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Lessons 5
Lewis and Clark and Native Americans, Part I

Learning Objectives

Students will:

  • Identify the structure of the Dakota Nation including the Seven Council Fires;
  • Explore the relationship between the Corps of Discovery and the Lakota;
  • Examine the conflict between the two parties from varied points of view.


This lesson correlates to the national McREL standards located online at

United States History

Standard 9: Understands the United States territorial expansion between 1801 and 1861, and how it affected relations with external powers and Native Americans.


NOTE: Adobe Acrobat. Is required to download activity/quiz sheets.

Time Needed

One or two 45-minute class periods


The Dakota were divided into seven divisions and joined in an alliance called the Seven Council Fires. The Seven Council Fires included the Teton, who are the Lakota, the Ihanktonwan, and Ihanktonna, known as the Yankton Nakota and Mdewankanton, Wahpeton, Sisseton, and Wapekute the Santee Dakota. Spoken dialects were Lakota, Nakota and Dakota. (See the Lesson 5 Student Activity Sheet: Political Organization of the Seven Council Fires.) The seven Dakota tribes lived in Western Minnesota in the 1700's.

During this time, the Lakota became so numerous, that seven subdivisions of the Teton Lakota arose and moved back onto the Plains. The Yankton Nakota, the Ihanktonwan and Ihanktonwanna were geographically located between the Santee

Dakota and Teton Lakota. The Santee Dakota remained in Minnesota. Geographically, the tribes moved apart because of economic reasons and to defend their frontiers.

Teton is a collective term that identifies the Lakota. The Tetons were made up of seven subdivisions. These subdivisions included the Oglala, Sicangu, Hunkpapa, Miniconju, Sihasapa, Oonhenunpa, and itazipco; it is important to note that despite many cultural similarities, each subdivision has qualities unique to its group. For example, a music study done on the Standing Rock Reservation using the song of the Hunkpapa and putting them in a book called Teton Sioux Music would not be clear representation of all Teton music because other Teton tribes may have their own versions of the same music. (Powers, p.13)

According to Royal B. Hassrick in the The Sioux , there is no record of when the Seven Council Fires organized. The Sioux, also known as the Dakota, regarded the tribe as seven united divisions, never as separate entities. In practice, each division of the Sioux Nation was an independent system capable of functioning independently of the tribe, and each had a headmen or Chief. Yet, each division was under the authority of four chiefs, known as Shirt Wearers. (Hassrick, p.7)

The entire Dakota Nation assembled each summer to hold a council. The annual meeting symbolized the cohesiveness of the nation. All gathered at a great camp to renew old acquaintances, to decide political matters, and to have a Sun Dance. The Sun Dance was the ultimate of spiritual expression. During the annual assembly, the four great leaders of the Nation met deliberated. They formulated national policy and sat in judgment of offenses against national unity and security. They approved or derived actions taken by the headmen of the separate divisions during the past year.


Hassrick, Royal B. (1982). The Sioux. University of Oklahoma Press: Norman.
Powers, William. Oglala Religion. University of Nebraska Press: Lincoln.
Sneve, Virginia Driving Hawk. (1975). They Led a Nation: The Sioux Chiefs. Bevet Press, Inc.: Sioux Falls.
Walker, James R. Lakota Society. University of Nebraska Press: Lincoln.

Helpful resources include the Archive, Native Americans, and Inside the Corps sections of this Web site.

Teaching Strategy

  1. Explain to students that during the Lewis and Clark expedition, the Corps of Discovery traveled through many places that although new to them, had been inhabited by others, primarily Native Americans, for centuries. Show students on a map where the Dakota lived. (See Background Information above or the map in the Native American section of this Web site.) One group they encountered were the Lakota (sometimes referred to as Sioux), a tribe that had established territorial boundaries and zealously protected these lands. Misunderstandings and hostilities arose between Lewis and Clark and the Lakota.

  2. Distribute copies of the Lesson 5 Student Activity Sheet (or make an overhead transparency) and the Lesson 5 Quiz to each student. Using the Background Material section of this lesson as a guide, explain the organization of the Seven Council Fires. Have students listen carefully for the answers to the Lesson 5 Quiz and fill this information in on their worksheets.

  3. Show students the segment of Lewis and Clark: The Journey of the Corps of Discovery that tells of a tense confrontation between the members of the expedition and the Lakota people (Part I, 00:39:25-00:48:45).

    Before starting the clip, tell the students that when the Corps of Discovery entered Lakota territory, the tribe was the most powerful force on the Great Plains. Ask the students to listen for what the Corps of Discovery said to the Lakota chiefs during their meeting and to watch carefully for what happened afterwards.

  4. Divide students into groups of three or four. Have some groups discuss the confrontation presented in the video from the perspective of the Corps of Discovery, and the other groups from the perspective of the Lakota. Instruct each group to identify why the Corps or the Lakota reacted or behaved as they did. Students should be prepared to justify their ideas.

  5. Pair groups representing each side of the conflict, and have the groups take turns explaining their point of view. As the first group presents, the other group should listen attentively and not interrupt. Then the second group should restate what they have just heard to confirm understanding. The first group should then either confirm or clarify the restatement of their position. Once it is apparent that the first group's perspective has been clearly communicated and understood, the groups should reverse roles.

  6. Debrief in a discussion with the entire class. How might the conflict between the two parties been avoided or reduced? What does the conflict suggest about the explorers’ attitudes and assumptions about the territories they visited? What does the interaction suggest about Native Americans’ knowledge of explorers and people outside of their ethnic circles?

Online Resources

    Circle of Stories


    Seth Eastman: Painting the Dakota

    Matters of Race

    The West

    See Online Resources in this site’s Archive section for additional information about Native Americans

Assessment Recommendations

It is recommended that student quizzes be collected and graded. Students could be evaluated on their level of participation and cooperation in the group activity, and on the ideas and supporting details presented by their group.


Students can:

  • debate whether the Corps of Discovery should have crossed the Great Plains.

  • investigate the "Shirt Wearers" or the four Dakota nation leaders their.

  • research leaders of the Dakota nation, such as Sitting Bull, Red Cloud, Spotted Tail, Little Crow, Gall, and Crazy Horse, noting, for example, their leadership style. challenges they encountered to protect their land, and unique accomplishments.

  • create a mural that visually tells the story of the confrontation between the Corps and the Lakota.

  • discuss the role of the media in creating and/or perpetuating stereotypes and perceptions about the Lakota people and other Native Americans.

  • study the present-day status of the Lakota people and/or other Native American groups.