Canku Ota Logo

Canku Ota

Canku Ota Logo

(Many Paths)

An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America


June 15, 2002 - Issue 63


pictograph divider


Keeping the Flame of a Language Alive

by Dorreen Yellow Bird columnist for the Grand Forks Herald

Myths and Traditions of the Arikara IndiansIndian people throughout the nation are losing their languages at an alarming rate. This means the culture of the 540-plus tribes may be lost forever

In Indian country, some say this is well and good. We should all speak one common language. That will build stronger relationships, they say.

Dr. Douglas Parks, an anthropologist at Indiana University in Bloomington, Ind., disagrees. (As do most Native people, I think.) With Parks' help, the Sahnish (Arikara) and Lakota Sioux languages are being studied and documented for preservation at the American Indian Research Institute, which Parks founded.

I had to giggle at my audacity when I called Parks about the institute, because he remembered me as one of those “Sahnish women” who gave him a hard time several years ago when he came to visit White Shield. He laughed about it, too, so I think he is over it.

My excuse is that when university types study our people, this “bug with the pin through her midsection” gets a little cranky. I remember that meeting with him because I fumbled with Sahnish words, and Parks broke into fluent Sahnish. Here was a Sahnistaaka (white man) who could speak better than most Arikara, I knew. It was a scary realization of how much we had lost.

Parks' program, however, is a stone in a path to reclaiming our laws, songs, cures, wisdom and prayers. He has several books, has put together some language tapes and is working with the White Shield school on a language program.

It is important that our Native languages don't disappear. The language is extremely important because it is a different way of thinking - for example, a Sahnish word or sentence sometimes cannot be translated into English. Part of who we are would disappear with the language.

Plus, if the language is no longer spoken, many of the cultural elements specific to a group are lost, Parks said. “It stands for and sums up the entire economy, religion, health care system, and philosophy. There is very little in the culture that does not require language.”

While I was home this weekend, the family gathered for a graduation celebration. The day after the celebration, we all sat over breakfast and talked about the grandson who prayed and sang in Sahnish at the graduation celebration. My aunt and mother cried while he sang and talked. It was long time since they had heard the young people speak the language.

Then my aunt told this story about her sister - my mother, Dorothy. Years ago (my aunt said), when her mother and her mother's two sisters were alive, they came to visit my mother, Dorothy. Mary, one of the elder aunts, who used crutches all of her life because of a childhood accident, always had a good sense of humor - though sometimes it was a little off-color. But then, all those old people were pretty frank. Well, my aunt said. Your grandmas Mary, Daisy and Philomene were all seated in a room in the basement of the house. Your mother came running down the stairs and said in Sahnish to Grandma Mary, “Quick, look out the window.”

All three of the women's heads turned - but to look at my mother, not out the window. The women uttered a long drawn out, “Myyyy.”

Then Grandma Mary asked my mother, “Do you know what you just said to me? You just told me, in Sahnish, to put my derrière out the window - and the window is too small for me.” Grandma Mary was not a slim woman.

When my aunt finished telling this story, my other aunts nodded in agreement. The Sahnish language isn't easy to learn, and is even harder to get the correct pronunciation, they said. In fact, they didn't learn the language either, because some of the elders had laughed at their Sahnish pronunciations.

One of my relatives from Spirit Lake tries to teach us Sahnish. I usually write it in English phonetically, then I can remember it. He told one of his students that he (the student) spoke Sahnish with a Norwegian accent. Yes, it is hard to rid ourselves of our non-Sahnish accents, we agreed.

I first heard my nephew speak the language in a ceremony. It was dark, but I knew it was him because I recognized the language and some of the words. It was as if the grandfathers were speaking to us. I cried like my aunt and mother when I heard the sounds and I remembered my grandmother.

There is an awakening among the Sahnish people about the language. When our parents were young, they knew the language, but were influenced by the non-Indian teachings that said they were better off to leave the language and culture behind. You live in the white world, so forget the old ways, they were told.

It must have been the prayers of the elders that give the Sahnish incentive and tenaciousness to keep words on our tongues. Today we have records, computer programs and books of the language - and slowly, speakers are rising from the books and tapes.

We prayed that day that those tears would nourish the sounds and words of the Sahnish people, and these words would grow into tall and great understandings of our culture and people.

Yellow Bird writes columns. Reach her at 780-1228, (800) 477-6572 ext. 228 or

American Indian Studies Research Institute
In 1985 the American Indian Studies Research Institute (AISRI) was founded at Indiana University to serve as an interdisciplinary research center for projects focusing on the native peoples of the Americas. AISRI was founded in part on the premise that language, culture, and history are inextricably interrelated, and that to fully understand and describe the language, culture, or history of a people, a study of one of these topics must be informed by work in the others.

pictograph divider


Home PageFront PageArchivesOur AwardsAbout Us

Kid's PageColoring BookCool LinksGuest BookEmail Us


pictograph divider

  Canku Ota is a free Newsletter celebrating Native America, its traditions and accomplishments . We do not provide subscriber or visitor names to anyone. Some articles presented in Canku Ota may contain copyright material. We have received appropriate permissions for republishing any articles. Material appearing here is distributed without profit or monetary gain to those who have expressed an interest. This is in accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. section 107.  

Canku Ota is a copyright © 2000, 2001, 2002 of Vicki Lockard and Paul Barry.


Canku Ota Logo


Canku Ota Logo

The "Canku Ota - A Newsletter Celebrating Native America" web site and its design is the

Copyright © 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002 of Paul C. Barry.

All Rights Reserved.

Thank You