Houses of the Yanktonai Tribe

Like other divisions of the Dakota, the Yanktonai formerly lived in the thickly timbered region surrounding the headwaters of the Mississippi, in the central portion of the present State of Minnesota, and, like them, moved southward and westward until they reached the plains and the habitat of the buffalo. Although in their earlier home they undoubtedly reared the mat-covered structures, nevertheless when they reached the open country they constructed the conical skin lodge.

During the latter part of July, 1823, the Long expedition reached a village of this tribe then standing in the vicinity of Lake Traverse, in the present Traverse County, Minnesota. In the narrative of the expedition very little is said regarding the appearance of the encampment, which may not have offered any peculiar features, but much was said concerning the dress and ways of the inhabitants. In part the narrative states: “The principal interest which we experienced in the neighborhood of Lake Traverse, was from an acquaintance with Wanotan, (the Charger,) the most distinguished chief of the Yanktoanan tribe, which, as we were informed, is subdivided into six bands. He is one of the greatest men of the Dacota nation, and although but twenty-eight years of age, he has already acquired great renown as a warrior.” As the party neared the establishment of the Columbia Fur Company, on the border of the lake, “a salute was fired from a number of Indian tents which were pitched in the vicinity, from the largest of which the American colors were flying. And as soon as we had dismounted from our horses, we received an invitation to a feast which Wanotan had prepared for us.” Three dogs had been killed and prepared for the great occasion. “We repaired to a sort of pavilion which they had erected by the union of several large skin lodges. Fine Buffalo robes were spread all around, and the air was perfumed by the odor of sweet scenting grass which had been burned in it. On entering the lodge we saw the chief seated near the further end of it. and one of his principal men pointed out to us the place which was destined for our accommodation: it was at the upper end of the lodge.” 1

Arranging the skin covers of several large tipis in such a way as to form a single shelter, to serve as a ceremonial “lodge,” was the custom of many tribes, and other instances will be mentioned. But another and more elaborate form of structure was used by the tribes just mentioned. In 1858, when describing certain customs of the people then living along the course of the Minnesota and in the vicinity of Lake Traverse. Riggs referred to the sacred dance and said: “Among the Dakotas a most remarkable society exists which is called Wakan wachepe, or Sacred Dance, of which the medicine sack is the badge. It may be regarded as the depository and guardian of whatever they esteem as wakan, or sacred.” He then related the contents of the bag and the meaning of the ceremony, and continues: “A large skin lodge is usually occupied as the center of operations, the door of which is made wide by throwing tip the corners. From this, on each hand, extends a kind of railing, some thirty or forty feet, on which skins are thrown. The entrance is at the farther end. All around the inside of this sanctum sanctorum and along the extended sides sit those who are called to the dance. Beyond this and near the place of entrance is a fire; with great kettles hanging over it, which are filled with dried buffalo meat or other food; and near by lay several packs or bags of the same, which are consecrated to the feast. The whole village are gathered around and are looking over or peeping through the holes in the barricades.” Much was then told about the strange and curious ceremonies enacted within the lodge. 2

Leaving the encampment in the vicinity of the post of the Columbia Fur Company, the Long expedition moved northward, and when just beyond Lake Traverse, while traversing the prairies on July 27. 1823, “passed a party of squaws engaged in conveying to their camp some slices of fresh meat to jerk; their fellow laborers were dogs. Each of the dogs had the ends of two poles crossed and fastened over the shoulders, with a piece of hide underneath to prevent chafing. The other extremities dragged on the ground. This sort of vehicle was secured to the animal by a string passing round the breast, and another under the abdomen; transverse sticks, the ends of which were fastened in the poles kept these at a proper distance, and supported the meat. This seems to be the only mode of harnessing dogs, practiced among the Sioux; we believe, they never use them in teams, as is customary with the traders.” 3

The expedition soon arrived at Pembina. near the international boundary, where it would appear they found the two characteristic forms of native habitations in use by the Indians. A drawing was at that time made by Seymour and used as an illustration in the narrative, showing the “two different kind of lodges used by the northwest Indians,” the first being the skin lodge of the prairie tribes, and “of this nature are all the lodges used by the Dacotas;” the second were the bark-covered structures of the Ojibway, “who for the most part live to the north-east of the buffalo regions.” To this latter class must have belonged the habitations of the Siouan tribes before they were forced from their early homes among the forests and lakes to the eastward.

When referring to the two characteristic forms of habitations it will be of interest to quote from the writings of one who traversed the country more than a century and a half ago, when all was in its primitive condition, but, like many writers of that period, he failed to give details which at the present time would prove of the greatest value. He wrote: “The Indians, in general, pay a greater attention to their dress and to the ornaments with which they decorate their persons, than to the accommodation of their huts or tents. They construct the latter in the following simple and expeditious manner.

“Being provided with poles of a proper length, they fasten two of them across, near their ends, with bands made of bark. Having done this, they raise them up, and extend the bottom of each as wide as they purpose to make the area of the tent: they then erect others of an equal height, and fix them so as to support the two principal ones. On the whole they lay skins of the elk or deer, sewed together, in quantity sufficient to cover the poles, and by lapping over to form the door. A great number of skins are sometimes required for this purpose, as some of their tents are very capacious. That of the chief warrior of the Naudowessies was at least forty feet in circumference, and very commodious.

“They observe no regularity in fixing their tents when they encamp, but place them just as it suits their conveniency.

“The huts also, which those who use no tents, erect when they travel, for very few tribes-have fixed abodes or regular towns or villages, are equally simple, and. almost as soon constructed.

“They fix small pliable poles in the ground, by bending them till they meet at the top and form a semi-circle, then lash them together. These they cover with mats made of rushes platted, or with birch bark, which they carry with them in their canoes for this purpose.

“These cabins have neither chimneys nor windows; there is only a small aperture left in the middle of the roofs through which the smoke is discharged, but as this is obliged to be stopped up when it rains or snows violently, the smoke then proves exceedingly troublesome.

“They lie on skins, generally those of the bear, which are placed in rows on the ground; and if the floor is not large enough to contain beds sufficient for the accommodation of the whole family, a frame is erected about four or five feet from the ground, in which the younger part of it sleep.” 4 Though lacking much in detail, nevertheless the preceding notes are of historical interest and value, describing as they do the primitive habitations which were reared and occupied by the native tribes living in the upper Mississippi Valley about the middle of the eighteenth century. Skins of the elk and deer were evidently used as coverings for the conical tipi, which seems to prove the lack of a sufficient number of buffalo skins to serve the purpose, although farther west, beyond the timbered country, where buffalo were more easily obtained, their skins were made use of and covered the shelters of tribes by whom they were hunted.Citations:

  1. Keating, William H., Narrative of an Expedition to the Source of St. Peter’s River, under command of Stephen H. Long. Philadelphia, 1824. 2 vols, I, pp. 429-432.[]
  2. Rigg, Stephen R., Dakota Portraits. In Minnesota Historical Society Bulletin, Vol. II, No. 8, Nov., 1918, pp. 505-506.[]
  3. Keating, William H., Narrative of an Expedition to the Source of St. Peter’s River, under command of Stephen H. Long. Philadelphia, 1824. 2 vols, II, pp. 9-10.[]
  4. Carver, Jonathan, Travels through the Interior parts of North America, in the years 1766, 1767, and 1768. London, 1781. Reprint New York, 1838, pp. 152-154.[]

Siouan, Yanktonai,

Traverse County MN,

Bushnell, David Ives. Villages of the Algonquian, Siouan and Caddoan Tribes West of the Mississippi. Published in Bulletin 77, Bureau of American Ethnology, Smithsonian Institution. Washington. 1922.

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