DeMallie – History and Identity

Please close this window to return to previous page.

When explorers first came to the Midwest, they were from France, and they met a number of the Dakota people living on the Mississippi River in the area of what is now Minnesota. Their territory stretched from Mille Lacs down the Mississippi and then westward up the Minnesota River. The people lived in a large number of separate groups. The French explorer, Pierre-Charles Le Sueur, who visited the Sioux in the late 1690s, was the first person to map these villages and in 1695 he escorted a Sioux chief to Montreal where the chief laid 22 arrows at the foot of the French governor and asked that traders be sent to his people so that they would have the goods, the iron goods, that they wanted in order to survive. Specifically guns. And later, having returned to France, Le Sueur worked with the royal cartographers to the French court and produced a map on which these 22 villages are located. This map is an incredibly important document that historians and anthropologists have used in order to understand the early history of the people. And since all of the names are in the Dakota language, it’s important that anyone who studies this material have a familiarity with the language.

The earliest depiction of a Dakota Indian was drawn in Quebec about the year 1700, perhaps a little before, and it’s very likely that it was based on a verbal description provided by Father Louis Hennepin who was a Recollect priest who had traveled among the Dakotas in 1680. Father Hennepin wrote an account of his travels among the Dakota, and he dedicated his book to the French monarch, Louis XIV, the Sun King. In the book, he describes a Dakota prayer in which a Dakota man offers a long stemmed calumet tobacco pipe to the sun and says to the sun “smoke Louis,” and he comments that even the Dakotas recognize the brilliance of the Sun King. Historians have dismissed this as a blatant attempt on Hennepin’s part to curry favor with the King. But the truth of the matter is really much more interesting. In fact, Louis in the sentence “Smoke Louis” is composed of two different words— “le” the French definite article for “the” and “oui,” which is the Dakota word for “sun.” In fact, “smoke Louis” really means “sun smoke.” And rather than being a fraud, it is, in fact, the first recorded Dakota prayer.

The explorer Pierre-Esprit Radisson first visited them in 1660; he called them the gens de boeuf, “The People of the Buffalo,” because they made their livelihood primarily by buffalo hunting. Radisson’s account in 1660 makes it clear that the Dakotas are living in teepees of buffalo hide and this seems to be their normal habitation. And it’s very interesting that by the nineteenth century we find that at least the eastern most of the Dakotas are living in bark lodges and these are semi-permanent structures. There’s some possibility that this is a later adaptation to the environment of the Mississippi River. It seems that the eastern Dakota groups developed more into what we think of as a woodlands type of culture during the nineteenth century when buffalo disappeared from that area. And they became dependent upon the hunting of deer. So in the nineteenth century in many ways, for the eastern Dakota—those are the Dakota groups that are living on the Mississippi River—they seem very similar in life style to the Chippewas, Ojibwas. So by the late nineteenth century, the Dakota way of life for those villages that were still on the Mississippi River resembled very much the lifeways of the Ojibwa people.

The French when they first mapped the Dakota villages divided them into two halves, what they called the Sioux of the East and the Sioux of the West. The word “Sioux” is a French corruption of an Ojibwa word that means “enemy,” which was their designation for these people. The distinction between the people of the east and the people of the west was a boundary drawn at the Mississippi River. This was not however a distinction that the Dakotas themselves recognized. In fact, in all the historical literature and in all of the anthropological studies we find that the Dakota are divided into four tribes. And three of them, the MdewákhaŊthuŊwaŊ, “the People of the Sacred or Mysterious Lake,” the WahpéthuŊwaŊ, “the Village of the Leaves,” and the Wahpékhute, “the Shooters Among the Leaves” are closely related to one another and speak a very similar dialect. Slightly more distant from them in terms of language are the SisíthuŊwaŊ, a word that is sometimes said to mean “Marsh Village,” and these are the Dakotas who lived farthest to the west up the Minnesota River.

But all four groups claim identity as Dakota and see themselves as closely related. And these tribal identities are still maintained today. It’s very important for both individual and group identity.

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:
Minnesota River – courtesy of Darrick Anderson/Wikipedia Commons
Franquelin map close-up – “Cours du grand fleuve Missisipi” (Newberry Library, Vault Ayer MS map 61)
Louis Hennepin – courtesy of Minnesota Historical Society
Louis XIV – courtesy of Wikipedia Commons
Sioux man, 1700 – courtesy of Gilcrease Museum, Tulsa, Oklahoma
Pierre-Esprit Radisson – courtesy of Library and Archives of Canada (C-015497)
Buffalo Hunting – Drawing by Seth Eastman in Henry R. Schoolcraft, Historical and Statistical Information respecting the History, Condition, and Prospects of Indian Tribes (Newberry Library, Ayer 250S3h 1853 v. 1)
“Dakotah Encampment,” by Seth Eastman, 1852 – courtesy of National Anthropological Archives (NAA OPPS NEG 3705)
Bark lodges – Mary H. Eastman, American Aboriginal Port-Folio (Newberry Library, Ayer 250.45E2 1853a)
Franquelin map, main – “Cours du grand fleuve Missisipi” (Newberry Library, Vault Ayer MS map 61)
Mdewakanton man – James Otto Lewis, North American Aboriginal Port-folio (Newberry Library, Ayer 250.6 L67 1838)
Sissetowan man – Frank B. Mayer, Sketchbook #42 (Newberry Library, oversize Ayer Art Mayer Sketchbook #42, 1851, p. 57)

  • Share/Save/Bookmark