The foundation on which the Sioux way of life and economy existed was the buffalo. It played an extraordinarily important role in a culture and economy that depended on this one resource to supply almost all the material needs of the society. It constituted the principal food source, but not the only one. By the nineteenth century, the Sioux possessed large horse herds, which greatly improved their economic and material prosperity and made buffalo hunting a far more efficient undertaking. They used buffalo hides to make clothing, footwear, tipi covers, and small bullboats, and the animal later became a source of income as traders sought out the hide, meat, and fur. The Sioux used the horns and bones as cooking utensils, hide scrapers, and other functions that were both practical and ceremonial. In the arid, almost treeless plains, natives and, later, pioneers used buffalo dung as fuel. The only flaw in this structure might have been the absence of greater diversity. Certainly, the Sioux hunted other animalsand willingly traded and incorporated material goods from Europeans, but the reliance on the buffalo was susceptible to overhunting and exploitation. Horses and buffaloes were valuable but vulnerable assets in the Sioux economy.
The introduction of the horse was one of two innovations adopted from Europeans that every scholar acknowledges were critical to the Sioux during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries; the other was firearms. The Sioux functioned fine without them, if they existed in a world in which their neighbors also did not have them—but that was not the case. Plains Indians adopting the horse epitomized the “quintessential American epic” that was a “sweeping story of cultural collision and fusion.” It was the story of some “obscure foot nomads . . . reinventing themselves as equestrian people [that] created one of history’s most renowned horse cultures.” Unlike the horse-cultured nomads in other parts of the world, or even among some Native American tribes, the Sioux horse-culture nomadic existence was only seminomadic and more hunting nomadic than pastoral nomadism. The horse provided a mobility inconceivable in the seventeenth century, but that became a reality by the late eighteenth century. The introduction of the horse made the Sioux far more efficient nomads and hunters and certainly more powerful militarily. The horse made hunting more individualistic and the family more independent, and acquiring horses intensified intertribal warfare to ensure unhindered access to the buffalo, which increasingly became a critical subsistence resource.
As hunter-nomads, the Sioux depended on the vast buffalo herds of the Great Plains for their subsistence, but according to Robert H. Lowie and others, the horse gave the Sioux the ability to “specialize in bison subsistence.” The horse made the Great Plains a “place of residence rather than as a place of occasional resort” to hunt buffalo more efficiently. The horse revolutionized the Sioux economy and its culture, and it transformed warfare. The Sioux had relatively small horse herds. They acquired horses, by most accounts, in the late seventeenth century, but according to Richard White, “the Sioux were hardly noted for either the abundance or quality of their herds.” Other scholars noted that a wealthy Sioux family might have forty horses, but that one family could do quite well with twelve.
Many scholars attribute the desperation to acquire more horses to the increased frequency of conflict, as wealth was measured in horses and, according to Colin G. Calloway, “horse-raiding and war were virtually synonymous.” Of course, scholars will never know the frequency of warfare between Plains’ Indians before the acquisition of the horse, but the animal likely improved the military capabilities of the Sioux and others who adopted it. By the nineteenth century, Sioux power on the northern plains rested on military efficiency andmobility (which prevented the devastating spread of disease that greatly weakened other tribes). In addition, as Pekka Hämäläinen noted, the Sioux developed “a functional equilibrium among horse numbers, ecological constraints, and economic, cultural, and military imperatives.” Popular imagination stereotypically and inextricably linked the Sioux with the horse and the buffalo. In comparison, economically, the most tangible asset the Kazakhs owned was livestock.
The typical measure of Kazakh wealth was the size of one’s herds. No other animal was more important than the horse; it fulfilled material, nutritional, and symbolic needs. Kazakhs ate horse meat, but more important was kumis, fermented mare’s milk. Every visitor, it seems, who ever visited a Kazakh aul commented about kumis. Jules Brocherel, for example, wrote, “Gulping down this liquid requires a strong digestion.” Another visitor wrote that the taste is “what might be expected—rancid and sour to the last degree.” Kazakhs, however, loved it. During summer months, they made kurt, a sundried cheese ball, and many other foodstuffs that they preserved for the long winters. Next to the horse in importance was sheep, which provided meat and wool—both of which were critical to Kazakh life. At weddings and feasts, or if a guest arrived, it was customary to slaughter a sheep for the meal. Kazakhs also kept goats, camels, and, during the nineteenth century, cattle.
For both the Sioux and the Kazakhs, maintaining the herds required sufficient pasture, water, and defense against raids. The “poverty in horses” seemed to generate “constant warfare” in the northern plains. According to Hämäläinen, the Sioux found the right balance of herds that encouraged them to keep their herds relatively small. Lowie made a relative comparison about the role of horses in Sioux and Kazakh society, noting that among the Sioux and other Plains Indians, the horse “lacked significant features associated with Mongol and Turkic horse breeders. The Asiatic nomads gained subsistence directly from their herds—by eating the flesh of their animals and milking their mares. Few of the Plains Indian tribes ate horse flesh except in times of famine, even the Comanche used it as a distinctly subsidiary food; and no American natives ever dreamed of milking mares.” Lowie’s statement makes it seem that meat was the only food the Sioux and the Kazakhs ate, but that was not the case.
The Sioux depended on the buffalo as their principal food source, but many visitors and observers in the nineteenth century described the variety in the Sioux diet. Nonetheless, Edwin Thompson Denig stereotypically described the Sioux as “a people who depend entirely upon the chase for subsistence,” despite the fact that other observers witnessed the Sioux harvest prairie turnips, wild artichokes, wild peas, red plums, and chokecherries. Joseph M. Prince and Richard H. Steckel noted that the perceptions and generalizations about the Sioux ignored the reality of their food economy—particularly their use of wild plant resources such as onions, chokecherries, gooseberries, and wild rice. In addition, they noted that the Sioux “were known to use sap from the soft maple and box elder for sugar. Important cultigens such as maize, beans, squash, tobacco, and sunflowers were available to Plains nomads through a longestablished intertribal trade with the more sedentary horticultural communities of Plains villagers.”
Among Kazakhs, meat—chiefly lamb, goat, and horse—supplied their principal diet, but they also traded for fruits and vegetables, grains, and other food with Russians and Turkestan khanates. Another industry among Kazakhs that supplied food and some income was fishing. Russian government records in the 1860s noted that in some regions—particularly those near large lakes (including the Aral Sea)—Kazakhs harvested thousands of pounds of fish and caviar annually. Stephen Riggs also observed fishing among the Sioux, but it was for subsistence rather than industry and trade.
Embedded in the general conceptions of the Sioux are what DeMallie identified as three elementary features of Lakota traditionalism that likely applied to all Sioux and symbolized their way of life, including “land and freedom” to migrate, male pursuits such as war and hunting, and the “special relationship mankind shared with all the rest of the universe and the forces of wakan.” According to Walker, wakan was the “animating force of the universe” and “anything that was hard to understand.” Sioux religion had rituals and basic concepts that Sioux understood and shared but that did not include a specific structured or consistent theology. Sioux religion was not dogmatic but a belief system that made Sioux “lives and the world in which they live intelligible and acceptable.” Rituals gave expression to their beliefs, including the “purification lodge,” also referred to as the “sweat lodge,” and ceremonies such as the Sun Dance. Early visitors and outside observers readily dismissed Sioux religious practices, usually decrying them as pagan and barbaric. George Catlin’s description is typical and prejudiced. He was repulsed by the Sun Dance— although he admitted that he never witnessed the ceremony—as the “most extraordinary and cruel custom” practiced, which he called “looking at the sun!” He described it as a “sort of worship, or penance, of great cruelty; disgusting and painful to behold, with only one palliating circumstance about it, which is, that it is a voluntary torture and of very rare occurrence.” According to Catlin, the “poor and ignorant, misguided and superstitious man who undertakes it, put his everlasting reputation at stake upon the issue,” and “if he faints and falls . . . he loses his reputation as a brave or mystery-man, and suffers a signal disgrace in the estimation of the tribe.”
The Sun Dance was a ceremonial ritual rather than an artistic expression, but dance in Sioux culture was ritual rather than strictly art that Americans might recognize. According to DeMallie, “dance was a highly charged symbol ... of religion, a ritual means to spiritual and physical betterment.” Samuel W. Pond described the connection between dance and religious ceremonies, such as the War Dance and the Scalp Dance, which he regarded with condescension and thought were a bit vulgar. Others thought Sioux dance was beautiful and meaningful. Outside observers contextualized Sioux dance—the custom and its practice—based on their own cultural and aesthetic understanding of dance and its place in a civilized society. In the minds of most outside observers, the Sioux and their dance were primitive; if primitive was appealing to the observer, likely too was Sioux dance.
The Kazakhs, on the other hand, were Muslims. Some scholars and observers dispute the depth of Kazakh adherence to Islam. That they were Muslims is unquestioned, but the extent is unclear. According to nineteenthcentury Russianized Kazakh scholar Chokan Valikhanov, “among the Kirgiz [Kazakhs] there are still many who do not know the name of Muhammed.” In his opinion, however, Islam was slowly replacing shamanism and pagan beliefs. Levshin described asking two Kazakhs, “What do you believe?” They responded, perhaps somewhat confused by the question, “We don’t know.” Eugene Schuyler received similar responses; however, he noted, “it is only externally that they are Mussulmans. On being asked what religion they have, unaccustomed to such a form of the question, they will say they do not know, but at the same time they would repel with vigour any insinuation that they were not good Mussulmans.”
In addition, Schuyler mistakenly attributed the Kazakhs’ conversion to Islam to Russian religious policies. He claimed, “few of their sultans and chiefs had any idea of the doctrines of Islam, and there was not a mosque nor a mullah in the Steppe, but the Russians (just as they insisted on using the Tatar language in intercourse with them) insisted on treating them as though they were Mohammedans, built mosques and sent mullahs, until the whole people became outwardly Mussulman, although farther from the Russian lines, and nearer the settled populations of Central Asia, the weaker was the faith.” Despite what many outside observers considered a tepid embrace of Islam, most Kazakhs adhered to certain Islamic practices, such as circumcision, hygiene, and burial rituals.
Another feature of this comparison to emphasize is the role that leadership played among the Sioux and the Kazakhs. Americans and Russians frequently misunderstood the sociopolitical structures among the Sioux and the Kazakhs.
The Sioux did not develop a centralized system of governance. The process of fission simply did not allow one to function. The Dakota and Lakota maintained political structures that fluctuated depending on need, such as an external threat or group well-being during communal hunts. Coalitions of different tiyospaye formed and when different subgroups, such as the Hunkpapa and Oglala, camped together, a camp hierarchy followed an order of “camp circles.” When the Lakota and Dakota gathered together to celebrate an event, dance, hunt, or some other need, even if only in part, they maintained a specific camp order and ranking. According to Walker, the order was Teton, Santee, and Yankton/ Yanktonai. Among the Teton, the order was Oglala, Miniconjou, Brulé, Two Kettle, Sans Arc, Blackfoot, and Hunkpapa. American representatives were often confused and frustrated by this hierarchy because it often played out during negotiations with bands and subgroups.
Bands had chiefs, or headmen, but their political authority was limited; and a chief’s principal responsibility was to carry out the will of the band. Authoritarian rule did not exist, nor did simple majority. Governance occurred through negotiation and consensus. There are some examples of leadership through descent; although hereditary right to leadership, or some form of aristocracy, was absent in Sioux society, a son could succeed a father if he had proven himself a capable warrior and exhibited wisdom and generosity. Primarily, a leader needed supporters willing to follow him. The general mechanism by which the Sioux governed themselves was through the tiyospaye councils. These councils appointed important positions, such as the wakiconza (camp administrator) and the akicita. The council included itancan (elders, or, as Catherine Price translates it, “father of the band”); wakicun, which Alanson Skinner translates as “councilors”; and the blotahunka, meaning war leaders. Councils permitted everyone to speak and to express an opinion. Councils did not meet regularly—generally only when an important decision confronted the band or tiyospaye, such as war or negotiations. It was a slow, deliberate process that required unanimity. If the council failed to reach consensus, it typically adjourned and, perhaps more importantly, maintained camp or band social harmony. This meant that authority or political power was never concentrated into a single individual but extended to each member of the tiyospaye. But it also meant that dissent and disagreement often resulted in splintering and fission. One disgruntled member could break away, perhaps taking allies with him to create a new tiyospaye or attract new followers. The akicita enforced the council’s decisions and carried out the disciplinary functions when someone disobeyed; usually akicita were noted warriors and members of warrior societies. The key to leadership was seemingly personal prestige, accumulated by age; demonstrated acts of courage; and the willingness of other Sioux to follow. There were no laws in Sioux society but rather rules that the people understood and collectively enforced. The Kazakhs differed to some extent from the Sioux in their means of governance and enforcement.
The Kazakhs had khans and others who served as leaders of society. Members of an aul or the clan followed those leaders who best protected and represented aul or clan interests. Leaders who served the welfare and survival of the group in the search for pasture or protected them against hostile neighbors attracted followers and support. Political organization at the aul level was extremely fluid but usually was based on genealogical structures. The Kazakhs invested leadership in the aksakal, literally meaning “white beard.” Because an aul usually consisted of many agnatic families, fathers, brothers, uncles, etc., the aksakal was not always the oldest male. Moreover, an aksakal was someone who inspired confidence, rendered justice, and resolved disputes. An aksakal was brave and intelligent, but wealth and social standing also attracted followers, even though they had no tangible kinship. An aksakal’s authority was, accordingto Bacon, “directly proportionate to the willingness of the followers to accept the leader.” Success in war and peace perpetuated one’s rule, but failure meant replacement or abandonment. The aul was an agnatic and politically organic structure that, according to Lindner, was open to all “who were willing to subordinate themselves” to an aksakal. The aksakal typically decided when to move from one pasture to another, often after council with the other males in the aul. In principle, an aksakal could rule in an authoritarian manner, but that might lead to discord and fission. Another leader in Kazakh society was the bii (often translated as judge), who was also easily deposed or discarded by followers if he exhibited poor leadership. The next level of leadership was “sultan,” probably used to identify Kazakhs claiming “white bone” descent and loosely applied to anyone who commanded respect and was considered a strong leader. The khan was the leader of a horde, with an occasional hereditary structure that supported a khan’s selection from father to son. But, again, a khan could both attract and lose supporters easily. Through marriage or some other relationship, it was possible that one khan might rule two different or even all three hordes, but that rarely, if ever, happened. In fact, during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, when Kazakhs most strongly resisted Russian expansion into the steppe, no individual khan united all three hordes to oppose Russian imperialism.