Lakota (Sioux)


The Block

A magnificent bald eagle’s head, designed and beaded by husband and wife team Leonard Lethbridge Sr. and Mary Ann Lethbridge, dominates the Lakota block. Beaded on indigo-dyed chamois, the subtle variation of directional beading suggests the feathers and ruff, while the eagle’s eye is piercing in its gaze. Tones of yellow, gold and orange create a life-like beak. The eagle is considered a noble bird, along with hawks and owls.

Sitting Bull's war bonnet and case, Hunkpapa Lakota, Northern Plains, golden eagle tailfeathers, weasel skins, glass beads, buffalo rawhide, c. 1875 - Royal Ontario Museum - DSC00340
Sitting Bull’s war bonnet
Lakota Beadwork
Lakota Beadwork
Lakota Dress Red
Lakota dress

Cultural Profile

The Lakota (also known as Sioux) are a very small group in Canada. Chief Sitting Bull and his followers crossed the border into Canada in 1877 seeking a peaceful life. Four years later he returned to the United States, but several hundred Lakota decided to stay. In 1887, the first government recommendation was made to provide a reserve in the area they had settled, but it wasn’t until 1930 that the Wood Mountain Indian Reserve, located 20 miles north of the U.S. border in south-central Saskatchewan, achieved permanent status. In the 1970s only 40 Lakota were living on the reserve.

There was no word for religion in the Lakota language. Their traditional, polytheistic spirituality was well-integrated into their everyday activities and relationships. Today, many Lakota keep traditional spirituality alongside Christian practices. Among the most celebrated virtues of these people are generosity, courage and wisdom. The Giveaway Ceremony originally marked the end of a year of mourning, but evolved into an expression of gratitude, reflecting the tradition of sharing and giving back to the community. There were seven sacred rites, two of which (the Puberty Ceremony and the Throwing of the Ball) are virtually extinct among contemporary Lakota.

Men and women were expected to behave differently and have different demeanours: men were allowed to be aggressive, boisterous and boastful, but women [except old women] were to be passive, subdued and modest. Behaviour to the contrary was considered undignified. Men did not look directly at women when they spoke, and even their speech patterns and greetings, words for exclamations, questions or calling attention to things called for a different vocabulary reflecting the gender of the speaker.

Traditionally without family names, the Sioux (Lakota, Nakota and Dakota) had a complicated naming system with six classes of names: birth order, honour or public, special deed, nicknames, secret and spirit names. The primary name was given based on the gender and birth position of the child, and a person could have several names during his lifetime. Names were adapted to the person at the time given. For instance, it is said that Chief Sitting Bull was called “Jumping Badger” as a boy, but also nicknamed “Slow” because he took extra time to do things. It is common practice even today to use kinship terms, such as uncle or grandfather, for people who are not related to show respect.

Lakota women wore relatively plain hide dresses, leggings and moccasins for every day, but their formal wear was often intricately decorated with rows of elk teeth or dentalium shells, and embroidered with porcupine quills or, later, beadwork. Many of the geometric figures and designs were handed down from mother to daughter and were known to belong to the family who used them. It was considered unacceptable behaviour to use someone else’s designs without permission.

Sponsor: St. Andrew's United Church, Ecumenical Service, Williamstown Fair | Photos courtesy Wikimedia Commons and Flickr