Sioux kinship – a trust lesson in Community Mindset for us all

Photo by Dr. Nicky Belle, Indiana University Bloomington

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“Trust is like the air we breathe – when it’s present, nobody really notices; when it’s absent, everybody notices.”

Warren Buffett

Trust is essential for survival, especially in a time of crisis. Every continent has now been affected by the coronavirus since it was declared as a pandemic by WHO in March 20201.
In this article, I am interested in looking at sources of strength based on different frameworks of trust. My core thesis for this piece is: Trust, as an inherent element of social relations, is exemplified by kinship (Krawinkler 2013:26). By providing cross-cultural insights on trust and kinship, I intend to give new impulses to epistemologies, different ways of acquiring knowledge and start an equitable dialogue on the interconnectivity of society. This intercultural notion can provide fresh insights and connections in times of need. Ultimately, I am trying to increase the convergence of equivalence of different stories by promoting cultural and societal inclusiveness.

A large body of literature from various fields offers different definitions and interpretations of trust.2 Even though it is impossible to pinpoint a single meaning, one might agree that it is an encompassing glue necessary for the cohesion of human society or as Luhmann might put it, to “reduce social complexity” (1988:236). According to Dietz, trust is cultural and universal (2011: 15). Trust constitutes a fundamental aspect of any relationship, may it be in one’s personal life and or in the professional life within an organization, influencing all aspects of the private and public sectors. Trust is crucial to our life by enabling us to thrive. Nevertheless, trust is fragile and comes with an inherent risk (Luhmann 1968). One may be betrayed and deceived. “Trust is not [the] taking [of] risk per se, but rather it is a willingness to take risk” (Mayer et al. 1995:712). Despite its intrinsic fragility, it continues to be integral for the cohesion of society. Consequently it is of uttermost importance.

The concept of kinship, elaborated by Sioux scholar Ella C. Deloria, offers great insights onto the functions of kinships as a social network and a way to organize individuals into social groups (1990, 1998). While I was a graduate student at Indiana University, USA, Raymond DeMallie was my advisor. Anyone who has worked in the field of kinship and is interested in Sioux Indians of the Great Plains3 is most likely to have come across DeMallie’s work. This is why I would like to draw on the Sioux4 kinship system to further my argument.

Ella C. Deloria worked alongside Franz Boas, a German-born American anthropologist, during the first half of the twentieth century. Deloria wrote extensively about the importance of kinship, the rights, obligations and privileges associated with it. As written in the preface of Deloria’s book Waterlily, the Sioux concept of kinship meant “achieving civility, good manners, and a sense of responsibility toward every individual dealt with. Thus only was it possible to live communally with success….(1990:X)”

Relation is an all encompassing feature throughout Sioux culture. It is important to note that Sioux kinship and, hence, the network of relatives resulting from the kin group is not only based on the nuclear family but goes far beyond. Also, these relationships do not have to be biologically related5. “These extended siblings and these cousins constitute your generation (…). Through them, you have actual and potential relatives practically everywhere you go” (Deloria 1998:26). Furthermore, as DeMallie stresses, Sioux kinship is not to be understood within the boundaries of social structures but also cultural and spiritual structures, since kinship was given as a gift from wakan tanka, the great spirits” (1994:127).

This interconnectedness described by Deloria, in addition to the collectivistic understanding of one’s persona as being tied to the group provides one with not only an outlook on life itself but also a place of belonging, security, support and a connection to the spiritual world. Although the concept of Sioux kinship as an overarching social organization for community might have changed over the years and been replaced by other concepts based on blood and race (DeMallie 2009:185), “the moral sense underlying community as a social unit” has pretty much prevailed (DeMallie 2009:202).6

This close-knit kinship system differs significantly from the Euro-Western kinship system. Western societies tend to define themselves as individualistic cultures, valuing their personal needs over that of the group. In addition, the social network of kinship is usually defined by one’s immediate family7. At the same time, trust in family, religious institutions and the state seem to deteriorate. Therefore, the loss of trust along with the shrinking of the community creates new places of belonging through other chosen networks8.

During this lockdown, our sense of community and relationship with others has changed. Due to the rules of physical distancing, people have remained confined to their homes while not being able to spend time with others outside the family unit, which has caused a lot of stress for each and every one of us. However, this pandemic is a wake-up call for all of us. It is teaching us to learn from the characteristics of the Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity (VUCA)9 world first hand. The attributes of VUCA demonstrate that unpredictability will remain constant10. It is no longer possible to predict the future in a linear fashion. An agile mindset has become crucial to adapt to this VUCA reality. In addition to making “uncertainty the new normal”, I believe that we have much to learn from the communal ways described above. Even in these current hardships, we have seen niches of mindfulness as well as kindness appear, may it be in the form of helping neighbors or providing mutual assistance and support. Across the world, online platforms and technology, in general, are being used to ease loneliness while staying connected.

It is an opportunity for all of us to realize that we are interconnected with each other. Moreover we have a responsibility toward each other, as the virus does not know any borders. What is masked is not the individual per se, but the willingness to look out for each other collectively. Hopefully, this sense of responsibility and looking out for each other will prevail even after the pandemic has been surmounted. If trust permeates these engagements to create strong and sustainable communities, relationships can flourish. Through this connection, people will feel less lonely but truly connected because they will know that someone cares about them. Although this is contrary to Hamilton’s rule of kinship and altruism (1964), applying a Sioux framework while reminding us of the importance of community might help society at large. Mediating a long-term change by fostering a “community mindset” will have the biggest social impact not just on us but the society at large. We should be the change we wish to see!

1 Antarctica is the last continent where people have been infected with Covid-19 in December 2020. For more information, please visit the website of the Global Cases by the Center for Systems Science and Engineering (CSSE) at Johns Hopkins University (JHU).
2 Simmel (1992), a philosophical and sociological point of view on the social forms of trust ;Durkheim (2013) , a sociological perspective on trust and mistrust being mutually complimentarity; Luhmann (1988), a sociological perspective on differences between personal and system trust and Erikson (1998); a psylogical perspective on the psychosocial development of trust.
3 More information in Handbook of North American Indians 13: Plains. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution.
4 There are seven related Sioux tribes.
5 Thiwáhe, the immediate family, thiyóšpaye, the extended family, and oyáte, the tribe, all represent relatives that are held together through the bond of kinship. Through the ceremony of hunkápi outsiders could be adopted and would no longer be strangers.
6 Also see Spencer-Oatey (2007) on personal (individual) and social (group and collective) identity.
7 nuclear family
8 Also look at computer-mediated communication as a way to build networks.
9 For more information on VUCA, please look at
10 Also look at Hofstede (2005) and Ting-Toomey (2009) on aspects of uncertainty avoidance.

Dr. Noémie Hermeking holds a Ph.D. in sociocultural anthropology from Indiana University in Bloomington, USA and an M.A. in social anthropology and ethnology from l´École des hautes études en sciences sociales (EHESS) in Paris. She has done extensive research with Indigenous communities both in Canada and the USA. After her return to Germany, she is currently working as an intercultural trainer, project manager to empower disadvantaged youth and lecturer at the Eberhard Karls University of Tübingen.


Deloria, Ella Cara, 1998 (1994) Speaking of Indians. Lincoln, Ne: Bison Books.

Deloria, Ella Cara, 1990 Waterlily Linclon, Ne: Bison Books.

DeMallie, Raymond J., with Alfonso Ortiz, 1994 North American Indian Anthropology: Essays on Society and Culture. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.

DeMallie, Raymond J., 2009 Community in Native America: Continuity and Change among the Sioux in Journal de la société des américanistes 95 (1) :185-205.

Dietz, Graham, 2011 Going back to the source: Why do people trust each other? in Journal of Trust Research 1 (2): 215-222.

Durkheim, Émile, 2013 Les règles de la méthode sociologique. Paris: Puf.

Erikson, Erik H., with Joan M. Erikson, 1998 The Life Cycle Completed: Extended Version. W. W. Norton.

Handbook of North American Indians 13: Plains. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution.

Hofstede, Geert, with Gert J. Hofstede, 2005 Cultures and organizations: Software of the mind . New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.

Hamilton, William D., 1964 The Genetical Evolution of Social Behaviour in Journal of Theoretical Biology. 7 (1): 1–16. 

Krawinkler, Stephanie A., 2013 Trust is a choice: Prolegomena of Anthropology of Trust(s). Heidelberg: Carl Auer Verlag.

Luhmann, Niklas, 1968  Vertrauen. Ein Mechanismus der Reduktion sozialer Komplexität. Stuttgart: F. Enke Verlag.

Luhmann, Niklas, 1988 Soziale Systeme. Grundriß einer allgemeinen Theorie. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Verlag.

Mayer, Roger C., with James H. Davis and F. David Schoorman, 1995 An Integrative Model of Organizational Trust in The Academy of Management Review 20 (3) :709-734.

Simmel, Georg, 1992 Soziologie. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp.

Spencer-Oatey, Helen, 2007 Theories of Identity and the Analysis of Face in Journal of Pragmatics 39(4):639-656.

Ting-Toomey, Stella, 2009 Anxiety/uncertainty management theory. in S. W. Littlejohn, & K. A. Foss (Ed.). Encyclopedia of communication theory 1:36-38. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

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