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The Hunkpapa was one of the seven tribal divisions or oyate of the Teton Sioux. The name Hunkpapa translates as Head of the Camp Circle, and reflects the position assigned this important division within the ancient Teton camp layout. The positions flanking the east facing entrance to the camp were accorded to brave warriors, and the Hunkpapas were justly proud of the distinction.

Like the other Teton tribes, the Hunkpapas comprised a number of smaller units. Extended families were called tiwahe and were cored around an elder male, and the nuclear families of his sons, brothers and in-laws. Several related tiwahe comprised a larger unit, the tiyospaye or band, typically 50 to 100 people strong. At times of scarcity a band might hunt and travel alone, but for much of the year it co-operated with one or more other bands, travelling as an organized camp or wicoti. Bands constituting a camp were conceived as relatives, and often had budded away from a parent stem through population growth. The senior band was accorded a loose primacy and its elder usually presided at feasts and councils, acting as group spokesman. Such men were perceived by Euro-Americans as ‘chiefs’, but political control was widely disseminated through the camp organization.

An assembly of elders typically validated group decisions, which were implemented by the camp police or akicita. These were drawn from the class of braves, men with an established war record. In a typical camp of 50 or so lodges there might be ten or so serving akicita, who acted under council orders to co-ordinate camp movements and collective hunt operations. They were granted powers to punish offenders against hunt rules. For several weeks or months in the summer the massing of buffalo herds for the rutting season permitted the assembly of larger social units.

The Hunkpapas, often hosting smaller tribal divisions like the Sihasapa (Blackfoot Sioux) and the Itazipco (Sans Arcs) as guests, raised a tribal camp circle – the cangleska wakan or sacred hoop – in which each camp and band was assigned a place. Camp councils met as a tribal body. Warriors from distant bands belonged to societies like the Tokala (Kit-Fox) and the Cante Tinza (Strong Hearts), which staged club renewals within the sacred hoop. One warrior society was appointed as a tribal akicita force.

Between 1834 and 1850 the Strong Hearts were usually chosen as police, and their spokesman Little Bear was recognized as the Hunkpapa tribal headman. In 1851 population growth and increasing American demands for accountable leaders led the Hunkpapas to select four tribal Shirt Wearers – principal chiefs invested with ceremonial hair-fringed shirts. The men picked – Red Horn, Four Horns, Loud-Voiced Hawk, and Running Antelope – were chosen for their ability to balance the agendas of elders and warriors. In a world of mounting tension with the expansionist U.S.A., this was an increasingly awkward balance to maintain.

The Hunkpapa sacred hoop was integrated by religion as well as politics. The highlight of each summer was the Sun Dance, a ceremony that celebrated the renewal of the earth and the strength and unity of the people. For almost forty years Hunkpapa Sun Dances were orchestrated by a revered holy man, Dreamer of the Sun. Charismatic and authoritative, he like the Shirt Wearers balanced unusual gifts: penetrating vision, ritual knowledge, songcraft, and organizational flair. He passed on his knowledge and teachings to younger men, such as Black Moon and Red Weasel, who carried the tribe’s Sun Dance traditions into the reservation world at Standing Rock. That proud tradition underpins the ceremonial heritage of today’s Standing Rock people. By the time of the establishment of Standing Rock Agency in the aftermath of the Treaty of 1868 the sacred hoop of the Hunkpapa tribe comprised as many as nine organized camps. An early missionary obtained a complete list and the order assigned to the camps within the Hunkpapa tribal circle.

Beginning with the position at the south side of the camp entrance, and continuing clockwise around the circle to the north side, the camps were ordered as follows: 1. Canka Ohan, Sore-Backs (of horses). Principal tiwahe: Running Antelope, Cross Bear. 2. Ce Ohba, Droopy Penis. Principal tiwahe: Little Bear, Long Soldier, Bear Ribs I and II, Bear Face, Iron Horn, Rain in the Face. 3. Tinazipe Sica, Bad Bows. Principal tiwahe: Sitting Bull, Four Horns, Black Moon. 4. Talonapin, Raw Meat Necklace. Principal tiwahe: Big Prairie Chicken, Charging Thunder, Spotted Horn Bull, Crow King, Scattering Bear, Long Dog, Iron Dog, Gall. 5. Kiglaska, Tied in the Middle. Principal tiwahe: (possibly) No Neck, Catch the Bear. 6. Ceknake Okisela, Half Breechcloth. Principal tiwahe: Little Prairie Chicken. 7. Siksicela, Bad Ones. Principal tiwahe: not known. 8. Wakan, Sacred. Principal tiwahe: Long Horn. 9. Hunska Canto-Juha, Legging Tobacco Pouch. Principal tiwahe: not known. According to the Standing Rock informants of historian Stanley Vestal, whose biography of Sitting Bull and other writings are major contributions to Sioux history, the nine camps were grouped into two major tribal sub-divisions. These two maximal bands were called: (a) Icira, which Vestal’s informants translated as the “Band that separated & went together again.” (b) Canka Ohan, or Sore-Backs (of horses). The Icira comprised bands 3-7 in the list above. Vestal sought detailed information on this group because it included Sitting Bull and his relatives. On Sitting Bull’s band affiliation he learned that it was “called the Bad Bows Band. Sometimes called Icira because Sitting Bull was chief of Icira & they joined [the] Bad Bows Band – Sitting Bull became chief”. Vestal devoted less inquiry to the second group, but the Sore-Backs undoubtedly comprised bands 1, 2, and possibly 8 and 9 in the list above. We know that bands 1 and 2 were connected because two of the leading tiwahe were led by men who called each other ‘brother’ – Bear Ribs I and Running Antelope. Vestal’s observations are important because the two big divisions seem to have developed distinct political positions in relation to the Americans. The Icira division, which probably ranged further west, was opposed to American expansion and would take a lead in the Great Sioux War of 1876-77. The Sore-Backs division, whose hunting grounds were further east along the Missouri River, took a more peaceful attitude and its bands first settled at Standing Rock Agency.

After 1881 when the Sioux exiles from the Great Sioux War returned from Canada, the Icira were reunited with their relatives and the Hunkpapa tribe established a permanent home on the Standing Rock Reservation.

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