At the time of the U.S. – Dakota War, the Dakota nation was more generally known by the word Sioux. However, this is not a proper term. Sioux is a French corruption of the the Anishinaabe word “Nadowessi” which means snake or serpent. The term was popularized by whites and the U.S. government who did not understand its meaning. Some used it in the pejorative sense as a way of being intentionally disrespectful. The correct term for the entire tribe is Dakota, meaning allies or friends.
As a tribe the Dakota consists of seven bands known as the Seven Council Fires. The bands are closely related in language, culture, and origin and still bound together in alliance for mutual protection. The seven bands are named as follows: Tetons, Yanktons, Yanktonais, Sisseton, Wahpeton, Wahpekute, and Mdwekanton. While their languages are closely related, the Teton speak Lakota and traditionally have lived furthest west, while the Yankton and Yanktonais speak Nakota and traditionally lived across the western plains. Within Minnesota at the time of the war there were four Dakota bands. Together these four bands are called the Santee. Among the Santee their existed the Upper Bands of Sisseton and Wahpeton and the Lower Bands of Wahpekute and Mdewakanton. They have been called upper and lower because of their traditional locations along the upper or lower parts of the Minnesota River.
During the war, many white writers and reporters categorized the Dakota as either “hostile” or “friendly.” These terms also come from a misunderstanding of the Dakota culture and people. The years preceding war were characterized by increased pressure on the Dakota to give up their traditional ways of living and to take up farming. This led to factionalism among the Dakota which played an important role during the U.S. – Dakota War. Groups that incited hostilities were typically those that sought to protect the Dakota way of life that had been so threatened. Others, followed the advice of missionaries and government officials to take up farming and Chrisitanity and therefore no longer had a reason to protect a way of living they had already seen taken away.
Amos E. Oneroad and Alanson B. Skinner, Being Dakota: Tales and Traditions of the Sisseton and Wahpeton, Edited by Laura L. Anderson, (St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2003).