This photo from 1891 is said to depict four widows of the late Sitting Bull. Image: Library of Congress

James Giago Davies: Dominant society destroyed our Lakota matriarchy

Christian morality destroyed cultural concept of sister-wives

What made the Lakota matriarchy work?
By James Giago Davies
Native Sun News Columnist

Much of the unwillingness to place the Lakota matriarchy in its rightful place historically, and culturally, comes from the restructuring of Lakota society after the matriarchy was forcibly abolished. We do not have to defend the correctness or morality of matriarchal social practice, to understand why it was practiced, and in what ways it served the traditional Lakota tiospaye.

Polygamous, patriarchal societies are the norm of Western culture, and this is certainly the culture we as Americans have been raised to accept and practice. No tribe has been legally able to maintain the matriarchal network of sister-wives that held the old tiospaye together. Just as the practice of Lakota spirituality was declared illegal after government directed reservation life became the working model, so, too, families were split asunder to meet the moral dictates of Wasicu propriety.

For tens of thousands of years, the tiospaye developed to survive in an unforgiving world. A cohesive bond needed to be formed, so even when trouble was at its worst, this social structure was at its best, giving the people the coordinated resolve to withstand internal and external threats.


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Men were still the chiefs, the warriors, and it was men who circled the council fires, and made the tough calls. But women could, and did, critically influence those decisions. Networks of sister-wives policed tribal behavior by applying the shun. A liar, a cheat, a bully, soon found no one talking to him, and he was shunned until it was determined he was remorseful for his bad act. In this way children did not need to be spanked, and adults did not require threats or violence to correct bad behavior.

If you took a wife, you joined her band, so the tiospaye gained a warrior, and kept the daughter to help fill the ranks of the matriarchy. The husband could then marry other daughters, and these would generally come to the tiospaye of the First Wife, thereby bolstering the strength of the family unit and expanding the matriarchy. A child had many adults concerned with his behavior and welfare, watchdogging and disciplining through shunning. The ability to comprehensively apply the shun was paramount to its effectiveness as a tool to regulate bad behavior.

It wasn’t that historical Lakota people were better than us. They were petty, jealous, vindictive, dishonest, malicious, just like today, but the shun was developed over tens of thousands of years to minimize those visceral tendencies. There was no order without the shun, and there was no shun without the matriarchy, and there was no matriarchy without the network of sister-wives.

Any attempt to reintroduce any aspect of that traditional social order would not only be unwelcome by the dominant culture, it would be rejected by the reservation culture, and in any event, it would be illegal. Modern Lakota women do not want to share their man with a sister-wife, and since no sister-wife network can be maintained, no tiospaye can be formed, no shunning can prevent the breakdown of order, or of violence and treachery from targeting the vulnerable.

That is the reality, separate from the morality, because even if we assert that the dominant culture’s notion of a polygamous patriarchy is moral, and the sister-wife matriarchy is immoral, nothing destroyed the Lakota way of life, even the most beautiful and vital aspects, like the bull-in-the-china-shop destruction of an ancient, time-tested social order, the matriarchy.

James Giago Davies is an enrolled member of the Oglala Lakota tribe. He can be reached at

Copyright permission Native Sun News Today

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