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Life and Customs of a Warrior Society
By Royal B. Hassrick
UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESSCopyright © 1964 University of Oklahoma Press
All rights reserved.
The Structure of the Nation
A century ago the Sioux Nation was a great nation. Its realm reached from the Platte River north to the Heart, from the Missouri west to the Big Horn Mountains. The nation was composed of seven major divisions: the Oglala, Sichangu, Miniconjou, Hunkpapa, Sihasapa, Itazipcho, and Oohenonpa. The Oglalas, meaning to "Scatter One's Own," lived to the southwest and were the most populous; the Sichangus or "Burnt Thighs" lived to the southeast of the Oglalas. Now known as the Brules, they were the next important division in terms of size. The Miniconjous or "Those Who Plant by the Stream" and the Oohenonpas or "Two Boilings," more commonly known as "Two Kettles," lived to the north of the Brules. The Hunkpapas, "Those Who Camp at the Entrance," the Sihasapas, "Black Feet," and the Itazipchos or "Without Bows" (or, as the early French called them, "Sans Arcs") were smaller divisions which occupied the northern part of the Sioux territory.
In prehistory, these seven divisions of Sioux were possibly a separate group associated with the venerable assembly known as the Seven Council Fires. Although the tribal identity of this early council is almost lost in tradition, its members are believed to have included the Mdewakantons, the Wahpetons, the Wahpekutes, the Sissetons, the Yanktons, the Yanktonais, and the Tetons. Of all of these tribal names, only the terms Teton and Santee (comprising the first four tribes above) persist. The Siouan language was common to all of these people. In the course of years, dialectical differences divided the original group into three distinct entities—the Dakotas, Nakotas, and Lakotas. Nomenclature here becomes difficult in that no group is identified by a single name. The Dakotas were also known as the Santee Sioux; the Nakotas as the Yankton and Yanktonai Sioux; and the Lakotas, with whom this book is concerned, as the Teton Sioux or "Dwellers of the Prairie," the Plains Sioux, and the Western Sioux. It was the Tetons who became the western vanguard of the original Seven Council Fires. The identification of these people becomes even more involved, however, because in early times the Chippewas, threatened on one side by the powerful Iroquois and on the other by the less powerful Seven Council Fires, dubbed the Iroquois "the True Adders" and the Sioux "the Lesser Adders," or "Nadoweisiw-eg." The French, encountering the latter term garbled the Chippewa word ("Nadowe-is-iw," in the singular), transforming it to "Sioux." Thus in anthropological terminology, all three groups—the Dakotas, Nakotas, and Lakotas—properly may be called Sioux. However, in popular nomenclature, the word "Sioux" has become identified with the Tetons, the dashing buffalo hunters of the prairies.
No one recalls when the Seven Councils met. Even among the Tetons, none remember when they themselves assembled as a body. Yet each of the seven Sioux divisions, while independent, sometimes joined others and lived so closely that their distinctions tended to be lost. Thus around 1800 the Two Kettles, the Without Bows, the Blackfeet, and the Hunkpapas probably formed one group known to some as the "Saones," while the Oglalas, the Brules, and the Miniconjous formed another group and were sometimes referred to as the "Tetons."
As time passed, other relationships developed. New groupings appeared and old ones dissolved, so that after 1850 the Sioux tended to band themselves into four or five rather than two main bodies. Generally, they held separate Sun Dances, possibly joining with one or two other groups with whom they traded. Except during this period of festivity, the divisions spent the year hunting and camping throughout their respective territories. Often two or three of the smaller northern divisions combined their efforts. However, in the minds of the Sioux, there were, regardless of these associations of convenience, seven Sioux divisions. This was the pattern of nature and logically the ideal and proper pattern for a nation.
Ideally, the entire Sioux Nation assembled each summer to hold council. Multitudes of people gathered in a great camp circle to renew acquaintances, to decide matters of national importance, and to give the Sun Dance. This was a period of renewed national unity and celebration. It was no mere assembly of representatives but a congregation of all men.
This annual meeting of the seven divisions symbolized the cohesiveness of the nation. The deliberations and actions of the chief men in council were the epitome of Sioux political thought. The Sun Dance was the ultimate of spiritual expression. Together, at one grand occasion, all the Sioux celebrated.
It was at this convocation that the Wicasa Yatapickas, the four great leaders of the nation, met for deliberation. Selected from among the outstanding headmen of the divisions, theirs was a position of unparalleled honor. Their opinion was paramount, their prestige unsurpassed, their reputation unimpeachable. The dignity of their office was characterized by the quality of their responsibility. It was at this occasion that the four great leaders formulated national policy and formally approved or disapproved actions taken by the headmen of the separate divisions during the past year. At this meeting they endorsed or rejected plans proposed by subordinates. Here they sat in judgment on offenses against national unity and security. They were, in effect, at this one summer session, an exclusive senate with supreme-court authority. Thus, while the Sioux Nation was theoretically governed by the four head chiefs selected from among the headmen of the various divisions, in reality, their position was almost entirely honorific. While their prestige was unexcelled and their authority unsurpassed, they conferred so infrequently that the vast bulk of tribal administration was perforce relegated to the leaders of the separate divisions.
In practice, each division within the Sioux Nation was an autonomous system capable of functioning independently of the tribe. The political organization varied slightly among the divisions, but in general each division was under the authority of four chiefs or Shirt Wearers.
The Sioux knowledge of their past was essentially an unformalized curiosity about their history and origin, factual, traditional, and mythical. The seriousness of their interest was evidenced by the keeping of winter counts, pictorial records of past events, and by the tales and myths which the old men retold every evening after dark.
Factual knowledge of the past was recorded in the winter counts. These records were kept by important individuals, apparently by the headman of each band. They were painted on deerskins, usually in spiral form with the first record at the vortex. Each picture served as a reminder of the most important event of each year.
The years were titled, not numbered. Each was named for one outstanding event, such as the death of a famous man or some startling and unusual phenomenon. Hence, a member of the band might refer to his age by saying, "I was born the year Crow Eagle was lanced."
Iron Shell's count, begun by his great-grandfather, recorded events first among the Miniconjous, later among the Brules where his father resided. The first recording was referred to as the winter a "Good White Man Came" (1807). The white man shook hands, brought gifts and food for all, and carried with him a document, but no one among the Sioux knew what he said, for there was no interpreter.
Iron Shell's winter count continued uninterrupted through 1883. Included among the significant events were such happenings as the winter "Little Beaver's Tipi Burned" (1809). This was probably Registre Loisel's trading post on Cedar Island near the mouth of Bad River, then operated by Manuel Lisa. It was very likely burned by the Sioux.
The year 1813 was mentioned as the winter of "A Man with a Gun." A war party of Sioux killed a Pawnee carrying a gun in one hand and a ramrod in the other. This was reported to be the first firearm which this particular band of Sioux had seen.
The following year, "Crushed a Witapahatu's Head," recounts a proposed treaty, according to American Horse, between the Kiowas or Witapahatus and the Sioux. At a council held near Horse Creek at Scotts Bluff, the Sioux became angered by the action of one of the Kiowas and killed him. The Kiowas were living in and about the Black Hills at this time and were expelled shortly thereafter by the Sioux.
Iron Shell's grandfather, a headman among the Miniconjous, died in 1816, the winter "Shot in the Heel Died." The next year reports the death of Bone Bracelet, Shot in the Heel's father, the first keeper of the count.
"Smallpox was a frightening scourge for all the Plains Indians, and the year 1818 was known as "Smallpox." The years 1845 and 1850 were likewise named for the dread disease.
The winter of the "Mature Corn Camp" (1823) notes that the Sioux camped near a cornfield. This probably refers to the attack by Colonel Leavenworth's troop and Sioux forces upon the Arikara villages on August 10, 1823. After the Arikaras' defeat, the Sioux pillaged their corn crops.
On November 12, 1833, there occurred a brilliant meteoric shower, and the year is listed as the winter of the "Shifting Stars." The winter "The Sun Died" refers to the eclipse which occurred on August 7, 1869.
The winter of "Fighting over the Ice" (1836) recalled the battle between the Pawnees and the Sioux on the North Platte River. Battiste Good's winter count states that seven Pawnees were killed.
"Killed Many Broken Arrows" (1837) recounts an incident of intertribal warfare wherein the Wazhazhas, a band of the Brules, and probably several other groups destroyed a war party of the Broken Arrow people. According to Big Missouri's count, the massacre took place because a member of the Broken Arrow camp stole the wife of a man belonging to another band.
"Stealing Arrows from the Pawnees" (1843) is remarkable because the Sioux recaptured several sacred arrows belonging to the Cheyennes which the Pawnees had previously stolen. The Sioux returned them to the Cheyenne owners, and the two tribes have remained close allies ever since. The Sioux, however, were not successful in returning all the arrows, and one or more still remain in the Pawnees' possession.
"Big Issue" (1851) refers to the first Fort Laramie Treaty at the Platte River. Here government officials dispersed gifts to the Sioux. The next event concerning the government is entitled "Many Deer Came to Make a Treaty." This was in 1865, when General Maynadier treated with the Sioux. The final treaty mentioned in Iron Shell's count, "Went to Make a Treaty," refers to the Sioux's cession of the Black Hills on September 26, 1876.
Iron Shell's last entry (1883) tells of the first Sioux dance lodge made of logs, referring to it as "Red Top Tipi Band Made a Dance Hall."
It is significant to observe that nowhere in the winter count is there mention of battles with the United States Army, not even the Sioux's climactic victory at the Little Bighorn. The count rather strikingly indicates that the Sioux were concerned primarily with their own affairs, and that the wars with the white man, if important, were secondary. References to white men involve traders and treaty-making, matters which did affect their economic and political life. The record indicates that the Sioux conceived as important those events which played a dramatic part in the total pattern—the loss of a great leader, the hardship of a cruel winter, the internal strife caused by wayward individuals. In reality, the winter counts were the Sioux's own history and became valuable to them not merely as a record but as a standard upon which to judge the important matters of life.
Time-reckoning for the Sioux was concerned, however, not only with maintaining a chronicle of the years but with keeping a count of months and days.
According to Iron Shell, the year of thirteen months began in April, and the basis for this was that his father (also named Iron Shell) replaced the moon-counting stick at this time:
In the evenings, when the moon first rose, Iron Shell made a nick in a long pole he kept by the bed for that purpose. Every night he made another nick, until the moon finally disappeared. Then he said "The Moon Died." There were usually 25 or 26 nicks for each month, for there are three days when the moon cannot be seen. On the other side of the pole, Iron Shell marked a single nick to show the passing of a month.
Iron Shell carried this stick wherever he went. He got a new stick each year, cutting it in the moon of the Birth of Calves.
It is possible to infer that April, the moon of the birth of calves, was associated with the annual renewal of the Sioux's food supply as exemplified in the calving, combined with the termination of the winter. The important thing is that the idea of a year having a beginning or ending was of little matter to the Indian. The winter served as a designation point in a spiraling series, unmarked by any periods in the sequence.
The firm base upon which the Sioux's rather fluid governmental structure rested was the family hunting group or tiyospe. It was upon this unit that Sioux organization was structured, for it rendered the nation at once flexible and cohesive. Existence for the Sioux people, as for all mankind, was the vexing combination of individual endeavor and group enterprise. It was harassed by trial and error, frustrated by conservatism, and tortured by change. The degree to which their environment determined their adjustment may be academically debatable, but it is nonetheless pertinent to the Sioux Nation's vigorous development, heady dominance, and tragic decline.
The Sioux, as early as 1700, were hunters of small game and buffalo. Since only small units of population could be supported at any one place under a strictly hunting economy, these people needed to control a wide area of territory, and a nomadic way of life became essential. Sioux society had its foundation in small, close-knit family hunting groups. The leader of such a group was generally the patriarchal family head, a member of the grandparent generation. It was he who guided his sons and sons-in-law in the ways of hunting and warfare. This group, the core of Sioux society, was known as the "tiyospe." It was a clannish group. Loyalties were directed toward the leader, and devotions were toward kin. The family of man, wife, and children, while a biological reality, was not of particular sociological importance. Brothers and sisters were the family of significance. As the sons or daughters of a leader, as the co-operative partners in a closely related team of hunters and warriors, the family survived not so much as a result of marital co-operation as of sibling co-ordination.
The extended family arrangement, wherein a leader—and probably in some instances a partnership of related leaders—directed the undertakings of their mature sons and daughters, had real practicality for the Sioux economy. Such a family tended to ensure the large force of man power necessary for communal hunting and concerted war activity. A solitary man, his wife, and small children would be at an extreme disadvantage in acquiring sufficient meat and in gathering an adequate supply of wild fruits and vegetables to sustain themselves for long periods. In addition, they would be easy prey to marauders.
For the Sioux, a most natural and entirely wholesome pattern evolved. Here people who had grown up together, who knew one another quite intimately, might, if they wished, continue to make their livelihood in an enduring family enterprise.
Little Day, a member of the Brule Sioux, recalled the camp of her childhood in the 1870's which typified the scheme of all tiyospes. She remembered particularly the summer camp of Meddling Bear just on the edge of the Black Hills, where tipis were set up according to family prestige in a circle. The site and order were prescribed by the four Wakincuzas. These, Little Day pointed out, were the pipe owners, men of recognized authority whose duties were to direct the movements of the camp. In a large encampment, which she recalled as numbering more than thirty tipis, her father, an important member and brother of the leader Red Leaf, camped at the northeastern end of the circle. The tipis known as the "horns" were nearest to the formal eastern entrance of the circle, a location reserved for leading families. Little Day could not remember the names of each household, but she did recall the tipi dwellers on the southeastern side of the circle and the order in which their tipis stood: Red Leaf, her father's brother; Fall, her paternal grandfather; her uncle, Freeze His Feet Off; and another uncle, Owns a Big White Horse. Next along the circle lived How Goes It, her father's cousin, and next to him lived another relative named White Crow. Her maternal grandmother was the only close relative who lived on the opposite horn. In this way grandmother could be near her family even though there was no room on the eastern side. Little Day's family band exemplified the close integration of kinship among the Sioux.
Excerpted from The Sioux by Royal B. Hassrick. Copyright © 1964 University of Oklahoma Press. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESS.
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