & Culture

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  • 0:01 Origins & Culture
  • 1:23 Threats
  • 2:15 Great Sioux War of 1876
  • 3:26 Battle of the Little Bighorn
  • 4:03 Massacre at Wounded Knee
  • 4:57 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Michael Knoedl

Michael teaches high school Social Studies and has a M.S. in Sports Management.

In this lesson, you'll travel back in time and learn about the Sioux Indian tribe of the Great Plains, including their origins and culture. Topics covered will include the Great Sioux War of 1876, Battle of the Little Bighorn, and Massacre at Wounded Knee.

Origins and Culture

Approximately 30,000 years ago, the Sioux people traveled from Asia to North America, most likely across the Bering land bridge, a prehistoric isthmus connecting parts of present-day Russia and Alaska during the Pleistocene era. Sioux means little snake, a name the tribe may have received from the Chippewa Indians.

The Sioux Indians were a family-oriented, nomadic people who spoke the Dakota language and believed in Wakan Tanka, the one god. As nomads, the Sioux Indians roamed the Great Plains, following buffalo herds and using dogs to haul their belongings. Buffalo were the Sioux's main source of food and clothing. Spanish explorers brought horses to the Sioux in the 1500s, which allowed the tribe to move possessions and travel faster when following the herds. Horses also allowed the Sioux to build bigger tipis, which where buffalo-hide covered huts.

In cold weather, the Sioux Indians wore buffalo hide; in warmer weather, they donned buckskin. When preparing for battle or on special occasions, Sioux chiefs wore feathered warbonnets, a sign of status reserved for them alone.

Each tribe could have many chiefs, including a civil chief, a medicine man, and a war chief. As a confederation, the Sioux consisted of many sub-tribes. While each sub-tribe was politically sovereign, they tended to work together in battle or in times of need.


Before the Sioux Indians had access to guns, they used arrows and spears to defend themselves. While evenly matched when fighting other tribes, they found themselves at a disadvantage when battling white settlers. White settlers were not much of a threat to the Sioux Indians until the mid-1800s, when explorers discovered gold in the West, and prospectors began traveling through their territory. When settlers tried to claim Sioux land, the Sioux fought back in an effort to protect their native hunting grounds.

Soldiers and settlers understood that the Sioux relied on the buffalo for survival. As a way to force the Sioux Indians off their land and onto a reservation, white settlers began shooting buffalo for sport.

Railroads sold tickets to traveling hunting parties, which shot buffalo from moving trains, leaving behind the entire carcass. This blatant disregard for the usefulness of the animals proved a mystery to the Sioux Indians.

Great Sioux War of 1876

As fighting between the Sioux Indians and white settlers escalated, the U.S. government offered to negotiate a peace treaty with the Sioux, in which the Great Sioux Reservation would allow the tribe to keep some of its land.

The Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868 set aside 25 million acres for the Sioux. Additionally, the government built military forts across the Great Plains in an effort to protect miners and white settlers from Indians living off the reservation.

In 1874, Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer reported gold in the Black Hills of present-day South Dakota. Under the terms of the Fort Laramie Treaty, the Black Hills were reserved for the Sioux Indians. Following Custer's report, white miners and settlers began pressuring the government to open the land for gold mining. When the government opened up the Black Hills, they reduced the size of the Great Sioux Reservation and required all Sioux Indians to report to the site. Those who did not comply were considered hostile and forced onto the reservation.

Sitting Bull, the supreme chief of the Sioux Nation, strongly opposed this arrangement. As Sitting Bull had a following of thousands on the Great Plains, the U.S. military considered both him and his followers a great threat and tried to force them onto the reservation.

Battle of the Little Bighorn

The Battle of the Little Bighorn took place on June 21, 1876 at the Little Bighorn River, just days after the Sun Dance ceremony.

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