Native American History

How to establish a ‘Middle Ground’ for understanding Native American History ?

The idea behind our research was to better understand the history related to the map on the left.

That is, learn more about Native American culture, even though we have already seen a lot from films, and how tribal territories evolved through the XVIIth and XVIIIth Century.

Much of Native American history is influenced from the cultural and technological hegemony established by European societies; even nowadays Hollywood portrayals appear to put Western peoples at the front.

Iroquois and Refugee Tribes XVIIth Century

The French settled around the Great Lakes to develop trading with Native Americans. Men called ‘Coureur des bois’ (Runner of the woods) facilitated trade and integrated into local communities.

The Great Lakes Region was predominantly occupied and threatened by the Iroquois who sought to expand their territory and fur trade opportunities with European settlers (led the Beaver Wars + supplied by the Dutch).

This forced a number of Algonquian tribes to take refuge to the West of Lake Michigan, and also to begin living between clans. Nicolas Perrot, a French trader of the time, gives details of the numerous quarrels that took place among tribes and how they would murder each other on hunting grounds.

  • Decades of the Beaver Wars – The League of Haudenosaunee, or Five Nations, expanded their territory around the Great Lakes region.
  • Forced refugee tribes West towards Green Bay (West of Lake Michigan):
  • Algonquian speaking
  • Some Iroquoian tribes (Hurons) affiliated with Jesuit missionaries
  • French settlers lived with and fought alongside Algonquians (Miami, Ottawas, Potawatomis, Fox, Sauks, Kickapoos, Illinois …) in the ‘pays d’en haut’
  • Formed inter-tribal communities and villages.
  • Tension, suspicion, and violence ⇒ Algonquians did not know how to live among one another, at first.
Intertribal Relations

Considerable differences in judging crime. In deciding whether to acquit or put to death, the French followed their country’s judicial system [all murderers hanged, except for enemy soldiers as prisoners of war], whereas Indigenous peoples were clement, only asking for gift or offerings, in regards to inter-ally murders but demanded ‘a life for a life’ for the death of their own in the hands of an ‘enemy’. To them it did not make sense to let an enemy soldier go free.

Such a tradition was common among most Nat.Am groups, which, upon hearing the death of their own, would promptly exact revenge for the grieving family and disgraced tribe.

  • Calumet Ceremony: form of reconciliation among Algonquins that became popular in XVIIth C.
  • Intertribal Marriage; a family contract to strengthen bonds within community
  • Peoples formed patrilineal tribes, except for Huron-Petuns, Ojibwe, and Ottawa.
  • Bilocal ⇒  married men often committed to wife’s family
  • Children of men who married outside of their clan usually integrated mother’s patrilineage.
  • The Fast Runner reflects some of these customs.
  • Role of Women; stereotypically defined by Europeans yet incomplete because misunderstood.
  • ‘Hunting Women’ : “could not endure the conjugal yoak”
  • Did not lose relations to their family …
  • ‘Coureur des bois’ relation accepted (even encouraged) because greatly strengthened family resources.
  • French Jesuits and Intellectuals did not alter their marital logic ⇒ “Savage”
History of the Sioux

  • Lakota speaking Tetons and Dakota speaking Yanktons and Yanktonais move west in the early 1700s
  • Sioux comes from the french term “Nadouessioux”
    • Sioux referred to themselves as the Oceti Sakowin (Seven Council Flames)
  • Politically decentralized – each of the Seven Council Flames was divided into subgroups known as oyate (tribe, people, or nation) and each oyate consisted of several tiyospayes (band, literally meaning “group living together”) which was the basic social and political unit – consisted of a few hundred people, linked by kinship
  • Louisiana Purchase (1803) – marks the beginnings of the Sioux becoming the subject of American territorial claims
  • 1840s – exponential increase in the number of settlers moving west
    • Particular jump during the California gold rush -> Moving through the Sioux country impacts the environment and kill game, depleting the game that the Sioux live off of
    • Sioux demand that the settlers pay tribute for these impacts (settlers believe this to be extortions
    • 1849 – Lakota is hit hard by disease – some think that the diseases are have been introduced by the Whites for their annilation
  • 1850 – Western Sioux population of 15,000 and control region from the Platte to Yellowstone

  • Reservation system becomes the main policy of the 1840s
    • Intermediary step to civilization: the reservations were set up for the Indians to assimilate into American society, be educated and Christianized, and be civilized
    • Red Cloud and Spotted Tail Agencies: essentially these were the beginning of the reservations
      • Food and supplies were distributed to Indians here, gov wants to make the Sioux more economically dependent on them (i.e the depletion of their hunting grounds will force them to come into the agencies)
  • Fort Laramie Treaty (1851): Sioux are given the Black Hills which are very important  for cultural, political, and religious (vision quests and sun dances)
  • Conflict with the Sioux begins in 1854: back and forth of revenge killings (but started by the US)
  • American encroachment on the Black Hills
    • Grant removes soldiers so settlers will rush in Black Hills because it is believed that Gold is there, and baiting the Sioux into War (this works)
  • Great Sioux War (1876)
    • Battle of Little Bighorn 
    • More politics than actual war
    • Over time – more in more Indians move to the agencies because they don’t believe that they can win the war, are tired of fighting, and starvation (game has been depleted)
    • Sitting Bull moves to Canda, leaving Crazy Horse and his band alone
    • Despite popular belief, American military are never able to gain a sound military defeat of the Sioux, the Sioux are able to avoid this, and diplomacy needs to be relied on (Siuox win various concessions)
    • Delegation including Red Cloud and Spotted Tail in the hopes to convince President Hayes to not move them to the Missouri on Indina Territory
    • Hayes wants the Indians to embrace the government more in hope that will help them move to more civilized communities
    • Hayes makes them move temporarily to Missouri River, but then they make choose their spot to live within
  • Crazy Horse surrendered in 1877
  • By the end of the 1870s, the Sioux have become a captive people
  • Sioux people want Northern Agency at location of their choice
    • Afraid of being moved to Missouri River or the Indian Territory
Intro to Native American “Religion”

  • Is it a “Religion”?
  • Different Tribes  → Different Cultures and Beliefs
  • Native Americans are one with nature
    • Portray a connection humans can no longer achieve
    • 19th Century ideas lost
      • Forced into white culture
  • Where is the “Religion” now?
Focusing on the Lakota Sioux

  • Culture
    • Known for their hunting and war skills
    • Dances with Wolves
      • Hunt Bison
        • Skull as religious altar
        • Bones for weaponry
        • Sinews for string
      • Face Paint
        • Religious ceremonies
        • War Paint (ex. Horse and Indian hand imprints)

    • Clothes made from animal hide
      • Men
        • Cape-like clothing for ceremonial purposes
        • Buckskin tunics and leggings
        • Buffalo robes/cloaks as coverage from cold weather
        • Some wore beaded, feathered war bonnets to represent honor and accomplishment
        • Ceremonial and war purposes
      • Women
        • Knee-length dresses and leggings
        • Buffalo robes
        • Painted and beaded dresses to represent tribal identity and family values
          • Ceremonial purposes
        • Wore hair in two, thick braids decorated with beads
The Lakota Sioux “Religion”

  • Strong connection with nature
    • Animism: All natural objects in the universe have souls or spirits -> plants, animals, trees, rocks, natural phenomena (rain), the sun and the moon
      • No distinction between the animate and inanimate.
      • Tribe members have animal totems/ animal spirits that behave as guides (ex: Brother Bear)
      • Fetishism: Refers to the representation of an animal within a person or group of people.
        • The Sioux represent themselves with the Beaver because it represents unity, strength, and is seen as “the keeper and builder of family”
        • Revolves around the belief and ability of communicating with spiritual beings.
      • Refer to spiritual beings for guide in securing food, curing sickness, and averting danger.
        • Ex. Avatar – Jake calls to Eywa for help during the Na’vi’s big, final battle against the soldiers.
    • Great Spirit: The Great Spirit (Wakan Tanka) is the supreme being and principal deity of Native American Indians.
      • The creator of practices and many Native American cultures
      • The Native American representation of “God,” the almighty creator of all things, spirits, and souls.
The Lakota Sioux – One With Nature

  • Ceremonies
    • Sweat Lodge Ceremony: Ceremonies to give thanks, to heal, seek wisdom, and purify the mind, body, and soul.
      • The Calumet
      • Seen in Dances with Wolves when they share the “Peace Pipe” with the chief to purify the mind
    • Vision Quest: A ceremonial gathering/ period where a tribe member attempts to achieve a vision of a future guardian spirit often through the process of fasting, isolation, and meditation.
      • Transition period for young boys into adulthood
      • Typically sing a song about the animal they perceive themselves as
    • Sun Dance Ceremony: Regarded as a ceremonial period of healing, desire, and appreciation.
      • Great men show sacrifice and great effort of strength to request better war skills, better hunting skills, or even better healing “powers” or simply a better understanding of nature
        • The men who wished to embark on this ceremony had to spend days doing certain tasks, like making feasts, making gifts for people, showing respect to friends and family, as he received respect in return.
        • If needed, these men received help from holy men and usually tribe members that had already experienced and “survived” throughout these vicious tasks.
      • It was all for the sole purpose of worshipping and demonstrating to the Great Spirit (Wankan Tanka) how worthy and acknowledging they were.
Questions for Discussion
  • In light of this information, what do you think about the portrayal of the Sioux in Dances with Wolves or other indigenous peoples in the films we have seen?
  • How does this influence the way you view the Sioux people and their historical role?
  • In your opinion, what sort of impact would Native Americans have if they hadn’t been forced into white culture? Would their practices and beliefs influence us at all today? Would their impacts be mostly positive or negative?


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Ostler, Jeffrey. The plains sioux and U.S. colonialism from Lewis and Clark to Wounded Knee. Cambridge university press, 2004.

teenvoguemag. “Daunette on What Being Native American Means to Her.” YouTube, YouTube, 21 Apr. 2016,

“What does Thanksgiving mean to Native Americans?” YouTube, YouTube, 23 Nov. 2017, Staff. “Native American Cultures.”, A&E Television Networks, 2009,

Jocks, Christopher, and Lawrence E. Sullivan. “Native American religions.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, inc., 7 July 2016,

Alchin, Linda. “Native American Indian Tribes.” Facts, Clothes, Food and History ***, Siteseen Limited, 16 Jan. 2018,

“Wiwanke Wachipi – The Sun Dance.” Wiwanke Wachipi – The Sun Dance – Akta Lakota Museum & Cultural Center, Akta Lakota Museum & Cultural Center,


Sites DOT MiddleburyThe Middlebury site network.