By the beginning of the sixteenth century the Teton and other members of the Oceti Sakowin had established themselves on the headwaters of the Mississippi River, where they lived in semisedentary villages raising maize, squash, and beans and supplementing their diets by hunting and fishing. They were first encountered by Jean Nicolet, who named them "Sioux," a French corruption of an Algonkian word, Nadowesiih, meaning "snakes" or "enemies," which, despite its prevalent use in historical and anthropological literature, is a derogatory term.
After wars with Cree and Ojibwa enemies, who by 1750 were better armed through European contact, some of the Oceti Sakowin began migrating onto the prairies and plains. Within a generation they became acclimated to a nomadic, bison-hunting way of life. By this date they also had obtained horses from the Arikara and other riverine tribes and soon became adapted to an equestrian way of life.
Although the term Lakota translates as "allied" or "affiliated," early observers reported that when the Tetons were not fighting other tribes, they were fighting each other. By 1778, according to their own hide-painted calendars known as Winter counts, they had chased out almost all aboriginal inhabitants of the Black Hills region except the Cheyenne and Arapaho and had taken over the land as their own.
The Teton are also known for various skirmishes and battles with the U.S. government during the Indian wars of the 1860s and 1870s. Most notable of these was the Battle of the Little Big Horn, or "Custer's Last Stand," when on June 25, 1876, Custer and most of the Seventh Cavalry were annihilated by a combined force of Tetons, Cheyennes, and Arapahos. Most infamous was the Wounded Knee Massacre of December 19, 1890, where 260 men, women, and children mainly of Big Foot's band were massacred by remnants of Custer's Seventh and Ninth Cavalries during the Ghost Dance movement of 1889-1890. The names of great Teton leaders include Red Cloud, Crazy Horse, Sitting Bull, Rain in the Face, Gall, American Horse, and Young Man Afraid of Horse.