Sioux Culture: Games, Ceremonies, Religion, Social Organization


Last Updated: 5 years

In Sioux culture, no decision would be made without reference to the will of the seven generations previous and in consideration for its effects and consequences for the seven generations following.
The Sioux have another interesting notion that embeds this process of integration in their consciousness. We are supposed to speak from “the centre of the voice”, which is located at the centre of a cross with each of the four points representing dimensions of thought.

The Sioux seek to integrate wisdom, integrity, stability, and dignity. The idea behind their necessarily mystical explanations is that by trying to integrate the four dimensions into a decision that respects and reflects each one, we come to better decisions.

Along South Dakota’s Native American Scenic Byway, the lakes and streams of the Great Plains tell the story of the Sioux’s connection with the land. A significant number of archaeological studies are being conducted along the Native American Scenic Byway.

One of the major interpretive sites along the byway, the Crow Creek Massacre site near the southern border of the Crow Creek Indian Reservation, is a well-known archaeological site. 

In 1978, archaeologists from the University of South Dakota and the Smithsonian Institute uncovered the remains of nearly 500 people, victims of the largest prehistoric massacre known in North America. This event occurred around 1325 and provided valuable insights into the Sioux culture of long ago. 

The Sioux are often discussed as a single tribe, but were, and are, a loose alliance of many different Siouan culture groups.

The name Sioux comes from the Ojibwa (Chippewa) word for them, rendered into French by early explorers and traders as Nadouessioux (“adders,” a kind of snake, used in the sense of “enemies”). This term was shortened to Sioux and passed into English. The Sioux generally call themselves Lakota, Dakota, or Nakota, all meaning “allies” or “friends.” 

The differences between the Lakoka, Dakota, and Nakota languages are one of dialect. This is similar to the way “Northerners” speak English, as compared to how “Southerners” pronounce English words, or how US English speakers pronounce words compared to English speakers in Europe.

While there are some words that are different and do not make sense to speakers of another dialect of the language, much of each dialect is intelligble to speakers of another dialect of the same language.

The Sioux tribes were hunters-gatherers. They relied upon buffalo, deer, smaller game, wild rice, roots, herbs, and berries. They subsisted in a mostly nomadic lifestyle that followed the game they hunted and the seasons for the plants they gathered, although some eastern bands farmed for part of the year. 

The basic social unit of the Sioux was the tiyospe, an extended family group that followed the buffalo herds together. Every part of the animal was used for food, clothing, shelter, or tools; even dried buffalo dung was used for fuel. The portable cone-shaped tipi, made from poles and buffalo hides, was the predominant type of Sioux dwelling.

Sioux religious beliefs centered on Wakan Tanka, the Great Spirit or Great Mystery, an all-pervasive force. The revitalization movement known as the Ghost Dance spread to the Sioux in the 1890s. They believed that performing the dance would cleanse the world of whites and lead to the restoration of Indian land.

The ritual alarmed non-Indians because of its perceived militancy, and the U.S. government’s attempt to suppress it culminated in the Wounded Knee Massacre of 1890.

The main rules of Sioux culture were brought by White Buffalo Calf Woman, who gave them seven sacred rites, along with detailed instructions on how they should live their lives.

Among them were the The Keeping of the Soul Ceremony, the Sweat Lodge Ceremony or Rite of Purification (Inipi), the Vision Quest (Hanblecheyapi), the Sun Dance Ceremony (Wiwanyag Wachipi), the Making of Relatives Ceremony (Hunkapi), Preparing a Girl for Womanhood, a puberty ceremony (Ishnata Awicalowan), and the Throwing the Ball ceremony (Tapa Wanka Yap). She also brought the sacred red pipe,(canupa), and taught them the pipe ceremony to send their prayers to Wakan Tanka. 

The Sun Dance, Sweat Lodge and Vision Quest are still major ceremonies that are widely practiced.

The Pipe Ceremony is now used to open gatherings, meetings, and sweat lodges. The Pipe Ceremony is used in naming ceremonies, in which one is given an Earth or Indian name. It is also used in Indian marriage ceremonies, and many individuals possess a “morning pipe,” which they use with their daily prayers. Most or all of the other ceremonies are still practiced by traditional people in the Sioux culture.

The principle virtues that are valued most in Sioux culture are generosity and sharing, courage, fortitude, wisdom, and kinship.

Generosity (Wacantognaka)

In Sioux culture, you are known for what you give, not what you keep or own, as our bodies are our only real belongings. Giving to those in need without hope of return nurtures a caring and generous spirit.

So we use the ritual giveaway to celebrate spiritual, social, and other events such as a young man’s first hunt, the giving of a name, puberty rites, and weddings. This virtue inspires artistic gifts.

But gifts of time, support, comfort, and healing are valued beyond the material. All this is wacantognaka – to be able to give without a pounding heart.

Fortitude (Wowacintanka)

Sioux life is not easy. To endure one needs a strong, patient character. Wowacintanka is the ability to do what one should do.

From childhood, the Sioux child is taught to adapt to any condition.

The women are modest in their ways.

The elders teach patience and tolerance. Other kin are the models. Younger children are challenged to feats in games, the older ones to times of fasting. In all our tasks, we do what is called for, in body and in spirit.

Kinship (Otakuye)

Kinship is the key to Sioux wico’un (way of life). It is not just an idea. It is a direction for daily life. Courage, fortitude, wisdom, and generosity are the Sioux culture’s cardinal virtues.

These and all their values and motives, all their judgments of right and wrong, relate to the duties and benefits of kinship. Each member of Siouan society must act to insure the good of the ti’ospaye (a family of 200 to 300 people). The worst insult is to say, “You live as though you have no relatives.”

Courage (Wo’ohitika)

Beyond kinship, the sioux culture values Wo’ohitika, a strong heart, most. The Sioux people expect much of themselves, for the protection of Oceti Sakowin. They accept their duty in making decisions, standing strong in the face of fear.

The good Sioux endure battle, care for their families, and fulfill their spiritual duties. In Sioux culture, they teach Wo’ohitika through stories and games, and through daily example. Young men show courage in vision quests and now young women in wiya paha-going to the hill to pray.

Wisdom (Woksape)

Younger Sioux people learn from watching their elders that woksape, or wisdom, develops with age, sometimes as a special gift. To use well what one has learned comes from experience – especially in matters of the spirit.

Sioux youth follow our leaders because their advice is sage, their strength is of the spirit. The Sioux prepares for wisdom, as they have for generations, by learning the stories and rituals of the Sioux people and through their service for the good of the people collectively.

Sioux culture links

Sioux housing

Sioux food

Sioux social structure

Sioux games

Sioux religion

Sioux ceremonies