The Language of the American Indian

horseheader11.jpgHello friend!

Han Kola! (Lakota)  Oki Napi! (Blackfeet)  Rockste!  Friends (Iroquois)  Pave-eseeva! — Good morning!  (Cheyenne)  Ka-hee hii-la!  (hello young lady) (Crow)

Now, please bear with me.  I’m not an expert on this subject, but in writing books about the above tribes, I have collected together a bit of their language.  How one pronounces some of these words is best learned by going amongst the various tribes and listening and paying attention when they are speaking their own language.

But I thought it might be fun to have a look at some catch phrases from the various tribes.  images27

While I won’t be able to say the same thing in all languages, here’s a few phrases:

Lakota:  Hello!  Women (Han)  Men (Hau — pronounced how)

                   How are you? I am fine.

                    Toniktuka hwo?  Ma tanyan yelo.

images12Crow:  It rained yesterday.

               Huuleesh xalaak.

Did you know that for the Crow and the Navajo, English is a second language?

Blackfeet:  I said it.  It is good.

                                                     Nitanistoo pa.  Soak piiwa.

images32Here’s another one:  Cheyenne:  Let’s talk Cheyenne!


Iroquois:  When will you come again?

                       Catteges issewe?

images15Okay, now I’m going to teach you one that I use alot.  It’s phrase in English is simly “Good.”  Its use is to acknowledge something someone else has said or to simply say something is good. 

The sign language is:  This is from the online dictionary by William Tomkins (picture of the book cover below):  “GOOD (meaning: level with the heart). Hold the flat right hand, back up, in front of and close to left breast, pointing to left; move hand briskly well out to front and to right, keeping it in a horizontal plane.”  


As you do the above directions, one then says at the same time (depending on what tribe you are talking to):

Soka-pii (Blackfeet)

Oyendere (Iroquois)

E-peva e (Cheyenne)

It-che (Crow)

Waste’phot0110 (Lakota or Sioux)

I truly hope I have intrigued you.  One of the most fun things I’ve learned is a bit of sign language (this picture off to the side by the way is of myself and Patricia Running Crane Devereaux at Glacier Nat’l Park — right next to the Blackfeet rez).  If you are intrigued by language or sign language, here are some books you might think of purchasing:

books1books11I have both of these books and they are terrific — great for learning, great for obtaining a little bit of first hand history and great for research.  And of course, if you’re considering buying books at all, let’s not forget this one: 🙂51obnqdgasl_sl500_aa240_1

I will be on the road this day of posting, but do stop by and leave a message.  Other fillies will be checking in and will really enjoy talking to you.

Have a super and magical day!   Nitanistoo pa.  Soak piiwa.

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KAREN KAY aka GEN BAILEY is the multi-published author of American Indian Historical Romances. She has written for such prestigious publishers as AVON/HarperCollins, Berkley/Penguin/Putnam and Samhain Publishing. KAREN KAY’S great grandmother was Choctaw Indian and Kay is honored to be able to write about the American Indian Culture.
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11 thoughts on “The Language of the American Indian”

  1. Hi Karen, I got a taste of researcing American Indian languages for my March 2010 book. It’s set in Kansas and has a scene where a Kansa woman returns two lost children. I looked all over for the words for “Goodbye, mother” and discovered very little of the Kansa language has been preserved or written down. Oral traditions are precious and fragile. Really enjoyed your post!

  2. As I thought about commenting here I began to count and realized I’ve now used
    Tlingit (an Alaska tribe)
    Flathead; Shoshone; and now for my WIP Navajo in my work. It’s really hard when you’re writing a western not to have some Native American characters.
    I think I did the most research for my first contracted book Golden Days because my heroine was 1/4 Tlingit and she was very at home in the Alaska wilderness. So I not only have to find a few Tlingit words to salt the dialogue (I used them very minimally) but I also needed to show how competent she was in Alaska–and if course SHE might have been competent but I was NOT. So studied plants, animals, native clothing, natural medicine. I really enjoyed doing that. LOTS of work.

    Right now my WIP moves through Navajo country in the Four Corners area. New Mexico, Nevada, Arizona and Colorado. So I’m hunting for Navajo language, names, culture. I’m a big Tony Hillerman fan so I’ve got some of that to work with but maybe I almost know too much. They have names they call themselves, names only they and their families know. Birth names, names that they take after they’re older…and NO last names, not in their culture but of course they do have last names…anyway, fascinating, pretty confusing and also completely unneeded for the book I’m writing.
    I spent about an hour last night looking at hogans. Trying to decide how they’re build and how they’d look, the size.

    Great post, Karen

  3. Hi Kay,
    This is fun! I love learning greetings in other languages! I’ve learned a little Cheyenne for a book I did years ago, called Renegade Wife. And learned about how the Cheyenne taught their children. Have a safe trip!!

  4. Kay, this is fascinating. I love knowing other languages and since the Native Americans speak in such a unique way, it’s great knowing a few phrases.

    I love the way you incorporate some of these into each of your books. I especially enjoyed the extra flavor it gave “Black Eagle.” It reminded me of “The Last of the Mohicans.” That was one of the best stories I’ve read in a long time. It doesn’t skimp on action and your descriptions are breathtaking. I recommmend it to anyone who loves Native American stories. It’s just magical.

    Hope you have a great time on your trip.

  5. Mary, you amaze me. You go to great lengths to get your stories right. I used to live in New Mexico so I’m really drawn to the Navajo. They were one of the most peaceful tribes in the West and do beautiful jewelry work. That’s one reason I love going to Santa Fe and Taos. I always load up on turquoise and silver trinkets.

  6. The really hard part of all the research, Linda, is that I researched for HOURS on the Navajo, then used about two paragraphs of all I’d learned. And isn’t that always the way of research.

  7. Vicki, I can’t think of anyting more sad than to lose a language. But that’s happened in some tribes who never had a written language, only oral. I read an article not too long ago that said as the elders are dying off, the language is being lost. There’s no one to teach it to the younger generation. That breaks my heart.

  8. I’m fascinated by people who can learn a second (or third or fourth) language – and more than a little jealous. I’ve learned the language of music, but the others elude me. Thanks, though for the phrases. I’ll have to practice now.

  9. I love languages! And I’m fascinated how in some languages you have an exact word or phrase to express something, while other language doesn’t have one. For instance the Finnish words ruska (all those pretty colors in trees you see at autumn) and hankiainen (this happens at spring, when snow melts at daytime, but freezes again at night and for a while in the morning it’s so hard you walk on it without sinking) don’t have any equivalence in English.

  10. You are lucky if languages come easily to you. Some of us can try, but it does no good. I was in the Peace Corps and studied the local dialect. After 3 years I still didn’t do terribly well. English was used in the country and that lessened the necessity for the dialect. Total immersion is the best way. The native languages in this country are so very different, knowing a little of one wouldn’t help much to know the others. I truly wish I knew those in the area where I live.

  11. Karen, as always, a fascinating post that I really enjoyed. Thanks for sharing your vast knowledge of Native American languages, culture, etc.

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