Canku Ota

(Many Paths)

An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America


May 19, 2001 - Issue 36



History & Culture of the Sisseton-Wahpeton Sioux Tribe


shared by Timm (Ondamitag)


In the studying the culture of a person, it is well to understand him for what he is today as compared to what he was yesterday. In other words, understanding the evolution of his culture is primary.

To begin with, when people think of the Sioux, they immediately relate to the western areas of South Dakota. The Sisseton-Wahpeton bands were Dakota, but they were designated by mapmakers as the eastern Sioux, because they remained in Minnesota and the eastern Dakota. The word "Sioux" was given to all of them by the French who had corrupted the name "Natawesiwak" from the Chippewa. The Chippewa word referred to the Sioux as enemies and meant "enemy" or "snake." This name was given to them when they resided in the western Great Lakes region. The name they called themselves was "Dakota" which means "friend" or "ally."

Some authorities believe that the Sisseton and Wahpeton were two of the original Seven Council Fires. The "Oceti-Sakowin" (Seven Council Fires) including the following:

1. Mdewakantonwan, Spirit Lake People
2. Wahpekute, Shooters among the Leaves
3. Sissetonwan, People of the Fish Ground (Sisseton)
4. Wahpetonwan, Dwellers among the Leaves (Wahpeton)
5. Ihanktonwana, Little Dwellers at the End (Yanktonais)
6. Ihanktonwan, Dwellers at the End (village) (Yankton)
7. Tetonwan; Dwellers on the Plains (Teton)

When some of the tribes moved south and west, there were changes in dialect and traditional customs. Three divisions are now recognized by most authorities as the Santee (Isanyati, dweller at the Knife Lake), the Middle Dakota, and the Teton.

The three dialects are Dakota, Nakota and Lakota. The initial consonant sounds indicate their difference. Dakota and Lakota are still widely used, but the Nakota dialect is almost out of use. Speakers of the different dialects have no difficulty speaking to or understanding each other. The Sisseton-Wahpeton bands use the Dakota dialect.

There might be some similarities between the Sisseton and Wahpeton bands and those groups in the south and west. The three groups were at one time influenced by woodland culture; variations occurred as they migrated toward the west and south. The Sisseton bands were at the transitional line between the woodland and prairie culture. The Wahpetons were influenced by the central Algonquin and woodland culture in terms of art, clothing, and shelter.
Courtship and marriage within the Sisseton-Wahpeton bands was much like that of the other Dakota tribes. Old traditions said that a young man must earn his adult name before courting. To attract a girl, he might make a musical instrument from the wing of a bird or from some kind of wood; this instrument was called a "cotanka" (rude pipe). He played this instrument to impress the girl he loved. He may have visited her in her family tent [Image] or met her as she carried water from a brook. If she were carrying water he would offer to assist her and at the same time hold her hand.

Proposals varied from sub-band to sub-band within the Sisseton-Wahpeton bands. One way would be to give gifts to the girl's parents. This showed him to be a good provider. Another way would be to make an agreement with the girl's parents to live with them for a year. This was also a test to show if he was a good provider. The girl had to show him that she could take care of a home. If everything was pleasing to the parents, he could marry her in a public feast. It was said that the women all worked together to make a tipi for the bride and groom. The wedding ended when the groom escorted his bride home.

When the wife was having her first baby, it was customary in the Sisseton-Wahpeton bands for the husband to leave the village and go hunting or stay with his father's people until the baby was born. The wife was left in the care of her own female relatives or an older woman. Within all bands, one usually found older women who were skillful mid-wives. The new-born child ( Hoksiyopa ) was wrapped in swaddling bands and placed on a cradle board. The children were named in order of their birth. The following is a list of the names used:
  • Caske (first)
  • Hepan (second)
  • Hepi (third)
  • Hake (fourth)
  • Wake-Wa-Gu-Gu-Na (fifth)
  • Winona (first)
  • Hapan (second)
  • Hapsti (third)
  • Wanske (fourth)
  • Wihake (fifth)
If more than five of one sex are born, they are given some other kind of name. There are no other traditional names.

Dakota babies were well cared for but not pampered. In some cases parents were permissive when it came to child rearing. Children under four slept with their parents or grandparents. After age four, a child rolled up in his own blanket and slept by himself.

To understand how the baby adapted to family life one must understand his relatives. The child saw each of his father's brothers as a father, and his father's sisters as aunts. His mother's brothers were uncles and his mother's sisters were also his mothers. His father's sister's children were his cousins, but his father's brother's children were considered his brothers and sisters. If a woman's sisters have children they are counted as her own, but her brother's children are her nephews and nieces. This made it almost impossible to be an orphan. Children who lost both parents were absorbed into the extended family unit.

As many as four families from two generations could sleep in the Wahpeton summer house. The families would each take a corner. If there were newlyweds, they would sleep in the middle of the house.

The boys were trained to hunt, be warriors or in some cases medicine men. The girls were trained to prepare the shelter and gather food. The children were taught all their customs by their elders. Grandparents told stories of the past and watched manners, customs and traditions. A grandparent or older person was treated with extreme respect. According to some authorities of the clan system, if an older person was dying he would leave the camp to die by himself. If the camp moved, a sick or dying person would remain behind in order not to become a burden. The father of the family was the hunter and warrior. The mother was the gatherer of food. She was responsible for making and caring for the shelter. The men made all the weapons for hunting or war, and the women did not even touch these articles. Men and women shared chores, such as making cradles, paddles, canoes, bowls and spoons. The women pulled rushes, cut wood, gathered wild rice, cut grass, cooked, tanned skins, made and repaired moccasins and clothing, made mats, dug roots, dressed meat and made wasna. The men were treated with much respect in the lodge. They sat next to the women, but the women, when eating, sat near the door in order to run errands. There was polygamy with the Sisseton-Wahpeton past culture. There were several reasons for this part of the family system. If a man's brother died, he would be expected to marry the widow to take care of her children.

There was very little quarreling in the families. The wife was highly honored because she did all the work except hunting, fishing and fighting. She was well treated. Barrenness did not seem to be a reason for divorce.

The wife was the owner of the lodge and if the occasion arose, she could throw her husband out. This rarely
happened according to some authorities.

The blood line of the male was referred to as a gen. A congenital family usually made a clan (some authorities, informants and past studies refer to a clan as the same as a gen). The Sissetons and Wahpetons were further divided into sub-bands.
  1. Wita waziyata otina - Dwellers at the Northern Island
  2. Ohdihe
  1. Basdece sni-Those who do not split (the backbone of the buffalo)
  2. Itokah tina-Dwellers at the South
  1. Okahmi Otonwe - Village at the Bend (Part of these were called Canska Otina)
  2. Manin tina - Those who pitched their tents away from the main camp
  3. Keze - Barbed, as a fishhook-a mane of ridicule

* Cankute - Shotters at tree, another name given in derision
* a. Ti Zaptan - Five Lodges
* b. Okopeya - In danger

* Kapoza - Those who travel with light burdens
* Abdowapuskiyapi - Dry on their shoulders
* a. Maka ideya - Prairie Fire
* b. Wanmdiupi duta - Red Eagle Feather
* c. Wanmdi nahoton - Sounding Eagle

  • Inyan ceyaka atonwan - Village at the Rapid
  • Takapsicaotonwan - Those who dwell at the Shinny-ground
  • Wiyaka otina - Dwellers on the Sand
  • Otehi otonwe - Village on the Thicket
  • Wita Otina - Dwellers in the Island
  • Wakpa otonwe - Village on the River
  • Can kaga otina - Dwellers in Log
Among the Sissetons and Wahpetons, it was said that they "possessed all government by kinship." Kinship in clans seemed equally important with personal ability. The band council was the main governmental body. Each clan had a wakincun or counselor representing them. One councilman did not have more power than another. Each camp had a messenger to announce decisions after the clans voted as a unit.

During the later part of the 17th century, the way a chief was chosen was changed. Individual wisdom and powers were replaced by hereditary system of assuming chieftainship. These chiefs had limited powers except in the tribal council office where they were supreme. They had a choice of picking the headman who stayed in the office for life.

The council chose the akitcita for the band. The akitcita were like policemen. All the akitcita together made up a group called the tiyotipi or "soldiers lodge." Each akitcita was selected from various warrior societies, but not all warriors were picked for akitcita duty. The Sisseton and Wahpeton warrior was picked when he counted coup, killed or scalped an enemy, or rescued a friend. It was especially impressive if he refrained from speaking to women (except his sister) until he had completed all these acts of courage.

Each of these deeds would bring him a special insignia. If a Sisseton went in and out of an enemy's camp circle, he was awarded a warbonnet. A woman would make the warbonnet, but she never touched or repaired it after it was completed. She was not worthy of such an honor. Whenever there was a buffalo hunt, four men were selected by the council to act as hunt chiefs For the entire hunt these men had dictatorial powers; they even outranked the band chief. To keep order on the hunt, these four chiefs were helped by the tiyotipi. If a person went ahead of the hunting party and frightened the game, he was whipped by the tiyotipi, and his lodge covers and other things would be cut to pieces. After the hunt, the hunt chiefs would return to their normal status.
After the westward migration began, the Sissetons used the buffalo or elk hide tipi with a three pole foundation.

The Wahpetons, who were more woodland in culture than the Sissetons, had a permanent summer house. This house, tipi tonka, was made of bark with a gabled roof. In the winter a dome shaped lodge was used. It is thought that it was covered with earth to keep it warm.

The interior of the tipi tonka had a platform for sitting and sleeping. This platform measured 5 feet wide and 21/2 feet above the ground and extended around the inside of the house. Mats were made from woven cattails. The tipi tonka had a shed which was supported by posts and extended about 8 to 10 feet out from the building. This shed was used for outside seating and for drying corn and other vegetables. Some of the Wahpetons used it for sleeping on a very hot summer night. It is mentioned by some authorities that a medicine pole stood near each tipi tonka to ward off evil spirits. Some reports say that a lodge like this could last for seven or eight years. Both men and women did the construction and removal of the lodges.

Some Sissetons in the 1860's lived in similiar homes. Standing Buffalo's village, near present day Browns Valley, was composed of separate lodges. A round or octagon stockade was built two feet high. Sometimes the inside space was dug out and a bench or step left all or most of the way around. This served as a seat or couch. In the center were placed four upright posts, forming a square, each with a crotch at the upper end. In the crotches were laid connecting poles bound together by basswood bark or leather thongs. This formed the roof support to this central support. From the stockade were laid poles, all woven together with bark, ash or basswood, and covered with more bark. The lodge was then covered with a plaster of clay mixed with hay as a binder.
Sisseton Male and Female. Parted hair in center. Two braids or hair ties on each side. These were wrapped with otter fur.   Wahpeton Male and Female. Banged in front and back. Two braids in front and two in back.
Sisseton Male. Usually a feathered headdress was used. Sometimes a war bonnet was worn by those who escaped from an enemy camp or did other brave deeds.   Wahpeton Male. Roach used on head. Sash used as turban around the head. A cloth with floral beadwork was sometimes used. A capouche or hood was worn in the winter to keep the cold out or in the summer to keep out mosquitoes.
Sisseton Male   Wahpeton Male
  • Shirts (loose) Buckskin and long fringes, trimmed with weasel or otter skin or hair.
  • Buffalo robe.
  • Leggings. Tight with long fringe, also trimmed with small animal skin and or hair.
  • Breechcloth passing between legs.
  • Shirts (tight fitting). Buckskin with short fringes, plain or floral beadwork.
  • Triangular knife sheath worn on chest.
  • Leggings. Tight with large ankle flaps. Two pairs of strings to fasten them on belt. Beaded garters worn below knee.

Sisseton & Wahpeton Female.  
  • Female Breechcloth passing between legs.
  • Two piece dress with "turtle top closely related to Central Algonquin Female.
MOCCASINS: Both had soft and hard-soled. Hard-soled were not beaded, but soft soled were.
DIAPERS: Were made from fawn's skin lined with cattail fluff.
Excerpt from Ehanna Woyakapi, a history and cultural record commissioned by the Sisseton Wahpeton Sioux Tribe
Sisseton Wahpeton Community College
Old Agency Box 689
Sisseton, SD 57262
(605) 698-3966
  Tiospa Zina Tribal School
Box 719
Agency Village, SD 57262
(605) 698-3953

Told by Ondamitag


Sota Iya Ye Yapi
Better known as the Sisseton-Wahpeton Sioux Tribe, the people of this Tribe are descendants of the Sisseton and Wahpeton Dakota bands. They are among the Eastern Dakota peoples whose culture has been more woodland than plains.


Sisseton-Wahpeton Community College
Sisseton Wahpeton Community College, a Tribally chartered institution, is a tribal effort to meet the unique post-secondary educational needs of the members of the Sisseton Wahpeton Sioux Tribe, and other residents of the Lake Traverse Region.

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