Kinship's Role in Dakota Life
described by Ella Deloria, Ihanktonwan, in Speaking of
Indians, Ella C. Deloria, Friendship Press, 1944, p 17-26.
peoples who live communally must first find some way to
get along together harmoniously and with a measure of
decency and order. This is a universal problem. Each people,
even the most primitive, has solved it in its own way.
And that way, by whatever rules and controls it is achieved,
is, for any people, the scheme of life that works. The
Dakota people of the past found a way; it was through
was the all-important matter. Its demands and dic-tates
for all phases of social life were relentless and exact;
but, on the other hand, its privileges and honoring and
rewarding prestige were not only tolerable but downright
pleasant and desirable for all who conformed. By kinship
all Dakota people were held together in a great relationship
that was theoretically all-inclusive and co-extensive
with the Dakota domain. Everyone who was born a Da-kota
belonged in it; nobody need be left outside.
meant that the Dakota camp circles were no haphazard assemblages
of heterogeneous individuals. Ideally, nobody living there
was unattached. The most solitary member was sure to have
at least one blood relative, no matter how distant, through
whose marriage connections he was automatically the relative
of a host of people. For, in Dakota society, everyone
shared affinal relatives; that is, relatives-through-marriage,
with his own relatives -through-blood.
going further, I can safely say that the ultimate aim
of Dakota life, stripped of accessories, was quite simple:
One must obey kinship rules; one must be a good relative.
No Dakota who has participated in that life will dispute
that. In the last analysis every other consideration was
secondary property, personal am-bition, glory, good times,
life itself. Without that aim and the con- stant struggle
to attain it, the people would no longer be Dakotas in
truth. They would no longer even be human. To be a good
Da-kota, then, was to be humanized, civilized. And to
be civilized was to keep the rules imposed by kinship
for achieving civility, good manners, and a sense of responsibility
toward every individual dealt with. Thus only was it possible
to live communally with suc-cess; that is to say, with
a minimum of friction and a maximum of good will.
me try to explain the kinship system of the Dakotas as
simply as I can, though it is complex at best. As a member
of the tribe you have, of course, your natural father
and mother and sib-lings; that is, all their other children,
your brothers and sisters. So far it is the same as in
any other society. But now, in addition, there are any
number of men and women whom you also call father and
mother, your secondary or auxiliary parents. Those "fathers"
are all the men whom your own father calls brother or
cousin. They are not your uncles; only your mother's brothers
and cousins are your uncles. And those "mothers"
are the women whom your mother calls sister or cousin.
They are not your aunts; only your father's sisters and
cousins are your aunts.
you can see where you get so many other brothers and sisters
besides your own, and where you get so many cousins. These
extended siblings and these cousins constitute your generation;
you belong together. Many of them live in your camp-circle,
and many others are sprinkled throughout the other Dakota
camp circles moving over the land. Through them you have
actual and potential relatives practically everywhere
share affinal relatives, I said. This means that when
your blood relatives marry, all their new relatives are
yours, too; and, because your many secondary fathers and
mothers are of various ages-and some are much older than
your own parents-they may have sons and daughters who
are already married and parents themselves. Thus it happens
that, through them, you find yourself at birth with every
kind of relative a body could have: parents-in-law, sons
and daughters, nieces and nephews, and, in some cases,
a grandchild or two-and of course, in that case, daughters-in-law
and sons-in-law. All the spouses of all your siblings
and cousins become your sisters- or brothers-in-law.
relationships through marriage extend practically ad infinitum,
any strangers thrown together by circumstances are generally
able to arrive at consistent terms for each other through
some mutual relative,no matter how tortuous the path.
It may sound artificial, and of course it was that, in
the sense that it had to be devised. In the very remote
situations, as between two persons who met only once or
so in a lifetime, those terms were purely formal, but
nonetheless essential, as we shall see.
ties being that important, blood connections were as-siduously
traced and remembered, no matter how far back, if only
they could be definitely established. That was no easy
feat either, since there were no records. However distant
a relative might seem according to the white man's method
of reckoning, he would be claimed by Dakotas.
Beyond all these relationships, which after all had a
legitimate basis, there were still others that had to
be established on a purely social basis. Ethnologists
call this the social kinship system, as distinct from
kinship based on blood and marriage. One's social kin
then would be the same as one's friends, neighbors, and
ac-quaintances in white society. Through this social kinship
system even real outsiders became relatives.
readers will be getting impatient just about here and
say-ing, "But why all this insistence on kinship
and kinship terms'? Why all the artificial methods for
securing relatives'? Why couldn't Da-kotas simply be friends,
like other people?" So let's look at it from the
Dakota point of view.
peoples have their own ways of showing courtesy. The fundamental
idea is the same: to be gracious and kind and to show
good will; to abide by the rules of etiquette as practiced
by the majority, so as not to appear boorish or queer.
The idea is one; the methods are many. Among the Dakotas
it was rude to speak an-other's name boldly; one must
employ the kinship term instead_ Not "Swift Cloud,"
but "My uncle, Swift Cloud," or, where there
was no danger of ambiguity, simply "My uncle."
Furthermore, it was improper to plunge into conversation
without first using the polite term of kinship; only to
animals might you speak so rudely. Consequently, it was
of the utmost importance to know the right term for each
person and not be caught unaware. Naturally it fol-lowed
that the right terms of address were always the people's
need of first establishing proper relationship prevailed
even when one came to pray. It gave a man status with
the Super- natural as well as with man. The Dakota words
"to address a rela-tive" and "to pray"
are familiar everyday words. It was not until a few years
ago, when I was listing and defining verb-stems for lin-guistic
students at Columbia University, that suddenly I realized
that the two words are not really two; they are one. Wacekiya
means both acts. Nor is that surprising, come to think
of it, for a Dakota did not like to deal with another
person without first avow-ing his own status, as a relative
mindful of the duties incumbent on him as such, while
also reminding the other of his. Wacekiya implies that
in every meeting of two minds the kinship approach is
imperative; it is the open sesame to any sincere exchange
of senti-ment between man and his neighbor or man and
his God. Once the channel is clear between the two, a
reciprocal trust and confidence are guaranteed. It is
tantamount to smoking the peace pipe; in fact, to smoke
ceremonially is to wacekiya.
other words, you simply did not dare have dealings with
strangers, because you could not be sure of them. They
might so easily turn out to be the incarnation of Iktomi,
the legendary spirit of deceit, ready to play a trick
on you. Of relatives only you might be sure, because they
and you both knew what your reciprocal ob-ligations were
as such. The dictates of kinship demanded of rela-tives
that they not harm each other; so it was necessary first
to make relatives of erstwhile strangers, thus putting
them "on the spot," and then deal with them
on that basis. You assumed that as relatives they would
be trustworthy, and by the same token you obligated yourself.
use of kinship terms of address was only the beginning,
important as it was from the standpoint of etiquette.
The core of the matter was that a proper mental attitude
and a proper conventional behavior prescribed by kinship
must accompany the speaking of each term. As you said
“Uncle” or “father” or “Brother”,
in address or reference, you must immediately control
your thinking of him; you must assume the correct mental
attitude due the particular relative addressed and you
must express that attitude in its fitting outward behavior
and mien, according to the accepted convention. Thus,
term, attitude, behavior, in correct combinations, were
what every member of society must learn and observe undeviantly.
They were standard and inexorable; they had always been.
One was simply born into their rule and conformed to them
invariably as a matter of course. The more rectly he could
do this, whatever the personal sacrifice involved at times,
the better member of the group he was, the better his
standing as a Dakota, the higher his prestige as a person.
What did this exacting and unrelenting obedience to kinship
demands do to the Dakotas? It made them a most kind, unselfish
people, always acutely aware of those about them and innately
courteous. You see, everyone who would be rated well as
a rela-tive had to make himself feel and act always in
the same way. "How monotonous!" you might say.
But it wasn't. For there was as great a variety of permissible
attitudes and behaviors as there were kinds of relatives.
In that way all the natural human impulses were satis-fied:
to be gay and irresponsible, or flippant and rude, for
fun; to be excessively respectful and dignified; to enjoy
being a little fool-ish, as with those called father and
mother; and then to turn serious and protective, as with
sons and daughters.
meant that a socially responsible Dakota might not thoughtlessly
indulge his moods, lest there be within range of his voice
or presence a kind of relative before whom his feelings
must be suppressed as a matter of obligatory respect.
He might not be whimsical and unpredictable in his behavior,
causing it to be said of him, "He is nice, but I
can't ever rely on his being the same way. Now he is charming
and polite, and again he is gruff and rude. But that's
all right, because I know he means well." If he meant
well-that is to say, if he wanted to be known as a good
relative -he would not dare act that way. One offense
before a respect -relative would be enough!
does that sound stuffy and imprisoning? It wasn't one
bit. It came natural to a people used to nothing else.
It was, in fact, a well oiled, pleasant discipline for
group living. To be sure, there were occasional scolds,
as among all peoples; but kinship demands tended to keep
them down to a minimum, and besides, these per-sons were
considered socially irresponsible and written off as such.
the most part, then, everyone had his part to play and
played it for the sake of his honor, all kinship duties,
obligations, privileges, and honoring being reciprocal.
One got as well as gave. Thus kinship had everybody in
a fast net of interpersonal responsibility and made everybody
like it, because its rewards were pleasant. There were
fewer rebels against the system than you might think,
since, as I have said, social standing and reputation
hinged on it. Only those who kept the rules consistently
and glad- good citizens of society, meaning persons of
integrity and reliability. And that was practically all
the government there was. It was what men lived by.
pressure, always powerful, was particularly strong in
such a close-knit group as a camp circle, where everyone
was liter-ally in the public eye. Unless an individual
was congenitally per-verse or slightly queer he did not
care to be aberrant. Indeed, even ,such a one was likely
to be excused and shielded by his relatives, as though
he were under an evil spell and could not help it. It
was essential that the relatives hold up their end anyway
for their own sakes. The failure of one did not excuse
another. "Ah, yes, he is like that, has always been
... still and all, he is my relative," a man might
say, and goon playing his own part.
kinship appeal was always a compelling force in any situa-tion.
if two normally decent acquaintances quarreled, for instance
--and of course if they were acquaintances they were social
relatives outsiders were deeply concerned over it until
it was straight-ened out. The "good men" felt
it incumbent on them to restore peace and order by appealing
to the quarreling ones through kin-ship. Peace is implied
by the very name of the people, Odakota, a state or condition
of peace; the "O" is a locative prefix.
Dakotas love peace within our borders. Peacemaking is
our heritage. Even as children we settled our little fights
through kinship that we might live in Odakota." And
with that, two of the most responsible and influential
men would visit the unhappy ones and appeal to them to
cool off their hearts for the sake of their rela-tives
who were unhappy over their plight. And they did not go
empty-handed. There must always be a token, an outward
sign of great inner desire. The peacemakers went prepared
to give a gift "to cool off your heart and to show
by it that we your kinsmen value your life far above mere
an appeal in kinship's name was supreme. It placed the
responsibility for his relatives' peace of mind squarely
on the troubled man, reminding-, him that no Dakota lived
unto himself alone; all were bound together in kinship.
He might not rightly risk even his very own life needlessly,
thereby bringing tears to the eyes of' his relatives especially
his sisters and women cousins, to whom he owed the very
highest respect and consideration. How-ever slightly he
valued himself, he must regard the relatives. And the
quarreling men, unable to resist such an appeal, smoked
the pipe together and were feasted before the council,
and so the breach was healed. Friends, happy over the
reconciliation and the restora-tion of peace, brought
them more presents. And it was not in the least the intrinsic
value of the gifts that mattered but what they symbolized:
that the two were more precious to their relatives than
mere things. And thus peace was restored in the camp circle
to the relief of all.
there was still another situation, even more tense than
a quarrel, wherein occasionally the power of kinship rose
to its sub-lime height. The murder of a fellow Dakota
was a crime punishable either through immediate reprisal
by the kinsmen of the slain or a resort to the ancient
ordeals, supervised by the council. I need not describe
those ordeals now, except to say that they were almost
impossible to survive-humanly speaking. And so, he who
did survive was set free, as having been exonerated by
a greater than human power-by the Wakan, in fact.
now and again, influenced by exceptionally wise leadership,
the relatives of a murdered man might agree not to shoot
the murderer or demand the ordeal for him, but instead
to win his abiding loyalty through kinship. This they
did by actually adopt-ing him to be one of them in place
of his victim. It was a moving scene when this was done-I
wish I could describe it step by step. I have a most impressive
account of such an episode, which I tran-scribed in the
Dakota language while old Simon Antelope, a well known,
reliable Yankton, told it. I can give only snatches of
it here in a free translation:
angry younger relatives debated the kind of punish-ment
fitting the crime while their wise elder listened, seeming-ly
in accord with them. But after a good while, he began
to speak. Skillfully, he began by going along with them:
Brothers and Cousins, my Sons and Nephews, we have been
caused to weep without shame, men though we are. No wonder
we are enraged, for our pride and honor have been grossly
violated. Why shouldn't we go out, then, and give the
murderer what he deserves?"
after an ominous pause, he suddenly shifted into another
yet, my kinsmen, there is a better way!"Slowly and
clearly he explained that better way. They were men of
standing, he reminded them, and therefore it was becoming
in them to act accordingly. He challenged them to reject
the traditional and choose the better way. It was also
the hard way, but the only certain way to put out the
fire in all their hearts and in the murderer's.
of you bring to me the thing you prize the most. These
things shall be a token of our intention. We shall give
them to the murderer who has hurt us, and he shall thereby
become `something to us' (an idiom for relative) in place
of him who is gone. Was the dead your brother? Then this
man shall be your brother. Or your uncle? Or your cousin?
As for me, he was my nephew; and so this man shall be
my nephew. And from now on, he shall be one of us, and
our endless concern shall be to regard him as though he
were truly our loved one come back to us."
they did just that. The slayer was brought to the council
not knowing what his fate was to be. Steeling him-self
for the worst, he kept his eyes averted. He did not try
to infer the decision by peering into the councilmen's
faces. He was not going to have it said of him in after
years, "Poor thing! How I pitied him! Like some hunted
creature, he tried furtively to read mercy in men's eyes!"
No, he would not flinch at having to give up his life
after taking another's. He too was a man!
when.the council's speaker offered him the peace pipe
saying, "Smoke now with these your new relatives,
for they have chosen to take you to themselves in place
of one who is not here," his heart began to melt.
is their heart's wish that henceforth you shall be one
of them; shall go out and come in without fear. Be confident
that their love and compassion which were his are now
yours forever!" And, during that speech, tears trick-led
down the murderer's face.
had been trapped by loving kinship," my informant
said, "and you can be sure that he made an ever better
relative than many who are related by blood, because he
had been bought at such a price." And what might
easily have become burning rancor and hatred, perhaps
leading to further violence, was purged away from the
hearts of all.
was, of course, obligatory on all the slain man's immediate
relatives by blood and marriage to receive him properly.
And the men, women, and even children quickly fell into
line, without awkwardness, accepting the situation and
behaving according as each was now related to him. Those
proper attitudes and be-haviors accompanying each term
were, as I have said before, in-grained in them from constant
practice until they were auto-matic. Until they were instinctive,
I nearly said, but of course that is not the word. It
is not instinctive to be unselfish, kind, and sincere
toward others, and therefore courteous. Those are traits
that have to be learned. And they can be learned, but
only by scrupulous repetition, until they become automatic
responses; until, in the case of the Dakotas, the very
uttering of a kinship term at once brought the whole process
into synchronic play -kinship term, attitude, behavior-like
a chord that is harmonious.
summarize, and perhaps also to catch up some points not
yet clear, I have this to say:
chapter tries to give the basic principles of the Dakota
kinship system and to explain its purpose and influence
in tribal life. What I have given here is, of course,
the ideal picture. But I can honestly say that hardly
one in a hundred dared to be thought of as deviating from
its rule, although there were always a few naturally heedless
persons who persistently or occasion-ally disregarded
it. But that at once classed them with the witko -the
naughty, irresponsible child, the outlaw adult, the mentally
foolish, the drunk. No adult in his right mind cared to
be so classed.
run a risk in leaving this subject with such an emphasis
on the facility with which new relatives could be made.
I don't mean that a Dakota could not rest until he had
feverishly gone round the entire camp circle establishing
relationships. After all, the sphere of kith and kin is
limited for even a Dakota. When I say that kinship was
all-inclusive and co-extensive with the tribe, I mean
it was that potentially. It was true that everyone was
related to all the people within his own circle of acquaintan-ces.
But all those people also had other circles of acquaintance
within the large tribe. All such circles overlapped and
interlocked. Any Dakota could legitimately find his way
to any other, if he wished or needed to do so. And thus,
with relatives scattered over the many camp circles and
communities, anyone could go visiting anywhere, and be
now it can be better realized how, for publicity purposes,
almost any Sioux entertainer can quite blandly claim to
be a grandson of Sitting Bull. He probably is!