by Taneesh Khera
In 2019, the United Nations is raising awareness about the alarming loss of many of the world’s languages through its International Year of Indigenous Languages.
In honor of that initiative, we are shining the spotlight on the languages of the Sioux, and the growing movement to preserve and reinvigorate these rich but endangered tongues.
Where did the name Sioux come from?
The word Sioux is used both in reference to a group of Native peoples (who historically lived in parts of the Great Plains) and the languages they speak.
But, it is not a word that tribe members chose for themselves; it is an exonym, or “a name given and used by people external to a group.” Sioux is actually part French and part Ojibwa (a different Native people living around the Great Lakes in Canada and the US).
Here’s how it’s said the name came to be:
In the 1600s, French settlers in Canada exacerbated relationships among the Natives in the region. The French gave the Ojibwa guns and artillery while pushing them onto other Native land. A domino effect ensued; one group, pushed onto another’s land, fought that Native group back onto another’s, they onto another’s, and so on.
Armed with French guns and canons, the Ojibwa proved superior in firepower to Native tribes who only had bows and arrows. They forced other tribes in the area down and westward. In the process, they named one of these groups nātowēssiwak.
Nātowēssiwak translates to “someone who is like a Northern Iroquois,” a Native people who also lived around the Great Lakes. The name, which has the effect of positioning the Sioux as foreigners, has also been said to mean “little snakes,” a way to characterize them as enemies.
The French shortened nātowēssiwak and added their –x plural marker, rendering it as Sioux.
The Sioux’s name for themselves—their endonym, or “a name used internally by a group of people for themselves”—is Oceti Sakowin (Očhéthi Šakówiŋ, roughly pronounced as oh-chey-tee shah-koh-ween), which means “Seven Council Fires.”
Why did they pick the name “Seven Council Fires”?
The legend of the Oceti Sakowin origin says that they were separated into seven tribes but came from the same bloodline. Though they were geographically disperse, they met once a year to maintain relations with one another and honor their common ancestry. They spent much of the year as separate tribes with their own languages.
Each of these seven divisions is represented as a council fire, “a fire kept burning during a council of Native Americans,” with fires a key and sacred part of such meetings.
The tribes were always woven into their land. Also prevalent in other Native tribes was a deeply held belief that their surroundings were more than something to conquer. The land was generous, it sustained them. Animals were living beings that fed them. They were grateful for the buffalo. These beliefs show in the endonyms (the division names they gave themselves) of each of the Seven Council Fires (Anglicized name in parentheses):
- Sisíthuŋwaŋ (Sisseton) – People of the Marsh
- Bdewékhaŋthuŋwaŋ (Mdewakanton) – Dwellers by the Sacred Lake
- Waȟpékhute (Wahpekute) – Shooters among the Leaves
- Waȟpéthuŋwaŋ (Wahpetonwan) – Dwellers among the Leaves
- Iháŋktȟuŋwaŋ (Yankton) – People at the End
- Iháŋktȟuŋwaŋna (Yanktonai) – People of the Little End
- Thítȟuŋwaŋ (Tetonwan/Teton) – People on the Plains
Each name tells a story of the landscape and incorporates the people who live there. Some, like Dwellers by the Sacred Lake, name the land and the people; others, the land and what the people do on it, as in Shooters Among the Leaves.
What are the languages of the Sioux?
Before they were first written down in the mid-1800s, the languages of the Oceti Sakowin were passed down orally from the older generations to the younger ones. They were spoken in the home, for rituals, and to tell stories and legends of the people. In this way, language for the tribes was a vessel that carried history, traditions, and beliefs.
The languages of Oceti Sakowin are divided into three major groups: Lakota, Eastern Dakota, and Western Dakota.
Lakota (Lakȟóta) is the most spoken, though it has only an estimated 2,000 speakers today. The terms Lakota and Dakota both have the core sense of “friend, ally.”
Their basic word order is subject-object-verb (he–ball–has). The languages are agglutinative, meaning you can add long strings of morphemes to words to indicate things like singular or plural and adjectives like big or small.
For comparison, English is subject-verb-object (he–has–ball). English uses only a few inflections. It generally adds an -(e)s to the end of nouns to indicate plurality and possession (e.g., two dogs, the dog’s ball). It generally adds an -(ed) to indicate past tense (walk, walked) and an -s for third-person, singular verbs (she walks).
Consider this Lakota term: ípuzapi. It’s actually a full utterance. The Lakota word for mouth is í, onto which is added púzA (“dry”) and –pi, a plural marker. Taken as a whole, ípuzapi has the sense of “they were thirsty.”
Lakota, Eastern Dakota, and Western Dakota are a subset of what’s called the Dakotan branch of the larger Siouan family, which comprises a great many languages.
Historically, the languages of the Oceti Sakowin were classified as Lakota, Dakota, and Nakota. Nakota (Nakhóta), however, is the endonym for two Native groups and their languages, the Assiniboine and the Stoney, who have lived in the northern Great Plains and Canada.
This misclassification started with missionaries who came to the plains to study the Native languages in the 1800s in order to convert the people. The missionaries heard Yankton and Yanktonai speakers using N in words that, in Lakota, were systematically pronounced with L, and in Dakota, with D. This led to their misnaming Yankton and Yankotonai as Nakota. The misnomer would not be corrected until several decades into the 1900s, and it still persists today.
How many speakers of Sioux languages remain?
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) took many Native children from their homes—in what Sicangu Lakota writer and activist Mary Crow Dog once powerfully characterized as “kidnapping”—and placed into what were called boarding schools.
Often run by religious institutions and located off and on reservations, boarding schools forced the assimilation of Native children into Western, Christian culture. This included forbidding them to speak their native language, at the risk of humiliation and punishment.
Over time, this harsh policy blocked generations from direct access to their Native languages, to the point where some contemporary linguist-activists have called the practice linguistic genocide.
As a result of oppression, the Sioux languages are in a critical state. A Native-led Lakota revitalization nonprofit, Lakota Language Consortium, estimated that only 2,000 people spoke Lakota as their first language. The estimates for Eastern and Western Dakota are even more dire, numbering short of 300 speakers.
How do we determine the vitality of a language?
UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) judges a language’s vitality, or health, by nine different factors. Among them are how many people speak the language, how old they are, and in how many areas (domains) of life those speakers speak it. The table below (modified from a 2003 UNESCO report) breaks down the method.
used by: all ages from children up;spoken by: all members of the community
|vulnerable||4||used by: some children in all domains (e.g., it is spoken at home, and is the primary language at school); or all children in limited domains (e.g., only spoken at home);
spoken by: nearly all of the community
|definitively endangered||3||used by: mostly the parental generation and up, who don’t teach it to the next generation (also called moribund);
spoken by: a majority of the community
|severely endangered||2||used by: mostly the grandparental generation and up;
spoken by: a minority of the community
|critically endangered||1||used by: very few, of the great-grandparental generation.
|extinct||0||No one speaks it.
The alarming loss in the case of Lakota (and this is true for many indigenous languages) indicates that the majority of speakers are elders. To break that trend, the Lakota Language Consortium has concentrated its efforts on teacher trainings, immersion schools, and teaching the language to the younger generations. That’s why they helped create the Lakota Berenstain Bears. It’s 20 episodes of the Berenstain Bears dubbed in Lakota, and brings the language into the home and to children.
Working toward revitalization
But language revitalization is a race against time. Many indigenous languages have few speakers left, making it crucial to document them before they disappear. I spoke with Emmy Olivo Akin, who does such revitalization work in the field. She calls herself “a renegade linguist,” and it is an apt label.
Olivo Akin works mostly in northern California alongside tribes who are not federally recognized. Most of these languages have fewer than five fluent speakers or are already dormant. Working “directly with language communities without any institution to answer to,” she explains, she is afforded a certain kind of freedom. For instance, the data collected from her work can be specifically for that community and no one else—not for any institution or the government.
In that sense, Olivo Akin is always working with and for the community, always seeking to build trust. And in Native communities, trust has been repeatedly betrayed in history.
Whether designing workshops and language documentation methods and tools, or creating learning materials, her hope is that the more fluent speakers can then educate themselves and their family members. And with that empowerment, we are hoping for more vital indigenous languages—including the rich languages of the Oceti Sakowin.
Taneesh Khera is a poet and writer based in Oakland, CA. She’s also a linguist trained in the US, Mexico, and Chile. Se habla español. See more of her work here: www.kheraphrase.ink.