Many people mistakenly assume that the Sioux (pronounced “soo”) are one tribe. They are actually three tribal bands that speak three dialects—the Lakota, Dakota, and Nakota. Of these, the Lakota are the largest and most well-known of the Sioux. They are also known as the Teton Sioux. Sioux leaders are among the most famous of all Native Americans. The three tribal bands are distinct not only because of their dialects, but also because of their lifestyles.
The name “Sioux” originated in the 1600s, when French traders were told by an enemy tribe, the Ojibwas, that “Sioux” was their name. In the Ojibwa language, “Sioux” means “snakelike ones.”
The Ojibwas ultimately pushed the Sioux out of Minnesota and the Lake Superior, forcing them to move westward. By the mid-1800s, the Lakota and Nakota were settled on the Great Plains, with the Dakota remaining largely in Minnesota. They were mostly nomadic people. They took advantage of the horses brought to North America by the Spanish and followed the buffalo westward. In time, the Sioux became expert horsemen.
During the nineteenth century, the culture of the Lakota, in particular, was flourishing. They were skilled buffalo hunters. The Great Plains was their home not only because of the buffalo, but also because of their religious beliefs. The Lakota believed that they were created by the Great Spirit and emerged from a cave in the Black Hills region of South Dakota. This region is still sacred to the Lakota. It is more important to the Lakota than any other region.
It was also in the nineteenth century that conflicts between the Lakota and the United States government grew. The US built new military posts on the Plains to subdue tribes they considered hostile. As the white population increased, the buffalo population dropped. Settlers sometimes killed the buffalo for food, but often killed it for sport. (“Buffalo Bill” Cody is said to have killed more than four thousand buffalo himself!) With buffalo becoming nearly extinct in the mid- to late-1800s, the Lakota way of life suffered.
Growing conflict between the Sioux and white settlers led to three “Indian Wars.” During these conflicts, the Sioux earned a reputation as perhaps the most fearsome Native American warriors the US ever fought. In the first conflict, in 1854, nineteen US soldiers were killed. In retaliation, US troops killed almost one hundred Sioux in Nebraska in 1855. Red Cloud’s War in the 1860s resulted in a treaty that granted the Black Hills to the Sioux forever. Unfortunately, the US did honor the treaty and settlers continued to migrate into the area. When gold was discovered in the area, the number of settlers increased even more.
The final and deadliest conflict came in 1876. General George Custer’s entire force of three hundred troops (and Custer himself) were killed at the battle of Little Bighorn. After “Custer’s Last Stand,” the US government reacted quickly. The remaining Lakotas, including the fearsome warriors Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull, were forced to settle on a reservation.
In 1890, the Sioux suffered another terrible tragedy. At a site called Wounded Knee, on the Sioux reservation, US troops killed over one hundred men, women, and children.
The Sioux are remembered mostly for being fearsome fighters. But they were also very religious people who were devoted to their families. Children were considered sacred and were cherished by their families.
Interesting Facts About the Sioux:
• As of 2014, more than $1 billion dollars is being held by the US Treasury for the sale of the Black Hills. The Sioux want the Black Hills returned and refuse to take the money.
• Along with Mount Rushmore, there is also a monument to Crazy Horse, the Sioux chief, in the Black Hills.
• George Custer and his troops were defeated by the famous Sioux chief, Sitting Bull.