The Sauks recognized any number of nature-related spirits, or manitous, the most important of which were Wisaka, founder of the Medicine Dance, and those connected with the four directions. People might gain the attention and assistance of the manitous by offering tobacco, blackening their faces with charcoal, fasting, and wailing. A vision quest at puberty was meant to attract manitous. Those who obtained especially powerful spirits assembled a medicine pack or bundle; certain packs represented spiritual power that affected and were the property of entire lineages.
The Midewiwin, or Medicine Dance, was a key ceremony. Others included Green Corn, Naming, and Adoption. In the last, there was a formal adoption to replace a family member who had died. The calumet, or sacred pipe, played a key role in all solemn activities, including peace negotiations. A head shaman instructed others in curing, in hunting, and in agricultural and other ceremonies.
The Sauks were divided into bands or villages, of fluid composition, that came together as one unit in the summer. There was also a dual peace and war political division. A hereditary, clan-based village peace chief held authority over gatherings, treaties, peace councils, intertribal negotiations, and rituals. In return for access to his property, the people regularly gave him gifts. Two war chiefs were chosen by other warriors on the basis of merit, although there may have been a hereditary component. The war chief commanded the camp police and presided over war councils.
Sauks recognized about twelve patrilineal clans. Membership in the dual division—peace/white and war/black—was determined by birth order. Birth took place in special lodges in the company of only women; the mother remained subject to special post-partum restrictions for up to a year or more. An elderly relative named a baby from the stock of clan names. As adults, people might acquire additional, nonclan names as a result of dreams or warfare.
Parents rarely engaged in corporal punishment of their children. At the onset of puberty, girls were secluded for ten days and were subject to various other restrictions. Boys marked puberty by undertaking a vision quest. Girls also sought visions, although not in seclusion. Vermilion face paint indicated adult status.
Marriages were generally arranged by the couple and were formalized when the families exchanged gifts. The couple lived with the wife's family for a year before establishing their own household. Some men had more than one wife.
Burial took place after various rituals had been performed. Warriors might be buried in a sitting position. All people were buried in their finest clothing and wrapped in bark or mats with their feet toward the west. The mourning period lasted for at least six months, during which time mourners were subject to a variety of behavioral restrictions.
Summer villages were located near fields in river bottoms. At least in the early nineteenth century, almost the entire tribe assembled at the summer villages. Each summer house was an economic unit as well. Extended families of some ten people lived in houses about fifty feet long and twenty feet wide and covered with elm bark. Houses were oriented in an east-west direction and were built in parallel rows, with an open game and ceremonial area between the rows. Villages were moved when firewood became scarce or when attacks forced the people to move. In their winter camps, people lived in small, dome-shaped wigwams covered with reed mats and skins and located in sheltered river valleys. The camps ranged in size from one or two families to an entire band.
Women grew corn, beans, squash, and tobacco. They also gathered a number of wild plant foods, including nuts, honey, berries, fruits, and tubers. Men hunted a variety of large and small game, especially deer, as well as buffalo until about 1820. The Sauks mined and traded lead. They also exported corn. They imported deer tallow, feathers, and beeswax. Water transportation was by bark and dugout canoe. Clothing was made of skin and furs and consisted mainly of breechcouts, dresses, leggings, and moccasins. The people decorated their clothing with quillwork and paint. Body tattooing and painting were common.
The Sauks may once have been united with the Foxes and the Kickapoos. The Anishinabes and/or the Iroquois pushed the Sauks out of eastern Michigan and toward the lower Fox River sometime in the late sixteenth or early seventeenth century. French explorers arrived around 1667.
The Sauks got along well with the British. They also maintained good relations with the French until they began sheltering the Foxes and other French enemies. Fox Indians fleeing the French took refuge with the Sauks in 1733, beginning an alliance that lasted until the 1850s. At that time, the Sauks and Foxes moved away from the Green Bay area into eastern Iowa. They moved back to northern Illinois and southern Michigan after peace with the French was established in 1737.
In 1769 the Sauks, Foxes, and other tribes, under pressure from the French as well as the Menominees and Anishinabes, dealt a permanent defeat to the Illinois tribes. At that point the Sauks and Foxes moved south and west into some of the Illinois tribes' former territory. Later they headed back into Iowa, where they adapted rapidly to a prairie/plains existence, becoming highly capable buffalo hunters. Their parties traveled far to the west of the Mississippi in search of the herds. They also continued to grow corn.
In 1804, one Sauk band (the Missouri band) ceded all tribal lands, although they claimed they were ceding only a small parcel of land. The action was not binding, however, because the tribal council, in whom authority for land cessions was vested, refused to ratify the treaty. Anger over this treaty on the part of the rest of the Sauk people forced the Missouri band to remain separate from the main group, ultimately settling on the eastern border of Kansas and Nebraska.
The Sauks took an active part in Little Turtle's War (1790–1794), but most remained neutral in Tecumseh's Rebellion (1809–1811). They sided with the British in the War of 1812. After the war, the Sauks divided into two factions. Black Hawk headed the anti-United States band, which refused to accept the treaty of 1804, and Keokuk headed the accommodationist party. In the 1820s, the United States exercised an increasingly important role in Sauk internal politics, ultimately vesting Keokuk as tribal chief, a man with no hereditary claim to the position.
Black Hawk's War (1832) resulted directly from the controversy over the 1804 treaty. Black Hawk (Makataimeshekiakiak), a Saukenuk (Rock Island) Sauk leader, attempted to form a pan-Indian alliance to defend his homeland against illegal non-Native usurpation. Despite the fact that Keokuk had agreed to relocate west of the Mississippi, Black Hawk and his people were determined to occupy their own lands. Some fighting ensued, after which the Sauks decided to retreat beyond the Mississippi. However, a U.S. steamer caught up with and shelled the Indians, many of whom were women and children, as they attempted to cross the river in rafts, slaughtering hundreds. Black Hawk himself surrendered several months later. Following his release from prison in 1833, he toured several cities and dictated his autobiography.
The Sauks and Foxes soon defeated Dakota warriors in Iowa (who had themselves killed many of the survivors of the Mississippi shelling) and occupied their land. Over the next few years, the factions hardened, and relations became strained with the Foxes, who resented the United States–backed Keokuk's control over the tribe. In 1842, the people were forced to cede their lands in Iowa and were relocated to a reservation in Kansas. They were joined by some members of the Missouri band at that time. Most Foxes returned to Iowa in the late 1850s. In 1867, the Sauks were forced into Indian Territory (Oklahoma). In 1890, most of the reservation was allotted in severalty, with the rest, almost 400,000 acres, opened to non-Native settlement.
Eleven clans remain in existence. Education will increase the number of people who speak the Native language, now estimated at about 200. Many traditions continue, including seasonal ceremonies, adoptions, and naming. Most people are Christians, but many adhere to the Native American Church. The tribe maintains its own police and court system. It publishes the Sac and Fox News. Local groundwater has been contaminated by oil. There is an annual all-Indian stampede and rodeo. Most of the Kansas Sauks are acculturated and assimilated into the local economy.