Linguistic Research

Linguistic Research in Dakota/Lakota Language may be a description of scholarly studies undertaken by scholars of the language and culture of the Sioux tribes from early 19th century to the 20th century. Missionaries of the first 19th century were curious about learning language so as to be effective in their mission however; their main interest was to include English and therefore the non-Native culture into the Sioux tribes so as to civilize the Lakota nations. Scholarly achievements were publications of Dakota-English dictionaries and manuscripts containing Native stories and legends. Linguistic Research also outlines shortcomings to scholarly work and therefore the tips some language researchers applied to beat challenges experienced in linguistic research.
After several years of complaints by Native Americans and the human rights group about increase in crime rates in North Dakota, the FBI finally launched the first permanent police office in Williston in 2006. The challenges that the Native group were facing were escalating crime rates due to increase in short term workers at the Bakken oil field region in North Dakota, inadequate housing and security, human trafficking, drug abuse and violence against women and few local resources. Over the years North Dakota has evolved from a peaceful and unrecognized State to being full of organized crime, homicides and drug trafficking because of the state’s oil boom.

Lakota language faces danger of extinction due to widespread use of English in the States. A documentary project called ‘Rising Voices’ or ‘Hothaninpi’ was established some years ago by Florentine Films/Hott Productions and the Language Conservancy to conserve the Native culture. Lakota language and the Native culture suffer threat of extinction because of the widespread use of English language on social media sites and in the entertainment industry. The Lakota nation also known as Sioux sees the need to preserve their language. According to Fingers, the Language Conservancy has been making efforts in preserving and revitalizing endangered languages in North America (62). The director of the organization, Wil Meya has lead Language Conservancy into becoming one of the largest preservation groups for protecting indigenous languages and cultures. Additionally, the Lakota Language Consortium is the foremost protector of the Lakota language; it works with 80 schools, 20,000 Lakota students and 8 Native tribes to preserve Lakota culture.

Lakota nation is comprised of more than 170,000 tribal members but today only 6,000 of them speak Lakota language of which majority of them are over 70 years. The aim of ‘Rising Voices/Hothaninpi is to combine the efforts of Lakota and non-Native people into conserving Native languages in a world of daily struggle against extinction (Fingers 62). The project incorporates a documentary film that portrays the Lakota culture and the dangers it faces in today’s world from the perspective of a Lakota tribe member. The film probes change and inspires effort to revitalize the language among Native people of North and South Dakota. The project also aims in providing numerous educational materials for those who may want to learn Lakota, know its importance and the risks of its extinction (Goldberg, Dennis & Natalia).


According to Jannette Murray, various non-natives American have had the interest in learning Lakota for quite a number of reasons. Missionaries of the early 19th century learned Lakota so that they could communicate with the people from Dakota and Minnesota; this was necessary for effective missionary work. Later in the 19th century, the Federal Government saw the importance of collecting and preserving research information on the customs, beliefs, culture and language of the Native Americans inhabiting the West and the plains. For instance the Congress of the American Ethnology Bureau assembled several scholars to research on the Native American tribes and records their findings on annual reports and bulletins. After the 1930s English became more widespread in America, thus language study and research became a branch of university coursework under the field of applied linguistics.

In 1917, Lakota language speakers inhabited diverse lands of North Carolina, Bilox, Mississippi, the Rocky Mountain and some parts of Canada. Lakota tribes inhabiting North and South Dakota speak three dialects of the Lakota family. Nakota also known as N dialect is spoken by the Yankton inhabiting the Yankton Reservation and the Yanktonai inhabiting the Standing Rock Reservation, the Lower Crow Creek and the Fort Rock Reservation (Palmer). Dakota also known as D dialect is applied by the Mdewakantonwan tribe inhabiting the Sisseton and Fort Totten Reservation, the Wahpeton people staying in Sisseton, Flandreau and Fort Totten (Palmer). Lakota, alternatively called L dialect is spoken by more tribe members of Toten also referred to as western Sioux (Palmer). Other tribe members are Sihasapa or Blackfoot of the Standing Rock, Minnecojou, Hunkpapa, Sihasapa, Sans Arc of the Cheyenne River, Oohenonpa or the Two Kettle, Brule and Oglala of Rosebud, the Brule of the lower Brule lands and Brule and Oglala of the Pine Ridge regions (Murray). Nakota, Dakota and Lakota languages only vary in small pronunciation and vocabulary differences.

There are two major study periods recorded of the Dakota and Nakota languages, which are somewhat similar. The first studies were conducted by missionaries in the Santee tribe and published in the late 19th century. The second studies were conducted by missionaries in the Teton tribe from 1890-1932, which was sponsored by the American Ethnology Bureau. Among the Santee people inhabiting Minnesota, research began in the 1820s to 1830s (Wilson & Eli). Incidences recorded include establishment of a trading booth at Lac que Parle on the Minnesota bank by a French/Indian trader called Joseph Renville; later he was followed by other traders and missionaries. In 1834, missionary brothers Samuel and Gideon Pond moved from Connecticut and settled in Minnesota among the Sioux people. Their first encounter with the Lakota was at Prairie de Chien where they began learning the language through inquiring of the Lakota names of various objects. The Pond brothers interacted with more Sioux people and their learning of the language progressed. In 1836, Gideon Pond met Dr. Thomas Williamson who was also a missionary at Renville Post at Lac que Parle. In 1837, Rev. Stephen Riggs joined the missionary group.

Among the achievements of the missionaries were translation of hymns and Bible stories into Dakota/Lakota. Rev. Riggs and Dr. Williamson worked side by side from 1835-1840 and they were sponsored by the Historical Society of Minnesota and the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (Palmer). In 1852, a ‘Dakota Grammar and Dictionary’ was published and edited by Riggs; the Pond brothers felt it was unfair they were not included in the credential yet they participated in the edition. In 1858, the story ‘The Pilgrims Progress’ was translated into Dakota. In 1890, the North American Ethnology Bureau revised and expanded the translated dictionary that was first edited by Riggs. In the year 1893, the U.S. Geographical and Geological Survey published a book containing Dakota Grammar Texts and Ethnography. According to Murray, three non-Indian Dakota speakers who became famous storytellers were David Grey Cloud who was a preacher, Micheal Renville the son of James Garvie and Joseph Renville who taught at the Nebraska Indian School founded by Rev. Alfred Riggs. The recording of these accounts was very momentous because they were Native stories told by Native speakers and not translations of English stories into Native language.

The son of Dr. Thomas Williamson, John Williamson migrated with the Santee to the Crow Creek Reservation after an uprising in 1862 that forced them to migrate from Minnesota. He continued with his missionary work at Crow Creek; he wrote the Dakota language which led to the publishing and reprinting of the Dakota dictionary in 1868, 1886 and 1902. The published dictionaries of Williamson and Riggs became useful to other missionaries in the Dakota regions and they continued to be used for several years. However the goal of Riggs and other missionaries was not to conserve the language and culture of the Sioux but to create a foundation for transformation of the Dakota language and culture into English language and non-Native customs. Therefore the works of the missionaries did more harm than good to the well-being of the Native Americans. Riggs recorded in his Ethnography that the work of missionaries is to introduce Christianity and civilization among the Indian tribes, which may cause extinction of the Indian tribes but they would be merged into the great American nation and would be guaranteed civil rights as other American citizens (Fenelon & Dorothy 29). According to Riggs and his colleagues the Indian nation was backward and they labored to civilize the Indian tribes so that they could become like the rest of the American society.

Among the Lakota tribes of Teton Sioux, various missionaries worked for example Rev. Eugene Buechel who came from Germany. He established the Holy Rosary Mission ministry at the Pine Ridge Reservation in 1907 under sponsorship from the Catholic Church. His work progressed for approximately 40 years where he assembled Lakota words to compose a dictionary. In 1939, he published ‘A Grammar of Lakota’ which is a detailed grammatical book. His Lakota dictionary was published in 1970 and it is the best Lakota dictionary available to date. Despite the highly recognized publishes from scholars, they encountered various challenges during their linguistic study of Dakota/Lakota language. For instance during translations from English to Dakota, the scholars assumed that every syllable in Dakota was a meaning therefore every English syllable or word has a Dakota equivalent. This action led to the occurrence of many unidiomatic forms especially in Bible translations and prayers done by missionaries.

During the civil war, the U.S. government saw the need of making treaties with the Native Americans who inhabited the western states. Therefore a central system was established to identify, locate and classify the Indian tribes for purposes of administration (Fingers 62). The Bureau of American Ethology of the Smithsonian Institution took up the administrative role from 1878-1932 by publishing 48 volumes of ethnic reports; the U.S. Geographical Survey Commission put their effort into producing some of the reports (Murray). In 1932 the last volume was published. In 1891, Bureau of American Ethnology made its first publication ‘Indian Linguistic Families of America North of Mexico’ which was put together by Powell J.W (Fingers 62). To date scholars use Powell’s publication as a reference source but make few changes to it. In 1891, the Bureau published research findings of James Owen Dorsey on ‘Siouan Cults Study’ who was a missionary among the Ponca Indians in Nebraska from 1871-1873 (Goldberg, Dennis & Natalia). He also conducted studies comparing languages of Omaha, Biloxi, Ponca, Kansa and Winnebango tribes. Unlike earlier missionaries, Dorsey conducted his linguistic studies with an objective approach. He applied the principle taught by Franz Boas of Columbia University. Instead of questioning the Native storyteller about native language and legends, he observed it better to let the Indian storyteller narrate legends and stories in his own words. Therefore Dorsey cited the words spoken by native speakers for example George Bushotter, John Bruyier and George Sword instead of directly quoting Dakota/Lakota texts in his work.

In 1896, James Mooney published ‘The Ghost Dance Religion of the American Indian’. In the introductory part of his work he explained that the aim of his study was not to differentiate one native language from another because that would require devotion of extra years to study language spoken by every Indian tribe. Thus his work was not linguistic because linguistic work was for the philologist. However Mooney was much interested with the Kiowa tribe but did not insert texts from the original language in his work. He worked closely with Lakota speakers such as George Sword from the Pine Ridge in South Dakota, American Horse and Fire Thunder (Murray). In 1917, the American Museum of National History published the work of Walker J.R. ‘The Sun Dance and Other Ceremonies of the Oglala tribe of the Teton Dakota’ (Fenelon & Dorothy 29). Walker was a doctor in the Pine Ridge regions; he made acquaintances with many Lakota religious leaders but worked more closely with an Indian police called George Sword. Sword could not read nor did write but he narrate Lakota sayings by use of phonetic symbols. Walker described Sword a wise philosophical man who had more knowledge than an average Oglala tribe member. Therefore he narrated mythological and religious stories of the Teton tribe way before the arrival of the white men in their lands. In 1918, Bureau of Ethnology published ‘Teton Sioux Music’ which is the work of Franees Densmore. Densmore translated Lakota songs into English but most words he still recorded in English. He worked with Mrs. James McLaughlin, the wife of Major McLaughlin who spoke Dakota, several Indian singers of the Standing Rock and Robert Higheagle who was a graduate of Hampton.

Unfortunately in 1932 the Federal government ceased its funding of the Ethnology Bureau because of the 1930s depression. However the Bureau had published several works that contained a vast information on the Sioux nation. Most of the published work was kept under museum collections. Most scholarly work however did not contain versions of the original Sioux language. After 1932, linguistic study of the Indian languages developed into a new stage under the guidance of Franz Boas of Columbia University. In 1911 American Ethnology Bureau published Boas’ book called ‘Handbook of American Indian Languages’. In the introductory section to the book, Boas pointed out the limitations of the old research methods and indicated new research methodological principles that would create effective results. He emphasized that deep comprehension of the Indian language was the key to effective transcription and translation (Wilson & Eli). Therefore Boas explained the importance of knowing and understanding Native languages so as to obtain accurate and thorough information and to take active part in the daily lives of the Indians; more so a scholar who does not understand the language cannot gain access to the nation’s culture and tradition oracles. Boas himself was familiar with Dakota/Lakota language and he trusted the narrations of the Native speakers than the linguist publications of scholars. In 1929, Ella Deloria became Boas’ assistant in Dakota language research under ethnology and linguistics in the Arthropology Department at the University of Columbia.

Deloria was born in 1888 and raised at the Standing Rock Reservation where her father Rev. Phillip Deloria was a missionary and a priest. She was thus exposed to the Dakota dialect spoken by her family members and the Lakota dialect of the Huukpapa tribe. She studied the Riggs and Williamson books as her first textbooks and later on learnt English. She attended Columbia University from 1913-1914 where she received training in linguistic theory, research methods and phonetics. In accordance with Fenelon and Dorothy, she worked with Boas for almost 12 years; she spent the first half of the year’s gathering stories from various Sioux reservations and comparing them while the second half was spent in refining the narrations of Sword, Bushotter and other Native narrators at New York editing (32). Deloria had some advantages that enabled her to proceed with her work effectively. First, she was born and raised in the Native culture; therefore she was familiar with all subtle meaning of terms and twists that only Native speakers could comprehend unlike the non-Native missionaries who only learnt the languages during their translation work. Second, Deloria was proficient in English unlike many of Native narrators for example Sword. Deloria went on to publish two volumes of work that were exceptional. The first published in 1932 was called ‘Dakota Texts’ which contained 64 tales and legends narrated by Lakota storytellers from Pine Ridge, Standing Rock and Rosebud regions (Murray). One tale called ‘The Deer Woman’ was narrated by her father in Nakota dialect. Unlike the missionary and scholarly work, Deloria included original text in her work in the form of literal and free translations accompanied by grammatical notes and phonetic transcriptions. In 1941 ‘Dakota Grammar’ was published which contained detailed grammatical explanations of the Lakota language according to its own structure and categorical function instead of applying the German, English of Latin categories (Fingers 62). Deloria continued with her linguistic studies throughout the 1960s but her Lakota-English dictionary was left unfinished when she died in 1971. The dictionary manuscript along with other pieces of her work is stored at the University of South Dakota in her name.

In the present times, there has been a spark of interest for the study of the Native languages. Many Indian college students express the desire to learn Native languages spoken by their ancestors and preserve their Indian culture thus creating the demand for Native language manuscripts (Goldberg, Dennis & Natalia). This has led to reprinting and reproduction of publications of the pioneer scholars of linguistic research in Dakota/Lakota language (Fenelon & Dorothy 35).


In the present times, the culture and language of the Native Indians also known as Sioux Indians suffers risk of extinction due to the massive widespread of English language everywhere in our society. Some organizations see the need to preserve Native languages and culture for example the Lakota Language Consortium and the Language Conservancy. The Language Conservancy has worked with Florentine Films/ Hott Productions to establish a documentary project called Rising Voices/Hothaninpi whose documentary film airs the voice of the Native Indians probing Indians and non-Indians to work towards conserving their language and culture.

The Indian language has been of great interest since the 19th century. Extensive research and studies were conducted by scholars and missionaries, which led to the publication of several manuscripts transcribed from Native narratives and legends and translation of English stories into the Dakota/Lakota language along with Dakota/Lakota dictionaries. The work of scholars fell under the limitation of being highly dependent on translation because of lack of understanding of the Native language. Ella Deloria who was a linguist research assistant overcame the obstacles experienced by scholars and missionaries because she was familiar with the Native Indian language and culture, thus she made publications that included original texts of the language that were excluded in previous manuscripts.

Works Cited

Fenelon, James V., and Dorothy LeBeau. "Four Directions for Indian Education: Curriculum Models for Lakota/Dakota Teaching & Learning." indigenous and minority education (2006): 21-68.

Fingers, Keely Ten. "Rejecting, revitalizing, and reclaiming: First Nations work to set the direction of research and policy development." Canadian Journal of Public Health/Revue Canadienne de Sante'e Publique (2005): S60-S63.

Goldberg, David, Dennis Looney, and Natalia Lusin. "Enrollments in Languages Other Than English in United States Institutions of Higher Education, Fall 2013." Modern Language Association. Modern Language Association. 26 Broadway 3rd Floor, New York, NY 10004-1789, 2015.

Murray, Janette. "Linguistic research in Dakota/Lakota language." (2012).

Palmer, Jessica Dawn. The Dakota peoples: A history of the Dakota, Lakota and Nakota through 1863. McFarland, 2011.

Wilson, Angela Cavender, and Eli Taylor. Remember this!: Dakota decolonization and the Eli Taylor narratives. U of Nebraska Press, 2005.

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