A Guide to the Sioux Tribe: Location, Population, and More

Sioux people ethnic flag, USA. 3D illustration
© iStock.com/daboost

Written by Eliana Riley

Published: October 13, 2022

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Introduction to the Sioux Tribe

The word Sioux is a shortened version of the word Nadowessioux, which translates to enemy. This name was given to the tribe by their rival, the Ojibwa. The Sioux were a large and mighty tribe that occupied the central present-day United States. They lived on the plains, hunting buffalo and domesticating horses brought from Spain for personal use and in warfare. They were feared warriors, and they often came into conflict with both neighboring tribes and the U.S. government.

The Sioux still exist today, and they mainly live in urban areas or on reservations. While many struggles and hardships faced–and still face–the Sioux, their culture and traditions have been rediscovered through poetry, writing, art, and political leadership.

The 3 Distinct Sioux Tribes

Three main Sioux tribes reside within the Sioux people as a whole; these are the Lakota, Dakota, and Nakota. Their names refer to each one’s unique dialect, and within the three sectors reside other tribes.


The Dakota are also called Santee Sioux, and they live in Minnesota and Nebraska. Santee references a Dakota custom of camping out and gathering certain stones to make weapons for themselves. The Dakota tribe is the father of the Lakota and Nakota people. Dakota people used to fish and hunt, but they also engaged in some agricultural practices. There are four primary branches in the Dakota tribe:

  • Sisseton
  • Wahpeton
  • Mdewakantonwon
  • Wahpekute


The Lakota also go by the name of the Teton Sioux and reside in North and South Dakota. The name Teton is an allusion to their unique language and their location, which is west of the Dakota tribe. The Lakota people used to be a part of the Dakota tribe until they split off. Lakota people were known for their hunting ability and were deemed true warriors. With seven separate tribes in their sector, the Lakota are the largest Sioux tribe. The seven tribal branches of the Lakota tribe are as follows:

  • Ogalala
  • Oohenupa
  • Sihasapa/Blackfoot
  • Hunkpapa
  • Sicangu/Brule
  • Itazipacola
  • Miniconjou


The Nakota tribe is the smallest of the three Sioux tribes, and Nakota people mainly live in North and South Dakota and Montana. The Nakota are also referred to as Yankton Sioux or Yanktonai. After parting from the Dakota tribe, the Nakota moved to South Dakota. The Nakota tribe consists of three other tribes:

  • Yankton
  • Upper Yanktonai
  • Lower Yanktonai

Sioux Language

Many Sioux tribes are distinguished by the unique dialects that they speak. There are over 15 different dialects that stem from the original Siouan-Catawban language. Some of these are Hidatsa, Crow, Ofo, Chiwere, and Osage. All the languages belong to certain regions within North America. Based on their dialect, Sioux are divided into three main tribes: the Lakota, the Dakota, and the Nakota.

Sioux people ethnic flag, USA. 3D illustration

Sioux people ethnic flag, USA. 3D illustration


Location of the Sioux Tribe

The Dakota tribe historically lived in Minnesota, Ohio, and the land surrounding Lake Superior, but they were pushed west after conflict with the Ojibwa tribe into Lakota and Nakota territory. As a result, Lakota and Nakota tribes moved into North and South Dakota. Eventually, the Dakota tribe was ushered onto reservations after the intentional extermination of buffalo by the U.S. government. The U.S. aimed to exterminate buffalo to deplete the resources of certain native tribes. In this way, the Dakota people would have to trade their land for a reservation to survive. Now, Dakota mainly live in Nebraska and Minnesota.

In the 1600s, the Lakota lived in present-day Minnesota. However, the Lakota began moving westward toward the Dakotas and Wisconsin and northward to Canada after they were pushed out of Minnesota lands by the Ojibwa tribe. After colonists began pushing Lakota Sioux even further west, trouble arose in the form of warfare. The U.S. massacred hundreds of Sioux at Wounded Knee in 1890, and the Lakota gave up fighting against the United States for territory. Today, Lakota live in South Dakota on the Pine Ridge Reservation.

The Nakota used to belong to the Dakota tribe, but they eventually separated. The Nakota moved to South Dakota, and, today, Nakota tribes live on reservations. Upper Yanktonai are divided. One part lives on the Standing Rock Reservation in South Dakota, and the other part lives on the Devil’s Lake Reservation in North Dakota. Lower Yanktonai are also divided, living between the Fort Peck Reservation in Montana and the Crow Creek Reservation in South Dakota. Finally, Yankton live on the Yankton Reservation in South Dakota.

While most Sioux reside in Colorado, California, South Dakota, and Montana, other tribes live in North Dakota, Texas, Oklahoma, Washington, Nebraska, and Minnesota today.

Population of the Sioux Tribe

The earliest known population of Sioux people numbers 28,000. As of 1990, over 100,000 Sioux existed in the United States, and 10,000 Sioux existed in Canada. In 2010, 170,110 people in the United States identified as either full- or part-Sioux. Approximately half of the Sioux population lives on reservations. Other Sioux live in urban cities like Chicago but visit reservations often. The Pine Ridge Reservation is the largest and most impoverished reservation with a population of 18,824.

Sioux Tribe Beliefs

The Sioux believed that nature and humans were connected in spirit and that all living things had a spirit. As a result, the Sioux held specific animals as esteemed in their culture. The horse was said to have been brought by thunder beings to the Sioux to enhance their lifestyle. The buffalo could be used to provide anything–shelter, food, clothing–to the Sioux. They believed that the buffalo was sacred and was connected in spirit to the world around it. Other animals, such as the elk, turtle, and eagle, held spiritual, religious, and healing symbolism to the Sioux as well.

The Sioux also believed in the importance of family and community. Both aspects were integral to performing everyday tasks like trade and religious practices. They desired a deep sense of belonging because their identity was rooted in the bonds they formed within their community.

Along with believing that all beings were connected, the Sioux worshipped and prayed to a god called the Great Spirit or the Great Mystery, who created the universe. Through prayer, dreams, and visions, the Sioux could connect not only to their god but to their ancestors, too.

Sioux Tribe Religion

The Sioux had a hierarchal religion based on four distinct energies in the universe, which all worked under the authority of the Great Mystery, their main deity. In religious rituals and burial ceremonies, the Sioux engaged in self-harm by slashing certain body parts. They believed that inflicting wounds on themselves affirmed their warrior identity.

The Sioux regarded certain animals as religious, such as the buffalo. For Santee and Teton Sioux, the bear was also an eminent figure. In addition, the Sioux regarded religion and warfare as interrelated. The supernatural was crucial in protecting the Sioux from their enemies in battle.

The Sun Dance of the Sioux tribe is considered the most prominent and sacred religious tradition. In a typical Sun Dance, Sioux would gather in a circle, and a cottonwood tree would be positioned at the center of the circle. They would build an arbor around the circle with an east-facing entrance. The way the Sioux built their location for the Sun Dance holds significance because it was open to the sun, a crucial image for the Sun Dance. The ritual was guided by dreams or visions that connect the spirits of those participating. The objective was that supernatural powers would intervene through sacrifice and that the well-being of the community would be enriched.

A new religion began to emerge in 1890 called the Ghost Dance. The Ghost Dance religion promised the Sioux people that they would receive back what they lost, namely, their land, lifestyle, and buffalo herds. It also predicted the coming of a savior and the departure of Europeans from their land. Afraid that Ghost Dance might lead to rebellion among the Sioux, the U.S. government aimed to squash these beliefs and arrest Ghost Dance leaders.

Sioux Chief Gall, from South Dakota, was a military leader at the Battle of the Little Bighorn.


Sioux Culture

The Sioux were a versatile people and participated in many different activities such as fishing, hunting, gathering, and some farming. They also engaged in commerce, setting up markets with clothing and jewelry for sale and to trade with neighboring tribes. Sioux men were expected to be excellent warriors to gain notability within their community and to maintain their family honor. Some men also patrolled the hunt for bison. Women were artisans, embroidering with beads and porcupine quills and turning buffalo hides into clothing. Their duties were to ensure well-being in their community and to promote fertility and healing.

Sioux also placed an emphasis on family; children were considered sacred and at the center of everything. The Sioux people engaged in both monogamy and polygamy. Men were allowed to have more than one wife, but adultery resulted in consequences. While fathers provided for and protected the family, mothers handled domestic life and were the leaders of the family.

Lakota and Nakota Sioux–or Teton and Yankton Sioux, respectively–gave up their traditional ways of agriculture and began to hunt bison instead. Afterward, they made buffalo-related goods and began to trade these goods for corn with other native tribes. Both tribes wore leather, fur, or suede clothing and lived in tepees.

Sioux Tribe History

Before Europe began to colonize North America, the Sioux tribe geographically covered the entirety of the central present-day United States. Sioux tribal sectors split off from the original tribe due to language and cultural differences. For instance, the Lakota and Dakota tribes developed from the Sioux. They both speak dialects unique to their tribe, and their names mean ally or friend.

During the early 1700s, Sioux people began to move westward to follow herds of buffalo, to discover new opportunities for trade with other tribes, and after conflict with other indigenous tribes. In fact, conflict between agricultural tribes and the hunting Sioux resulted in negative effects on the Sioux tribe. Several farming indigenous communities teamed up with the U.S. government against Sioux tribes.

The U.S. government’s attempt to exterminate buffalo pushed the Dakota Sioux onto reservations. The U.S. supplied them with resources and cattle on the reservation, but this made the Dakota tribe dependent on the government. After the U.S. government stopped issuing credit to the Dakota following a harsh winter, the Dakota began to starve. They decided to revolt against the federal government, beginning the Sioux Uprising. After this event, dozens of Dakota men were executed, and the Dakota were pushed from their native lands onto reservations farther west.

Over time, the U.S. government encroached further and further into Sioux territory. The U.S. also proposed several treaties that allowed them to take over Sioux lands. But they also refused to respect several agreements between the Sioux and themselves, pushing Sioux into the Great Plains and Canada and away from their native lands. For instance, the government proposed the Bozeman Trail, a passageway for settlers to California during the gold rush in 1849. The Bozeman Trail led directly through Sioux territory, causing them to be on the defense against settlers. The Sioux rebelled against the establishing of the Bozeman Trail and massacred dozens of U.S. troops in protest. This event was named the Fetterman Massacre. As a result, the government and settlers disliked the Sioux even more than after the Sioux Uprising. Following the Fetterman Massacre, the Sioux agreed to reside in a reservation in the Black Hills of South Dakota. However, miners began to look for gold in this area and took over the Sioux reservation, ignoring the treaty that pushed the Sioux into the Black Hills and angering the Sioux tribe.

The Battle of Little Bighorn

The Battle of Little Bighorn is likely the most well-known battle between indigenous people and the U.S. military because tribal groups prevailed over U.S. troops. However, the effects of this battle reflected negatively on the Sioux people. After several years of battle with the U.S. military, most Sioux surrendered and went back to their reservations. Some Sioux leaders, such as Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse, protested the surrender and return to the reservations. After years of fleeing and escaping the government, these Sioux eventually surrendered.

Wounded Knee

Sioux resistance against the U.S. ended and began again at Wounded Knee. In 1890, Wounded Knee was the location of a large and bloody Sioux massacre by U.S. troops. The massacre caused the Sioux to surrender to and end rebellion against the U.S. government. In 1973, Sioux tribal members went back to Wounded Knee to protest the unjust seizure of their lands.

Sioux in Modern Times

The United States government has offered the Sioux people approximately $106 million in reparations for their seizure of the Black Hills, which originally belonged to the Sioux. The Sioux people have not taken this compensation, as some Sioux want to regain the Black Hills, and taking the money would mean giving up their territory permanently.

Sioux who want to regain their native land have performed several demonstrations of activism. One notable demonstration was the siege of Wounded Knee by Oglala Lakota. In 1973, 200 Sioux, all members of the American Indian Association, took siege of Wounded Knee for 71 days to protest racism and tribal government corruption within the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota.

On reservations in Montana, South and North Dakota, Nebraska, and Minnesota, many Sioux farm, raise domesticated animals, and even take care of bison. Some Sioux have started casinos, and other have worked in journalism. For instance, the Native American newspaper Indian Country Today was established on a Sioux reservation.

The Sioux, like many Native Americans, face difficulties like unemployment, poor education, and increasing suicide rates. They struggle with poverty and mental health on reservations, too. In fact, the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota was determined to be the poorest area in the nation. But these factors haven’t stopped the Sioux from embracing their roots. Revitalization of Sioux culture has taken shape through arts, literature, and politics, leaving the Sioux with hope for future generations.

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About the Author

Eliana Riley is a writer at A-Z Animals where her primary focus is on geography, travel, and landmarks. Eliana is a second-year student at Miami University majoring in English Education and Spanish. A resident of Tennessee and Ohio, Eliana enjoys traveling to national and state parks, hiking, kayaking, and camping.

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