Siouan Phonetic and Graphic Arts

The Siouan stock is defined by linguistic characters. The several tribes and larger and smaller groups speak dialects so closely related as to imply occasional or habitual association, and hence to indicate community in interests and affinity in development; and while the arts (reflecting as they did the varying environment of a wide territorial range) were diversified, the similarity in language was, as is usual, accompanied by similarity in institutions and beliefs. Nearly all of the known dialects are eminently vocalic, and the tongues of the plains, which have been most extensively studied, are notably melodious; thus the leading languages of the group display moderately high phonetic development. In grammatic structure the better-known dialects are not so well developed; the structure is complex, chiefly through the large use of inflection, though agglutination sometimes occurs. In some cases the germ of organization is found in fairly definite juxtaposition or placement. The vocabulary is moderately rich, and of course represents the daily needs of a primitive people, their surroundings, their avocations, and their thoughts, while expressing little of the richer ideation of cultured cosmopolites. On the whole, the speech of the Siouan stock may be said to have been fairly developed, and may, with the Algonquian, Iroquoian, and Shoshonean, be regarded as typical for the portion of North America lying north of Mexico. Fortunately it has been extensively studied by Riggs, Hale, Dorsey, and several others, including distinguished representatives of some of the tribes, and is thus accessible to students. The high phonetic development of the Siouan tongues reflects the needs and records the history of the hunter and warrior tribes, whose phonetic symbols were necessarily so differentiated as to be intelligible in whisper, oratory, and war cry, as well as in ordinary converse, while the complex structure is in harmony with the elaborate social organization and ritual of the Siouan people.

Many of the Siouan Indians were adepts in the sign language; indeed, this mode of conveying intelligence attained perhaps its highest development among some of the tribes of this stock, who, with other plains Indians, developed pantomime and gesture into a surprisingly perfect art of expression adapted to the needs of huntsmen and warriors.

Most of the tribes were fairly proficient in pictography; totemic and other designs were inscribed on bark and wood, painted on skins, wrought into domestic wares, and sometimes carved on rocks. Jonathan Carver gives an example of picture-writing on a tree, in charcoal mixed with bear’s grease, designed to convey information from the “Chipe’ways” (Algonquian) to the “Naudowessies,” 1 and other instances of intertribal communication by means of pictography are on record. Personal decoration was common, and was largely symbolic; the face and body were painted in distinctive ways when going on the warpath, in organizing the hunt, in mourning the dead, in celebrating the victory, and in performing various ceremonials. Scarification and maiming were practiced by some of the tribes, always in a symbolic way. Among the Mandan and Hidatsa scars were produced in cruel ceremonials originally connected with war and hunting, and served as enduring witnesses of courage and fortitude. Symbolic tattooing was fairly common among the westernmost tribes. Eagle and other feathers were worn as insignia of rank and for other symbolic purposes, while bear claws and the scalps of enemies were worn as symbols of the chase and battle. Some of the tribes recorded current history by means of “winter counts” or calendaric inscriptions, though their arithmetic was meager and crude, and their calendar proper was limited to recognition of the year, lunation, and day-or, as among so many primitive people, the “snow,” “dead moon,” and “night,”-with no definite system of fitting lunations to the annual seasons. Most of the graphic records were perishable, and have long ago disappeared; but during recent decades several untutored tribesmen have executed vigorous drawings representing hunting scenes and conflicts with white soldiery, which have been preserved or reproduced. These crude essays in graphic art were the germ of writing, and indicate that, at the time of discovery, several Siouan tribes were near the gateway opening into the broader field of scriptorial culture. So far as it extends, the crude graphic symbolism betokens warlike habit and militant organization, which were doubtless measurably inimical to further progress.

It would appear that, in connection with their proficiency in gesture speech and their meager graphic art, the Siouan Indians had become masters in a vaguely understood system of dramaturgy or symbolized conduct. Among them the use of the peace-pipe was general; among several and perhaps all of the tribes the definite use of insignia was common; among them the customary hierarchic organization of the aborigines was remarkably developed and was maintained by an elaborate and strict code of etiquette whose observance was exacted and yielded by every tribesman. Thus the warriors, habituated to expressing and recognizing tribal affiliation and status in address and deportment, were notably observant of social minutiae, and this habit extended into every activity of their lives. They were ceremonious among themselves and crafty toward enemies, tactful diplomatists as well as brave soldiers, shrewd strategists as well as fierce fighters; ever they were skillful readers of human nature, even when ruthless takers of human life. Among some of the tribes every movement and gesture and expression of the male adult seems to have been affected or controlled with the view of impressing spectators and auditors, and through constant schooling the warriors became most consummate actors. To the casual observer, they were stoics or stupids according to the conditions of observation; to many observers, they were cheats or charlatans; to scientific students, their eccentrically developed volition and the thaumaturgy by which it was normally accompanied suggests early stages in that curious development which, in the Orient, culminates in necromancy and occultism. Unfortunately this phase of the Indian character (which was shared by various tribes) was little appreciated by the early travelers, and little record of it remains; yet there is enough to indicate the importance of constantly studied ceremony, or symbolic conduct, among them. The development of affectation and self-control among the Siouan tribesmen was undoubtedly shaped by warlike disposition, and their stoicism was displayed largely in war-as when the captured warrior went exultingly to the torture, taunting and tempting his captors to multiply their atrocities even until his tongue was torn from its roots, in order that his fortitude might be proved; but the habit was firmly fixed and found constant expression in commonplace as well as in more dramatic actions.


McGee, W. J. The Siouan Indians. Published in the Fifteenth Annual Report of Bureau of Ethnology, 1893 – 1894. Washington. 1897.

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  1. Travels Through the Interior Parts of North America in the Years 1766, 1767, and 1768; London, 1778, p. 418.[]

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