Follow the Stories | Bismarck, North Dakota (2006)
Dakota, Lakota, Nakota: Languages of the Sioux
This man purchased a Dakota Bible he found in a pile of books at Fort Yates, North Dakota.
Map: The ancestral lands of the Nakota, Dakota, and Lakota people lie within several present-day states of the American Midwest.
This rare Bible was written in Dakota, a language of the American Plains Indians still spoken today.
At the Bismarck ANTIQUES ROADSHOW in the summer of 2005, a man brought in a rare book he bought for spare change at Fort Yates, North Dakota, part of the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation. It is a Christian Bible with a twist: it was written in the Dakota language. The book was brought to the ROADSHOW about a month after another book called Lahcotah: Dictionary of the Sioux Language, was brought in to the ROADSHOW event in Tampa, Florida. We were curious: The names are clearly similar, but what distinguishes the Dakota and Lakota languages?
We began our search for an answer by calling Dixie Thompson, director of the Akta Lakota Museum and Cultural Center, a museum of the Northern Plains Indians in Chamberlain, South Dakota. "That's one of the most frequently asked questions we get at the museum," Thompson said.
More on the languages of the American Plains Indians
Three Related Peoples
Thompson explained that the Lakota and the Dakota, together with the less-known Nakota Nation, formed three geographic and linguistic members of the Oceti Sakowin (pronounced "Oh-SHAY-tee SHAW-ko-ween"), which means "Seven Council Fires." The name refers to seven Indian groups of the northern Great Plains; the groups were collectively called the Sioux by Europeans.
Prior to European contact, the Lakota, Dakota, and Nakota groups lived a principally nomadic life, following the buffalo herds. They inhabited lands that went north to what is now North Dakota, south to Nebraska, east to Wisconsin and west to Wyoming. The Dakota, who lived in the easternmost area of the three, lived between forks of the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers in what is today Minnesota. The Lakota, which means "prairie dweller," were the western-most group, and lived in large swaths of South Dakota, Wyoming and Montana. The Nakota lived between the other two, and between the Missouri and James Rivers in what is today Iowa and North and South Dakota. According to their own folk history, the three groups came from the Black Hills, an area that they consider sacred and call Paha Sapa, meaning "the heart of everything that is."
In the late 19th century, after the railroads hired hunters to exterminate the buffalo — which the Oceti Sakowin depended on for food, clothing, and shelter — the Plains Indians were forced on to reservations in the Midwest, where many still live today.
Keeping the Language Alive
To get a better understanding of the Sioux languages, Thompson suggested we speak to Earl Bullhead, the Lakota Language Project director at Lower Brule Community College in Lower Brule, South Dakota. He explained that Lakota, Dakota, and Nakota are actually dialects of the same language — in a similar way as are high and low German, or Irish and American English. The dialects, especially the Dakota and Lakota, are still spoken by many elderly Sioux, but the languages are disappearing as the older generation of speakers continues to age and dies away. At the time of this writing only six Lakota speakers were known to still be living in Lower Brule, according to Bullhead.
But, he goes on to say, there is a growing interest in saving these dialects from extinction. "We're developing a curriculum to teach in the schools, and having students learn to read and write Lakota so they can be certified by the state to teach it," he says, adding, "This is a first step." Bullhead is also leading a project to use compact discs, cassette tapes, and video tapes to record elders speaking the Lakota language so it won't be forever lost.
"If anyone has any spare equipment, such as microphones, editing equipment, monitors, copiers, video cameras, we can use whatever we can get," he says, "if you know any philanthropists ... "
See the Bismarck, North Dakota (2006) page for a list of all appraisals from this city.
For more information about the Lakota, Dakota, and Nakota languages and people, try these resources:
Earl Bullhead, the Lakota Language Project director at Lower Brule Community College in Lower Brule, S.D., can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
A Lakota woman who is descended from Sitting Bull describes a meal she cooks to honor her friends at pbs.org/circleofstories.
More ANTIQUES ROADSHOW articles from the Books & Manuscripts category:
Standing Up to the Academy (Bismarck, 2006)
Tate Gallery Archive (Honolulu, 2007)
Rare Portraits Survive Museum Blaze (In a Way) (Mobile, 2007)
Eleanor Roosevelt Archive (Philadelphia, 2007)
Early Mormon History Explained (Salt Lake City, 2007)
Dennis Gaffney is a freelance writer in Albany, New York. He has been a contributor to Antiques Roadshow Online since 1998.