Sihasapa / Blackfeet sioux


ORIGINS OF THE SIHASAPA (BLACKFOOT SIOUX) TRIBE BY KINGSLEY M. BRAY When Lakota peoples settled on the Great Sioux Reservation after the Treaty of 1868, several tribal divisions chose the northernmost agency – known after 1874 as Standing Rock – as their home. 

Yanktonai people of both the Upper and Lower (or Hunkpatina) divisions settled in the North Dakota segment of the reservation. Down the Missouri south from reservation headquarters, and along the Grand River, settled people belonging to two tribal divisions of the Teton Lakota – the Hunkpapa and the Sihasapa, or Blackfoot Sioux. 

Because of the fame of leaders like Sitting Bull, the Hunkpapa attracted the attention of early historians of the Sioux wars. Writers like Stanley Vestal interviewed elders extensively about Hunkpapa history, helping us to reconstruct the early band and leadership structure of that tribe (see THE HUNKPAPA TRIBE section on this website). The situation is very different for the Sihasapa. 

The principal Sihasapa leader of Sitting Bull’s generation was John Grass, one of the great statesmen of the Lakota people –and one of the greatest Lakota warriors in intertribal wars with foes like the Arikaras.

In one of the bitter ironies of Lakota history, the commitment of men like John Grass to peace, dialog and diplomacy with the U.S.A. made them a lot less interesting to historians concentrating on the clashes and battles of the Indian Wars. Consequently we know a lot less about the Sihasapa and the early families that shaped their tribal organization and leadership. 

So what follows is a preliminary exploration of Sihasapa beginnings – but since one Lakota consultant of mine identified the Sihasapa as “really great scouts” maybe a scouting expedition into their deep past is no bad starting point! 

One of John Grass’s contributions to the history of his people was an interview he gave in 1880 to ethnologist James Owen Dorsey listing the six bands or tiyoshpaye into which the Sihasapa tribe was divided. Each band was a cluster of extended families linked by blood, marriage and ceremonial (hunka) adoption. 

For most of the year people lived in band-level camps, but each summer they gathered in larger tribal villages to hunt the buffalo and offer the great ceremony of the Sun Dance. The village was pitched in a great circle, with each band assigned a place. Special honor was accorded certain places in the circle such as the ‘horns’ that flanked the east-facing entrance or tiyopa, and the chief place facing the tiyopa. John Grass identified the locations of each band in the Sihasapa circle as follows. 

Next to the tiyopa, band no. 1 occupied the south horn, then the sequence follows the circle sunwise round to the north horn where band no. 6 was located. 

What we don’t know is which families and chiefs belonged to which band. From his interview with John Grass, Dorsey did note that the contemporary chief of the Wazhazha band was Kill Eagle, a prominent headman whose report of the Battle of the Little Bighorn is one of the great Lakota historical accounts. 

Strangely, when John Grass was re-interviewed over thirty years later about Sihasapa bands, he gave a partial list and again remarked in passing that the Wazhazha was Kill Eagle’s band – but again didn’t identify the other bands with names of leaders! 

Maybe modern descendants can help in providing this important information which will help understand the past of the Sihasapa people. 

One thing that Lakota accounts seem to agree on is that the Sihasapa and their Hunkpapa neighbors are sister tribes, offshoots of a single parent group. 

One of the new treasure troves of the Standing Rock tribal archives is the collection of Col. A. B. Welch’s papers, drawing on decades of interviews he conducted with the people of Standing Rock. 

In 1928 Fast Horse told Welch “How Tetonawa Tribes were named”. In his discussion Fast Horse mentioned of the Sihasapa that “One time they were Hunkpapas.” 

The seven Teton tribes (the Hunkpapa, Sihasapa, Sans Arc, Two Kettle, Miniconjou, Oglala and Brule) of the Lakota Nation have for centuries lived on the prairies of western Minnesota and the Dakotas. 

As they migrated into and across the Missouri River valley during the 18th Century they acquired horses from the plains and firearms from French and British traders. Increased warfare and new European diseases decimated many bands and destroyed others, survivors shifting to join relatives across the Lakota world. 

It was a period of great change, and older divisions broke up and reassembled in new tribal groupings. New names replaced old, families found new homes or formed new bands. 

Bands ancestral to the Hunkpapa-Sihasapa group, for instance, were originally part of the Oglala but broke away, intermarried with other Tetons and other tribes like the Cheyennes and Arikaras, to create powerful new tribes out of the demographic chaos of the 18th Century. 

According to traditions from the Cheyenne River Reservation (where part of the Sihasapa also settled) at a time when the Tetons were encamped on the Vermillion River in southeast South Dakota, a smaller camp stayed behind when the main village moved on. Meshing tradition with contemporary European accounts and maps, my guess would be that this split fits somewhere in the period 1725-50. 

One extended family group of the stay-behinds, maybe 60 people, stuck together to form their own tiyoshpaye. Living in five tipis, they were a small band to claim autonomy – symbolised by a council fire that band elders preserved as they moved across the prairies – so they were known as Ti-Zaptan or Five Lodges. 

Direct descendants of this tiyoshpaye settled among the Sihasapa community at Cheyenne River. Like all Lakotas, young Ti-Zaptan people had to marry outside their band. Because of strong purposeful leadership by wise elders, industrious women, and brave hunter-warriors, certain bands drew outsiders keen to marry-in. 

Such was the Ti-Zaptan in the mid-18th Century, for over the next decades two new tiyoshpaye grew up and offshooted from the band. Their leading families were related – headmen perhaps addressing each other as ‘brothers’ – forming a strong but flexible camp organization. 

The first offshoot tiyoshpaye were the Real Sihasapa band. Stories accounting for their origin recall a big prairie fire: Fast Horse’s account to Welch says that a woman without moccasins walked through the charred prairie, “her feet . . . covered with ashes and black. So that is what we call it, those people.” During the next generation – say 1750-75 – a second offshoot formed the Crow Feather Hair Ornaments band. 

The cluster of these three founding tiyoshpaye was probably identified during the 19th Century with the Grass family and its political allies. John Grass’s father, also known as Grass, and as Used As Their Shield, born into a family with Oglala origins, emerged as a key leader in the early 1850s. 

His father (name unknown) is also said to have been a great chief. In his account to Welch, John Grass dwelled on the two bands Real Sihasapa and Crow Feather Hair Ornaments, just as he named them first in his version of the camp circle. 

After 1750 the growing Sihasapa camp attracted growing numbers of outsiders, independent bands that brought their own council fires. Fire Heart V (1851-1926) was the direct descendant of one of the most important of these incomers. 

He told Col. Welch how people from “several Dakotah bands and tribes” joined the camp, which became known generally as the Sihasapa after the largest of the constituent tiyoshpaye. Perhaps the first of the incomers was the Hohe band. 

The name is used to designate the Assiniboine tribe, who split from the Sioux late in prehistory, but in the French colonial period a Sioux band called “Horhetons” or Hohe Village was located on the Mississippi River near modern Sauk Rapids, Minnesota. Perhaps they were originally an Assiniboine band that chose not to join hostilities against the parent-people in the warfare of the mid-17th Century. 

Clearly a sizeable group in 1700, the Horhetons disappear from the record, but the name Hohe persists as that of a small Sihasapa band. Perhaps they were the “Sioux of the West” village that traders learned was massacred by the Crees in 1741, with several hundred people killed or sold into French slavery – the survivors finding refuge with generous kinsmen among the Sihasapa. 

The Sans Arc – the Itazipcho, or Without Bows – tribe is said to be the origin of another band, the Cowrie Shell Earrings, that intermarried with the Sihasapa later in the 18th Century. 

They were assigned the place in the camp circle next to the north horn. At some point probably in the period 1775-1800 a very prestigious family from the Miniconjou tribe joined the Sihasapa. The family was that of Fire Heart. The first leader of that name was said to have been a Miniconjou who flourished in the 1730s, according to family traditions collected by Col. Welch. Fire Heart II seems to have been the leader who brought the family into the Sihasapa circle. 

Because the Sihasapa share one band name with the Miniconjou – the Glaglahecha or Slovenly band – it may be that the Fire Heart dynasty is to be identified with the Glaglahecha. Again, Fire Heart family descendants may hold the knowledge that can help us identify their ancestral tiyoshpaye. 

The Glaglahecha band among the Miniconjou is identified with another great chiefly dynasty of the Tetons, the White Swan (Maga Ska) family. By 1823 Fire Heart III, identified in a contemporary journal as “a very powerful warrior”, was not only the principal Sihasapa tribal leader, but considered by traders in Minnesota as the most influential chief among the Teton divisions. 

Given the context of this information, it is likely that in the final years (ca. 1815-30) of the Dakota Rendezvous – the great trading gathering of the Sioux held each May on the James River (modern Armadale Island, South Dakota) – Fire Heart was accorded special honor as the ranking Teton wichasha yatapika (Honored Man) in the interdivisional councils where leaders from across the Lakota world met. A rivalry existed in the 19th Century between the Grass and Fire Heart families. Fire Heart IV married a sister of Used As Their Shield, but the brash sarcasm indulged in by Lakota brothers-in-law was probably at its most pointed in this particular relationship! 

John Grass’s widow recalled to Col. Welch that “there was something between Fire Heart and Chief Grass and had been for many years”. Perhaps this underlies John Grass’s additional remark on the Glaglahecha band. 

After explaining the meaning of the name as slovenly or untidy, he went one further and added these people were “Too lazy to tie their moccasins”! A final incoming band was the Wazhazha, whose complex origins show up just how widely intermarriage linked the peoples of the plains. At an earlier generation intertribal truces were marked by extensive intermarriage between Tetons and the Ponca tribe, who pursued a mixed farming-hunting life in southwest South Dakota and northern Nebraska. 

The resulting band was called the Wazhazha, taking its name from one of the most important Ponca clans. Tracing back, the Wazhazha clan grouping had its origins among the vast Dhegiha grouping of southern Siouan tribes – today’s Poncas, Omahas, Kansas or Kaws, Osages, and Quapaws.

Each of these major groups contained a powerful clan called Wazhazha, identified with the Powers of the Water and the Snake. Archaeologists are increasingly confident that ancestral Dhegihan peoples were involved in the great Mississippian civilizations of the Midwest, leagues and tribal confederacies that built great cities such as Cahokia (opposite modern St. Louis) around temple mounds and extensive floodplain fields. My guess would be that the Wazhazha name had its origins in the Mississippian world. 

Because of the fame and honor attached, it was carried out by migrants into the prairies as the Mississippian societies imploded in the centuries 1300-1600. The Teton-Ponca intermarriages of the mid-18th Century created a Wazhazha band that, after warfare was resumed with the Ponca, settled largely among the Brule division of Tetons. 

Late in the century, however, offshoot people joined the northern Teton divisions, some founding a Wazhazha band among the Sihasapa in the period 1800-25. Through the first quarter of the 19th Century in-migration continued to swell Sihasapa numbers to peak about 900 people. 

Important Sihasapa links to British trading personnel in Minnesota like Robert Dickson and Joseph Renville were probably fundamental to this situation during the period of British-U.S. rivalry that culminated in the War of 1812. After British defeat, however, and the post-1820 expansion of American trade along the Missouri River, eastern trade links became unimportant. 

The Sihasapa increasingly hunted, traded, and offered a joint Sun Dance with their Hunkpapa relatives. After a century of rapid growth and political dynamism, in 1825 the Sihasapa entered a new period in their tribal history. As I’ve tried to make clear, this essay is very much a preliminary effort at tracing Sihasapa history. 

There must be many families on Standing Rock today who can help us to fill out and correct the picture I’ve sketched. Why not contact Tribal Tourism chief LaDonna Brave Bull Allard and help us tell the true stories of all the people of Standing Rock? 

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS In helping to gather traditions bearing on the early history of the Sihasapa, I offer thanks to three modern historians of the Lakota people – LaDonna Brave Bull Allard (Fort Yates); Sebastian ‘Bronco’ LeBeau (Eagle Butte); Victor Douville (Mission). PILA MAYE! KINGSLEY M. BRAY DECEMBER 4, 2006. 

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