Dakota peoples emerged from a long history linked to the demise of Hopewell and later Mississippian archaeological cultures, and arrived in Minnesota/Wisconsin taking advantage of the region’s mosaic of forests, lakes and prairies. The ancestral Dakota were associated with the specific mid-western Woodland archaeological complexes: the Initial (c. 200 BC–AD 500) and the Terminal (c. AD 500–1680) traditions. Concentrated at the Mississippi River headwaters in the parkland transitions zones between forest and prairie, the Dakota exploited the plentiful resources of these ecotones. Linguistically part of the Siouan language family, dialects emerged to distinguish the Dakota proper (Mdewakanton, Wahpeton, Sisseton, and Wapakute) and middle division (Yanktonai and Yankton) from the western division Lakota (Teton).

Dakota expansions onto the eastern prairies in the mid-17th century were a response to the population increases that came with access to French trade goods, including firearms. In the early 18th century, as Ojibwa-Dakota conflict increased over control of hunting territories and access to traders in the Mississippi watershed, the Lakotas moved west onto the prairies, crossed the Missouri to the high plains, and continued their expansion westward to control the Black Hills. As horses came through the trade networks, Lakotas expanded in number and flourished because of the abundant game resources. Their expansions were composed of forays into neighbouring regions that comprised the border regions and territories of their enemies: Lake of the Woods and Rainy Lake, Turtle Mountains/Pembina Hills, as well as the Souris, White Earth, and Missouri-Yellowstone Rivers regions.

The Dakota, once abandoned by the French in the early 18th century, became allies of the British and were increasingly bound to them by treaties and trade alliances, involving fighting as British allies in the War of 1812. From the arrival of the Americans with the Pike expedition to the upper Mississippi in 1805, uneasiness characterized relations for much of the next decades. While the French had been acculturated as kinsmen, the English replaced these roles imperfectly; and when the Americans arrived, they did not grasp the importance of reciprocity for the Dakota. Treaties of friendship and trade gave way to extorted land cessions; the American appetite for land and resources was never satiated. By the 1850s the Dakota were left with reservations upon which they were allowed to reside only at the discretion of the President of the United States. This dependency left them vulnerable and periodically destitute. Minnesota became a territory in 1849 and a state in 1858, surrounding them and filling up their former lands. While less circumscribed, the Lakota and Yankton-Yanktonai participated in the 1851 Fort Laramie Treaty that began a process of fixing the boundaries of tribal territorial domains, with pledges of annuities for cessation of intertribal warfare. However, as the United States drifted toward civil war, promises to Indians were all but forgotten amidst the graft and corruption in the Indian service.

The collision of events and circumstances that led to the Dakota outbreak were numerous. The breaking point was reached between August and December of 1862, when young men refused to watch their families starve any longer. With the onset of fighting, the diaspora of many Dakota began as vast numbers fled onto the prairies of eastern Dakota Territory, then north into Canada—first to the vicinity of the Red River settlement, then westward into present-day western Manitoba. Standing Buffalo led his followers back into Montana Territory, where he was killed in battle on June 5, 1871. His son, taking his father’s name, led part of this group back into Canada, eventually settling on the Standing Buffalo reserve in 1878. White Cap had led followers into Manitoba and eventually into what became Saskatchewan, but when forced by the Métis to join in the fighting in 1885, White Cap’s group was punished; however, once rehabilitated they were given a reserve at Moose Woods. A group led by Hupa Yakta, previously affiliated with White Cap in 1890, asked for a reserve at Round Plain, which came to be called Wahpeton. Most of the followers of Sitting Bull went south and preceded his surrender to US authorities on July 19, 1881; however, a small group of Lakota remained and struggled for survival at the edges of Moose Jaw, and were finally granted a reserve at Wood Mountain in 1910. While reserves at Oak River, Birdtail, and Oak Lakes had been established for Dakota in the 1870s, and others for the Portage la Prairie bands in 1886 in Manitoba, the Dakota communities in Saskatchewan and Manitoba remained extremely isolated.

The contemporary Dakota/Lakota communities in Saskatchewan have remained outside of treaty, and have had differential relations with the various jurisdictions among which they must deal. A contemporary movement among the Sioux in Saskatchewan is pressing for treaty adhesions to bring them into full status and equal relations with Canada, as are the other First Nations within Saskatchewan.

David Reed Miller

Further Reading

Elias, P.D. 1988. The Dakota of the Canadian Northwest: Lessons for Survival. Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press; White, R. 1978. “The Winning of the West: The Expansion of the Western Sioux in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries,” Journal of American History 6 (2): 319–43.