Culture-Mni Wakan Oyate

Creation Narrative

There was a band of people who lived under the earth, even under the water. There was a young brother and sister, who always played together in the same area. One day, the young boy went exploring. But this time, he went a little farther than he ever did before, until he came to a very different area. When he looked up, he could see something blue. So he reached up and it took him. It was a whirlpool. It took him up to the surface of the earth. He couldn’t swim, but he did his best to stay on the surface of the water. When he got to the shore, he was very tired. The water threw him up onto the shore. He did not know where he was or how he even got there. He began looking around. He found this was a very beautiful place. He wandered away from where he surfaced. As he did, he lost this place. He again began to wander around.

Meanwhile, his sister was looking for him. After many days, she went where he usually went, but he was not there. She noticed there were tracks and followed them. She hoped to find her brother. The tracks kept going and she kept following. She came to the same whirlpool. She was also very curious. So she reached up and the whirlpool took her. Just as her brother, the water put her on the shore. She looked around, but she did not see her brother. She did see trees and hills. This was a very different place. But she thought to herself, “how beautiful!” because it was not much different from where she had come. She began to walk in the direction that she thought he might have gone. She was also looking for shelter. As all young people of this time, she knew the skills of survival. She did not need much to eat for there were berries and roots. The weather was warm.

After many, many days, she came to a stony ridge. From walking for so many days, she became very thirsty. To keep from getting too thirsty, she put a small stone into her mouth. By accident, she swallowed the stone. This stone traveled through her body and developed into a child.

When the boy child was born, she named him “STONE BOY.” This is how the Dakota people began on the surface of the earth. This is why the Dakota honor a stone. In both stories, we began from a stone. (Creation narrative retold, by Alvina Alberts, Tribal Elder)

Some people believe the western and eastern bands of the Sioux moved onto the plains before 1679. In a three-day battle with the Chippewa (1790), known as the battle of Kathio, the Eastern Dakota lost their traditional homelands around Mille Lacs Lake (Minnesota). This is identified as the event by which the Eastern Dakota began transforming from a typical eastern Woodlands culture to that of a Plains Indian culture. After the battle of Kathio, those who remained in the homelands fled south. The Wahpekutes, who may have split off after the battle, became nomadic and did not settle in permanent villages. The Mdewakantons continued their village life in new surroundings near the mouth of the Minnesota River, but soon scattered to a number of sites. (Meyer, p. 21) The Sissetons and Wahpetons, like the Mdewakantons, adapted to their new lands and had permanent villages of bark houses.


In their woodlands environment, the Eastern Dakota lived in permanent villages only during the spring and summer. They fished in nearby lakes and streams and hunted deer or waterfowl when game was available. They gathered berries, plums, roots and tubers, such as the wild turnip, the bdo (which resembled the sweet potato). After the corn was harvested, they left their villages for the hunt. The men took part in the fall muskrat hunt, while the women and some of the men gathered wild rice. In October, the deer hunt began. It was the most important hunt of the year. Assembling their household goods and their skin tipis, the entire population left their villages for a three-month search for deer and other game, such as elk or bear. They generally stayed in one place for several days or weeks.

In January, the band returned to their villages or settled down in a sheltered spot, sometimes under a bluff where they lived for several months. They subsisted on the venison they killed, and the foods they preserved from the previous summer’s crop. In March, the men went on the spring muskrat hunt. This hunt was important because hides were better in the spring. The women tapped maple trees and boiled the sap for sugar. When the men returned, the cycle was repeated. (Samuel W. Pond, “the Dakotas or Sioux in Minnesota as they were in 1834,” Minnesota Historical Collections, pp. 342–346), Edward D. Neill, “Dakota Land and Dakota Life,” Minnesota Historical Collections, I (1850–1856, pp. 205–240), (Meyer, Chapter 1, pp. 1–23)


The Sisseton and Wahpeton raised corn near the mouth of the Minnesota River. Their livelihood was dependent upon hunting, fishing, and gathering wild rice. On hunting trips, buffalo were driven off the bluffs and into the river where they could be killed. In times of scarcity, fish eggs were smoked and then cooked in water in earthen pots. Early in their woodlands environment, the Dakota harvested wild rice, their principal food. Other foods included corn and other grains. They tilled the soil and harvested corn and tobacco. Soup was made of corn meal and boiled meat. Some of the corn was dried, shelled, and stored underground in bark barrels for use in the winter.


Winter homes were made in a clearing with boughs of trees laid on the ground. Women were responsible for erecting the tipis. In the winter, women would collect marsh grass for use as floor covering and insulation of tipis. In their native woodlands, they lived in “bark cabins” covered with deerskins, carefully dressed and sewn together. These bark structures were made of elm walls and roofs. Although they varied in size, some could accommodate two dozen people. At the entrance, large wood platforms were constructed for food drying, sleeping, and storage.

Lodges were buffalo-hide tipis with a three-pole foundation. The Isanti and Wahpeton used the square bark house in summer and the hemispherical lodge in winter. The winter lodge was heavily built and covered with earth. The Dakotas never made benches around the inner walls of the lodge. Parts of the lodge were named and were used in a formal manner. (Skinner, p. 165)


For important ceremonies, the Dakota painted their faces several colors, burned their hair off except for a tuft, and saturated the hair with bear grease mixed with reddish earth. The tuft was ornamented with “some small pearls and stones thought to be turquoise.” (Meyer, pp. 209–211)

Warriors dressed in light deerskin robes or white robes of painted beaver skins. Their shirts were made of fringed buckskin. Their leggings were tight, with large ankle flaps, and a seam in front. This was fastened with a short fringe, half an inch long. Only the Isanti wore beaded garters below the knee. (Skinner, 1919, p. 164) The leggings and moccasins were embroidered with porcupine quills and decorated with a piece of buffalo hide that trailed more than a foot and a half behind them. Elders wore buffalo robes which swept the ground. Each carried a long-stemmed pipe, and a medicine pouch. Their faces were not painted, but their hair was dressed in the same manner. Men and women wore clothing decorated with sea shells, and their moccasins (hard-soled) were decorated with pieces of brass or tin. These were attached to leather strings an inch long, which made a tinkling sound when they walked.

Women wore the two-piece Central Algonkian dress. The Sissetons were more inclined toward the prairie styles. Men parted their hair in the middle and wore two braids which were wrapped with otter skins. Their shirts and leggings were decorated with extremely long fringes, to which strips of weasel skin were attached.


The Dakota made cooking vessels of black clay and stone. Bowls and dishes were also made of the knots of maple or other wood. Their spoons were made from buffalo-horn. Wooden spoons were short handled and broad bowled, like those of the Algonkian. Bowls and spoons used in medicine ceremonies, feasts, and dances, especially wakan wacipi, had animal-head handles, and were held as sacred. (Skinner, p. 165) Pottery was made of pounded clay tempered with burnt flint which had also been pounded. The vessel was built by pinching the clay from a flat bottom. It was stamped on the sided with a paddle and lugs were placed on it.


The early weapons of the Dakota included hatchets, wooden clubs, bows, arrows, and shields which were elaborately decorated with figures of the sun, moon, and various animals resembling terrestrial beings. Before 1766, the knives used by the Dakota were made of flint or stone, and were one and one-half feet long. After that time, these knives were made of iron, and measured ten inches long and three inches wide at the handle. The Dakota traded for knives and steel which they used to strike fire.


Order was critical. A strict division of labor was followed. The men hunted, while the women were responsible for practically all of the other work.

Dance and Song

Dances and songs were critical elements of Dakota culture. Like most plains tribes, songs and dances were expressions of the people’s beliefs. These were carried out in a daily context. There are songs for every occasion.

There are honor songs (songs which are created specifically for an individual, or songs sung to honor the deeds of that individual); sun dance songs; inipi (sweat) songs; vision-quest (hanbdeceya) songs; courting (“wincinyan odwan”) songs; hunting and working songs; death songs, and victory songs.

Dance was the highlight of the customs of the Dakota. Historically, for ceremonial dancing, warriors painted their faces and bodies with the symbol of some animal appropriate to his clan or of his vision. Some wore their hair short, full of bear grease, and decorated with red and white feathers. Others sprinkled their heads with the down of birds which clung to the bear grease. The Dakota danced with their hands on their hips striking the soles of their feet on the ground. The Wicasa Wakan, holy or medicine man, retained his influence in the tribe through his knowledge of dance and religious ceremonies.

Around the late 1890s, the Dakota material culture changed. They acquired steel weapons and tools which soon replaced bone and stone. They still used many utensils of wood and bark, but had nearly given up the making of pottery. The use of skins gave way to the use of trade cloth and trader blankets. Burial customs during this time period also changed.

Ways of Believing

While the material culture of the Sisseton, Wahpeton, and Yankton who settled at the Spirit Lake (Devils Lake) Reservation changed, they retained many of their “old ways,” e.g., religion, culture, and social organization. (Meyers, 1993, p. 326)


Religion played a primary role in bringing up Dakota children. For the Dakota, religion encompassed a reverence for all daily life and death. Dakotas believed in an afterlife. At the center of Dakota existence and understanding is “Wakan,” the Great Mystery or Great Spirit. Numerous spirits took shape under the umbrella of Wakan. Wakan Tanka was a neutral deity who also played a role in creation.

The animals were thought to represent good omens and were spoken of with deep reverence. The Dakotas believed that they were related to the animals and to all of life. Through dreams and visions, the powers of certain animal spirits were given by Wakan Tanka. Dreams or visions of the animal, was equal to the power given. For example, Bear medicine was the most powerful. Medicine men and powerful leaders were often recipients of these spirits.

Religion was based upon a philosophy of reciprocity and subsistence. Prior to traders coming onto the Dakota woodlands, game was taken to provide for the immediate and seasonal needs of the people, and no more. After reaching adulthood, a Dakota Sioux warrior would take only parts of a deer carcass, leaving the remainder to others or distributing the rest in the village. He then thanked the spirit of the deer for giving life to the people.

Generosity was essential to the survival of the village. Young children were told that ancestors became great hunters and providers because of the power and strength gained from the Great Spirit. Boys were taught to give up bows and arrows and other small items. Those things would soon give way to much larger contributions that would keep relatives alive. In this way, young warriors gained honor within the village, and they were looked upon as important men. The village, in turn, reinforced the generosity of these young men by sending criers out to proclaim good deeds and making them known to all.

Elder relatives reinforced the communal contributions by young hunters by congratulating them on their success at killing small game. The birds and small animals the young children hunted were added to the village food supply. In this manner, sharing and responsibility for the group was reinforced among young children.

The Fort Totten Treaty Pipe

The pipe was the vehicle for offering prayer and was considered Wakan. Pipe bowls of the Dakotas were made of red stone (pipestone) and were as large as a man’s fist, and as long as his hand. The pipestem was made of a five-foot long hollow reed or branch which was as thick as a large thumb. This type of pipe, called a calumet, was decorated with painted eagle tail feathers which opened like a fan. The tobacco, known as kinnikinnick was made from the inner bark of the red willow bush. Kinnikinnick also had numerous other uses.

The pipe was used to conclude solemn ceremonies. In the late 1800s, the Dakota concluded the signing of the Treaty of 1867 with a peace pipe. This pipe became known as the Fort Totten Treaty Pipe. In the late 1880s, Indian peoples were being visibly forced to give up their traditional religions and practice of their native customs. The Dakota chiefs, fearing the loss of their sacred pipe, took measures to protect it. The following story was provided by Fr. Stanislaus Maudlin, OSB in 1993:

During the late 1890s, the Dakota chiefs were being pressured to relinquish their Treaty Pipe to the agency superintendent or to the Army. Fearful that the Pipe would leave their land and be held in disrespectful hands, they took the Pipe to Father Jerome, a Benedictine priest, to keep it for them until it would be safe to pray with it again. Father Jerome promised that he would keep it safe, which he did so, until near the day of his death. In 1922, he gave the Pipe to another priest, Father Ambrose Mattingly, of the same order who assumed care of the Pipe.

In 1941, Father Ambrose, nearing his own death, passed the Pipe onto Father Stanislaus Maudlin, OSB, for safeguarding. In 1978, Mrs. Alice Kimmerly, an employee of Cankdeska Cikana Community College inquired of the Sacred Pipe. In detail she related the details of the Treaty Pipe. In the late 1980s, Father Stanislaus wrote to the tribal chairman, Elmer White, explaining how the pipe had been kept hidden, and it would only be returned to a representative of the Tribe. The Chairman wrote back saying that “I think the Pipe is not ready yet to come back to us. You have kept it. It is safe. We know where it is. The right time will come. Just wait. It might be slow, but that’s all right. For nearly a hundred years our Pipe has been safe with you, and I think it will still be safe.”

In 1988, two men traveled to the Abbey and retrieved the pipe. The priest transferred the sacred Pipe in a proper ceremonial way.

For nearly 100 years, the Fort Totten Treaty Pipe had been protected for the Dakota by the Benedictine Priests of Blue Cloud Abbey. (Excerpted from a letter by Fr. Stanislaus Maudlin, OSB read to the Fort Totten people, June 24, 1993)

Kinship System

The Dakota kinship system provided a place for everyone in the society, regardless of age or sex. The role of elders was respected, for they kept the story of the people alive and were respected for their wisdom. Women and young girls took care of the lodge, gathered food, and were responsible for preparing hides for varied uses. Middle aged and young men defended the people, hunted, and provided food for the village. The kinship system was structured around relatedness through the mother. The term for mother applied to the females of the birth mother’s generation, her sisters, her parallel female cousins, and female cross-cousins. The Dakota term for father was applied in a similar manner and applied to the biological father, his brothers, his parallel male cousins and his male cross-cousins. When Dakotas used the term children, it referred to their own offspring, as well as parallel cousins, nieces, or nephews.

The Sioux people placed considerable importance on relationships. Male relatives were viewed by Dakota boys as important as their biological parents, for they were the individuals who defined their limits. They were also their teachers and role models.

The kinship system assured a strong sense of community and belonging to the group. The Sioux word for this is tiospaye. Within the tiospaye, or lodge, individuals were expected to be generous, kind and loyal to other kin, especially grandparents and parents. They were expected to secure their approval for actions, and to seek their advice. Dakota men knew the necessity of complete cooperation with cousins, brothers and other relatives, because their lives depended upon each other, and this meant the protection and continuation of the village.

Young men, as they reached puberty, underwent a spiritual cleansing. The ceremony, the “hanbdeceya” or rite of passage, was meant to produce a vision and through this vision, a young man was provided personal power. A medicine man, or Wicasas Wakan, directed the purification. This four-day ceremony included participating in the inipi, the sweat lodge, and fasting. During this ceremony, the young man symbolically left life as an adolescent and emerged as a young adult.

Impact of Reservations

When the Reservation was established by the 1867 treaty, the Sisseton, Wahpeton, and Yankton Dakota had already considered the area a part of their favorite hunting area. They often camped in the area during the winter. When the military post was established in 1869, the Dakota stayed away from the soldiers because they did not trust them. With much of the buffalo gone from the great plains by this time, the Dakotas were starving. The following account, first printed in the American Indian Curriculum Development Program in 1975, gives an account of early life on the Reservation:

My grandfather had two wives and several children, but some of the children died before the family reached this place. I think they starved. There was no wild rice here, and the game was not always plentiful. The government had promised to send cattle, but none had yet been sent. Sometimes they lived on prairie grass seed and fish from the lakes. They had dogs and often ate the young, half-grown puppies. Generally, they ate puppies only when a feast was given for some special occasion.

My grandfather’s two brothers and four sons lived close together in the woods near the river. They built houses out of poles and mud. They had flat pole-roofs with dirt piled on top. They were warm in winter but they leaked mud when the snow melted or when it rained. The men all worked together to build houses and hunt game. The food was shared with everyone, when there was any to share. In the summer they lived mostly out of doors. The women did the cooking over one fire near the leaf-shelter. We sat on the ground under the leaf-shelter to eat and visit together. When any relatives came to visit us, they brought buffalo-skin tipis and set them up near the house.

We were more than 20 miles away from Fort Totten, where the White soldiers finally made their garrison (fort) when they took command of the reservation. We seldom saw any of the soldiers. A major came to see my grandfather once, but we children ran into the woods and hid by the river bank. We were afraid of the Big Knives, as we called them. They were called that because the officers had swords. The major came to enroll all of the Sioux in the reservation book. Each of us had a separate name, but the major enrolled us all under the name of my grandfather, and we have had that for a surname ever since.

Wahpeton Man (United Tribes Technical College, Indian Country: Histories of the Five Northern Plains Tribes, AICDP (1975), pp. 39–40)

During the 1870s to the early 1900s, the Dakota’s lifestyle changed from living in a nomadic lifestyle to dependence on the military at Fort Totten. The gradual loss of the buffalo, followed by a series of severe winters and summer droughts, and the influx of annuities secured as a part of the reservation’s maintenance, brought about a dependence on the reservation system.

Between 1878 and 1930, the boarding school phase of American Indian education took roots. Boarding schools, such as those at Fort Totten ...“cut into the fabric of Indian cultures like a million little knives.” (Ahem, 1983, pp. 108, 111)

Dakota parents did not appreciate having their children pulled away at an early age. They were subjected to harsh forms of discipline, and taught values that were contrary to those of the community and their kinship system. The Dakotas, who remained free from interference and coercion by agents, participated least in the schooling program. Resistance to this form of schooling at Fort Totten became routine. Rations, in some instances, were withheld.

Between 1897 and 1926, the enrollment of children at Fort Totten Industrial School (Cavalry Square) varied between 230 and 400 children. Discipline was harsh and children were punished by forced marching in sub zero temperatures. By 1910, the school enrollment was 473 students, one-half of which were Chippewa and Métis children from North Dakota and Montana. During this time period, disciplinary policies became more humane.

Between 1926 and the late 1930s, large enrollments forced children to be housed in huge cramped dormitories, often poorly heated and ventilated, and because of little resources, diets were poor and inadequate. Under these conditions, children contracted infectious diseases such as trachoma, whooping cough, and tuberculosis and many children died.

Meanwhile, Indian children were subjected to schooling alien to their own culture. Religious training was seen as the vehicle to assimilation into the larger society. Of the boarding school effect on Indian children, Mark Twain once offered, “Soap and education are not as sudden as a massacre but they are more deadly in the long run.” (Twain, 1899, p. 350; in Remele, 1986, page 24) The Fort Totten boarding school closed in 1935.

The material culture of the Dakota during the early part of the 20th century showed that they had adapted somewhat to the reservation environment. Standard annuity items included sugar, flour, meat (when available), coffee and dried goods. Gardens produced vegetables. Fresh meat was available when game was near.

Many Dakota lived on homesteads, a legacy of the allotment era. They built frame houses, but many preferred to live in log houses. The women often cooked in sheds removed from the living quarters or outdoors. Food included roasted dried meat, pounded and mixed with the tallow grease. The Dakota considered it honorable to be brought up on hot bread, which they referred to as “cowboy bread.” This bread was made with baking powder, rolled and cooked in a frying pan over the open fire. Often the bread was spread with “bone grease” (bone marrow) which had the consistency of margarine. (Carlson, 1977)

Other foods included ground corn, chokecherries, June berries, and wild turnips. These wild turnips, called tipsina, were tubers, a favorite food of many Dakotas. Wild turnips were plentiful in various parts of the prairies. In the spring they dug, braided, and stored them for the winter months. They dried rock hard, but boiled in a soup, expanded to twice their original size.

The Dakota also dried squash. The squash was peeled, sliced, and laced on string. They were then hung on drying racks, made of four poles stuck in the ground and covered with canvas. The racks were also used to dry corn, and chokecherry patties.

The dried chokecherry patties, which the Dakota and Lakota called wosapi, were considered a dessert. The chokecherry patties were prepared by soaking them overnight, cooked to a pudding-like consistency to which flour and sugar were added, as was a tablespoon of fat.

Utensils for cooking included wooden sticks for stirring and grasping food. Parfleches or Wopiun, (rawhide boxes), were used by the Dakota for storing pemmican, corn, and other dried food items. Skunk oil was used as a cough syrup and as a decongestant. The down fluff of the cattail was used as a diaper for babies. The down was stuffed into a sack made of cloth and tied around the baby.

Dakota Culture Today

While certain aspects of the culture of the Dakota have been impacted, much of the language, certain ceremonies, and other elements have been retained. Through oral language, basic values and principles of the Dakota culture have survived for hundreds of years and governs today’s Dakota culture.

One value of the Dakota is quietness. The Dakota have a quietness about them and often do not speak out in public. This characteristic can be traced back to the time before treaties and before contact with whites. All communication and recollection of history were orally transmitted and not based on written text. Documentation by writing was not a method of communication. Therefore, all learning was through listening. Dakota ancestors believed that each cycle of life must complete its full cycle. By documenting a segment of that cycle—was breaking that cycle. The cycle was sacred (Wakan). Therefore, it was not something to break. The Dakota language has many of its words which have multiple meanings. If one wanted to learn the language, one had to listen. By not taking shortcuts, one learns patience. In order to live this life, one has to have a strong belief and faith in Wakan Tanka.” (Lambert, 1996)

Several ways that the culture survives today are through adaptations of the kinship system. While not readily visible, kinship practices include demonstrated respect of elders by caring for them in the home of the extended family.

The culture of the Dakota, and of all tribal people, is exemplified through their relationship to the earth. The earth is viewed as the mother of all, because she nourishes and provides for the growth and sustenance of all people. This relationship with the earth and nature has to be nurtured. Native peoples expressed this relationship by acting in a stewardship manner when they took and received sustenance from the earth.

Ceremonies are methods of communicating with the Great Spirit. Most of the ceremonies require the participant to endure hardships as a part of the process of communication. The Dakota still participate in the sweat lodge, the vision quest, and the sun dance.

A cultural renaissance is occurring on the Spirit Lake Reservation. For the first time in more than 70 years, the Sun Dance has been revived after being absent from the reservation. The year 1993 marked the first Sun Dance ceremony held on the Reservation since the 1920s.

The Sweat ceremony continues to be practiced. The purpose of the sweat lodge is to purify and return the participant to the state of purity or grace. By communicating with the Great Spirit through prayer and song, strengthened by the use of tobacco, the body and mind are cleansed.

The vision quest is undertaken to request of the Great Spirit a sign and special gift to be given to the participant. This “gift” is a guiding vision, or power to govern one’s life. The participant must fast for four days and four nights without food or water. He is totally alone and is one with the Great Spirit as his protector.

Annual Events

The most visible elements of Dakota culture today are the annual celebrations and pow wows which are held throughout the year. These events generally last from one to four days and most often are held on weekends. They bring together tribes and other people and are designed to strengthen and reinforce the culture of the Dakota. Other annual events include:


Cultural awareness and healing. Cultural awareness is a part of the education of the school. Each spring a medicine man will talk with the children. The cultural instructors at the school reinforce his teachings.

Bazaar. Each spring the Catholic Church at St. Michael’s hosts a Bazaar. This event has been well attended by the community.


Sully Hill National Wildlife Preserve. The Park, maintained by the U.S. Department of Interior, is located just east of the community of Fort Totten. Self-guided auto tours are available throughout the park where visitors can view buffalo, deer, waterfowl, and other wildlife. There are a number of nature trails located in the park.


Annual Pow-Wow. The pow wow, known as Fort Totten Days, was changed in 1994 to” Akicita Honoring” to honor modem day veterans. The term “Akicita” is the Dakota term for warriors who guarded the camp. This celebration is usually the last weekend in July. Indian people from various tribes attend. This event, which is also open to the public, celebrates through dance, songs, parades, Indian games, softball tournaments, and rodeos. A Sobriety Run is held in conjunction with this event.


Keeping the Circle Strong. Each year, the Tate Topa Elementary sponsors a spiritual strengthening program for the school.

Resources On Page