“Dakota” and “Sioux”: A tale of protest, told in etymology

Since spring, the Standing Rock Sioux have led protests against the path of the Dakota Access Pipeline near the Missouri River and Lake Oahe by their reservation in North Dakota, fearing the oil pipeline could contaminate their water supply and desecrate sacred sites nearby. But this Sunday, their hard-fought efforts met with victory: the US Army Corps of Engineers did not approve an easement for the pipeline to go through the route in question. 

Here’s a look into the origins of Dakota and Sioux, which turn out to be perfect metaphors for this incredible protest:

Friends and foes

The meaning of Dakota, the name and language of a Sioux tribe which also graces two states in the Upper Midwest, is usually given as “friend” or “ally.” The etymology, though, may be a bit more complex. John Koontz, a linguist who specializes in Siouan languages, supposes dakota, or lakota in Lakota dialect, literally means “to be a friend by means of heat.” This “heat” may reference the Seven Council Fires, the confederation of the Sioux tribes, which alludes to “the ceremonial action of the council fires [started for gatherings] in establishing or signifying the friendship among the various Lakota (and Dakota) people.”

The Oxford English Dictionary first attests Dakota in the 1804 Journals of Lewis and Clark. Clark wrote: “This nation call themselves–Dar co tar. The French call them Souex.” Indeed, Sioux, first attested in English in 1761, is shortened from Nadouessioux, which early French explorers adapted from Natowessiwak, the name neighboring Ojibwe peoples gave to the Dakota.

It’s not a kind term, Natowessiwak. The word is pejorative and diminutive, and, according to Koontz, has two meanings: 1) “little snake,” referencing the massasauga, a small rattlesnake; and 2) “little barbarian,” literally “speaker of a foreign language.” It’s not clear which sense is primary, but both meanings belittle the Dakota as outsiders. There is much precedent for this, though: the Greek’s called foreigners barbaroi, a word that imitates the sound of unintelligible language and gives us the word barbarian. And Welsh comes from a Germanic root for “foreigner.” 

The exact etymologies of Dakota and Sioux are uncertain, but they sum up the story of the Standing Rock protests quite powerfully: Through solidarity and community action, the protestors prevailed over many who saw them, and their objections to the pipeline, like some sort of pesky other.

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