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Article: Kinship's Role in Dakota Life

As described by Ella Deloria, Ihanktonwan, in Speaking of Indians, Ella C. Deloria, Friendship Press, 1944, p 17-26.

All 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 kinship.

Kinship 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.

This 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.

Before 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.

Let 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.

Now 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 you go.

You 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.

Because 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.

Kinship 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.

My 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.

All 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 pre-occupation.

This 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.

In 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.

The 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.

This 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!

Now 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.

For 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.

Social 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.

The 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.

"We 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 chattel."

Such 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.

But 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.

However, 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:

The 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:

"My 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?"

Then, after an ominous pause, he suddenly shifted into another gear:

"And 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.

"Each 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."

And 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!

But 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.

"It 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.

"He 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.

It 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.

To summarize, and perhaps also to catch up some points not yet clear, I have this to say:

This 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.

I 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 at home.

Perhaps 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!