DeMallie – Language

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From the beginning of their relationship with Europeans and Americans, the Dakota have always resisted integrating words from European languages into their own language. They’re not people who borrow words from other languages. So, for the Dakotas, [for] the various new things that were brought into their territory by Euroamericans, they created new words or they recycled old words. I think one of the most interesting is the word for White men themselves. When White men first came to Dakota Territory in the 1600s, they were inexplicable. Where did they come from and why did they look that way? Their faces are hairy. And why do they have no women? And why do their clergymen wear dresses? These were mysterious to the Dakota people. It was unclear why this should be. When Pierre-Charles Le Sueur visited the Dakotas in the 1690s, he makes it very clear that the Dakotas addressed him as wašíchuŊ, which means “spirit” [Riggs: waśi’ćuŋ, “Frenchman,” same as wakan or “spirit”). What kind of spirit, we really don’t know. We can only assume that there was some kind of spirit entity that for some reason the Dakotas associated with the White people and chose to use that word to designate the Whites. Perhaps it was a spirit related to warfare. There seems to be a bit of evidence for that. But over time, of course, the White people quickly proved themselves to be not spirits. They had, for example, a strong affinity for Dakota women. And so when their humanity became very obvious, the word wašíchuŊ began to take on a new meaning in Dakota, so that by today, for example, many Dakotas will say the word is really not wašíchuŊ but waší icú, “takers of the fat,” because the White people always take the best things for themselves.

Well, when the White people came, of course it was first missionaries who settled among them. And so there were many concepts that they introduced that the Dakotas described using the word wakháŊ. WakháŊ means “sacred” or “mysterious” or “incomprehensible” [in Riggs: wakaŋ, “sacred,” “incomprehensible,” “spiritual”]. So, for example, a clergyman was called wacháša wakháŊ, meaning “mysterious man” [in Riggs: wića’śtawakaŋ, “minister”]. A church was a thípi wakháŊ, a “mysterious house” [Riggs: ti’piwakaŋ, “sacred house”]. A denomination was okhólakichiye wakháŊ, a “mysterious society.” So these words were associated with Christianity.

Many of the things that were brought to the Dakotas by Europeans were incomprehensible to them, things that they couldn’t make themselves and that they didn’t really understand. So they used the word wakháŊ to indicate these things. So for example you have máza wakháŊ, “the mysterious metal,” which refers to guns [Riggs: ma’zawakaŋ, “gun”], or mí wakháŊ , “the mysterious knife” [Riggs: miwa’kaŋ, “sword”], refers to swords such as officers carry. Or the word mní wakháŊ, which means “mysterious water” [Riggs: mi’niwakaŋ, “water-spirit”] which refers to alcohol, brandy, or whatever type of alcohol was brought to the Indians in those days. These objects then shared this quality of being wakháŊ, and so the word wakháŊ is a very productive one in the Dakota vocabulary and was used in association with everything that came from the White 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

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