This paper analyzes the Lakota as a people, and one of their most prominent chiefs, Sitting Bull. Based on that analysis, I argue for the importance of community and selflessness. I will examine how the Lakota’s conception of Aristotelian Virtue Theory and community adapts as the result of confrontation and conflict with Western culture. I argue that the Lakota conceive of their community as greater than the sum of its parts, and pursue their cardinal virtues, bravery, fortitude, charity, and wisdom, for the benefit of their community. I farther argue that their ideas about community and virtue are what helped them survive life on the Plains, wars with the United States Army, and the reservation system. However, as a result of their forced settlement on the reservation, the Lakota could not display the same virtuous behavior as they had while following the buffalo on the Plains. Therefore, they adopted new practices to fit their new lifestyle that still made it possible to peruse their cultural virtues. I also argue that Sitting Bull played a major role in the redefinition and preservation of the Lakota community and virtue theory.

In the first chapter, After a brief historical survey of Lakota life and history, I examine their political organization and the way they structured their communities, as well as their social relationships. I then follow with an examination of their virtue-based ethical theory. I make the argument that bravery, fortitude, charity, and wisdom helped the Lakota survive as a community on the Plains and were, therefore, adopted as the cardinal virtues of their society. I then detail how they practiced each virtue while they lived on the Plains. I then argue that the Lakota’s community and virtue theory changed as the result of contact with Westerners, first through trade, and then through war as a result of western expansion into land the Lakota claimed.

The second chapter is an intellectual biography of Sitting Bull. I examine different events in his life starting when he was a young boy and moving through his life until his eventual surrender to the US government and moving his people onto the reservation system in 1881. Each event in his life highlights a development in his philosophy, which changed and matured throughout his life. From a young age Sitting Bull was the epitome of the Lakota warrior. However, as he matured his motivation for acting virtuously changed and he became disillusioned by the individualistic turn that Lakota virtue theory was taking. I argue that Sitting Bull’s philosophy developed as a traditionalist reaction against changes in interpretations of Lakota virtue theory. Each event that I examine either marks a change or is evidence of a change in his philosophy. I assert that Sitting Bull wanted his community to return to conceiving of the virtues as beneficial for the community, rather than merely for the individual.

In the third chapter, I argue in favor of the Lakota conception of community as opposed to western conceptions of a community. Specifically, I argue in favor of communitarianism’s conception of a community over Rawlsian liberalism’s conception of a community. By examining the Lakota’s experience with the Dawes Act of 1887 and the Ghost Dance that followed, I argue that Rawlsian liberalism fails in places with scarce resources. I assert that the difference between places with scarce resources and places with plentiful resources is one of degree, rather than one of kind. No place has truly abundant resources, and therefore, there is no place where Rawlsian liberalism can be absolutely successful. I argue that communitarian community theory is successful in places with scarce resources, where Rawlsian liberal community theory fails.

In the final chapter, I examine Charles Eastman’s pragmatic philosophy. I frame it as a continuation and new interpretation of traditional Lakota philosophy. I argue that Eastman adapted traditional Lakota pragmatic philosophy into a western context. I then compare his philosophy to that of his western contemporaries in the burgeoning American pragmatic school of philosophy, including William James. I go on to argue that the pragmatic philosophy, which Eastman articulated, was what helped the Lakota retain their community and their virtues on the Reservation System. By pragmatically adapting how they practiced their virtues and interacted with their community, the Lakota were able to preserve their culture in their new environment.


Schiltz, Elizabeth

Second Advisor

Roche, Jeff


History; Philosophy

Publication Date


Degree Granted

Bachelor of Arts

Document Type

Senior Independent Study Thesis



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