Heritage Site / Ethnography Site / Dakota Nakota Lakota / The People

Article: Sexual Differentiation

Within the O©eti §aúowiñ men and women expected to act differently and have different demeanours. This expectation of behavioural differences extended to almost every aspect of life. Men were expected to be aggressive while women were expected to be passive. It was considered acceptable for men to boast about their deeds but immodest for women to do so. Men were expected to talk and laugh boisterously. Women could talk freely among themselves but it was not considered acceptable for women to become boisterous like the men. For a women to laugh loudly was considered immodest and could be interpreted to mean that she was sexually promiscuous. Women were expected to speak in quiet tones and to limit their talking when in the presence of men, although it was acceptable for them to join in conversation with men. These restrictions did not apply to the old women. When women spoke, men did not look directly at them. Men avoided womanish subjects in their conversations, to speak of such would be a threat to their masculinity and was considered undignified.

Men and women had differences in their speech patterns. They used different greetings, different suffixes to give commands and raise questions, different words for calling attention to things, and different exclamations. The sex of the speaker was always noted in what was said. For a man or women to use a word or suffix commonly used by the opposite sex was considered undignified and utterly embarrassing.

Men and women had different ways of sitting. Men and children sat with their legs crossed, while women after their first menses would sit with their legs folded to the side. It was considered immodest for women to sit with her legs crossed. Within a tipi, sitting and sleeping arrangements were differentiated by sex. As one entered the door of the tipi, the left side was considered the male side and the right side the female side.

Anger and shame were expressed differently by men and women. Men would leave the camp and go to war, sometimes with the intention of loosing one's life in battle. Women seldom left the camp. They might commit suicide by hanging or pout (sit motionless, refusing to eat, sleep or speak).


Men were the shamans and the doctors, the seeker of visions and controllers of relations with the wakan or powers of the universe. Men's visions gave them power to heal, to go to war, and to hunt. Women were not directly involved in these matters. Women were important and essential participants in ceremonies but never the directors of them.

Although women did not actively seek visions like the men, some none the less had visions. These might give them power to use herbs to cure, be a midwife, or make charms to protect growing children. Through visions they could also gain the powers in quill and beadwork design. The power to design and do colour coronations was considered to be uniquely that of women.

Women who were expert in quill and beadwork formed a society which met occasionally for feasts and public displays of their work. The society was originally founded by a double face woman dreamer and it was the double face women who gave the women their power to do fine quill and beadwork. The double face dreamers sometimes would enact their visions publicly. When they would do this they would go through the camp flashing mirrors which caused both the men and women who peered at them directly to fall prostrate and to spit up black earth or plant matter. Some Double omen Dreamers also had the power to make shields and war medicines.

In addition to the Double Woman Dreamers society (also known as the porcupine quillers society) there were the Praiseworthy Womens Society, a wakan society for young women (virgins), the Owns Alone (a feasting society for older women who had only been with one man), the Tanners (women who tanned hides and made tipi covers), and the Womens Medicine Society (these were women with animal visions who had the powers to make war shields and medicines and could predict the outcome of a war party)

Women's power on the whole was associated with domestic matters, while men’s dealt with the protection of the camp circle and matters outside the circle. The Double Face Dreamers and the Women’s Medicine Society represented a unique female contribution to the sacred socieities.

The government controlled by the men. Only men were Chiefs and only men attended the councils. Membership in warrior societies was restricted to men, although some women were singers for the societies. There was no developed tradition of warrior women among the O©eti §aúowiñ although on occasion there were circumstances that required women to assume a warrior role as best they could. The council lodge was a lively place with much coming and going. Only men of mature judgement were members and they would gather to deliberate, plan and philosophise. They were men of proven hospitality and generosity whose good deeds weighted their words and earned them the right to be listened to whenever they spoke.

The council lodge was the central institution for the expression of virtue and wisdom. It was a place where men gathered to confer about the welfare of the people as a whole. To honour the men, women brought the best food they had to the council lodge. Then hurried away to let the men eat and deliberate. It was considered unwomanly to push ones self into a gathering of the opposite sex or unmanly for a man to join a women’s gathering. Outsiders interpreted this to mean that the women were considered inferior. The simple fact was the women had their place and men had their own. They were not the same and neither inferior or superior.

Masculinity and Femininity

From earliest childhood children were watched closely to be certain that they would act in ways proper to their sex. Children were corrected when they played games of the opposite sex or when they used the language of the opposite sex. Homosexual play between children was not tolerated. Children suspected of such practises would earn a reputation that would follow them their entire life. Most childhood play was restricted to he same sex and when children reached puberty strict segregation of the sexes was enforced. Some girls were watched so closely that they were virtually unknown to young men of the same camp. They never went anywhere with out a chaperone and never mingled in crowds.

During childhood boys were frequently lectured on the importance of acting like men. Parent worried if their sons showed an inclination toward girlish games and mannerisms. Such boys were liable to grow up to be wiñkte (beredaches) and would have to dress like women and assume a women’s role. These individuals were considered to be very unfortunate, the greatest tragedy that could befall a Lakota warrior was to be come a wiñkte or would be women. They however were not held personally responsible for their status which was derived from dreams. The wiñkte was believed to be very waíañ or sacred. These boys had dreams that caused them to become wiñktes. In many ways their status in life was like that of the heyoúa, the thunder dreamers, who because of their visions made people laugh by acting and speaking backwards. Both men and women might be heyoúa.

The point to be emphasised is that to be come a wiñkte was not an escape for boys who failed to acquire the rigors of warfare and hunting. Wiñkte where given certain abilities that made them waíañ or sacred and gave them added responsibilities.

There was a comparable status for women who behaved in masculine ways. These women were believed to have dreamed of the double women (winyan huñöaóiúa) causing them to act with masculine demeanour and pursue men’s work. Those who dream of the double women are said to have to make a choice between good and evil. The two women are of opposite character. One is very industrious, neat, virtuous; the other is idle, extravagant and a prostitute. In the dream, the pair seem to come from one lodge which is at the centre of two roads. One road leads to virtue and industry and the other to idleness and promiscuity. The women speak as one saying: “Which way shall I go?" If the dreamer guides the women down the road to virtue the women is granted great skill in needlework and becomes waíañ or sacred. If it is the opposite, she will become promiscuous and live an unsettled life. Those women who dreamed of the double woman may elect a lifestyle of not marrying, behaving aggressively and acting in the ways of men which is parallel to the wiñkte.

For the a boys fear of becoming a wiñkte was an ultimate incentive to make him strive to be manly, likewise a women’s fear of having to assume a manly demeanour or becoming a witko wiñyañ (promiscuous women) made them strive to be womanly.

Women played a significant role in inspiring men to bravery. Mothers encouraged their sons to be brave and instructed their daughters to respect their brothers and do favours for them because they would have to go fight the enemy and their lives were liable to be short and hard. Women’s demands for revenge of loved one’s slain by the enemy was a further stimulus bolstering the warrior ethos. As a boy grew up he was constantly exhorted to be brave and to look forward to the day that he could go on a war party to seek honour. He was persistently told that it was better for him to lie dead on the battle field than to stay home with a woman.

Going to war was a prerequisite for marriage. It was proof of manhood and could provide horses needed to offer a girls family. Yet families attempted to prevent their young men from courting prematurely for fear they would want to stay home. The Lakota had a society known as the Wimnasni whose members could have no dealings with women until they won four feathers for their deeds in battle. The Wimnasni would hold public feasts where the members would give public testimony as to their virginity. Women had a comparable society and would hold feats to declare their virginity.