Siouan Organization

The demotic organization of the Siouan peoples, so far as known, is set forth in considerable detail in Mr Dorsey’s treatises 1 and in the foregoing enumeration of tribes, confederacies, and other linguistic groups.

Like the other aborigines north of Mexico, the Siouan Indians were organized on the basis of kinship, and were thus in the stage of tribal society. All of the best-known tribes had reached that plane in organization characterized by descent in the male line, though many vestiges and some relatively unimportant examples of descent in the female line have been discovered. Thus the clan system was obsolescent and the gentile system fairly developed; i. e., the people were practically out of the stage of savagery and well advanced in the stage of barbarism.

Confederation for defense and offense was fairly defined and was strengthened by intermarriage between tribes and gentes and the prohibition of marriage within the gens; yet the organization was such as to maintain tribal autonomy in considerable degree; i.e., the social structure was such as to facilitate union in time of war and division into small groups adapted to hunting in times of peace. No indication of feudalism has been found in the stock.

The government was autocratic, largely by military leaders sometimes (particularly in peace) advised by the elders and priests; the leadership was determined primarily by ability-prowess in war and the chase and wisdom in the council,-and was thus hereditary only a little further than characteristics were inherited; indeed, excepting slight recognition of the divinity that doth hedge about a king, the leaders were practically self-chosen, arising gradually to the level determined by their abilities. The germ of theocracy was fairly developed, and apparently burgeoned vigorously during each period of peace, only to be checked and withered during the ensuing war when the shamans and their craft were forced into the background.

During recent years, since the tribes began to yield to the domination of the “peace-loving whites”, the government and election are determined chiefly by kinship, as appears from Dorsey’s researches; yet definite traces of the militant organization appear, and any man can win name and rank in his gens, tribe, or confederacy by bravery or generosity.

The institutional connection between the Siouan tribes of the plains and those of the Atlantic slope and the Gulf coast is completely lost, and it is doubtful whether the several branches have ever been united in a single confederation (or “nation,” in the language of the pioneers), at least since the division in the Appalachian region perhaps five or ten centuries ago. Since this division the tribes have separated widely, and some of the bloodiest wars of the region in the historic period have been between Siouan tribes; the most extensive union possessing the slightest claim to federal organization was the great Dakota confederacy, which was grown into instability and partial disruption; and most of the tribal unions and coalitions were of temporary character.

Although highly elaborate (perhaps because of this character), the Siouan organization was highly unstable; with every shock of conflict, whether intestine or external, some autocrats were displaced or slain; and after each important event-great battle, epidemic, emigration, or destructive flood-new combinations were formed. The undoubtedly rapid development of the stock, especially after the passage of the Mississippi, indicates growth by conquest and assimilation as well as by direct propagation (it is known that the Dakota and perhaps other groups adopted aliens regularly); and, doubtless for this reason in part, there was a strong tendency toward differentiation and dichotomy in the demotic growth. In some groups the history is too vague to indicate this tendency with certainty; in others the tendency is clear. Perhaps the best example is found in the Dhegiha, which divided into two great branches, the stronger of which threw off minor branches in the Osage and Kansa, and afterward separated into the Omaha and Ponka, while the feebler branch also ramified widely; and only less notable is the example of the Winnebago trunk, with its three great branches in the Iowa, Oto, and Missouri. This strong divergent tendency in itself suggests rapid, perhaps abnormally rapid, growth in the stock; for it outran and partially concealed the tendency toward convergence and ultimate coalescence which characterizes demotic phenomena.

The half-dozen eastern stocks occupying by far the greater part of North America contrast strongly with the half-hundred local stocks covering the Pacific coast; and none of the strong Atlantic stocks is more characteristic, more sharply contrasted with the limited groups of the western coast, or better understood as regards organization and development, than the great Siouan stock of the northern interior. There is promise that, as the demology of aboriginal America is pushed forward, the records relating to the Siouan Indians and especially to their structure and institutions will aid in explaining why some stocks are limited and others extensive, why large stocks in general characterize the interior and small stocks the coasts, and why the dominant peoples of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries were successful in displacing the preexistent and probably more primitive peoples of the Mississippi valley. While the time is not yet ripe for making final answer to these inquiries, it is not premature to suggest a relation between a peculiar development of the aboriginal stocks and a peculiar geographic conformation: In general the coastward stocks are small, indicating a provincial shoreland habit, yet their population and area commonly increase toward those shores indented by deep bays, along which maritime and inland industries naturally blend; so (confining attention to eastern United States) the extensive Muskhogean stock stretches inland from the deep-bayed eastern Gulf coast; and so, too, three of the largest stocks on the continent (Algonquian, Iroquoian, Siouan) stretch far into the interior from the still more deeply indented Atlantic coast. In two of these cases (Iroquoian and Siouan) history and tradition indicate expansion and migration from the land of bays between Cape Lookout and Cape May, while in the third there are similar (though perhaps less definite) indications of an inland drift from the northern Atlantic bays and along the Laurentian river and lakes.Citations:

  1. Chiefly “Omaha Sociology,” Third Ann. Rep. Bur. Eth., for 1881-82 (1884), pp. 205-370; “A study of Siouan cults,” Eleventh Ann. Rep. Bur. Eth., for 1889-90 (1894), pp. 351-544, and that printed on the following pages.[]


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

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