A black and white illustration of a person laying their head on the bottom of a large statue head.

Language of the Spirit

Words by Ruth H. Robertson

Artwork by Moonassi

More than mere words, a language holds the identity of a people. For Indigenous tribes in the U.S., safeguarding Native languages means keeping their belief systems alive. 

The Santee Sioux tribe has interacted with many creatures since time immemorial. Some of these beings are not known to the colonizer, nor would they likely be acknowledged by Western science because they are enigmatic and there is no tangible evidence of their existence.


But as Indigenous people, we possess the humility to hold space for the incomprehensible. While traditionally we do not categorize beings as intrinsically good or evil, there is one type of creature that we avoid. They are humanoid, child-like in stature, and covered in hair. They have bright, red eyes and a name, but their name is never spoken or written down—it can only be heard.


They most frequently approach and speak to children—seemingly telepathically—but among themselves, these creatures have their own tongue.


Are these creatures physical, spiritual, or both? To my ancestors, such a distinction was irrelevant. The reality of the spirit world has never been in doubt to the Santee. It is a part of our everyday lives and permeates all things, even those things that the Western world deems inanimate. Thus, it is only natural that we realize that language can also be transcendent.


Today, my people are fighting to save our own ancestral language, the Dakota dialect of the Oceti Sakowin (Sioux) language, from extinction. When the federal government realized they could not kill all Indigenous people, they switched tactics. Instead of terminating us, they attempted to assimilate us into American society as a new servant class. In the 1800s, the U.S. government decided that they would attempt to “kill the Indian and save the man” by stealing Native children and shipping them off to distant boarding schools where they would be indoctrinated into Christianity and subjected to long hours of hard labor, starvation, torture, neglect, and abuse. The boarding school system served the government’s end of stripping Native children of their kinship bonds, cultures, belief systems, and languages. In their stead, the boarding schools taught Native children English, the vernacular of the colonizer.


Once the presence and purpose of boarding schools became public knowledge, decent people were rightfully horrified. Some in academia began to understand the vital importance of a distinct language to the existence of a people. Ironically, even the U.S. military learned that attempting to destroy Native languages was a fatal error, as these very same languages became crucial to the Allied victory during World War II, when Native codetalkers stupefied enemy forces by using their ancient syntax to relay unbreakable ciphers.


The government’s plan to assimilate Native Nations was even more ominous than it appeared. Under the U.S. government, Native Nations have to fight to be recognized. One way to do so is for a tribe to prove that it has its own unique culture and language. But if a tribe has had its language and culture stripped from them, it becomes harder to establish their right to exist, jeopardizing their access to their own ancestral homelands. 

An illustration of someone standing over and covering the eyes of another person who is in front of them, crouching down away from them.

Language holds the identity of a people. Within a language, you discover how its speakers view the world. Within the Dakota language, you will see how we understand landscapes, embrace the relatedness of all things, and view sex and gender. Origin stories are hidden within place names—our very historical record is revealed. Our language evolved from the lives we lived in our lands for millennia.


But what may be most overlooked is the importance of language to the spirituality of a people. Among the Santee, medicine people had their own language. This sacred, ceremonial tongue, passed down through the ages by ancestors and dreams, granted medicine people the ability to speak to the deities of old, perform magic, see visions, and create miracles. When the colonizer attempted to take our language from us, they were robbing us of more than our culture, history, and unique identity. They were taking away our ability to commune with our ancestors and pray to our gods. They were not just stealing our voices and our ability to connect with our grandmothers and grandfathers, they were cutting our soul ties.


When we die, a Santee must have a Dakota name, or we will be nameless in the spirit world. Our own family will not know what to call us. We will be like strangers. To my ancestors, I am not Ruth Robertson. I am Cankudutawin (Red Road Woman or the Scarlet Way). To steal the language of another, to take it without asking, is as vile a wrong as one can commit.


Even as I write these words in the colonizer’s language, I struggle to explain the significance of the Dakota language to my people as a Santee woman. The English language is so constrained. There is so much that it fails to understand, just like the colonizer. It is often clumsy and unfeeling—cold and disconnected from the natural world. The Universe does not speak English. So I press on, through the ineptness of English, hoping that somehow my heart will translate what my spirit tells me to illuminate on this page. It cannot be confined to mere words.


I am the daughter of a boarding school survivor whose Native language was beaten out of him when he was just four years old. I count myself as blessed because the Dakota language still survives for me to relearn. So I say the words, and the ancestors hear me and can be proud of my efforts, even if only in dreams and visions—and the rocks, trees, animals, and creatures invisible to the modern world will recognize me and know that my people are still here.


Iapi Dakhóta Teuƞḣiƞdapi. We cherish the Dakota language.


Waŋná Dakhóta uŋkíapi kte. Now we’re going to speak Dakota.

This article first appeared in Atmos Volume 08: Rhythm with the headline “Language of the Spirit.”

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