Study of the Dakota Nakota Lakota Language
study of the language of North American Indians has been
undertaken by many non-Indians for various reasons. In the
early 19th century, missionaries studied and learned the
language of the Dakota/Nakota/Lakota in Minnesota Territory
and Dakota Territory as a necessary prerequisite to their
mission work. About the turn of the century, the US federal
government recognized the need for accurate scientific information
about the lives, customs, beliefs and languages of the Indian
tribes inhabiting the Great Plains and the West. Congress,
through the Bureau of American Ethnology, commissioned a
number of scholars to study these diverse tribes and to
publish their findings in a series of bulletins and annual
reports. After the 1930's, English came to be the dominant
language used in the schools and other reservation agencies.
Native language research became the province of university-trained
scholars working in field or applied linguistics.
are two major periods of language study of Dakota/Lakota
language though they are closely related and somewhat overlapping.
The first studies were the publications of the missionaries
to the Santee in the latter part of the nineteenth century.
The second group of publications deal mainly with the Teton
and were sponsored by the Bureau of American Ethnology from
about 1890 to 1932.
began their work among the Santee living in Minnesota in
the 1820's and 1830's. Joseph Renville, of French and Indian
descent, established a trading post at Lac que Parle on
the Minnesota River in 1826. As was happening throughout
the frontier, the traders were soon followed by the missionaries.
In 1834, Samuel Pond and his brother Gideon left their Connecticut
village to settle among the Sioux for the purpose of converting
them to Christianity, even though they did not have the
support of any church group. The brothers encountered the
Sioux living at Prairie de Chien in what was then Minnesota
Territory. Later they moved to Lake Calhoun. They began
their work quite simply by asking the Indians as well as
army officers in the area, Dakota words for objects and
places. They composed a number of word lists in this fashion.
1836, Gideon Pond went to Renville's post at Lac que Parle
where he met Dr. Thomas Williamson, a physician serving
at the Episcopal Missionary. A year later Rev. Stephen Return
Riggs joined the "Dakota Mission.' The Pond brothers
assisted both Williamson and Riggs in learning Dakota. They
began by translating hymns and simple Bible stories. Their
most ambitious project was translating both the New Testament
and the Old Testament into Dakota.
Deloria gives this description, in her book Speaking
of Indians (1944) , of how the work proceeded:
"It is a log house, ample and many roomed, for it is
the home of the French and Dakota trader, Renville, a man
of keen intellect, though without any schooling to speak
of and without any fluency in English. In a bare room with
flickering candlelight he sits hour on hour of an evening
after a hard day of manual work. Dr. Riggs and his helpers
are across the table from him. They are working on the translation.
It is a blessing incalcuable for all Dakota missions that
Dr. Williamson and Riggs are scholars. One of them reads
a verse in Hebrew, if it is from the Old Testament; or in
Greek, if from the new. He ponders its essence, stripped
of idiom, and then he gives it in French. Renville, receiving
it thus in his father's civilized language, now thinks it
through very carefully and at length turns it out again,
this time in his mother's tongue. Slowly and patiently he
repeats it as often as needed while Dr. Riggs and the others
write it down in the Dakota phonetics already devised by
the Pond brothers."
and Williamson worked together for five years (1835 - 1840)
and their "Dakota Grammar and Dictionary" was
printed in 1852. Although the title page noted that the
material was "collected by the members of the Dakota
Mission" and only edited by Riggs, the Pond brothers
felt they had not been given adequate credit for their part
in the contribution.
dictionary was expanded and republished by the Bureau of
North American Ethnology in 1890. Dakota Grammar Texts
and Ethnography was published by the U.S. Geographical
Survey in 1893. Listed as story tellers were three Dakota
speakers: Michael Renville, the son of Joseph Renville;
David Grey Cloud, a Presbytery preacher; and James Garvie,
a teacher at the Nebraska Indian School established by Rev.
Alfred Riggs, the son of Stephen Return Riggs. The inclusion
of these stories was significant because it marked the first
printing of native speakers telling their own stories in
their own language rather than Dakota translations of biblical
Williamson, the son of Dr. Thomas Williamson, accompanied
the Santee, who were forced out of Minnesota following the
uprising of 1862, to their reservation at Crow Creek. He
stayed at Crow Creek for seven years, giving them instructions
in religion and writing their language. His dictionary was
printed in 1868, 1886, and 1902.
can be no doubt that the dictionaries, grammars and translations
were of great value to the many missions in the Dakotas.
They continued to be used for more than 50 years. However,
it must be remembered that the purposes of Riggs and his
colleagues were not to preserve the language of the Dakota,
but to use the language as a vehicle for bringing about
the transition from Dakota to English. Like others of his
time, Riggs was convinced that the road to white civilization
was the only salvation for the Indian. In the "Ethnography"
"Let a well arranged severalty bill be enacted into
law, and Indians be guaranteed civil rights as other men,
and they will soon cease to be Indians. The Indian tribes
of our continent may become extinct as such; but if this
extinction is brought about by introducing them into civilization
and Christianity and merging them into our great nation,
which is receiving accretions from all others, who will
deplore the result? Rather let us labor for it, realizing
that if by our efforts they cease to be Indians and become
fellow citizens it will be our glory and joy."
missionaries who went farther west to work among the Tetons
built upon the labors of their brothers who began with the
Eugene Buechel, a native of Germany, began his ministry
at the Holy Rosary Mission on the Pine Ridge reservation
in 1907, under the auspices of the Catholic Society of Jesus.
He also spent a number of years at St. Francis Mission on
the Rosebud reservation. For nearly forty years, he collected
Lakota words for a dictionary. He published a detailed grammatical
study, A Grammar of Lakota in 1939. His dictionary
of Lakota was not published until 1970, sixteen years after
as these missionary works are, they do have limitations
as linguistic studies. Dr. Franz Boas of Columbia University
commented on Buechel's work. "The analysis of Dakota
in Buechel's Grammar is based on the theory that
every syllable has a meaning. The arrangement is that of
an English grammar with Dakota equivalents. Since much of
the material is based on Biblical translations and prayers,
many unidiomatic forms occur.”
the Civil War, the U.S. government turned its attention
to the problems of the western territories. The Bureau of
Indian Affairs was greatly strengthened until the Bureau
nearly controlled every aspect of Indian life. While the
BIA focused on matters of administration, the much smaller
Bureau of American Ethnology of the Smithsonian Institution
concentrated on the documentation of Indian culture, religion,
customs and language. For fifty-four years (1878 - 1932),
Congress authorized studies and published a series of bulletins
and annual reports. The Bureau of Ethnology ultimately produced
48 volumes of ethnic papers, some of which were contributed
by the U.S. Geographical Survey Commission. The last volume,
a comprehensive index, was published in 1932.
of the first publications of the Bureau of American Ethnology
was the 'Indian Linguistic Families of America North of
Mexico" compiled by J.W. Powell in 1891. With comparatively
few changes, Powell's outline has continued to hold up to
scholarly investigations to the present time. James Owen
Dorsey's Study of Siouan Cults was published by
the Bureau in 1891. Dorsey was a missionary to the Ponca
Indians in Nebraska from 1871 to 1873. He did comparative
studies of the languages of the Ponca, Omaha, Kansa, Winnebago,
and Biloxi. Unlike other missionaries, Dorsey adopted an
objective approach to language and legends. By his own experience,
he discovered a principle that Franz Boas stressed with
his students of linguistics. 'It is safer to let the Indian
tell his own story in his own words rather than to endeavor
to question him in such a manner as to reveal what answers
are desired or expected.' Although Dorsey did not include
the Dakota/Lakota texts as given by his informants, he did
cite the speakers as John Bruyier, a Dakota speaker, and
George Bushotter and George Sword, Lakota speakers.
Mooney's work, The Ghost Dance Religion of the American
Indian appeared in 1896. In his introduction, Mooney
writes, "The main purpose of the work is not linguistic,
and as nearly every tribe concerned speaks a different language
from all others, any close linguistic study must be left
to the philologist, who can afford to devote a year or more
to an individual tribe. The only one of these tribes of
which the author claims intimate knowledge is the Kiowa."
Mooney's Lakota informants include American Horse, Fire
Thunder, and George Sword - all of the Pine Ridge reservation.
1 With the exception of some words and phrases, Mooney does
not include the Lakota texts of his informants.
1917, the American Museum of Natural History, published
the "The Sun Dance and Other Ceremonies of the Oglala
Division of the Teton Dakota" by J.R. Walker. Walker
was a physician at the Pine Ridge Agency who became close
friends with many of the religious leaders. Although he
did consult with other informants, much of Walker's information
was derived from George Sword. Sword, an Oglala, was a member
of the Indian police at the Pine Ridge Agency in the 1890's.
Although he could neither speak nor write in English, he
wrote pages and pages in old Lakota using the phonetic forms.
Walker wrote of him, "He was a man of marked ability
with a philosophical trend far beyond the average Oglala."
Much of what is known about the societies, mythology and
religion of the Tetons before white contact is derived from
the Sword manuscripts.
very important study published by the Bureau of Ethnology
was Frances Densmore's Teton Sioux Music in 1918.
Densmore recorded the words to some Lakota songs in the
native language, but most of her text is in English. Listed
as informants by Densmore are Robert Higheagle, a graduate
of Hampton, and Mrs. James McLaughlin, the Dakota speaking
wife of Major McLaughlin at Standing Rock and many singers
from Standing Rock.
of the depression in the 1930's and changes in federal government
policies toward Indians, funds to the Bureau of Ethnology
ceased in 1932. Nevertheless, the reports written for the
Bureau contain a wealth of information about the Sioux.
Even though scholars did not include the original language
versions in their publications, many of the manuscripts
are preserved in the Museum collection.
in Indian languages entered a new phase in the 1930's under
the direction of Franz Boas of Columbia University. In the
introduction to the Handbook of American Indian Languages,
published in 1911 by the Bureau of American Ethnology, Boas
gives a "clear statement of fundamental theory and
of basic methodological principles which demonstrate the
inadequacy of the old methods and point to new paths of
research which were to lead to impressive results."
Basically Boas stressed that thorough knowledge of the language
was the key to understanding everything else. ". .
. we must insist that a command of the language is an indispensable
means of obtaining accurate and thorough knowledge, because
much information can be gained by listening to conversations
of the natives and by taking part in their daily life, which
to the observer who has no command of the language, will
was conversant in Dakota and Lakota, but he trusted more
to the authority of the native speaker than to the linguist.
In 1929, Boas offered Ella Deloria a position as Dakota
language researcher in ethnology and linguistics in the
Department of Anthropology at Columbia University.
Deloria was born in 1888 in the White Swan district of the
Yankton reservation. Soon after her birth, her mother returned
to the Standing Rock reservation to rejoin her husband,
the Rev. Philip Deloria, the Episcopal missionary to St.
Elizabeth's Mission near Wakpala, SD.
1889, a year after Ella was born, Sitting Bull and his followers
returned from Canada and settled down on the Grand River
about 30 miles west of the mission. There was a great deal
of anxiety on the reservation at that time. The transition
from a free hunting society to one of farming and ranching
was a difficult one. Ella's father travelled to other reservations
to assist with missionary efforts to establish schools.
According to the customs of her people, she was cared for
by a circle of grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins living
near the mission. Many were apprehensive about the presence
of so many soldiers at the agency in Fort Yates and so preferred
to live in quieter communities clustered along the creeks
and rivers. Ella and her sister and brother often stayed
in her grandmother's tipi near the mission and grew to love
the stories and legends of the elders.
years later she wrote about the abrupt changes brought about
by the reservation system, "it gathered its forces
out of sight, and it sneaked up on the people in a surprise
attack that caught them entirely unprepared. Suddenly it
struck. It struck hard - in the mass slaughter of the buffalo,
in the Custer fight, in the killing of Sitting Bull, and
finally in that ghastly incident at Wounded Knee in 1890,
when innocent men, women, and children were massacred. Those
were the decisive blows, the death - dealing shafts hurled
in Teton Dakota life, the final reason for change."
grew up among a large circle of friends and relatives, speaking
the Dakota dialect of her parents and the Lakota dialect
of the Hunkpapa of their many friends and relatives. The
Riggs and Williamson books were her first textbooks. As
teachers from the east arrived at the mission, she learned
to speak and write in English as well. She was intelligent,
eager to learn, and had a natural faculty for language learning.
After completing secondary school at All Saints School in
Sioux Falls, Deloria studied at Oberlin College and finally
at Columbia University (1913--1914).
graduating from Columbia, she returned to South Dakota and
taught for a time at St. Elizabeth's and All Saint's School.
In 1928, she was teaching at Haskell Institute at Lawrence,
Kansas, when she was contacted by Dr. Franz Boas. Her position
at Haskell was not particularly satisfying, so she agreed
to accept the offer to become a researcher. Boas proposed
that she divide her time between field research among the
Dakotas and translating manuscripts at Columbia.
Boas, the founder of linguistic and anthropological studies
of the American Indian, was an exacting scholar and not
an easy person to please. According to Ruth Bunzel who worked
with Ella Deloria at Columbia, Boas was a very demanding
professor. After a few introductory lectures on methods,
students were sent into the field to do research. There
were no special allowances made for those who were beginners
or those with a defective background. Boas could be 'prickly,
unbinding, often intolerant." He was scornful of disagreements
and stupidity. He valued his own autonomy greatly but was
often high-handed with his students. 'He arranged field
trips for them without consulting them; he schemed and maneuvered
to get them positions and was deeply hurt when they refused
to accept his arrangements. But he never wavered in his
loyalty to them, even when he disapproved of them.'
gave his students credit for the work they did. He encouraged
them to publish their own work under their own names.
Deloria wrote three major publications and numerous articles
and speeches. Dakota Texts, published in 1932,
is a collection of 64 legends in three dialects - Dakota,
Lakota, and Assiniboine - with literal and free translations.
It is still the only book of its kind. Dakota Grammar,
first published in 1939, is 175 pages of grammatical analysis
of the Dakota language in the categories of phonetics, morphology
and syntax. Although there are other grammars, this is the
only one written by a native speaker which describes the
language in terms of its own structure rather than using
the English categories as a basis. Speakinq of Indians,
published in 1944, is a sociological and cultural history
of the Yankton tribe from pre-reservation days to the 1940's.
addition to her published works, Deloria's manuscripts include
tales, legends and stories collected over a period of 40
years on the Sioux reservations in South Dakota, North Dakota,
Minnesota, Montana and Canada. She recorded more than 5,000
individual entrees with origins and dialectic differences
for a dictionary. She also contributed her information and
expertise to a number of other scholars and anthropologists.