Language of the Plains Tribes

As Stated at the outset, it is customary to classify peoples according to their languages. The main groups are what are called stock languages, or families. Under such heads are placed all languages that seem to have had a common origin regardless of whether they are mutually intelligible or not. Thus English and German are distinct forms of speech, yet they are considered as belonging to the same stock, or family. In North America, there are more than fifty such families, of which seven have representatives in the Plains. Only one, however, the Kiowa, is entirely confined to the area, though the Siouan and Caddoan are chiefly found within its bounds. The others (Algonkian, Shoshonean, Athapascan, and Shahaptian) have much larger representation elsewhere, which naturally leads us to infer that they must have migrated into the Plains. Though this is quite probable, it cannot be proven from the data at hand, except possibly for the Algonkian speaking Plains-Ojibway and Cheyenne, of whose recent movement out into the Plains, we have historic evidence. These tribes are of special interest to students, since in a comparatively short period of time, they put away most of their native culture and took on that of their neighbors in the Plains.

Indians Or The Plains, According To Language
Siouan Language
Algonquian Language
ArapahoGros Ventre
Caddoan Language
Kiowan Language
Shoshonean Language
Bannock Northern Shoshoni
Wind River Shoshoni
Athapascan Language
KiowaApache Sarsi
Shahaptian Language
Nez Percé

The Athapascan speaking Kiowa, Apache and Sarsi are also worthy of notice because the family to which they belong has representatives in five of the eight great culture areas into which North American cultures are localized, affording us the unique example of five distinct cultures with languages of the same family, or stock.

Returning to our classification of Plains tribes under linguistic families, it may be well to note that while it is absolutely true that these families have nothing in common, the differences between the various tribes under the same stock are by no means equal. Thus while a Dakota and an Assiniboin can make them selves partially understood, Dakota and Crow are so different that only philologists are able to discover them to be of the same family. Again, in the Algonkian group, the Arapaho and Gros Ventre are conscious of having related languages, while the Blackfoot lived on neighborly terms with the latter for many years as did the Cheyenne with the Arapaho, not once, so far as we know, discovering any definite relation between their languages. It is well to remember, therefore, that the term linguistic stock does not denote the language or speech of a particular tribe, but is a designation of the philologists to define observed relationships in structure and form, and that the speech of these Indians differs in varying degree as one passes from one group to the other. Thus, the seven tribes of the Dakota form at least three dialectic groups: the Eastern tribes say Dakota and the Teton, Lakota, one always using d for the other s l; the Santee hda (go home), the Teton, gla and the Yankton kda. Even within the different communities of the Teton small differences are said to exist. Hence, the differences in speech are after all gradations of variable magnitude from the study of which philologists are able to discover relationship and descent, all believed to have originated from one now extinct mother tongue being classed under one family, or stock name. In short, there are no language characters peculiar to the Plains tribes, as is the case with other cultural characters.

The foregoing remarks apply entirely to oral language. We must not overlook the extensive use of a sign language which seems to have served all the purposes of an international or intertribal language. The signs were made with the hands and fingers, but were not in any sense the spelling out of a spoken language. The language was based upon ideas alone. Had it been otherwise, it could not have been understood outside of the tribe. Though some traces of such a language have been met with outside of the Plains, it is only within the area that we find a system so well developed that intertribal visitors could be entertained with sign-talk on all subjects. The Crow, Kiowa, Arapaho, Cheyenne, and Blackfoot are generally regarded as having been most proficient and the Omaha, Osage, Kansas and Ute, as least skilful in its use. It may not be amiss to add that in most tribes could be found individuals priding themselves in speaking one or more languages. In former times, many Nez Perce, Blackfoot, Gros Ventre, Dakota, and Mandan are said to have known some of the Crow language which was in consequence often used by traders. This, if true, was no doubt due to the peculiar geographical position of the Crow. The sign language, however, could be used among all tribes familiar with it and must, there fore, be considered one of the striking peculiar traits of the Plains and an important factor in the diffusion of culture.


Wissler, Clark. North American Indians Of The Plains. Smithsonian Institution, New York. 1920.

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