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Dakota Indian Fact Sheet

Native American Facts For Kids was written for young people learning about the Dakota Indian tribe for school or home-schooling reports. We encourage students and teachers to visit our Dakota Indian homepage for more in-depth information about the tribe, but here are our answers to the questions we are most often asked by children, with Dakota pictures and links we believe are suitable for all ages.

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   Dakota Tribe

What is the difference between the Lakota and Dakota Sioux? What do these words mean?
There is no real difference. "Lakota" and "Dakota" are different pronunciations of the same tribal name, which means "the allies." One Sioux dialect has the letter "L" in it, and the other dialect does not. This is only a pronunciation difference, not a political one. Lakota and Dakota speakers consider themselves part of the same overall culture.

"Sioux," on the other hand, is not a Lakota or Dakota name. It comes from the Ojibwe name for the tribe, which means "little snakes." Many Lakotas and Dakotas use the word Sioux to refer to themselves when they're speaking English, however.

Where do the Dakota people live?
The original Dakota homelands were in what is now Wisconsin, Minnesota, and North Dakota and South Dakota. The Dakotas traveled freely, however, and there was also significant Dakota presence in the modern states of Iowa, Nebraska, Montana, and northern Illinois, and in south-central Canada. Today, most Dakota people live in the Dakotas, Minnesota, Nebraska, and Saskatchewan.

How is the Dakota Indian nation organized?
There are 13 Sioux political subdivisions, combined into seven major tribes (the Mdewakanton, Sisseton, Teton, Wahpekute, Wahpeton, Yankton, and Yanktonai Sioux tribes.) However, today, these divisions have more cultural significance than political. Each Dakota band is politically autonomous, which means it has its own land and leadership and makes decisions independently of other Dakota bands. Like most Native American tribes, each Dakota community lives on its own reservation ("reserve," in Canada), which belongs to them and is legally under their control. However, the US and Canadian governments still consider the Dakotas citizens. Each Dakota band has its own government, laws, police, and other services, just like a small country. The political leader of a band is called "itancan" in the Dakota language, usually translated as "chief" or "president" in English. The itancan used to be a man chosen by tribal councilmembers, but today Dakota tribal leaders can be of either gender and are popularly elected in most Dakota bands, just as mayors and governors are.

What language do the Dakota people speak?
Nearly all Dakota people speak English, but about 15,000 Dakota Indians are bilingual in their native Dakota language. Despite pronunciation differences, Lakota and Dakota speakers can understand each other easily, just like people who speak American English and Canadian English can. If you'd like to know a few easy Dakota words, "hau" (pronounced similar to the English word "how") is a friendly greeting in Dakota, and "wašte" (pronounced wash-tay) means "good." You can see a picture glossary of Dakota animal words here.

What was Dakota culture like in the past? What is it like now?
There are many different Dakota bands, but the Flandreau Santee Sioux Tribe of South Dakota has an especially informative website where you can learn about Dakota history and culture.

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How do Dakota Indian children live, and what did they do in the past?
They do the same things any children do--play with each other, go to school and help around the house. Many Dakota children like to go hunting and fishing with their fathers. In the past, Indian children had more chores and less time to play, just like early colonists' children. But they did have dolls and toys to play with, and older boys in some bands liked to play lacrosse. Dakota mothers, like many Native Americans, traditionally carried their babies in cradleboards on their backs. Here is a website with Native American cradle board pictures.

What were Dakota men and women's roles?
Dakota women were in charge of the home. Besides cooking and cleaning, a Dakota woman built her family's house and dragged the heavy posts with her whenever the tribe moved. Houses belonged to the women in the Dakota tribes. Men were hunters and warriors, responsible for feeding and defending their families. Usually only men became Dakota chiefs, but both genders took part in storytelling, artwork and music, and traditional medicine.

What were Dakota homes like in the past?
The Dakota people lived in large buffalo-hide tents called tipis (or teepees). Tipis were carefully designed to set up and break down quickly. An entire Dakota village could be packed up and ready to move within an hour. Originally tipis were only about 12 feet high, but after the Dakota acquired horses, they began building them twice that size. Here is a website with some teepee pictures. Today, Native Americans only put up a tepee for fun or to connect with their heritage. Most Dakota families live in modern houses and apartment buildings, just like you.

What was Dakota clothing like? Did they wear feather headdresses and face paint?
Dakota women wore long deerskin or elkskin dresses. Dakota men wore breechcloths with leather leggings and buckskin shirts. The Dakota also wore moccasins on their feet and buffalo-hide robes in bad weather. In colonial times, the Dakota adapted European costume such as vests, cloth dresses, and blanket robes. Here are more pictures of Dakota clothing styles, and some photographs and links about Great Plains Native American clothing in general.

Dakota warriors and chiefs were well-known for their impressive feather warbonnets, but they didn't wear them in everyday life. Both Dakota men and women wore their hair long, cutting it only when they were in mourning. There were many different traditional Dakota hairstyles, but long braids were the most common. Men often wrapped their braids in fur or tied quillwork strips around them. Here is a website with pictures of Native American hair. On special occasions, the Dakota Indians painted their faces and arms with bright colors and animal designs. They used different patterns for war paint and festive decoration.

Today, some Dakota people still wear moccasins or a beaded vest, but they wear modern clothes like jeans instead of breechcloths... and they only wear feathers in their hair on special occasions like a dance.

What was Dakota transportation like in the days before cars? Did they paddle canoes?
The Dakota tribes knew how to make birchbark and dugout canoes, but more often, they traveled overland. Originally the Dakota Indians used dogs pulling travois (a kind of drag sled) to help them carry their belongings. Here is an article with pictures of Indian travois. Once Europeans introduced horses to North America, the Dakota became known as expert riders and traveled greater distances. Horse riding is still popular in the Dakota nation today, but like other Americans, Dakota people also use modern vehicles like cars now.

What was Dakota food like in the days before supermarkets?
Originally the Dakota Indians were corn farmers as well as hunters, but once they acquired horses they mostly gave up farming, and moved frequently to follow the seasonal migrations of the buffalo herds. Most of their diet was meat, especially buffalo, elk and deer, which they cooked in pits or dried and pounded into pemmican. The Dakota also collected chokecherries, fruit, and potatoes to eat. Here is a website with more information about types of Indian food.

What were Dakota weapons and tools like in the past?
Dakota warriors used bows and arrows, spears, war clubs or tomahawks, and buffalo-hide shields. Here is a website with pictures and information about the tomahawk axe. and other Plains Indian weapons. Hunters also used snares, and when Dakota men hunted buffalo, they often set controlled fires to herd the animals into traps or over cliffs.

What other Native Americans did the Dakota tribe interact with?
The Dakota traded regularly with other tribes of the Great Plains. They particularly liked to trade buffalo hides and meat to tribes like the Arikara in exchange for corn. These tribes usually communicated using American Indian Sign Language.

The Dakotas also fought wars with other tribes. Plains Indian tribes treated war differently than European countries did. They didn't fight over territory but instead to prove their courage, and so Plains Indian war parties rarely fought to the death or destroyed each other's villages. Instead, their war customs included counting coup (touching an opponent in battle without harming him), stealing an enemy's weapon or horse, or forcing the other tribe's warriors to retreat. Some tribes the Dakota frequently fought with included the Assiniboine, Ojibway, and Kiowa Indians.

What are Dakota arts and crafts like?
Dakota women are known for their native quillwork and beading, and the men are known for their elaborate buffalo-hide paintings. Dakota artists also make clay pots, star quilts, and ceremonial calumet pipes carved from catlinite.

What kinds of stories do the Dakota people tell?
There are lots of traditional Dakota legends and fairy tales. Storytelling is very important to the Dakota Indian culture. Here is a Brule Sioux story about Thunderbird. Here's a website where you can read more about Dakota mythology.

What about Dakota religion?
Spirituality and religion were important parts of Dakota life, and some people continue to practice traditional beliefs today. It is respectful to avoid imitating religious rituals for school projects since some Dakota people care about them deeply. You can read and learn about them, however. You can visit this site to learn more about Dakota religious traditions or this site about American Indian spirituality in general.

Can you recommend a good book for me to read?
You may enjoy Santee Dakota Indian Tales, a book of Dakota myths and legends. For younger readers, two excellent illustrated stories are Moonstick, a story about changes in the traditional Sioux Indian lifestyle, and Brave Bear and the Ghosts, a Dakota legend. If you want to know more about Dakota culture and history, three good sources for kids are The Dakota Sioux, If You Lived With The Sioux, and The Sioux and Their History. You can also browse through our reading list of recommended books on Native American culture. Disclaimer: we are an Amazon affiliate and our website earns a commission if you buy a book through one of these links. Most of them can also be found in a public library, though!

How do I cite your website in my bibliography?
You will need to ask your teacher for the format he or she wants you to use. The authors' names are Laura Redish and Orrin Lewis and the title of our site is Native Languages of the Americas. We are a nonprofit educational organization working to preserve and protect Native American languages and culture. You can learn more about our organization here. Our website was first created in 1998 and last updated in 2020.

Thanks for your interest in the Dakota Indian people and their language!

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Learn More About The Dakotas

Dakota Indian Tribe
An overview of the Dakota Sioux Indians, their language and history.

Dakota Language Resources
Dakota Indian language samples, articles, and indexed links.

Dakota Culture and History Directory
Related links about the Dakota people past and present.

Dakota Sioux Words
Dakota Indian vocabulary lists.

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