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What is the Dakota Tribe?

By Britt Archer
Updated May 17, 2024
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Contrary to what might be expected, the original lands of the Dakota tribe weren't just North and South Dakota. The Dakota Indians also inhabited the Wisconsin and Minnesota regions of the U.S. Today, the Dakota Indians are found throughout North America, with high concentrations in the areas of Iowa, Nebraska, Montana, Illinois, South Dakota and North Dakota in the U.S. and Saskatchewan, Canada. The Dakota people are split into thirteen distinct political subdivisions.

In addition to the political subdivisions, the Native Americans of the Dakota tribe identify with one of seven distinct tribal groups: Mdewakanton, Sisseton, Teton, Wahpekute, Wahpeton, Yankton and Yanktonai Sioux. The tribal differences are largely cultural. The Indian tribes may prefer to call themselves Dakota, Lakota, Nakota or Sioux. While the first three monikers are the same in meaning in the Dakota Indian nations' language: “allies,” the fourth is an Ojibwa word meaning “little snakes.”

American Indians living on government-allocated land, called reservations, are autonomous, but people of Dakota heritage don't always identify with these groups. Each group has their own government, public services, rules and police. Leaders of the Dakota tribe are elected by popular vote and can be of either gender. Despite these differences, it is almost impossible to distinguish a member of the Dakota tribe from any other person in a modernized country.

Traditionally, Dakota Indians lived in buffalo hide tents called tipis. These tents were 12 feet (3.66 m) to 24 feet (7.32 m) high and were easily broken down in case a tribe needed to move quickly. The Sioux interacted with other Native American tribes, trading regularly with tribes of the Great Plains. Though normally peaceable, the Dakota Indians frequently feuded with the Assiniboine, Ojibwe and Kiowa groups. They participated in arts and crafts such as quillwork and painting.

The Dakota Indians have their own language. While most speak English as their primary language, many are bilingual. In addition to the Lakota language, Dakota Indians of the past were versed in a series of gestures called Great Plains sign language, which allowed members of different Native American tribes to communicate with one another.

In the past, gender roles in the Dakota tribe were divided. Women were in charge of all things domestic, and were also charged with the task of building their home, which the women also owned. Men were charged with hunting and war. Traditionally, only men could become chiefs, and both genders passed the time with storytelling, arts, medicine and music.

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Discussion Comments
By anon292456 — On Sep 20, 2012

I am a Dakota (Damakota). We are not "Sioux". The word "Sioux" is a word given to us before by our enemies, the Ojibwe. We are split up into three major dialect nations: Dakota, Lakota, and Nakota. Although our language may differ, our culture is the same. All of us make up the Oceti S'akowin (The Seven Council Fires). The Dakota make up four of the seven Fires. Those bands of Dakota are: Sisitunwan, Wahpetuwan, Bdewakantonwan, and Wahpe Kute. We are still here and still living.

For your information: Minnesota is actually a mispronounced Dakota word. It should be "Ma-nee sho-ta" (Mni S'ota), which means cloudy/grey water. Why the state was named that, I don't know.

By Emilski — On Feb 04, 2012

@TreeMan - Well not really to be honest. Cardsfan27 said that Native American history is an under researched field of study and that is only going to cause the populace to have less of an understanding on the tribes.

Now, as far as the Dakota tribes go, I had no idea that they spread as far as Illinois, which is where I am from. It somewhat makes sense now that the University of Illinois's mascot, Chief Illiniwek, had his regalia given to him by a Sioux Indian.

By TreeMan — On Feb 04, 2012

@cardsfan27 - That is true. If we got more historians to study the Native American tribes that we know little about, then we will begin to understand their culture more.

As far as what we know, from an average person perspective, about the Dakota tribe is that we know the Sioux very well and figure them to be their own tribe, but apparently this is not the case.

The Sioux are famous throughout history because of their exploits during the Indian wars against the white invaders, but what is written besides that? Also, to my knowledge the Sioux are written more as being a war like people than being a very cultured people and I feel that this is due simply to the way history has written about them.

The only things I know about the Lakota's comes from the movie Dances with Wolves and I knew nothing about them before that. Somewhat sad a movies teaches someone everything they know about a large and significant Indian tribe.

By cardsfan27 — On Feb 03, 2012

@jcraig - To be totally honest, from a person that studies history for a living, I would suspect that a group, like the Sioux, is a much more well known group among the Dakota tribes simply because of the fact that they interacted with the white man in battles and this is what tends to be written down in history.

Most Native American histories are passed down orally by the tribal elders and this creates a problem when looking at a tribes history. Because groups, like the Sioux, fought valiantly against white invaders and even won some battles, they are written about more in history because they had more of an impact on our white history than the other tribes.

This is very unfortunate that history is recorded this way and to be honest I feel that the study of Native American tribes needs to have more emphasis put on it. I see it as a neglected field of study nowadays and wish more people would study it.

By jcraig — On Feb 02, 2012

I have always thought that the Sioux and Lakota tribes were simply tribes in themselves and not just a sub division of a major tribe.

I guess the sub divisions of a major tribe can make names for themselves and become very popular throughout history, while they are not necessarily a tribe themselves, but part of a larger division.

That being said the Dakota tribe must have been a very massive Indian tribe if it were to include all of these Native American groups of people.

I know the Sioux nation was enormous and the Lakota's were somewhat large themselves. However, the question I have to ask is why were certain sub divisions of the Dakota tribe so much more popular than the others?

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