Siouan Culture

Since the culture of primitive people reflect environmental conditions with close fidelity, and since the Siouan Indians were distributed over a vast territory varying in climate, hydrography, geology, fauna, and flora, their industrial and esthetic arts can hardly be regarded as distinctive, and were indeed shared by other tribes of all neighboring stocks.

The best developed industries were hunting and warfare, though all of the tribes subsisted in part on fruits, nuts, berries, tubers, grains, and other vegetal products, largely wild, though sometimes planted and even cultivated in rude fashion. The southwestern tribes, and to some extent all of the prairie denizens and probably the eastern remnant, grew maize, beans, pumpkins, melons, squashes, sunflowers, and tobacco, though their agriculture seems always to have been subordinated to the chase. Aboriginally, they appear to have had no domestic animals except dogs, which, according to Carver – one of the first white men seen by the prairie tribes, – were kept for their flesh, which was eaten ceremonially, 1 and for use in the chase. 2 According to Lewis and Clark (1804-1806), they were used for burden and draft; 3 according to the naturalists accompanying Long’s expedition (1819-20), for flesh (eaten ceremonially and on ordinary occasions), draft, burden, and the chase, 4 and according to Prince Maximilian, for food and draft, 5 all these functions indicating long familiarity with the canines. Catlin, too, found “dog’s meat … the most honorable food that can be presented to a stranger;” it was eaten ceremonially and on important occasions. 6 Moreover, the terms used for the dog and his harness are ancient and even archaic, and some of the most important ceremonials were connected with this animal, 7 implying long-continued association. Casual references indicate that some of the tribes lived in mutual tolerance with several birds 8 and mammals not yet domesticated (indeed the buffalo may be said to have been in this condition), so that the people were at the threshold of zooculture.

The chief implements and weapons were of stone, wood, bone, horn, and antler. According to Carver, the “Nadowessie” were skillful bowmen, using also the “casse-tête” 9 or warclub, and a flint scalping-knife. Catlin was impressed with the shortness of the bows used by the prairie tribes, though among the southwestern tribes they were longer. Many of the Siouan Indians used the lance, javelin, or spear. The domestic utensils were scant and simple, as became wanderers and fighters, wood being the common material, though crude pottery and basketry were manufactured, together with bags and bottles of skins or animal intestines. Ceremonial objects were common, the most conspicuous being the calumet, carved out of the sacred pipestone or catlinite quarried for many generations in the midst of the Siouan territory. Frequently the pipes were fashioned in the form of tomahawks, when they carried a double symbolic significance, standing alike for peace and war, and thus expressing well the dominant idea of the Siouan mind. Tobacco and kinnikinic (a mixture of tobacco with shredded bark, leaves, etc 10 ) were smoked.

Aboriginally the Siouan apparel was scanty, commonly comprising breechclout, moccasins, leggings, and robe, and consisted chiefly of dressed skins, though several of the tribes made simple fabrics of bast, rushes, and other vegetal substances. Fur robes and rush mats commonly served for bedding, some of the tribes using rude bedsteads. The buffalo-hunting prairie tribes depended largely for apparel, bedding, and habitations, as well as for food, on the great beast to whose comings and goings their movements were adjusted. Like other Indians, the Siouan hunters and their consorts quickly availed themselves of the white man’s stuffs, as well as his metal implements, and the primitive dress was soon modified.

The woodland habitations were chiefly tent-shape structures of saplings covered with bark, rush mats, skins, or bushes; the prairie habitations were mainly earth lodges for winter and buffalo-skin tipis for summer. Among many of the tribes these domiciles, simple as they were, were constructed in accordance with an elaborate plan controlled by ritual. According to Morgan, the framework of the aboriginal Dakota house consisted of 13 poles; 11 and Dorsey describes the systematic grouping of the tipis belonging to different gentes and tribes. Sudatories were characteristic in most of the tribes, menstrual lodges were common, and most of the more sedentary tribes had council houses or other communal structures. The Siouan domiciles were thus adapted with remarkable closeness to the daily habits and environment of the tribesmen, while at the same time they reflected the complex social organization growing out of their prescriptorial status and militant disposition.

Most of the Siouan men, women, and children were fine swimmers, though they did not compare well with neighboring tribes as makers and managers of water craft. The Dakota women made coracles of buffalo hides, in which they transported themselves and their householdry, but the use of these and other craft seems to have been regarded as little better than a feminine weakness. Other tribes were better boatmen; for the Siouan Indian generally preferred land travel to journeying by water, and avoided the burden of vehicles by which his ever-varying movements in pursuit of game or in waylaying and evading enemies would have been limited and handicapped.

There are many indications and some suggestive evidences that the chief arts and certain institutions and beliefs, as well as the geographic distribution, of the principal Siouan tribes were determined by a single conspicuous feature in their environment-the buffalo. As Riggs, Hale, and Dorsey have demonstrated, the original home of the Siouan stock lay on the eastern slope of the Appalachian mountains, stretching down over the Piedmont and Coastplain provinces to the shores of the Atlantic between the Potomac and the Savannah. As shown by Allen, the buffalo, “prior to the year 1800,” spread eastward across the Appalachians 12 and into the priscan territory of the Siouan tribes. As suggested by Shaler, the presence of this ponderous and peaceful animal materially affected the vocations of the Indians, tending to discourage agriculture and encourage the chase; and it can hardly be doubted that the bison was the bridge that carried the ancestors of the western tribes from the crest of the Alleghenies to the Côteau des Prairies and enabled them to disperse so widely over the plains beyond. Certainly the toothsome flesh and useful skins must have attracted the valiant huntsmen among the Appalachians; certainly the feral herds must have become constantly larger and more numerous westward, thus tempting the pursuers down the waterways toward the great river; certainly the vast herds beyond the Mississippi gave stronger incentives and richer rewards than the hunters of big game found elsewhere; and certainly when the prairie tribes were discovered, the men and animals lived in constant interaction, and many of the hunters acted and thought only as they were moved by their easy prey. As the Spanish horse spread northward over the Llano Estacado and overflowed across the mountains from the plains of the Cayuse, the Dakota and other tribes found a new means of conquest over the herds, and entered on a career so facile that they increased and multiplied despite strife and imported disease.

The horse was acquired by the prairie tribes toward the end of the last century. Carver (1766-1768) describes the methods of hunting among the “Naudowessie” without referring to the horse, 13 though he gives their name for the animal in his vocabulary, 14 and describes their mode of warfare with “Indians that inhabit still farther to the westward a country which extends to the South Sea,” having “great plenty of horses.” 15 Lewis and Clark (1804-1806) mention that the “Sioux of the Teton tribe … frequently make excursions to steal horses” from the Mandan, 16 and make other references indicating that the horse was in fairly common use among some of the Siouan tribes, though the animal was “confined principally to the nations inhabiting the great plains of the Columbia,” 17 and dogs were still used for burden and draft. 18 Grinnell learned from an aged Indian that horses came into the hands of the neighboring Piegan (Algonquian) about 1804-1806. 19 Long’s naturalists found the horse, ass, and mule in use among the Kansa and other tribes, 20 and described the mode of capture of wild horses by the Osage; 21 yet when, two-thirds of a century after Carver, Catlin (1832-1839) and Prince Maximilian (1833-34) visited the Siouan territory, they found the horse established and in common use in the chase and in war. 22) It is significant that the Dakota word for horse (śuk-taɲ’-ka or śuɲ-ka’-wa-kaɲ) is composed of the word for dog (śuɲ’-ka), with an affix indicating greatness, sacredness, or mystery, so that the horse is literally “great mysterious dog,” or “ancient sacred dog,” and that several terms for harness and other appurtenances correspond with those used for the gear of the dog when used as a draft animal. 23 This terminology corroborates the direct evidence that the dog was domesticated by the Siouan aborigines long before the advent of the horse.

Among the Siouan tribes, as among other Indians, amusements absorbed a considerable part of the time and energy of the old and young of both sexes. Among the young, the gambols, races, and other sports were chiefly or wholly diversional, and commonly mimicked the avocations of the adults. The girls played at the building and care of houses and were absorbed in dolls, while the boys played at archery, foot racing, and mimic hunting, which soon grew into the actual chase of small birds and animals. Some of the sports of the elders were unorganized diversions, leaping, racing, wrestling, and other spontaneous expressions of exuberance. Certain diversions were controlled by more persistent motive, as when the idle warrior occupied his leisure in meaningless ornamentation of his garment or tipi, or spent hours of leisure in esthetic modification of his weapon or ceremonial badge, and to this purposeless activity, which engendered design with its own progress, the incipient graphic art of the tribes was largely due. The more important and characteristic sports were organized and interwoven with social organization and belief so as commonly to take the form of elaborate ceremonial, in which dancing, feasting, fasting, symbolic painting, song, and sacrifice played important parts, and these organized sports were largely fiducial. To many of the early observers the observances were nothing more than meaningless mummeries; to some they were sacrilegious, to others sortilegious; to the more careful students, like Carver, whose notes are of especial value by reason of the author’s clear insight into the Indian character, they were invocations, expiations, propitiations, expressing profound and overpowering devotion. Carver says of the “Naudowessie,” “They usually dance either before or after every meal; and by this cheerfulness, probably, render the Great Spirit, to whom they consider themselves as indebted for every good, a more acceptable sacrifice than a formal and unanimated thanksgiving;” 24 and he proceeds to describe the informal dances as well as the more formal ceremonials preparatory to joining in the chase or setting out on the warpath. The ceremonial observances of the Siouan tribes were not different in kind from those of neighboring contemporaries, yet some of them were developed in remarkable degree – for example, the bloody rites by which youths were raised to the rank of warriors in some of the prairie tribes were without parallel in severity among the aborigines of America, or even among the known primitive peoples of the world. So the sports of the Siouan Indians were both diversional and divinatory, and the latter were highly organized in a manner reflecting the environment of the tribes, their culture-status, their belief, and especially their disposition toward bloodshed; for their most characteristic ceremonials were connected, genetically if not immediately, with warfare and the chase.

Among many of the Siouan tribes, games of chance were played habitually and with great avidity, both men and women becoming so absorbed as to forget avocations and food, mothers even neglecting their children; for, as among other primitive peoples, the charm of hazard was greater than among the enlightened. The games were not specially distinctive, and were less widely differentiated than in certain other Indian stocks. The sport or game of chungke stood high in favor among the young men in many of the tribes, and was played as a game partly of chance, partly of skill; but dice games (played with plum stones among the southwestern prairie tribes) were generally preferred, especially by the women, children, and older men. The games were partly, sometimes wholly, diversional, but generally they were in large part divinatory, and thus reflected the hazardous occupations and low culture-status of the people. One of the evils resulting from the advent of the whites was the introduction of new games of chance which tended further to pervert the simple Siouan mind; but in time the evil brought its own remedy, for association with white gamblers taught the ingenuous sortilegers that there is nothing divine or sacred about the gaming table or the conduct of its votaries.

The primitive Siouan music was limited to the chant and rather simple vocal melody, accompanied by rattle, drum, and flute, the drum among the northwestern tribes being a skin bottle or bag of water. The music of the Omaha and some other tribes has been most appreciatively studied by Miss Fletcher, and her memoir ranks among the Indian classics. 25 In general the Siouan music was typical for the aboriginal stocks of the northern interior. Its dominant feature was rhythm, by which the dance was controlled, though melody was inchoate, while harmony was not yet developed.

The germ of painting was revealed in the calendars and the seed of sculpture in the carvings of the Sionan Indians. The pictographic paintings comprised not only recognizable but even vigorous representations of men and animals, depicted in form and color though without perspective, while the calumet of catlinite was sometimes chiseled into striking verisimilitude of human and animal forms in miniature. To the collector these representations suggest fairly developed art, though to the Indian they were mainly, if not wholly, symbolic; for everything indicates that the primitive artisan had not yet broken the shackles of fetichistic symbolism, and had little conception of artistic portrayal for its own sake.Citations:

  1. Op.cit., p.278.[]
  2. Op. cit., p. 445. Carver says, “The dogs employed by the Indians in hunting appear to be all of the same species; they carry their ears erect, and greatly resemble a wolf about the head. They are exceedingly useful to them in their hunting excursions and will attack the fiercest of the game they are in pursuit of. They are also remarkable for their fidelity to their masters, but being ill fed by them are very troublesome in their huts or tents.”[]
  3. “Coues, “History of the Expedition,” op. cit., vol. I, p. 140. A note adds, “The dogs are not large, much resemble a wolf, and will haul about 70 pounds each.”[]
  4. Narrative of an Expedition to the Source of St. Peter’s River … under the Command of Stephen H. Long, U.S.T.E., by William H. Keating; London, 1825, vol. I, p. 451; vol. II, p. 44, et al. Account of an Expedition from Pittsburgh to the Rocky Mountains … under the Command of Major S.H. Long, U.S.T.E., by Edwin James; London, 1823, vol. I, pp. 155, 182, et al.

    Say remarks (James, loc. cit., p. 155) of the coyote(?), “This animal … is probably the original of the domestic dog, so common in the villages of the Indians of this region [about Council Bluffs and Omaha], some of the varieties of which still retain much of the habit and manners of this species.” James says (loc. cit., vol. II, p. 13), “The dogs of the Konzas are generally of a mixed breed, between our dogs with pendent ears and the native dogs, whose ears are universally erect. The Indians of this nation seek every opportunity to cross the breed. These mongrel dogs are less common with the Omawhaws, while the dogs of the Pawnees generally have preserved their original form.”[]

  5. Travels in the Interior of North America; London, 1843. The Prince adds, “In shape they differ very little from the wolf, and are equally large and strong. Some are of the real wolf color; others are black, white, or spotted with black and white, and differing only by the tail being rather more turned up. Their voice is not a proper barking, but a howl like that of the wolf, and they partly descend from wolves, which approach the Indian huts, even in the daytime, and mix with the dogs” (cf. p. 203 et al.). Writing at the Mandan village, he says, “The Mandans and Manitaries have not, by any means, so many dogs as the Assiniboin, Crows, and Blackfeet. They are rarely of true wolf color, but generally black or white, or else resemble the wolf, but here they are more like the prairie wolf (Canis latrans). We likewise found among these animals a brown race, descended from European pointers; hence the genuine bark of the dog is more frequently heard here, whereas among the western nations they only howl. The Indian dogs are worked very hard, have hard blows and hard fare; in fact, they are treated just as this fine animal is treated among the Esquimaux” (p. 345).[]
  6. “Letters and Notes,” etc, vol. I, p. 14; of. p. 230 et al. He speaks (p. 201) of the Minitari canines as “semiloup dogs and whelps.”[]
  7. Keating’s “Narrative,” op. cit., vol. II, p. 452; James’ “Account,” op. cit., vol. I, p.127 et al.[]
  8. According to Prince Maximilian, both the Mandan and Minitari kept owls in their lodges and regarded them as soothsayers (“Travels,” op. cit., pp. 383, 403), and the eagle was apparently tolerated for the sake of his feathers.[]
  9. “Cassa Tate, the antient tomahawk” on the plate illustrating the objects (“Travels,” op. cit., pl. 4, p. 298).[]
  10. Described by Coues, “History of the Expedition under the Command of Lewis and Clark,” 1893, vol. I, p. 139, note.[]
  11. “Houses and House-life of the American Aborigines,” Cont. N.A. Eth., vol. IV. 1881, p. 114.[]
  12. “The American Bisons, Living and Extinct,” by J.A. Allen; Memoirs of the Geol. Survey of Kentucky, vol. 1, pt. ii, 1876, map; also pp. 55, 72-101, et al.[]
  13. Op. cit., p. 283 et seq.[]
  14. Ibid., p. 435.[]
  15. Ibid., p. 294.[]
  16. “History of the Expedition under the Command of Lewis and Clark,” etc, by Elliott Coues, 1893 vol. 1, p. 175. It is noted that in winter the Mandan kept their horses in their lodges at night, and, fed them on cottonwood branches. Ibid., pp. 220, 233, et al.[]
  17. Coues, Expedition of Lewis and Clark, vol. III, p. 839.[]
  18. Ibid., vol. I, p. 140.[]
  19. “The Story of the Indian,” 1895, p. 237.[]
  20. James’ “Account,” op. cit., vol. I, pp. 126, 148; vol. II, p. 12 et al.[]
  21. Ibid., vol. III, p. 107.[]
  22. “Letters and Notes,” op. cit., vol. I, pp. 142 (where the manner of lassoing wild horses is mentioned), p. 251 et al.; “Travels,” op. cit., p. 149 et al. (The Crow were said to have between 9,000 and 10,000 head, p. 174.[]
  23. Keating in Long’s Expedition, op. cit., vol. II, appendix, p. 152. Riggs’ “Dakota-English Dictionary,” Cont. N.A. Eth., vol. VII, 1890.[]
  24. Op. cit., p. 265.[]
  25. “A study of Omaha Indian Music, by Alice C. Fletcher … aided by Francis La Flesche, with a report on the structural peculiarities of the music, by John Comfort Fillmore, A.M.;” Arch. and Eth. papers of the Peabody Museum, vol. I, No. 5, 1893, pp. i-vi + 7-152 (=231-382).[]


McGee, W. J. The Siouan Indians. Published in the Fifteenth Annual Report of Bureau of Ethnology, 1893 – 1894. Washington. 1897.

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