DeMallie – Christianity and Identity

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In the 1830s, the first resident Christian missionaries arrived among the Dakota. They understood their mission to be one of bringing the word of God to the Dakota people and the question was what was the most effective way of doing it. And as they arrived among the Dakota and understood the Dakotas’ lifeways, which at the time they were still hunting, they were still traveling about a great deal, and they were still speaking only their own language. The missionaries decided that the best thing that they could do was to learn the language themselves so that they could communicate with the Indians and then they would be able to translate the Bible and other sacred texts, hymns, etcetera into the Dakota language. The ultimate goal, of course, was to create a system that would allow the Indians themselves to write their own language and then to use this literacy in Dakota as a stepping-stone to learning English.

When missionaries first came in the 1830s, they found that the Dakota language had sounds with which they were not familiar. The language, for example, had a large number of glottal stops, so that, for example, you had sounds like k’a, c’a, s’a, and not knowing exactly how to write those, how to indicate them on paper, they decided to use dots under the letters to indicate this special sound. They also decided to use accent marks. An acute accent mark over a “C” to indicate [ch ] and over an “S” to indicate [sh]. And in short order they arrived at a writing system for the Dakota language that also could be easily printed.

The Dakotas embraced Christianity after the Dakota Conflict, primarily. Many of them turned to the church as a way of indicating outwardly their support of the federal government’s attempt to transform them into “civilized” people who could live alongside their White neighbors. It was in fact also a source of economic and political advantage to belong to a church, to be seen as a Christian.

After creating the alphabet for the writing of Dakota, it was very easy for Dakota people themselves to learn to write because the alphabet was phonetic. So if you spoke the language it took no time at all to memorize the letters and to learn how to write. Literacy became rampant among the Dakotas. They wrote letters to one another. Letters became the primary vehicle of literacy. And in no time, by the mid-nineteenth century, a newspaper was created, and this paper, called The Dakota Friend, published material in the Dakota language. Later, after the Dakota conflict, in the 1870s, a newspaper called the Iapi Oaye was printed at the Santee agency in Nebraska and that newspaper lasted from the 1870s all the way to 1938. And it published large numbers of letters from Dakota people, some of which were reporting local news, marriages, baptisms, deaths, births. But also what we would call editorials. Individuals writing their opinions and sharing them in the paper.

One of the unique things about Dakota people is the extent to which they embraced literacy. In fact, up until World War II, you’d have the impression that almost all Dakotas were literate. They were writing to one another. They were keeping diaries. They were writing letters. And all of this in the Dakota language. That provides a very important kind of identity. It makes it different, it makes them different, from all of the other tribes around, and certainly a point of great pride.

Along with this literacy, of course, came the use of Native men as religious leaders in their own right. They became deacons in the church and they learned to preach. They were able to spread the word of God separately from the non-Indian missionaries and in time the various churches all created either a position of deacon or in some cases Indian priest, as in the Episcopal Church. And these Native people then were creating a Christianity that was very much their own. It was a local Christianity heavily influenced by their Dakota heritage.

I think perhaps one of the most important things is how the church is involved in kinship networks. For example, each one of the churches had men’s and women’s societies and they were ways in which the people could become involved in social activities associated with the churches. The word for the society is okhólakichiye [Riggs’s Dakota dictionary: okiciyapi, “they help each other”] and this is the traditional society that men and women had in pre-Christian times, but now they were transformed into church societies. Instead of Sun Dances they had church get-togethers. You know, all the Catholic Indians got together in the summer, all the Episcopals, all the Congregationalists, they had their congresses. They camped out, you know. They had to—there was no place else to stay. These kinds of opportunities allowed the Dakotas to take charge of Christianity for themselves and to help direct the future of their people.

My name is Raymond DeMallie. I’m a Professor of Anthropology at Indiana University. I’ve been interested in the Dakota and Lakota peoples for my entire life and I have done anthropological and ethnohistorical studies with them for many years. My primary interests are in language and using language in order to understand culture and to understand the past through the writings of Lakota people themselves. I’ve also been involved in language projects on Lakota reservations, attempting to help develop curriculum materials that can be used to teach the language in schools. The language as spoken by the Dakotas and the Lakotas is rapidly vanishing and unless it is preserved through formal education, there’s a very strong likelihood that it will be lost forever. My work as an anthropologist attempts to reintegrate some of these old materials into the present and to show the value of the historical record and the anthropological record for Lakota people today.

Production credits:
Executive Producer, Loretta Fowler
Assistant Producer, Brian Mornar
Production by Mike Media Group,

Photo credits:
Stephen Riggs – courtesy of Minnesota Historical Society
Group in front of St. Cornelia’s Church, near Morton, MN, 1895 – Photo by N. B. Anderson, courtesy of Minnesota Historical Society
The Dakota Friend newspaper – courtesy of The Newberry Library (Ayer folio PM 1024 D3)
Ordination of Henry St. Clair at St. Cornelia’s Church, 1904– Photo by W. H. Kumro, courtesy of Minnesota Historical Society
Rev. J. J. Enmegahbowh – Henry Benjamin Whipple, Lights and shadows of a long episcopate, 1912 (Newberry Library, E5W577)
Catechist Napoleon Wabasha – Whipple, (Newberry Library, E5W577)
Ordination sketch with tepees – Whipple, (Newberry Library, E5W577)
Prayer books – courtesy of National Museum of the American Indian, Smithsonian Institution, #23/6809

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