DeMallie – Dakota Kinship

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For the Dakota people, nothing is more important than kinship. To be a good relative is the most important thing that a Dakota can be. In fact, it is a maxim among the Dakotas that in order to be truly Dakota, one must live up to the obligations to one’s relatives. The importance of kinship in Dakota culture is well documented in the writings of anthropologists. Three in particular come to mind. Alanson Skinner, who worked with the Dakotas in the 1920s. And Ruth Landes, who worked with them in the 1930s here in Minnesota. And finally, Ella Deloria, who was herself a Dakota and who studied the Dakota in Minnesota also in the 1930s. Their writings together provide a tremendous amount of detail about how it is that Dakota people feel about relationship and about the importance of relationship.

We have to understand that for the Dakotas, the word relationship is, takúye, “something they have in common” [Riggs’s Dakota dictionary: takuye, “a relative”]. The word is very broad. It’s not simply restricted to relations of blood and marriage but to relationships of all kinds. We have to understand that the basic social unit for the Dakota is the thiyóšpaye [Riggs’s Dakota dictionary: tiyospaye, “a band”]. The thiyóšpaye, “the group of lodges, group of houses.” And these people who live in these houses are all related to one another, if not by blood or marriage, then by some kind of adoption, whether it’s formal or informal. In fact, strangers were inherently untrustworthy. You wouldn’t want to deal with strangers and so whenever someone came, maybe an outsider or an explorer or whatever, they would be ritually adopted in order to make it possible for real communication to occur because if you weren’t related to somebody then potentially they were an enemy.

Kinship for the Dakotas is not even limited to human beings. Kinship is seen as the relationship that ties human beings to all the rest of the universe, to the universe including the sun, heavenly bodies, but also all the things that grow on the earth, that live on the earth. And so kinship networks then are extended outwards as it were from human beings all the way to the spirit world. In fact, for example, the word for prayer, wóchekiye [Riggs’s Dakota dictionary: wocekiye, “prayer” or “crying to”], means “to invoke relationship,” so that when you are praying, you are actually invoking a relationship with a spirit.

Perhaps the most striking thing from our point of view about Dakota kinship is that the classification of relatives is so different for them than it is for us. For example, the word iná [Riggs’s Dakota dictionary: ina, “mother”], which is used to refer to your biological mother, is also applied to your mother’s sisters and to some of her cousins. And so therefore in the Dakota system you have multiple mothers. And similarly, the word até [Riggs’s Dakota dictionary: ate, “father”], which means “father,” is applied not only to your own biological father but to his brothers and some of his male cousins. So you have large numbers of fathers. All mothers and fathers then have the duty of acting in a parental way toward everyone who is their children. So that instead of having responsibility only for your immediate family, you have very clear responsibility for many, many children, in other words, for the children of the thiyóšpaye.

Similarly, from the point of view of the children, they’re brothers and sisters to one another, so when they grow up they form a very strong cohort group who can support one another in everything from holding ceremonies to hunting buffalo. So that the importance of kinship never diminishes from birth to death.

Among the Dakotas, there was also a relationship of ritual friendship among both men and women. For men, the term is kholá [Riggs’s Dakota dictionary: koda, “his friend”; kola is the Lakota term]. Someone who is your kholá is your friend who you support throughout life. You would die for him and vice versa. And so it is a form of relationship that is very valuable when you go to war or when you are hunting. Someone you can really depend on. Similarly, women formed a, sometimes, formed a similar kind of bond between pairs of women using the word mašké [Lakota term] to refer to one another, as my special friend.

So these relationships then are the building blocks of daily life. All kinship relations have specific duties and privileges attached to them and people live out their lives practicing those obligations. And it provides a kind of social security, if you will, for the entire tribe. You have, you’re never without relatives, you’re never without support. The kinship system of the Dakotas has, of course, changed somewhat over the years. They, some Dakotas, use the American kinship system, which is much more restrictive, than the old system, and yet many Dakotas try to live up to the old standards of kinship. For them it provides an important part of their identity in the modern world. So, being Dakota is being related.

My name is Raymond DeMallie. I’m a Professor of Anthropology at Indiana University. I’ve been interested in the Dakota and Lakota peoples for my entire life and I have done anthropological and ethnohistorical studies with them for many years. My primary interests are in language and using language in order to understand culture and to understand the past through the writings of Lakota people themselves. I’ve also been involved in language projects on Lakota reservations, attempting to help develop curriculum materials that can be used to teach the language in schools. The language as spoken by the Dakotas and the Lakotas is rapidly vanishing and unless it is preserved through formal education, there’s a very strong likelihood that it will be lost forever. My work as an anthropologist attempts to reintegrate some of these old materials into the present and to show the value of the historical record and the anthropological record for Lakota people today.

Production credits:
Executive Producer, Loretta Fowler
Assistant Producer, Brian Mornar
Production by Mike Media Group,

Photo credits:
Alanson Skinner – photo courtesy of Milwaukee Public Museum
Ruth Landes – photo courtesy of National Anthropological Archives (IMAGE ID_photo_ruth_landes_)
Ella Deloria – photo courtesy of the Ella C. Deloria Research Project,
Dakota Indian Foundation, Chamberlain SD
Sioux Family Household, Prairie Island, ca. 1902- photo by Howard W. Crosby, courtesy of Minnesota Historical Society
“Band” in Dakota – Stephen Return Riggs, A Dakota-English dictionary (Newberry Library, Ayer 301 C7 1877 v. 7, p. 471)
“Mother” in Dakota – Riggs, (Newberry Library, Ayer 301 C7 1877 v. 7, p. 197)
Sioux mothers – George Catlin, Letters and notes of the North American Indians (Newberry Library, Ayer E77.C38 1857, v. 2, p. 132)
“Father” in Dakota – Riggs, (Newberry Library, Ayer 301 C7 1877 v. 7, p. 51)
Dakota Men in prisoners’ camp, Ft. Snelling, 1863 – photo courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society
Sketch of boys – drawing by E.L. Blumenschein in Charles Alexander Eastman, Indian Boyhood (Newberry Library, Ayer 251 D1571 E2 1902)
Sioux Family Household, Prairie Island, ca. 1902 – photo by Howard W. Crosby, courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society

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