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 defi

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,(18) 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


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 Asiniboin.(19)

In like manner the cegiha, {~LATIN SMALL LETTER TURNED T~}{~LATIN SMALL LETTER OPEN O~}iwe're, and Hotcangara 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,(20) and it was the

boast of the Mandan that they were the original people of the earth.(21)

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 Hunkpapa;

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 Brule, 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, Brule, 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.