Lakota Language: Art, Oral Tradition, and Language Structure

Communication in the Lakota culture took place through a combination of oral tradition, artistic depiction, and (today) written text using various alphabets. Although ways of communicating have been transformed by European culture, the Lakota language itself is still used today and there are a number of fluent speakers. It is taught in school and used in religious ceremony. Although text is an imperfect reflection of Lakota oral tradition, it has been important in preserving it. Today, the easiest way to learn the language is through text books and online sources. Before text, drawings were used to record important events and are a useful tool in conjunction with text, as they are direct products of the Native artist.

Historically, the Lakota relied on a rich oral tradition to preserve the legends and stories that maintained their spiritual way of life. Creation stories were known only among the holy men, who passed them down through the generations. No single holy man knew all the creation myths. These stories would likely have been lost, if a European doctor named James Walker had not taken it upon himself to write them down. At first, the Lakota holy men told Walker only the common stories known the whole tribe, but as time passed Walker grew closer to the Natives. Eventually, they initiated him into their group and he learned the secret creation myths as well. He was one of the first to translate Lakota to English. However, written text lacks some of the complexities of oral tradition. Dramatic pauses in the story and change in tone to denote different characters require the human voice, and so in translated versions important aspects of the original stories are lost.

However, oral tradition was not the only means of communication used by the Lakota. Many visual records still exist from the nineteenth and early twentieth century’s. Drawings and paintings were done on tanned animal hide, and then on unbleached muslin when European contact facilitated trade. Images were used to record everything from religious ceremonies to battles to everyday events. The image below on the left shows a sun dance ceremony, with a lightly drawn sun dance tree in the center of the traditional wooden structure. The image on the right is a Lakota calendar, with each symbol denoting a certain year in Lakota history. Elders and tribe members would refer to the calendar for story telling information to teach to children. More drawings can be seen in the appendix


Black Elk Speaks.) Visual records are important because they give a sense of the Lakota imagination and culture directly from the artist, rather than through a European lens. Especially when it comes to conflict with Europeans, drawings are one of the few sources that offer unfiltered indigenous views of the events.

Today, Lakota language is written down using various alphabets, depending on the nation or tribe. Some use phonetics, while others do the best they can with the English lettering system. vMany vowel sounds in Lakota are similar to English, while others (an, in, on, un) are half pronounced through the nose like in French. Consonants often have multiple pronunciations depending on where they are located in the word. For example the “s” in sunka (dog) is pronounced with a soft “sh” sound. (For more information on Lakota alphabets and pronunciation go to

The image below serves to juxtapose all the elements discussed above. On the left side is a legend written in Lakota, and on the right is the same legend in English. The images in the center serve as visual means to communicate the story. It begins when a man tells his wife he has decided to go hunting. He kills a dear, taking only its skin and then ends up climbing into an eagle’s nest to capture the infant birds. He gets stuck there and plans to make a rope out of the skin and attach it to a pine tree to escape.

~Kylie Anderson



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