Lower Dakota (Lower Sioux)
WEBSITE OF TRIBE: http://www.lowersioux.com/
1. Historical information about the culture

The Mdewakanton (Lower Sioux) people have lived in Minnesota for as far back as history remembers. The Lower Sioux consisted of four different bands of people, all of which lived along the Minnesota River. This land is agriculturally very rich due to the river flood plain and the wooded bluffs that reside behind it. The Lower Sioux people built their community on the hillside and uplands. They were skilled farmers and artists, living off of the land.  It is incredibly difficult to find anything about their historical livelihoods, as they were the target of an aggressive “civilizing” campaign by the United States government. They were forced to cease their traditions, causing these traditions to be repressed and even forgotten over the following decades.

The Lower Sioux Tribe has always struggled with poverty. Before the 1980s, the Lower Sioux tribe had very limited funds and there were very few employment opportunities available on the reservation. Most of the Lower Sioux people worked for government programs operated by the Tribe. The Lower Sioux people have been manufacturing hand thrown, hand painted, and traditional Dakota pottery since 1972. This tradition continues on today, with the pottery being sold at Tipi Maka Duta, which is the Lower Sioux Trading Post. Today the tribe also leases a gravel pit, which generates additional income. Jackpot Junction, a bingo facility, opened in 1984. It was expanded into a casino, complete with blackjack tables, slots, video games, food service, and nightly entertainment. The facility is open twenty four hours a day, seven days a week. This is operated by the Lower Sioux Tribe. The Lower Sioux Tribe also owns the adjacent gas station and convenience store, as well as the nearby Dakota Inn Motel. This has greatly helped pull them out of poverty.
In the 1850s, the U.S. government had attempted to turn the Lower Sioux Tribe into Christian farmers. Because of these aggressive attempts to “civilize” the Tribe, many of their traditions were lost and repressed over time. Presently, though, efforts are being made to bring these traditions back. It is very important to the Lower Sioux Community that they protect their history and traditions, including burial mounds and artifacts. They have a traditional Dakota language that they are committed to passing down to future generations. Camps within the community help children make gardens alongside elders, using heirloom seeds, and teaching them traditional gardening methods. They have taught them how to grow tobacco while teaching them about its traditional sacredness. They have also made efforts to return medicinal herbs to the area, including sage and sweetgrass. They have recovered human Dakota remains from museums and universities that had held them in archaeological displays and have given them proper Dakota burials. They participate in powwows and give tours, showing their native culture.

2. Colonial experience of the culture

Prior to the Dakota War of 1862, the Lower Dakota Native Americans lived in Minnesota. The name Dakota translates very closely to the English words friend and ally. Their land in The Minnesota River Valley was also referred to as Cansa’yapi, which translate to, “Where they marked the trees red.” These Minnesota Dakota consisted of four bands. These four bands were called the Mdewakanton, the Wahpekute, the Sisseton, and the Wahpeton. However, these four bands eventually became knon just as two groups. The first two are now known as the Lower Dakota and the latter two as the Dakota Sioux. All of these groups lived along the Minnesota River. However, as the US Government and citizens started expanding, the Lower Dakota people soon had to fend for themselves in what would turn out to be The Dakota War of 1862.

Tensions between the Dakota and The United States began to increase by the early 1850’s when many treaties were being violated and unfulfilled with the Dakota. In addition to this, many US officials were pushing unfair annuity payments on them causing much hunger and hardship. The Dakota also stopped receiving healthcare as well. In 1862, traders stopped providing any more supplies for credit when the Dakota had their agent, Thomas Galbraith, demand their annuities directly. By denying them any more supplies, all negotiations had ceased as tensions strained even tighter. Five settlers were then killed on August 17, 1862 when a Dakota hunting party went on a hunting expedition. This eventually led to the decision that the Dakota would start attacking the settlers along the Minnesota River Valley to drive them off of their lands. After many skirmishes, the United States Army eventually showed up, resulting in the surrender of most of the bands of Dakota and the capturing of more than a thousand Dakota. These captives were then jailed in Minnesota. On December 16, 1862, the largest one-day execution in American history happened when 38 Dakota were hanged after being sentenced through trials. The remaining Dakota were then expelled from the area when their reservations were abolished by the United States Congress. They then migrated to Nebraska and South Dakota. It was estimated that, “not less than 800 men, women, and children had died,” when Abraham Lincoln gave his second annual address. Despite these losses, many of the Lower Dakota returned to their homes along the Minnesota River. To those who did not fight in the war, the United States Government allowed them to stay on their lands that were provided by the now voided treaties.

In the 1940s, the Lower Sioux Indian Reservation (where they are currently located) became targeted by the Indian termination policy of the US government. The targeted groups began drafting agreements for individual land ownership through 1953 and 1954, but no agreements were ever reached. Eventually a bill was proposed to terminate the lands by Senator Edward Thye in January 1955. Eventually this bill died having never reached the Senate floor. Today, The Lower Sioux Indian Community is recognized by the Federal Government. It sits on roughly 1700 acres of tribal land along the Minnesota River Valley with about 145 families (Total population: 982).


3. Contemporary developments or issues

The most common contemporary issues in modern Lower Sioux culture involve conservation of land and tribal membership. Since they are a federally recognized tribe, Lower Sioux is given some autonomy of government in regulating their land. The Mdewakanton Tribal Reservation is over 1700 acres and contains about 900 tribal members.
In order to become a member, an individual must have at least one parent that is a registered community member. Only community members can have land assigned to them, and they cannot sell this land. Determining who “deserves” tribal membership is a very controversial issue in contemporary Dakota culture. Federal recognition includes healthcare benefits as well as land entitlements.

Members of the community are assigned land and given profits from the reservation’s casino. The casino is a topic of controversy because it goes outside of tradition, but profits are extremely beneficial to the local economy and quality of life on the reservation. “Sioux reservations are isolated from urban industrial centers, have attracted very little industry, and experience some of the highest levels of unemployment and the highest levels of poverty of any communities within the United States.” It can be difficult to build a career and still remain a member of the community. If a member does not reside in the community for longer than two years, membership is revoked. This intends to incentivize preservation of culture and tribal membership.

There is an attempt to balance between maintaining traditions and meeting the modern needs of the tribe. Part of mainstream society’s stereotyping of American Indians is that they are considered historical relics, as opposed to a modern ethnicity and race. This is partially due to tribal members remaining on reservations, often isolated from white, African-American, and American-Asian populations. Some Sioux feel that casinos provide an opportunity to address modern American Indian troubles and expose contemporary culture to the outside culture.

Some feel that the casino threatens tradition and abandons morality and pride; however, it the financial benefits cannot be ignored. “We utilize our resources from gaming and non-gaming enterprises to first and foremost meet our responsibilities to our Tribal membership. All internal infrastructure, including, but not limited to housing, roads, water and sewer systems, and essential services to individuals regarding education, health, and welfare are met by Tribal resources.”

Preservation of culture and language remains a challenge. The United States government made assimilation attempts that isolated American Indian children in boarding schools where they were forbidden to speak their tribal language, practice traditional religions and other cultural traditions such as wearing long braids. This left an entire generation ashamed and terrified of speaking the language of their people. Today, with the exception of elders, the majority of tribal members do not speak Sioux language at home. English is typically taught first.  Attempts at preserving what is left of the native language continues to be an important goal within the reservation. Despite the Lower Sioux’s challenges throughout American history, they have persevered tremendously in their independence and membership.