Siouan Tribal Nomenclature

In the Siouan stock, as among the American Indians generally, the accepted appellations for tribes and other groups are variously derived. Many of the Siouan tribal names were, like the name of the stock, given by alien peoples, including white men, though most are founded on the descriptive or other designations used in the groups to which they pertain. At first glance, the names seem to be loosely applied and perhaps vaguely defined, and this laxity in application and definition does not disappear, but rather increases, with closer examination.

There are special reasons for the indefiniteness of Indian nomenclature: The aborigines were at the time of discovery, and indeed most of them remain today, in the prescriptorial stage of culture, i.e., the stage in which ideas are crystallized, not by means of arbitrary symbols, but by means of arbitrary associations, 1 and in this stage names are connotive or descriptive, rather than denotive as in the scriptorial stage. Moreover, among the Indians, as among all other prescriptorial peoples, the ego is paramount, and all things are described, much more largely than among cultured peoples, with reference to the describer and the position which he occupies – Self and Here, and, if need be, Now and Thus, are the fundamental elements of primitive conception and description, and these elements are implied and exemplified, rather than expressed, in thought and utterance. Accordingly there is a notable paucity in names, especially for themselves, among the Indian tribes, while the descriptive designations applied to a given group by neighboring tribes are often diverse.

The principles controlling nomenclature in its inchoate stages are illustrated among the Siouan peoples. So far as their own tongues were concerned, the stock was nameless, and could not be designated save through integral parts. Even the great Dakota confederacy, one of the most extensive and powerful aboriginal organizations, bore no better designation than a term probably applied originally to associated tribes in a descriptive way and perhaps used as a greeting or countersign, although there was an alternative proper descriptive term. “Seven Council-fires” apparently of considerable antiquity, since it seems to have been originally applied before the separation of the Assiniboin. 2 In like manner the Ȼegiha, ʇɔiwe’re, and Hotcañgara groups, and perhaps the Niya, were without denotive designations for themselves, merely styling themselves “Local People,” “Men,” “Inhabitants,” or, still more ambitiously, “People of the Parent Speech,” in terms which are variously rendered by different interpreters; they were lords in their own domain, and felt no need for special title. Different Dakota tribes went so far as to claim that their respective habitats marked the middle of the world, so that each insisted on precedence as the leading tribe, 3 and it was the boast of the Mandan that they were the original people of the earth. 4 In the more carefully studied confederacies the constituent groups generally bore designations apparently used for convenient distinction in the confederation; sometimes they were purely descriptive, as in the case of the Sisseton, Wahpeton, Sans Arcs, Blackfeet, Oto, and several others; again they referred to the federate organization (probably, possibly to relative position of habitat), as in the Yankton, Yanktonai, and Huñkpapa; more frequently they referred to geographic or topographic position, e.g., Teton, Omaha, Pahe’tsi, Kwapa, etc; while some appear to have had a figurative or symbolic connotation, as Brulé, Ogalala, and Ponka. Usually the designations employed by alien peoples were more definite than those used in the group designated, as illustrated by the stock name, Asiniboin, and Iowa. Commonly the alien appellations were terms of reproach; thus Sioux, Biloxi, and Hohe (the Dakota designation for the Asiniboin) are clearly opprobrious, while Paskagula might easily be opprobrious among hunters and warriors, and Iowa and Oto appear to be derogatory or contemptuous expressions. The names applied by the whites were sometimes taken from geographic positions, as in the case of Upper Yanktonai and Cape Fear the geographic names themselves being frequently of Indian origin. Some of the current names represent translations of the aboriginal terms either into English (“Blackfeet,” “Two Kettles,” “Crow,”) or into French (“Sans Arcs,” “Brulé,” “Gros Ventres”); yet most of the names, at least of the prairie tribes, are simply corruptions of the aboriginal terms, though frequently the modification is so complete as to render identification and interpretation difficult it is not easy to find Waca’ce in “Osage” (so spelled by the French, whose orthography was adopted and mispronounced by English-speaking pioneers), or Pa’qotce in “Iowa.”

The meanings of most of the eastern names are lost; yet so far as they are preserved they are of a kind with those of the interior. So, too, are the subtribal names enumerated by Dorsey.Citations:

  1. The leading culture stages are defined in the Thirteenth Annual Report of the Bureau of Ethnology, for 1891-92 (1896), p. xxiii et seq.[]
  2. Cf. Schoolcraft, “Information,” etc, op. cit., pt. II, 1852, p. 169. Dorsey was inclined to consider the number as made up without the Asiniboin.[]
  3. Riggs-Dorsey: “Dakota Grammar,Texts, and Ethnography,” Cont. N.A. Eth., vol. IX, 1893, p. 164.[]
  4. Catlin: “Letters and Notes,” op. cit., p. 80.[]


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

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