Thursday, 22 November 2007

Know Your Indians - The Sioux


True Fact Feature By A. Hyatt Verrill

The Sioux

THERE IS hardly a “wild west” story that does not mention the Sioux, and in practically every case there is a woeful lack of accurate knowledge of the so-called Sioux. In the first place, there is no one tribe properly named "Sioux," although even the Indians refer to themselves as "Ogalala Sioux" or "Brule Sioux". Sioux is merely a French term, meaning "an enemy tribe", and was applied indiscriminately to almost any plains-Indians—but more especially to the tribes of the Dakota and Lakota, or, as we know them today, the Sioux. But there are a number of tribes and sub-tribes in this group. Thus we hear of the Brule Sioux, the Ogalala Sioux, the Sisseton Sioux, the Yankton Sioux, the Teton Sioux, the Cuthead, Hunkapapa and Whapeton Sioux.

The names of these sub-tribes or groups have interesting origins. Thus, when a band separated from the Yanktons, and a war ensued, the leader of the rebels received a serious head-wound and the entire band became known as the "Cuthead". The Hunkapapas received their name from their traditional privilege of setting up their tepees at the entrance of a camp or village—the word Hunkapapa meaning "the border". Ogalala means a "dirt thrower", expressed in sign-language by flicking the fingers toward a person as if throwing dirt, and indicating utter contempt. When the Brules and Ogalalas separated, the leader of the latter group expressed his disdain of the former group by making the dirt-throwing sign. The Minniconjous, or properly Minni-akiya-oju, were so-named because they cultivated land beside a stream, the word meaning "Planting beside the water". In a similar manner the Whapetons, or "leaf village people" received their name because they selected campsites in the shade of trees, rather than in the open.

In addition to these various so-called Sioux of the far west, there were the Southern Sioux, who occupied the area just west of the Mississippi extending through Arkansas and Wisconsin. Although of Lakota stock, and speaking a modified Siouxan dialect, yet they were very different from the so-called Sioux of Dakota, Montana, and that area. In fact they were far more like the eastern Algonquin tribes in habits, customs, dress and many other respects. In this southern Sioux group were the Iowas, Otos, Osages, Poncas, Quapaws, Omahas, Kansas, Missouris, Santees, Sisstons, and Winnebagos.

Unlike the far western Sioux, the tribes were primarily farmers. They had well-built permanent villages, and cultivated corn, beans, squash, and other vegetables. However, the men were expert hunters, and a large part of the tribes' living was derived from the buffalo-herds. And they were as thoroughly "horse Indians" as the true Dakotas. In a way, they formed a connecting-link between the nomadic tribes of the far west, and the sedentary tribes of the east; they had many customs, utensils, habits and characteristics of both the nomadic western and woodland eastern Indians. For example, although for temporary camps they used the conical tepees, their permanent homes were rectangular, with arched or gabled roofs, and mat or bark walls, as well as huts of sod. In fact, the white men learned to construct sod houses from these tribes. Very often, I might say for most of the time, these Southern Siouxan Indians were at war with—or at least hostile to—the nomadic Siouxan tribes farther west. Yet, in many "Wild West" stories, the authors speak of Sioux in the Mississippi Valley and describe them as the nomadic Sioux of the far west.

I DOUBT if any North American group of Indians has ever been more falsely—or perhaps, rather, erroneously—pictured in fiction than the Sioux. Invariably, they are described as savage, warlike, hostile, cruel and given to inflicting diabolical tortures upon their captives. Yet, by nature and inclination, the Dakotas and the Lakotas—or, as we know them, the Sioux—were never truly warlike. Never did they attack or fight another tribe merely for conquest or personal gain. Their greatest desire was peace; and from childhood the boys were taught that to live and let live, and to dwell in peace with their neighbors, was the highest aim in life. But they were perhaps the bravest, most independent Indians, the finest horsemen, and—when need arose—the best of fighters when it came to defending their homes and their rights against aggressors—whether other Indians or white men. They won the admiration, and even the respect, of the most famous of our military leaders in our wholly uncalled-for and unnecessary warfare with the Sioux, and were referred to as the "Gentlemen of the Plains".

When the white men first met the Sioux the latter were friendly and hospitable; but when the whites began committing atrocities; kidnapping Indian girls; and shooting the Indians out of hand—and when our government repeatedly violated promises and treaties, and by force of arms compelled the Sioux to give up their homes and hunting-grounds to the whites, they were perhaps the bravest, most and relentless war against the intruders. As a result the name Sioux became practically synonomous with any hostile or warlike Indians; and every real or imaginable cruelty, treachery and atrocity was attributed to them.

There is practically no truth whatever in the great majority of these tales. The Lakotas did NOT subject prisoners or enemy captives and put them to death. Even when fighting their traditional and greatest enemies—the Pawnees and Crows—prisoners taken were well treated. Spotted Calf, a Sioux friend of mine, told of a number of Pawnee prisoners captured in a battle and brought to his father's village. They were received and treated as friends, fed, and housed and sent back to their tribe unharmed. Among them was a boy of about the same age as Spotted Calf; the two became great friends and played together. When the time came for the prisoners to go, the boy insisted upon remaining with the Sioux and later was adopted into the tribe. The same thing happened with numbers of white prisoners, who often refused to be "rescued" but preferred the Sioux to their fellow-whites and remained with the Indians for life.

The tribal and home life of these Indians would serve as a pattern we might do well to follow. From infancy the children were given every care and attention especially in regard to their physical perfection, their health and their training. And in order that the parents should be able to devote sufficient time to such matters, it was an unwritten—but rigorously-observed—rule that at least six years should elapse between the births of the children. Both father and mother took part in rearing the children. Never was a child whipped, struck, or abused—but sparing the rod did not spoil the child among the Indians. Never was a Sioux youngster known to say "I won't", or to disobey; they were taught to respect their elders, even though kindness took the place of punishment. The fact that to give was a virtue that should be practiced by all, was instilled in the children's minds. They were taught that life's greatest reward is achievement—whether in hunting, in wisdom, in war or peace, or religion. Also, as the Lakotas believed that Wakan-Tanka—or the "Great Grandfather"—watched over and loved animals as well as men, they believed that all creatures had souls or spirits to be considered and appeased.

WE READ often of the filth and dirt of the Indians' homes and persons, but in reality the Indians— and especially the Sioux—before debauched by contact with the whites, were exceedingly clean in all ways. As the tepees were the property of the women, it was considered ill-bred for men or for guests to leave any thing in disorder or scattered about: this showed lack of respect for the hostess, and owner of the tepee. Everything within had its place; everything was in its place; and the entire interior was swept and cleaned daily. Not only did these Indians spend a great deal of time bathing, and swimming in streams—using soap made from the roots of the yucca plant; but in addition they had steam baths like our Turkish baths. It was a law of the tribe that before food was eaten, or even a drink of water swallowed in the morning, everyone—young or old —must rinse his or her mouth with water, and wash face, neck and hands. We often hear the expression "Indian giver" applied to some one who gives a present and then wants it back; but that is not the way of the real Indian-giver. Gifts were an important part of every ceremony and event.

At the birth of a child, the father gave away one of his ponies. At the ear-piercing cermony, when the child was nine months of age, the father gave two ponies to the professional ear-piercer. At nine years of age all of a boy's old garments were destroyed and he was given presents of new and elaborate clothes, while a confirmation-badge of a tuft of eagle-plumes was fastened in his hair on the left side of his head. At this ceremony the father gave the godfather all of his ponies, with the exception of the few needed for his own use. Often times the bestowal of gifts was carried to extremes, and a man would give away almost everything he owned—but feeling well rewarded by the merit of the deed. Yet, no member of the tribe ever was in actual want, for others always provided food, shelter, and anything else that was needed. Ordinarily, when an Indian bestows a gift, he expects a gift in return—although the relative values of the gifts are of no importance. Likewise if an Indian receives a gift he feels in honor bound to bestow a gift upon the donor.

Another fallacy regarding these Indians is that they maltreated their horses. In reality, the boys were taught from the first to care for their ponies and to treat them with every consideration; a hunter or warrior invariably watered and fed his mount before he rested or ate himself Only by dire necessity did a Lakota overtire his horse, or permit it to go hungry or thirsty. In addition, much time was given to washing, currying and cleaning the ponies. In rocky, rough country thick buffalo-hide hoof-coverings were fastened on the horses' feet to protect them.

Just as unfounded is the idea that the youths were subjected to tortures and tests of bravery before they were considered warriors or "braves”. The only tests were those of skill with weapons and horsemanship, self-control, obedience and a desire to achieve success. Nothing hurts an Indian more than ridicule or failure; once he is laughed at, he "loses face" as the Chinese say.

In some respects the Lakotas were communistic—or rather socialistic— yet every family and member of the group owned its or his own personal property. There was no rule or custom to prevent a man becoming rich in ponies, robes, weapons, beads, or wives. Yet everyone was ready and willing to divide his all with the others, and no one hesitated to sacrifice personal wishes for the benefit of all. Although in many cases the medicine man might have greater influence than the chief, yet in all cases—other than those in which the offices of chief and shaman were combined—the word of the chief and his councillors was law. But he was always willing to listen to the opinions of his warriors, and quite frequently a decision was reached by votes. But once the course was decided upon, the chief was in supreme and unquestioned command.

1 comment:

Denise Duke said...

Great informative article. My great grandmother was Saura from Sauratown, NC a Siouan language group. I can find no heritage beyond her in Yadkin, County, NC you have any info on how they were there near the Cherokee but NOt Cherokee. I am confused.

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As an armed forces brat, we lived in Rockcliff (Ottawa), Namao (Edmonton), Southport (Portage La Prairie), Manitoba, and Dad retired to St. Margaret's Bay, NS.
Working with the Federal Govenment for 25 years, Canadian Hydrographic Service, mostly. Now married to Gail Kelly, with two grown children, Luke and Denyse. Retired to my woodlot at Stillwater Lake, NS, on the rainy days I study the life and work of A. Hyatt Verrill 1871-1954.