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The term "Dakota" translates as "friends" or "allies". The Anishinabe (Ojibwe) referred to the Dakota as "enemy" in the Anishinabe language. French traders used the last syllable of this term and labeled the Dakota as "Sioux." Today, they are known as both Dakota and Sioux.

The Dakota Nation includes the native peoples who once lived in the northern forests and along the upper Mississippi River in northern Minnesota. In time, the Dakota Nation divided into three groups (Dakota, Nakota, and Lakota), each moving in different directions but still maintaining close ties to one another.

The Eastern Dakota live closest to the Mississippi River. The Dakota consist of four main bands, which make up four of the seven council fires of the Dakota nation:

Bdewakanton (Dwellers at Mystic Lake) - Also known as Mdewakanton.
Reservations: Lower Sioux, Prairie Island, Shakopee in Minnesota.

Wahpekute (Shooters of the Leaves) -
Reservations: Santee (Nebraska), Fort Peck (Montana), Spirit Lake (North Dakota)

Sisutunwan (Dwellers by the Fish Campground) -
Reservations: Lake Traverse (South/North Dakota) and Spirit Lake

Wahpetonwan (Dwellers Among the Leaves) -
Reservations: Lake Traverse, Flandreau, Spirit Lake


Land is incredibly important to the Dakota, both economically and spiritually. Dakota aboriginal territory extends across the Midwestern Plains of southern Minnesota and parts of Wisconsin, Iowa, and South Dakota (Peterson 2008). They've had an intimate connection with the land since time immemorial. The land gave them the resources that once sustained them and is the backbone of their traditional spirituality. The Dakota creation story takes place where the Minnesota and Mississippi Rivers connect, a location called Bdote Minisota (or Mdote Minisota).

Prior to treaty with the United States, the Dakota had over 54 million acres of land. Euro-American settlers took nearly all of that land by coercion and force. Today the Dakota land base is reduced to about 0.006% of what it originally was (Waziyatawin 2008).

The Treaty of Traverse de Sioux of July 23, 1851 transferred most of the Dakota land in southern Minnesota to the U.S. Government. In return, the Dakota would retain a reservation and the U.S. would provide assistance with schools, trade, and farming, and yearly payments in food and gold. The government promised to pay $500,000 to move Indian villages and pay for debts the Dakota owed to traders. This amounted to less than $0.03 an acre in return for the Dakota homeland. In fact, the Dakota saw very little of the $500,000. It went directly to traders to pay Dakota debts.

U.S. officials coerced Dakota leaders to sign the treaty by threatening to withhold rations or take the land by force. Still, the U.S. Senate refused to uphold its own responsibility in the treaty. Before ratifying the treaty, the Senate eliminated the passage granting the Dakota a reservation. Governor Ramsey had to gain presidential permission to allow the Dakota to live on the reservation for five years. Before long, a massive influx of immigrants began to encroach on the Dakota reservation. The government redrew the boundaries of the reservation, which severely crowded the Dakota, yet allowed most settlers to stay. Prices were high, government payments were often late, and food subsidies were frequently rotten. Widespread hunger soon led to the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862.

After the war, soldiers held most of the surviving Dakota at Fort Snelling through the winter. When spring came, they took the prisoners down the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers. They left the men in a prison in Davenport, Iowa. The women and children were taken to another prison camp in Crow Creek, South Dakota. The government declared the various land treaties negotiated with the Dakota as null and void. No Dakota was permitted to live in Minnesota and the bounty on Dakota scalps was raised. Indian annuities were ended and given to settlers.

The only Dakota people who were allowed to stay in Minnesota were the "Loyal Mdewakanton," who did not participate in the war. They were given the Lower Sioux, Prairie Island, and Shakopee (Prior Lake) reservations on the condition that they sever all tribal ties (Waziyatawin 2008). There are also Dakota reservations in North and South Dakota, Nebraska, and Montana and reserves in southern Manitoba and Saskatchewan.

Not all Dakota people live on a reservation. Historically, there have been few economic opportunities on the reservation and people had to leave to find work. American Indians lived in urban areas throughout the 20th century, but the population of urban Indians increased dramatically post-World War II because there were more jobs in the cities. From the 1950s to 1970s the Bureau of Indian Affairs ran a relocation program to encourage Indians to migrate to urban areas (Beck 2002). Dakota people relocated as far as the San Francisco Bay Area seeking income to support their families (Kemnitzer 1970).

Control over land is necessary for the economic and cultural survival of Native peoples. Like other Native peoples across the United States, Dakota communities are attempting to recover their land. The Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community is purchasing land and restoring it to native prairie using profits from the Mystic Lake Casino. So far they have increased their reservation nearly tenfold (Peterson 2008). The Upper Sioux Community has purchased over 600 acres of ancestral lands, increasing their reservation to 1,440 acres (Upper Sioux). However, these cases are the exception rather than the rule; most reservations do not have the funds to purchase land.

In recent years, Dakota communities have been trying to get back the sacred Coldwater Spring within the Bdote Minisota area. The U.S. Bureau of Mines currently owns the site and is preparing to transfer the land to the National Park Service, despite the fact that Dakota people have asked for it back. In 2008, members of the Dakota nation reoccupied the land around Coldwater Spring for four days, with little result. If the land is returned they would use it for ceremonial purposes, language initiatives, youth camps, and to grow traditional gardens (Indymedia 2008).


The Dakota have endured decades of assimilation policies under the United States government designed to strip them of their identity and integrate them into the dominant society. These experiences have left an impression on Dakota culture as we see it today. Many Dakota who grew up in the mid-20th century describe a feeling of shame in their heritage during that time period. This was partly due to the fact that it was illegal for Native Americans to practice their ceremonies until the American Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1978. Because spirituality is central to Dakota identity, the revival of their ceremonies has helped many to renew their pride in being Dakota (Larsen 2008).

Traditionally, Dakota religion was inseparable from other aspects of life. Spirituality was tied into the land they lived on, the way they hunted and harvested, and the way they related to people. Today many of the important elements are still there; others are not as strong as they used to be. Ultimately, the Dakota live in the context of a society that is radically different from their traditional society.

Core to Dakota spirituality is the concept of wakan, meaning holy, sacred, mysterious (Wilson 2005). Wakantanka (literally "Great Mystery"), or God, is the Creator of life (Siems 2003). Every form of life, including what Westerners would categorize as animate and inanimate, has a spirit and is wakan. Thus life itself is sacred. Since life is sacred, respecting and nurturing life is core to Dakota spirituality and generosity is a basic value of their culture. Families sponsor a giveaway (ituh'an) in honor of a person who has gone through a major life transition or has achieved a special accomplishment. At a giveaway relatives honor the individual by distributing gifts in his or her name. The family gives as many gifts as possible with special care for the aged, the poor, and people who have travelled a great distance (Wilson 2005). The purpose of the giveaway is not only to distribute gifts; it is a chance for people in the community to get together and bond as family (Gibbon 2003). They often take place at a powwow.

The Dakota may also host a feast to honor a relative. Because feeding people directly nurtures life, it is the role of women, the givers of life. Caring for people in this way brings honor to women. When preparing the food, the women think good thoughts with positive intentions toward the people they will be feeding. The traditional way is to offer a small portion of food to the spirits before eating. They may also set out food for the spirit of a lost relative. Sharing food with the spirits is a way of strengthening relationships with them. Families often hold a last feast (ahake wotapi) and a giveaway one year after the death of a loved one (Wilson 2005).

Honoring elders is important to Dakota culture. For example, at powwows the elders are served meals first and are given special seating areas (PIIC 2007). The Dakota show this kind of respect to all the ancestors regardless of how much time passes. This is why several of the bands are working on getting back the remains of their ancestors that have been dug up by archeologists so they can be properly buried (LSIC 2007).

Dakota religion emphasizes developing a positive relationship with the spirits (Wilson 2005). The pipe (Chanupa) is one way the Dakota nurture their relationship with the spirit world through prayer. The pipe was brought to the Dakota nation by the White Buffalo Calf Woman. To make these pipes they use a sacred red pipestone that can only be found in southwestern Minnesota (LFIC 2007). When praying with the pipe or in any ceremony, those who speak Dakota always use their native language because it was give to the Dakota by Wakantanka. There are spiritual concepts in the language that do not easily translate into English (Wilson 2005).

Some well-known Dakota ceremonies include the sweat lodge (inipi), the Sun Dance, and the vision quest (hambleciya) (Gibbon 2003). The sweat lodge is a purification ritual that is done before other ceremonies and can also be done alone. The Sun Dance is a way of giving thanks and praying to Wakantanka. Though the Sun Dance was not originally practiced by the Dakota it is now the major communal ceremony on Dakota reservations. The vision quest is a right-of-passage for young men, who go out alone to be with Wakantanka and the spirits and pray. This is one way to receive the help and guidance of the spirits. As they do this, they have guidance and support from their elders.

The Hunka ceremony, or making of relatives, is an important part of local history. The Hunka ceremony can be used to adopt a person into the family or as a way to establish alliances between nations that were once enemies. A special kind of blue paint was used for this ceremony that can only be found along the Blue Earth River near Mankato, Minnesota. Hence the name Mankato, originally Mahkato, meaning "Blue Earth" in Dakota. For the Dakota the color blue represents pure spirit because it is the color of the sky. Using the blue paint establishes a spiritual relationship between people (LeBeau 2007).

There are common aspects of the ceremonies that are shared across all Dakota communities, but specific ceremonial practices or stories may be shared by a community or a family. For instance, some use four as a sacred number in reference to the four sacred directions, others use the number seven, which refers to the four directions plus the directions above, below, and within. Dakota spirituality is highly experiential and personal. A lot of Dakota people are members of different sects of Christianity. Some combine Christianity with traditional Dakota religion (Gibbon 2003). A small percentage of Dakota are members of the Native American Church (Stewart 1979). Similar to the mainstream population, there are Dakota people who practice no religion at all.

Wicasa wakan (medicine men) are people who have been given the power to heal through their relationship with spiritual beings. The power does not belong to the person who administers the treatment. It is more like the spirits are working through him. The spirits help the medicine person diagnose and treat physical and spiritual illness. Their role is important because the same illness may require different treatment for different people (Wilson 2005).

A medicine person does not choose his own role. He is chosen by the spirits and comes from a specific family lineage. His life is hard because he cannot deny any request for treatment and he never charges for his services. The people take care of the medicine men through reciprocal generosity (Wilson 2005).

Certain aspects of Dakota religion have been mixed with other cultural practices as part of a movement known as "New Age," "Neo-shamanism," or "primitivism." This is different from the way some Dakota combine elements of traditional spirituality with Christianity. Bringing together traditional and modern culture is a way of adapting to a new society and new challenges the Dakota face in today's world. It is a way of keeping their identity alive in a new context. In contrast, the use of elements of Dakota religion such as the sweat lodge or the image of the medicine man by non-Dakota has created a warped image of Dakota religion in mainstream society (Kehoe 1994).

As early as the mid-19th century white doctors were able to profit from claims of being trained in "Indian" herbal medicine. Today it is not hard to find white "shamans" who claim to be students of a Native teacher. In this way people are able to profit from sweat lodges and ceremonies that a real medicine man could never charge for. These false portrayals have created a popular image of Indians as wise teachers who hold mystical secrets of enlightenment. These kind of cultural appropriations are profoundly disrespectful. In reality New Age mysticism has little to do with Dakota religion, which is rooted in the Dakota heritage and practiced by real people with flaws and strengths (Kehoe 1994).


Most reservations host an annual powwow, a social gathering and celebration of American Indian culture. The Dakota use the word wacipi (wa-chee-pee), literally "they dance," to refer to powwows.

The Dancers wear regalia that convey information about their region, tribe, family, or political or marital status. Some of the regalia is considered sacred and may include intricate beadwork that took years to complete and very old feathers or leather. For that reason one should never pick up a piece of regalia that has fallen without permission. To do so could mean contamination of an object that has been ritually purified.

The arena is blessed beforehand and is considered sacred ground. There are often a dozen drum groups that attend from different reservations and tribes. The drums are considered living beings, the heartbeat of the nation. They are blessed beforehand and it is inappropriate to bring alcohol, drugs, or other vices in the presence of a drum.

The wacipi itself is not a ceremony, though ceremonies such as giveaways, feasting, and naming often take place at a wacipi. The wacipi is a social gathering where people have the chance to watch and practice traditional dances and meet other people from all over Indian country. Some Indians travel from one powwow to the next throughout the summer, making social connections to other reservations across the United States.

The annual wacipi in Mankato, Minnesota is significant because it commemorates the 38 Dakota who were executed following the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862. The Mahkato Wacipi is part of an effort toward reconciliation brought about by Amos Owen, a Mdewakanton Dakota elder, and Bud Lawrence, a local non-Dakota businessman. The Mahkato Wacipi is a chance for Dakota and non-Dakota people of the area to meet and develop cross-cultural understanding.

For non-native people attending a powwow, it is good to observe certain rules of etiquette. Avoid touching the dancers' regalia or the drums. Do not walk across the arena or between the drums and the chairs around them. Do not sit between a drum group and the center of the arena or in an area that has been reserved for elders. Stand and remove your hat during the Grand Entry, Honor Songs, and prayers to show respect. When there is an intertribal dance anyone can join in, but be respectful. Don't try to show off or goof off. Photos may be allowed, but not during Honor Songs or prayers. Alcohol is banned from powwow grounds and may be banned from the entire reservation during powwow weekend.


Similar to other Native peoples in the United States, the Dakota reservations in Minnesota have historically suffered high unemployment and poverty rates. Economic opportunities on the reservation have been limited, with many of the businesses on the reservations owned by non-Indians. Relying on social assistance means substandard housing and poor health care.

The Indian Gaming Regulatory Act of 1988 allowed reservations to enter into contracts with the state to open gambling facilities. Gaming transformed the economy of the Shakopee and Prairie Island reservations because of their proximity to the Twin Cities Metropolitan Area. The more rural reservations have not had such a high measure of success and still struggle with high unemployment and poverty rates.

The effects of the gaming phenomenon are debated on and off the reservation. Indian casinos are required to distribute profits to the community or spend it on tribal programs but a lot of the money goes to individuals or private investors. Successful casinos are important contributors to the state economy, giving the tribal government more leverage in negotiating with the state, but this can also be used as an excuse to cut Bureau of Indian Affiars programs. Some traditional people feel that gaming strengthens a tribal government system that is not in the best interest of cultural traditions and values.

On the other hand, casinos have lowered the unemployment rate and created a window for additional business opportunities on the reservation. Tribal governments have been able to use income from the casinos to improve social programs on the reservation including affordable housing, health care, child welfare, and cultural preservation. The Prairie Island Indian Community has established a bison herd to provide a traditional form of nourishment to the community. Bison are a spiritual and cultural mainstay of the Dakota people. The Shakopee Mdewakanton Community has created an impressive variety of environmental programs on the reservation, including initiatives to restore native prairie plants that they continue to gather as a traditional food source.


Traditionally, Dakota children were educated by listening to the stories of their elders that teach one how to behave and contain important life lessones. These stories were given to the Dakota by wakan (sacred) beings who stated that the Dakota people cannot live unless the stories are kept alive. They are told by men and women who have extensive training in the oral traditions. To be qualified to keep an oral tradition one has to listen to the elders for hours, tell stories back to them, and be corrected. Certain stories are meant to be told at least once a year. The repetition of hearing the stories over and over again, the attentiveness of the listener, and the authority of the speaker imprints the stories in the minds and hearts of the young people and helps the stories to be carried on over generations. Some of the stories include songs, dances, and gestures that ground their lessons in memory (Wilson 2005).

The emphasis on oral education began to die out with forced assimilation as many parents felt their children must set aside Dakota ways to be successful in the dominant culture. Today there is more awareness of the social problems caused by the loss of traditional identity and Dakota people are working to preserve the stories that are so important to their culture (Wilson 2005).

Children from the reservation usually attend school in nearby towns. Native high school students in Canada and Minnesota have an incredibly high dropout rate and very few go to college. The high dropout rate is caused by a multitude of social factors. Native students sometimes face racism in school or have a hard time adjusting a foreign cultural setting. For many Native people there is a stigma associated with going to school because it is seen as a route to assimilation (Wilson 2005).

Some communities are working to improve educational opportunities on the reservation by establishing Head Start Programs, local schools, and tribal community colleges. This is only possible where funding is available. The Tribally Controlled Community College Assistance Act of 1980 provided federal funding for Tribal Colleges, but there has not been enough assistance for more than a few basic programs. The University of Minnesota, Morris (UMM) offers free education to Native students. UMM boasts a 7.2% Native student population and Native students at UMM have a remarkably higher graduation rate than Native students at other colleges in the U.S. (UMM 2005)


The term "Dakota" translates as "friends" or "allies". The Anishinabe (Ojibwe) referred to the Dakota in their language as "enemy". French traders used the last syllable of this term and labeled the Dakota; "Sioux". Today, they are known as both Dakota and Sioux.

The Dakota Nation includes the native peoples who once lived in the northern forests and along the upper Mississippi River in northern Minnesota. In time, the Dakota Nation divided into three groups (Dakota, Nakota, and Lakota), each moving in different directions, but still maintaining close ties to one another.

Those who are now considered in the Dakota division (which was the original name for all three groups) moved into the prairie lands in what is now southern and western Minnesota. There were concentrations of Dakota people along the Minnesota River near and around such places as Traverse des Sioux, Mankato, and at the mouth of the Cottonwood River. Others remained scattered throughout the landscape, living in woodlands and on the prairie.

The Dakota grew plentiful gardens of corn, pumpkins, beans, melons, "Dakota turnip" (tipsinna), and other vegetables which were either eaten raw, boiled, or roasted, dried, and stored for later use. For instance, tipsinna was ground into flour and made into little cakes. Some groups of Dakota harvested wild rice dependent upon seasonal availability and camp location. The Dakota also made syrup by tapping maple trees and collecting sap.

The Dakota diet consisted of food gathered from the wild, what was grown, and fresh or dried meat. The Dakota supplemented their diet by hunting moose, deer, elk, muskrats, badgers, otters, raccoons, fish, pigeons, cranes, ducks, and geese according to their seasonal availability. A favored hunting weapon was the bow. Some bows were so strong that an arrow could pass entirely through a buffalo. All weapons were made individually for each hunter according to their height, stature, personal preference and personalized for identification during the hunt or battle.

The Dakota hunted American Bison seasonally as well. Native peoples utilized the entire bison carcass for food, shelter, tools and equipment. Some peoples living further west on the Great Plains depended upon the bison entirely for their existence.

Buffalo meat could be prepared in various ways. Feasting usually occurred following a successful hunt. Fresh meat is generally preferred. However, most buffalo meat was prepared for later use. Some was dried in the sun to make jerky. One way to preserve buffalo meat for future consumption was to make pemmican. To make pemmican, buffalo steaks were dried, laid on a large, flat stone, and pounded with smaller stone. When the meat had the consistency of a powder, it was mixed with melted fat or marrow and sometimes wild cherries. The mixture was put into hide bags with melted fat poured on top to seal it. Buffalo prepared in this way could keep for 3 to 4 years. When traders arrived in Dakota territory, the Dakota began to use salt to prepare their meat.

The Dakota lived in tipis in small family arrangements during the winter and in bark-covered summer cottages in the summer. Tipis were conical structures consisting of poles covered by hide or cloth. Sometimes as many as 16 to 18 buffalo hides were sewn together for use as a tipi covering. The number of hides used was dependent upon the diameter of the shelter. The covering was held together by wooden pins. Beneath these pins was a small opening used to enter and exit the tipi. A smoke hole in the top of the tipi allowed fires to be built inside. The smoke flap could be opened and closed to control temperature, keep out rain and snow, and provide a comfortable living environment to those dwelling inside.

The Dakota's summer cottages were located at their usual summer camping place. Most of them were permanent structures. These structures were built of logs, poles, and bark. They were large enough for a dozen or more people to fit inside. Some Dakota lived in earth lodges. These huge piles of earth were hollow inside and featured a smoke hole and a framework of logs and poles. A grassy turf was used for the roof.

As mentioned above, buffalo hides were used to make robes, tipi covers, clothing, moccasins, bags, and carrying cases. The working of hides was generally done by women who would tan them, remove the hair if necessary, and transform them into useful items.

Dakota clothing was made of animal skins including buffalo, deer, and elk. The women would spend many hours decorating clothing with beads, bones, or other natural objects of beauty. Producing clothing with intricate designs requires an impressive amount of time and patience.

Their moccasins were distinguished by the presence of seams around the edges of their soles. Winter moccasins were made of buffalo hide with the hair left on inside.

Traditionally many bands would meet in the summer and engage in group activities including political council meetings, religious ceremonies, sporting events, marriages, and coming-of-age ceremonies. Summers were a special opportunity to see relatives who were members of other bands.

Because the Dakota initially had very few horses, dogs were used as pack animals when traveling. As time passed, the horse gained prominence and replaced the dog as a beast of burden. The Dakota would use a travois, the French word for shafts of a cart, for long distance travel. The travois was made of two long poles that were crossed and fastened above the shoulders of a dog or horse with the ends dragging behind.

For travel on water, the Dakota used dugout canoes made of logs. They would burn out the center of a log and scrape out the charred wood to create a place to sit.


Densmore, Frances
1997 Dakota and Ojibwe People in Minnesota. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society.

Minnesota Historical Society
1970 The Dakota or Sioux. Gopher Historian Leaflet Series Number 5. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society.

Beck, David R.M.
2002 Developing a Voice: The Evolution of Self-Determination in an Urban Indian Community. Wicazo Sa Review 17(2):117-141.

Kemnitzer, L.S.
1970 Familial and Extra-Familial Socialization in Urban Dakota Adolescents. In The Modern Sioux. Ethel Nurge, ed. Pp.246-267. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.

2006 Bdote/Mdote EIS: The Back Story from 2006. Electronic document,, accessed November 1, 2009.

Peterson, David
2008 Tribe is reclaiming a lost legacy. Minneapolis-St. Paul Star Tribune, South Metro, May 3.

Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community
2009 Caring for Unci Maka (Grandmother Earth). Electronic document,, accessed November 1, 2009.

Twin Cities Indymedia
2008 Defend Camp Coldwater! Support the B'Dote Defenders! Electronic document,, accessed November 1, 2009.

Upper Sioux Community
Our History. Electronic document,, accessed December 2008.

2008 What does Justice Look Like? Liberation in Dakota Homeland. St. Paul, MN: Living Justice Press.

Where we are today. Former link (2009)

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