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Who Are the Dakota Indians?

By Brandi L. Brown
Updated May 17, 2024
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The Dakota Indians are part of the larger group of Sioux Indians. Living in the upper Midwest United States in the present-day states of North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota and Wisconsin, as well as parts of south-central Canada, the Dakota had a complex political structure and survived many harsh winters. The Dakota Indians are spread today throughout the United States, though many of them still live in the same geographic area as their ancestors.

The Sioux Nation consists of several tribes. These smaller groupings of Sioux have share cultural and political ties throughout history. In past times, each of the tribes had differing political interests. Those interests are less defining for today's Dakota Indians, many of whom are aligned politically in an effort to assert tribal rights in a society geared more toward accommodating non-tribal interests.

"Dakota" is only one name for this group of native people; some Sioux tribes use the words "Lakota" and "Nakota" to describe themselves. These differences are merely differences in dialect. In other words, saying “Lakota” versus “Dakota” or “Nakota” makes no substantive change in the meaning. Lakota is the most common of the three terms, but Dakota is popular, as well. Primarily, only members of one of the various Sioux tribes refer to themselves as Nakota.

The Dakota Indians of history lived a nomadic life. Though the tribes were not matriarchal in lineage and leadership, women did hold the right to all property in the Dakota tribes. Tribal women owned easily transportable homes and all possessions within the home. When the tribe needed to move, the women were the ones to pack up and move the objects. Men could not own the property itself.

The Dakota Indians, like many other native groups, restricted the top leadership position — chief — to men only, though women participated fully in other aspects of tribal life. They produced art and carried the mantle of Sioux traditions through storytelling and music. These traditions passed down orally for centuries, and both women and men participated in the telling. Women in contemporary society can be elected to top leadership positions within a tribe.

Children in the Dakota tribes lived stable, helpful lives, much like children in later Western societies. Children participated in household work, though not as much as children in some cultures. Children in the Dakota tribes had a few toys and free time to play, with minimal domestic work to help make sure all of the necessary tasks were completed.

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Discussion Comments
By Emilski — On Nov 21, 2011

@jcraig - I totally agree. Even though there is much written and talked about concerning the Dakota Indian tribe there is little mention of the Dakota Indians culture.

I find this to be a major problem with most Native American Indian tribes, simply because of the emphasis on studying history concerning Native Americans. Most of the time it concerns a tribes associations and relationships with the whites and the wars that developed as opposed to studying their culture.

The Dakota Indians are an exception, because there is so much written about them, due to their conflicts, that their tribe receives more outside attention than most tribes, but it still usually focuses not necessarily on their culture.

I feel like that this is a problem with how history is written and as an historian I find it very difficult to research Native American tribes simply due to this fact.

By jcraig — On Nov 21, 2011

I feel like the Dakota Indians, or the Lakota Sioux Indians as I like to call them, are a tribe that has been popularized due to their skirmishes and they association with the white man in the past.

The Dakota Sioux is an Indian tribe that has been able to transcend popular culture through their history in coming into contact with the white settlers and United States military and been able, at least for a short time, defend their lands and be able to stand up against invading United States forces.

The Dakota Sioux were made famous in popular culture for this reason and not necessarily their culture. This just goes to show how history is written on Native Americans and how little is actually shown in researching and recording their culture outside of tribe record keeping itself.

By kentuckycat — On Nov 20, 2011

@jmc88 - As far as saying that the Dakota are the most well known Plains Indian tribe I have very little to argue about.

The Dakota Indians are like the Cherokee Indians of the South. The Dakota are well known throughout history and are well known to have been the most successful Plains Indian tribe in fighting off United States Calvary in the Indian Wars.

The Dakota were originally made famous by participating in Custer's Last Stand and effectively eliminating all of Custer's invading forces. This garnered much negative press for the tribe, but did establish their name in the media and in pop culture. Dances With Wolves further enhanced people's knowledge of the already popular tribe and added to more awareness of the tribes culture and history.

By jmc88 — On Nov 19, 2011

The Dakota Indians, or the Lakota tribe as they are more popularly called, are one of the most famous and well known Native American Indian tribes and have been able to span into areas like pop culture.

The Dakota Indian tribe has been mentioned and talked about in a variety of pop culture related media, most famously the Hollywood blockbuster with Kevin Costner, Dances With Wolves. This movie is thought to have popularized the tribe, but the Dakota Indians, or Lakota Indians, however one chooses to call them were well known well before this movie came out and may arguably be the most well known Plain Indian tribe.

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