The Lakota of the Plains: Facts, Culture & Daily Life

Instructor: Daniel McCollum

Dan has a Master's Degree in History and has taught undergraduate History

When one thinks about the Native Tribes of the Great Plains, chances are images of the Sioux come to mind and, possibly, their great victory over Custer at Little Big Horn. This lesson examines the proud history and culture of the Lakota Sioux people.

Masters of the Plains

The Lakota are a Native American people that make up part of the Great Sioux Nation, a confederation of related tribes that existed at the time of their first contact with Europeans. Although we often think of the Lakota as a people of the Great Plains, they did not originate there. As late as the early 17th century, the Lakota people lived in what is today Wisconsin, Minnesota and Iowa as well as parts of the Dakotas. However, during this same era, they went to war with the Anishnaabe (such as the Ojibwa) and the Creek peoples as they all desired the same natural resources, such as wild rice. The wars did not go well, and the Lakota and other Sioux were pushed out of many of these lands and forced to move west into the northern Great Plains. Once they moved to the Plains, they were introduced to the horse culture by the Cheyenne and began to hunt buffalo. This transformed the Lakota culture, and they would go on to become one of the most powerful people on the Great Plains.

Horses would play a huge part in the lives of the Lakota people, as they allowed the tribe to better hunt buffalo, the primary food source of the region. Buffalo was hunted in a number of ways, but the most famous involved a hunter sneaking into a herd while wearing a buffalo hide, while making distressed noises. Meanwhile other hunts would burn fragrant grasses, causing the buffalo to believe there was a prairie fire and stampede off of a nearby cliff where they would be processed. The Lakota used buffalo for many things in addition to food; their hides could be made into leather for clothing, or written on to keep records, while bones could be used as bowls or even needles for sewing. The religion of the Lakota, like the other Sioux, also incorporated the Buffalo in the figure of White Buffalo Calf Woman who was a woman or spirit that was said to have taught the Sioux people their religious ceremonies. Warfare also played a large part in the culture as Lakota warriors would attempt to gain prestige in battles and raids; this was called counting coup, and the braver the deed, the more coup, or honor, would be won by the warrior.

Struggles with the United States

Sitting Bull
Sitting Bull

By the time the United States first made contact with the Lakota during the Lewis and Clark Expedition, the Sioux had already become one of the dominant tribes on the Great Plains. Their power was respected enough that the United States signed the Treat of Fort Laramie of 1851 with them, where the Americans agreed to accept their dominance on the Plains, and to protect their lands, if the Lakota would agree to give American settlers free passage on the Oregon Trail. Unfortunately, the United States would never uphold its end of the treaty and did nothing to stop settlers from encroaching on Lakota lands. This caused a lot of anger and resentment, especially when settlers began to arrive in the Black Hills searching for gold. The Black Hills remain a sacred site to the Lakota to this very day. The United States tried to undermine the Lakota's way of life by exterminating the buffalo and confining them to reservations.

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