How the Lakota Became Cowboys – Sex on the Great Plains

After hunting bison for centuries, the Lakota suddenly switched to cattle in the late 19th century. Why did they hunt cattle? Why was it crucial to maintaining the gender norms of Lakota men, women, and those Two-Spirit folk called the winkte? And why was the cattle hunt their last best hope for survival?

Special thanks to Dr. Jeff Means, Dr. Jon Cleland Host, and Neil McKay for help in the preparation of this series. Episode theme music courtesy of the Battling Sioux Singers.

Don’t forget to subscribe, rate, and review. Support the show on Patreon at Research, writing, editing, and production by B. T. Newberg. Logo Design by Rachel Westhoff. Additional credits, references, and more at


[sounds of the prairie and cattle lowing]

The summer sun burns hot on the plain. Insects whiz from pasqueflower to pasqueflower. A herd of hundreds of cattle grazes on clumps of blue grama prairie grass.

Branded into the beasts’ rumps is a peculiar symbol: a circle with two branch-like wings. Locals know it as the “Flying O.” Does it mark the property of some frontier rancher? The living wealth of some vast cattle baron?

No, this is the mark of a people for whom this is no frontier, and for whom these cattle mean something very, very different.

Suddenly, the cows’ eyes shoot wide. Ears perk up. Hooves stomp warily. Something is coming, or someone.

[sound of galloping horses]

Over a ridge crests a party of riders. They raise high their rifles and bows and shout war cries. The lumbering beasts dart, and the stampede begins.

[sounds of the hunt]

With practiced hands the riders guide the fleeing cattle, corralling them to keep the herd together. When the moment is right, they move in for the kill.

As the beasts go down, children watch with awe as men earn honor by deed. Men are men again. Meanwhile, women move in to skin the creatures. They harvest not only the meat but also the hides essential to the craftsmanship that will bring them honor. Women are women again.

But his is no callous slaughter. This is life sustaining life. As the heartbeat of the beasts fade, another beats stronger. Generations can be heard in that life-beat. This is a prayer, and an answer to a prayer. For to these people, this is their last best hope to save a way of life.

This is the cattle hunt of the Lakota.

(adapted from Means, 2001, p. 8)

[sounds fade to silence]

Wait… the cattle hunt of the Lakota? Shouldn’t that be bison? That B. T. Newberg guy must be really off his rocker this time.

No, it’s true. For about two decades in the late 19th century, the Lakota became cowboys, albeit of a very different sort.

Why did the Lakota hunt cattle? Why was it crucial to maintaining the gender norms of Lakota men, women, and those Two-Spirit folk, the winkte? And why was the cattle hunt their last best hope for survival?

That’s what we’re talking about in today’s episode. I’m B. T. Newberg, and this is The History of Sex.


I’d like to thank our Patreon patron Miki Jennings for making this episode possible.

I’d also like to thank Dr. Jeff Means, Dr. Jon Cleland Host, and Neil McKay for help in the preparation of this series.

Folks, I record this show here in Minnesota on the ancestral lands of the Anishinaabeg, also called the Ojibwe, and the Očhéthi Šakówiŋ, better known to most as the Sioux, comprised of the Lakota, Dakota, and Nakota peoples.

There was a time in the not too distant past when my ancestors called this the frontier, but there were already peoples here for whom it was no such thing. The meeting of our ancestors was sometimes peaceable, sometimes even mutually beneficial, but in the end wrought atrocities upon those native to this place, who have been striving to maintain their culture through waves of change ever since. Despite it all, they remain proud and vital.

Folks, this is the beginning of our new series Sex on the Great Plains, looking at the same region as the Wild West but through the eyes of its native inhabitants. Specifically, we’ll be focusing on the Lakota.

When you see Native Americans depicted in Western films, wearing eagle feather headdresses and riding horses across open range, that is mostly inspired by plains tribes like the Lakota. Often the depiction is completely inappropriate, transporting a specifically plains-based lifestyle to the Southwest desert and transposing it onto tribes who lived very differently in actual history. As a result, the impression in many people’s minds is that all Native Americans are more or less like the Lakota, when in fact they are just one tribe among hundreds, each with different cultures, identities, and languages.

In actual fact, the traditional Lakota way of life is unique to them, and uniquely adapted to the Great Plains. They ranged across the expanse on horseback in a nomadic lifestyle, following herds of bison and striking fear into the hearts of their enemies.

But according to historian and Oglala Lakota tribe member Jeff Means, by the 1860s, the bison were nearly gone from the plains (Means, 2011, p. 6). An entire way of life was at risk of disappearing. Deprived of the herds that once roamed in the tens of millions, the Lakota were brought to their knees.

This was not military conquest. The Lakota had won Red Cloud’s War against the U.S. Army, and defeated General Custer at the Battle of Little Big Horn. No, this was loss of a different kind. By the latter half of the nineteenth century, the Lakota knew they had to change. They could not sustain themselves without the base of their power: the bison.

Nor could they sustain their culture. Men who once made their names in the hunt, and especially in the warfare that defended access to the hunt, had no way left to prove themselves. Women once famed for their craftsmanship at hides had nothing left to craft. Leaders who once earned power through generosity had no meat left to share. To them, the bison was not just a source of food and raw materials; it was the very lifeblood of their culture. Without it, they would die – unless, that is, they could find a substitute for the great shaggy beasts of the plains.

And so, reluctantly, in 1868 they made peace with the United States, who guaranteed them a territory almost the size of Germany, and promised, in recognition of the loss of bison, a pound per day of beef on the hoof to every Lakota (Means, 2011, p. 7).

Cattle were poor cousins of bison to be sure, but perhaps… perhaps they might do.

It stung to rely on handouts from a government that had taken from them everything they had known, but they had no choice. With cattle, they could hunt again. They could craft again. They could lead again. They could be proud again. Men could be men again, and women could be women again. And the Two-Spirit winkte could be winkte again (by the way, we’ll have more to say about them in a future episode).

In short, through cattle, it just might be possible that the Lakota could live as they once did: as a people of the plains.

How did the Lakota come to this point? How did they develop gender norms that were centered around the mighty bison? And when the bison disappeared, how did they strive to preserve those norms by switching to cattle?

Today, we’re going to see how the Lakota developed over time, changing again and again in response to new challenges, beginning with how they became a people of the plains in the first place.

A Forest People

Lakota culture is uniquely adapted to the Great Plains, but it was not always so. They began as forest people.

Pre-contact histories in North America are notoriously difficult to reconstruct. According to one theory put forward by anthropologist Guy Gibbon and supported by tribal oral narratives, archaeological evidence, and linguistic patterns, the ancestry of the Lakota traces back to the northwoods around the Great Lakes in modern-day Wisconsin and Minnesota.

According to this theory, the ancestors of the Lakota were bands of hunter-gatherers who moved into the Southwestern Great Lakes area by 800 CE. There, they may have interacted with some of the great mound-building cultures of the Mississippi. Then, sometime around 1300 CE, trade and conflict with the Oneata to the south led them to form together into a cohesive tribe (Gibbon, p. 43). This was not yet the Lakota, but what archaeologists refer to as the Psinomani Complex, psinomani being a Dakota word that means “wild rice gatherer.”

It may have been at this time that they developed what Gibbon calls a “male warrior/supremacist complex” (p. 42). Setting aside the problems with that term for the moment, a development like this often coincides with the emergence of tribes. As Gibbon explains, tribalization is frequently spurred by conflict with neighboring aggressive and more highly-organized peoples, which leads bands to come together for mutual defense. This produces opportunities to gain status and authority through warfare, hence the tendency for tribal societies to privilege warriors.

Associating this exclusively with male warriors is problematic in this case, however, because there may have been female warriors as well. The Psinomani Complex would eventually give birth to both the Lakota and Dakota tribes. While we have no records of female fighters among the Lakota, they were apparently fairly common among the Dakota. Anthropologist Beatrice Medicine writes of the Dakota:

“…while women were tacitly barred from joining war parties, many did participate in war for glory as well as revenge, and some even led war expeditions (Ruth Landes, 1968: 49). Women who had achieved war honors played an important role in the winoxtca (the female equivalent of the male akicita or soldiers). These women were called upon to police other women in the campsite and to punish female offenders (1968: 69)” (Medicine, p. 274).

That term Medicine uses, winoxtca, can also mean female elder, but here refers to women warriors. So, there you have it. There were female fighters. Yes, the vast majority were male, but female fighters were not unknown among the Dakota, and one might reasonably wonder if they were also present among their parent culture, the Psinomani Complex, and therefore among the ancestors of the Lakota. We can’t say so with confidence, but it’s certainly possible.

In any case, this newly-tribalized warrior culture lived in the northwoods, harvesting wild rice, tapping maple trees, and hunting deer (Gibbon, p. 3).

What were their gender norms like at this time? I tried to find out, but was not able to turn up any studies speculating on this. However, hunter-gatherer societies in general tend to divide tasks along gender lines, and the descendants of this early people show such divisions strongly. Both the Lakota and Dakota would come to allot hunting and fishing to men, and the processing of these animals to women. Horticulture and agriculture, when practiced, would also be allotted to women. Whether these task allocations were already customary at the time of the Psinomani Complex is difficult to say, but it would be a reasonable assumption.

In any case, the Psinomani Complex persisted for several centuries in the Northwoods.

The first non-indigenous record of this people comes from 1641, when a pair of French missionaries asked the Anishinaabeg, or Ojibwe, about them. As the story goes, the Anishinaabeg said they were “people of an alien tribe”, which in their language is na-towe-ssiwa. As the story goes, the French shortened this to Sioux, and that’s how they got their name (Gibbon, p. 2). This may or may not be true. Today some are fine with the name Sioux, while others, such as Jeff Means, have started to move away from it, preferring instead to be called the people of the Očhéthi Šakówiŋ or Seven Council Fires, and so that’s what we’ll call them from here on out.

Into the Plains

This people of the Seven Council Fires may have ventured into the prairie once or twice a year to hunt bison, but they were not yet a people of bison. That was soon to change, however, for several reasons.

First, Anishinaabeg began to expand into their turf. This was partly the result of European colonization far to the east in New England, which pushed tribes westward, which in turn pushed their neighbors westward in a kind of domino effect, until finally the Anishinaabeg started pushing into the homeland of the Seven Council Fires.

Second, influence came from the south as well. As Europeans explored up the Mississippi looking for furs, it created a profitable opportunity for local tribes. By the early 18th century, many were competing for a piece of the lucrative new trade with this alien people.

Finally, a new technology became available: the horse. While horses are native to North America, they had gone extinct thousands of years earlier. Not until they were re-introduced by Europeans did the capacity for mounted travel become available again. This revolutionized life on the plains. Much as the horse enabled the Mongols to sweep across the steppes in Asia, it empowered the people of the Seven Council Fires to strike out across the Great Plains. By 1700, they were mounting up and moving out. Over the next hundred years, they left behind the familiarity of their forest homeland and exploded westward.

As they struck out in all directions, they developed distinct identities formed around new ways of life. Some settled along the Mississippi and Minnesota Rivers, and got in on the fur trade. These became the Dakota. Meanwhile, those that went northward into present-day northern North Dakota, Montana, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Alberta became the Yankton-Yanktonai Dakota, sometimes called the Nakota. Finally, a third group became nomads riding far in search of game, pushing across the Red River into present-day North and South Dakota, Wyoming, and Montana. These became the Lakota (Gibbon, p. 5).

As their lifestyles changed, so too did their language, diverging into dialects. All three of these names – Dakota, and Nakota, and Lakota – are essentially the same word pronounced in three now-divergent dialects, but all roughly translatable as “the people” (Gibbon, p. 2).

I should note at this point that there are other ways these people categorize their identities, you know, exactly who is a subsection of who, and next month we’ll hear Jeff Means give a slightly different breakdown, so I want to acknowledge that there are other legitimate ways of presenting this. But the for the sake of clarity, we just have to choose one and stick with it, and so we’ll go with this tripartite division in this series.

This was how the Lakota developed their own unique identity: by roving far out onto the plains, and even more than their cousins, adopting a nomadic horseback lifestyle centered around the bison.

What was that new culture like? And how did it affect their gender norms? We’re going to find that out next.

Gender on the Plains

We just saw how the Lakota emerged out of the early Psinomani Complex, who became the people of the Seven Council Fires, or Sioux, who then diverged into the Dakota, Nakota, and Lakota. Now, what did the new culture of the Lakota become, and how did their gender norms change?

The answer to both lies in the great shaggy beast of the plains, the bison.

The herds they found at this time numbered in the tens of millions. It was inconceivable that in a mere hundred years they would be all but gone, for in the 18th century, they seemed almost infinite.

So abundant were the bison that the Lakota went all-in on this life-giving beast, shaping their entire culture around it. Gender norms became defined by how each interacted with bison.

If you were male, you were in charge of hunting. You scouted for bison, spied out the herd, organized the approach, made the kill, and transported it back to camp. You might also share out the bison meat you procured, along with other possessions like horses, gaining influence through gifting and thus rising toward leadership within the tribe. Finally, you took part in warfare, which secured continued access to the herds of bison.

If you were female, you were in charge of crafting. When the bison carcasses were brought back to camp by men, they were handed over to you for everything else necessary. Thus, your roles included cooking meat; drying meat into jerky; tanning hides; fashioning hides into clothing, bedding and tipi dressings; decorating hides; crafting utensils, tools, and implements; and generally crafting bison into every other product necessary for survival, comfort, and trade on the plains. You also did other kinds of crafts, like quillwork using dyed porcupine quills, and beadwork, which functioned as a substitute for quills after moving to the central plains where porcupines were rarer. When it came time to move the camp, it was your job to strike and pack the tipi, guard it during the move, and erect it again upon arrival. Finally, you gathered firewood, fetched water, and cared for children (DeMallie, p. 238).

If you were a Two-Spirit winkte, meaning someone assigned sex as male but culturally third gender, you joined the women in crafting activities while also joining the men in warfare. You had a foot in both worlds. We’ll save the details for a future episode, but the important thing to recognize for now is that this third gender followed the overall pattern of gender roles breaking down along interaction with bison.

These roles were especially rigid compared to neighboring tribes. While a certain level of rigidity is expected in a society more collective than individualistic, it seems the Lakota took it to extremes. If you were a man, you hunted; if you were a woman, you crafted. With the exception of the winkte, there was very little middle ground.

For example, there was no option for those assigned sex as female but called to male roles. Those expressing behaviors considered masculine might be chased out of camp (Lang, p. 319), while women warriors were unheard of. The latter was especially odd because female fighters were known among neighbor tribes like the Piegan, as well as among their close cousins, the Dakota, so it’s not like the Lakota couldn’t conceive of such a thing. Rather, they made the collective choice to maintain gender norms that were particularly rigid in this respect.

Why that was I will not speculate. However, I will say that as strict as their norms were, they were still less strict than Euro-American norms at this time. Settlers had no culturally-recognized options at all for those assigned one sex but drawn to another, nor for women who wished to go to war.

Likewise, Lakota women may have been slightly more politically-empowered than their settler counterparts at this time. While Lakota leadership did concentrate indisputably in male hands, women were perhaps closer to the decision making, and may have had more leverage, than White women. This was due to norms that stemmed, again, from a lifestyle based on bison.

To follow the herds, the Lakota needed to spread out and move with maximum flexibility. Thus, they developed a decentralized system of governance based on extended family units called tiospaye. These camps of kin were more or less autonomous. They maintained ties with one another through marriage, and came together for tribal gatherings, but otherwise operated independently. This meant that power was much closer to the average person, including the average woman. Although barred from becoming chiefs, women were respected in council and usually able to make their opinions known.

In addition, they had considerable leverage over the men in their lives. First, as the exclusive producers of the craft products brought wealth through trade and influence through gifting, Lakota women had what you might call “labor power.” Second, divorce was relatively easy within Lakota society, so she could leave a husband if unsatisfied with his decisions. Third, couples could live with the tiospaye of either the husband or the wife, so she might be able to call up blood-family to support her. Finally, in cases of polygynous marriages with multiple wives, the wives were usually sisters or cousins of each other, which meant they could present a unified front. All of these things meant Lakota women were nothing to be trifled with. They had significant leverage and influence within society, perhaps slightly more even than White women at this time.

In short, Lakota gender roles may have been relatively rigid, but that needs to be seen in its proper context.

The gender roles of the Lakota stemmed ultimately from a lifestyle based around bison. This beast presented an unparalleled opportunity for the Lakota, and made them powerful.

Yet, all good things come to an end. Even as the Lakota were on the rise, the beginning of the end was already blowing in the wind.

The Beginning of the End

Along with the pale-skinned aliens from the far shores had come a different kind of invader.

It started with fever, headache, fatigue, and severe back pain. Then came the spots, first on the face and hands, then all over the body. They called it the rotting face sickness. Settlers called it smallpox.

It took time for this disease to penetrate to the plains, but when it did, it hit hard.

From 1775 to 1782, the North American Smallpox Epidemic decimated Plains Indian tribes, and continued to do so year after year after year for the rest of the century. The typical tribe lost 25-50% of their population on average.

Now, it’s hard to conceptualize just how bad that is. For comparison, we all know how disruptive COVID-19 has been, but that has only killed about 0.3% of the U.S. population, or 0.07% of the global population. Now imagine losing 25-50%. This was apocalyptic.

Some tribes were worse hit than others. The river tribes, like the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara, clustered together as they were in populous villages along the riverside, were almost entirely wiped out. Some estimate their losses as high as 90%. They were annihilated.

So, you have to imagine what this landscape looks like now: a vast grassland full of villages, but when you ride into them, all the homes are empty. Where there used to be people, now there is nothing but the wind. It was like something out of a Mad Max movie.

But in this post-apocalyptic wasteland, some tribes suffered less. Among these were the Lakota. Their newly nomadic lifestyle, being spread-out with little contact between groups, insulated them (think social distancing x100!). As a result, as their neighbors fell, they rose. They found the plains opened up for them.

At first, the Lakota cleaned up, preying on the weakened peoples around them. But this very same raiding brought them in contact with the disease, and soon they began to fall as well. The tragedy is recorded in Lakota winter counts, which are pictographic calendars painted on bison hides, with each year symbolized by its most significant event. Many of them symbolize year after year with designs representing smallpox (Hodge, p. 83).

While Lakota losses may have been on the low end, perhaps around 25%, if we recall that COVID-19 has taken a mere fraction of a percentage yet wreaked havoc on our society, 25% remains absolutely catastrophic.

To put that further into perspective, part of the raiding of weakened peoples included carrying off women and children. Why? They would be incorporated into the tribe to replenish their numbers – that’s how desperate they became (Hodge, p. 137). So, now you have to imagine a people whose view of gender is skewed by an increased emphasis on male warfare and an influx of women from foreign peoples. You can only imagine how that must have affected them.

Smallpox struck again with the 1837 Great Plains epidemic, when an outbreak on an unquarantined steamboat infected local native populations. Once again, the Lakota faired less poorly than their neighbors, this time aided by inoculation. A vaccine had been developed back in 1796, and the U.S. government was motivated to inoculate native peoples to prevent spread to settlers.

Mind you, that is not to say that the stories of giving smallpox-infested blankets to local tribes in order to undermine them are not also true. That may well have happened, as historian Ann F. Ramenofsky contends. However, the policy of the United States was that the risk of spread to Whites was too great, so the vaccination of tribes should be encouraged.

In this case, the local official only had enough vaccines for one tribe, and gave it to the regional power who could keep the other tribes in line: the Lakota. This garnered them even more power at the expense of their neighbors.

But despite this power, they were facing an existential threat. As if the smallpox invasion were not enough, they also watched warily the encroachment of the United States. The Lakota and the U.S. represented two expanding powers in the region, and it was all but inevitable that they would come into conflict eventually. Although they had fought together in the Arikara War of 1823, they were uneasy allies. Relations with the U.S. would soon strain to breaking.

The Lakota witnessed their cousins, the Dakota, starved and humiliated by settlers. The U.S. wanted them to take up agriculture, but among the people of the Seven Council Fires, farming was women’s work. This along with droughts brought famine to the Dakota people, and desperation sparked an uprising. The U.S.-Dakota Conflict of 1862 saw the Dakota defeated, marched along the Minnesota River in a local version of the trail of tears, and eventually forced onto reservations.

Now, if you were the Lakota witnessing this, what would you say about that? They knew it was only sooner or later that their turn would come. If they wanted to preserve their way of life, they had to fight, not as a disorganized uprising as with the Dakota, but as a strategic war.

A number of small conflicts occurred in the 1860s. Then, in 1866, the U.S. established a number of illegal forts within territory recently conquered by the Lakota. This was more than the Lakota could bear. Red Cloud’s War resulted in a victory over the U.S. Army at what the Lakota call the Battle of the Hundred in Hand, an outcome predicted by a winkte seer. Further conflicts gave the U.S. endless trouble, culminating in the 1876 battle that saw General Custer fall at Little Big Horn.

Despite these glorious victories, the Lakota were nevertheless backed into a corner. They had won the war of arms but lost the war of stomachs. You see, the bison, on which they depended for food and everything else in their culture, were disappearing.

Why were the bison disappearing? There were many reasons, but Dr. Jeff Means lays the largest share of blame on the development of a chemical process for tanning hides, which greatly increased the rate of production among settlers, supplying gluttonous markets back East with these coveted bison hides (Means, 2001, p. 18). Consequently, herds that once roamed in the tens of millions dwindled down to mere thousands.

In light of this, what future could there possibly be for the Lakota, whose entire culture had until this point revolved around bison? They faced certain doom if they could not find a substitute.

How the Lakota Become Cowboys

With no other viable option at hand, the Lakota made peace with the U.S. government, and in return were guaranteed a territory roughly the size of Germany, stretching across parts of South Dakota, North Dakota, Montana, Wyoming, and Nebraska. In recognition of the fact that without bison the Lakota could not sustain themselves (and therefore might turn to raiding White settlements), the U.S. made the practical to decision to promise them per-capita payments of flour and beef.

The beef was delivered on the hoof as live cattle – and here, it seemed, could be just what the Lakota were looking for. This might be the answer to their prayers. Without bison, they could not eat, nor produce clothing, or tipis, or crafts for trade. Men could not be men, women could not be women, and winkte could not be winkte. Their whole way of life was about to perish, but this creature – a poor man’s bison, you could say – just might be the answer.

And so, the Lakota began to hunt again. There was no more of that mighty grunting; now it was mere mooing. But it would suffice. The cattle turned out on the range was the new herd. Beef was the new food, and leather the new hide.

Many even chose to own their herds in common, putting the group first as in the tiospaye of old. At Pine Ridge, the brand of the collective was the Flying O, a circle with two branch-like wings. This brand marked far more than ownership; it symbolized an entire way of life now sustained by cattle.

The Lakota had become cowboys.

Just as the Lakota had adapted to life on the plains, so too did they adapt to this change. They would go on.

And for a time at least, they were free.


Well, that’s all I’ve got for you today, folks, but we have so much more for you on the way. What happened to the Lakota after they became cowboys? How did it work out for them? That’s what we’re going to learn about next month in a very special interview with historian and Oglala Lakota tribe member, Dr. Jeff Means.

The theme music for today’s episode is courtesy of the Battling Sioux Singers. You can check them out on Youtube on the Powwow Times channel.

If you like what we’re doing here on this show, you can support us by subscribing, rating, and reviewing on Apple Podcasts or wherever you get podcasts. Or you can pledge on Patreon where $5 a month gets you a portrait drawn in the time period and culture of your choosing. I will draw you as a mustang-mounted hunter bringing home the bounty, or a bead-bejeweled craftswoman making her masterpiece. Or whatever you want, I’ll make you look awesome, I promise.

And for this series, Sex on the Great Plains, the proceeds from Patreon will be donated to One Spirit, a volunteer organization helping the Lakota meet their goal of achieving food sovereignty and self-sufficiency in their communities.

Just go to That’s

Thanks for listening everybody, and be sure to check out our next episode where we talk to Dr. Jeff Means.

I’ll see you then. I’m B. T. Newberg, and this is The History of Sex.



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Audio Credits

Podcast theme music mixed from “Gregorian Chant”, “Mystery Sax”, and “There It Is” by Kevin MacLeod.

Episode theme music courtesy of “Battling Sioux Singers” from Powwow Times

Other audio from:

Cows Eating Grass at Lowland Farm” from LFGrassFedBeef

A Prairie Afternoon” from Dale Bohlke

Large Stampede Sounds” from A1 Sound FX

World’s Largest Public Bison Stampede – Custer State Park Buffalo Roundup” from Cross Timbers Bison

All narration and voice acting by B. T. Newberg

Image Credits

Bison silhouette from Pixabay

Bull silhouette from Stockvault

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