Thursday, February 9, 2017

A Changing Landscape, How To Pronounce Oahe

Oahe Reservoir Area, Missouri River, North & South Dakota, NPS.
A Changing Landscape
Displacement And Site Names

By Dakota Wind
Cannonball, N.D. (TFS) – The only time the Mníšoše (Water-Astir; Missouri River) should not flow, is after Wazíya (The Power Of The North) has blown his cold wind across the land and has frozen the waterways. That is the natural cycle of the earth.

In 1872, Thomas Riggs, an Indian missionary, arrived in Dakota Territory and established Hope Mission. Two years later, Riggs moved the mission to Peoria Bottoms and referred to this new mission as the Oahe Indian Mission. The mission school served students from Standing Rock, Cheyenne River, and Rosebud until it closed in 1914. (Note: see glossary to learn how to pronounce "Oahe".)

Riggs’ name for the Oahe Indian Mission, was inspired by his father, Stephen Riggs, also a missionary and author of A Dakota-English Dictionary. A possible explanation for Riggs’ naming of his mission was that the meaning of Oahe is similar to the naming of Simon to Peter, who is renamed in Matthew 16:18: “…and on this Rock will I build my church.” The Dakota word for Foundation is Oáhe, meaning, “Something To Stand On.”

Oahe Indian Mission at Peoria Bottom, Dakota Territory. NPS

A likelier possibility for Riggs’ mission name may come from the fact that his mission was established at a well-used steamboat landing on the floodplain of the Missouri River at Peoria Bottom, S.D. The steamboat landings were called: Wátapȟeta Oáhe (lit. “Boat-Fire Something-To-Stand/Land On”).

The Mníšoše was a whirling river, dangerous to those who didn’t know it or respect its waters. It swirled where tributaries converged with it, and river crossings were made upstream of the whirlpools. The river ran brown because of all the sediment picked up by the stirrings. Steamboat traffic referred to the river as the “Big Muddy.” Water drawn from the river had to settle a day before using it. 

Herd of bison on the Missouri River by Karl Bodmer. 

The first nations who lived along the river were well aware of the annual spring floods. The sedentary tribes built their villages above the flood plain and farmed the rich bottomlands. The spring floods were difficult to anticipate too. The tragic flood of 1825, at the point opposite of the mouth of Íŋyaŋ Iyá Wakpá (“Talking Stone River”), also called Íŋyaŋwakaǧapi Wakpá (“Stone-Makes-For-Itself River”), or the Cannonball River, is a testament to the unpredictability of the river. 1825 is remembered by the Húŋkpapȟa as Mní wičhát’tÁ, or “Many Died By Drowning.”

The location of the flood was known after as Étu Pȟá Šuŋg t’Á, or “Dead Horse Head Point,” in memory of all the horses that drowned in a line there. Their deceased loved ones and their dead horses were interred where the camp was located, which was on a rise in the Mníšoše valley, opposite of the Cannonball River. That rise would later become an island which is sometimes submerged under the waters of Lake Oahe. 

Ronald Campbell at Pierre, S.D., where the Missouri River once ran free, July 1958. 

In 1948, the United States Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) began construction of the Oahe Dam and finished in 1959. The Oahe Indian Mission was moved to an area above the projected floodplain overlooking the dam, and the dam took its name from the mission. During those eleven years, salvage archaeology surveys were conducted where the lake was projected to submerge them.

The dams were constructed with an eye towards flooding reservation bottomlands. The only tribal consultation the USACE did with first nations was to inform tribes dams were going to be built to control the annual flooding and to offer tribes a one-time payment for the federal land grab. There was no negotiation. In fact, the first nations didn't even have some of the most basic rights as Americans. Pipelines and power lines were put in place without tribal consultation. The first nations had no political voice in the process.

In a discussion with Lekší Kevin Locke, Lake Oahe, has a darker connotation. When the flood came, it rose and receded, then rose more with each passing year. During the rising flood, buildings that were left behind on the bottomlands gradually fell apart leaving only the foundations, or Oáhe. 

A stone similar to this Standing Rock was placed on a pedestal in Fort Yates, N.D.

Back at the mouth of Íŋyaŋ Iyá Wakpá, there lived a Húŋkpapȟa man called Čhaŋtópȟeta (“Fireheart”). Agent McLaughlin selected Čhaŋtópȟeta to bring Íŋyaŋ Wosláta, the actual Standing Rock, into Fort Yates, the agency headquarters, so that it would serve as some kind of memorial. Instead, Čhaŋtópȟeta brought in a regular stone to fool the wašíču.

During the reservation era, the creek that converges with Iŋyáŋ Iyá Wakpá near the Mníšoše confluence was named Čhaŋtópȟeta Wakpála, or “Fireheart Creek,” after the man.

The first nations have stood in defiance of extinction and continuous dispossession of land, water, and sky. The settler has taken hold of Makȟóčhe Wašté (The Beautiful Country) and renamed the landscape and waters. This process is called oblivion, an intentional generational process of forgetting the landscape as the indigenous knew it, and replacing it until it is utterly forgotten. Some places still keep their names as the indigenous called them, mispronounced and bastardized, these contemporary place names are spoken. 

The ancestal homeland of the Yanktonai lay east of the Missouri River. Taken in Cannonball, N.D.

Regarding the rampant mispronunciation of traditional landscape names, Lekší Louie Garcia says this, “These news guys go out of their way to get the correct pronunciation of all these world leaders and places, but when it comes to our Native [sic] names- anything goes. I hope you and other Lakota speakers will start a campaign to correctly pronounce Oáhe.”

The late Rev. Innocent Good House (Húŋkpapȟa), an Episcopal minister for several years on the Standing Rock Sioux Indian Reservation recalled the Mníšoše of his youth, “An Indian believes the waters of a river should flow.” The river and lake are blue today. In summer they sparkle in the summer sun and in winter gleam like a knife's edge. There are recreation opportunities on the lake, but the living memory of the whirling river is nearly gone. 

Any development on the Mníšoše are land grabs and come at the expense of the first nations. The USACE were bold aggressors in the 1950’s, and are insincere on their promises at the present time. 

Dakota Wind is an enrolled member of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. He is currently a university student working on a degree in History with a focus on American Indian and Western History. He maintains the history website The First Scout.

GLOSSARY of Lakȟóta terms and names:

(* indicates a glottal accent)Čhaŋtópȟeta (chahn-TOH-ph*ay-tah): “Fireheart.” Never “CAN-toh-pet-ah.”

Čhaŋtópȟeta Wakpála (chahn-TOH-ph*ay-tah wahk-PAH-lah): “Fireheart Creek.”

Étu Pȟá Šuŋg t’Á (ay-TOO PH*AH shoong t’AH): “Dead Horse Head Point.”

Húŋkpapȟa (HOONK-pahp-h*ah). “Head Of The Camp Circle.” Hunkpapa. Never “HUNK-pah-pah.”

Íŋyaŋ Iyá Wakpá (EEN-yahn ee-YAH wahk-PAH): “Talking Stone River.” Cannonball River.

Íŋyaŋwakaǧapi Wakpá (EEN-yahn-wah-kah-g*ah-pee wahk-PAH): “Stone Makes For Itself [as in “production”] River.” Cannonball River.

Íŋyaŋ Wosláta (EEN-yahn wohs-LAH-tah): “Rock Standing-Upright.” Standing Rock.

Lekší (lek-SHEE): “Uncle.”

Makȟóčhe Wašté (mah-KH*O-chay wash-TAY): “The Beautiful Country.” This is the Lakȟóta way of saying “North America,” or “The Great Plains.” Contemporary Lakȟóta are rather inclined to use Khéya Wíta, “Turtle Island,” for North America.

Mníšoše (mih-NEE-sho-shay): “The Water-Astir.” The Missouri River.

Mní wičhát’tÁ (mih-NEE wee-CHAHT TAH): “Water They-Died.” They drowned.

Oáhe (oh AH-hay): “Something To Stand On.” Foundation. Never “O-wah-hee.”

Wašíču (wah-SHEE-chu): “A non-native person or people.” Anglo.

Wátapȟeta Oáhe (WAH-tah-p*ay-tah oh-AH-hay): “Fire Boat Foundation.” Steamboat Landing.

Wazíya (wah-ZEE-yah): “Power Of The North.” The North Wind.


Cerny, Jan. Lakota Sioux Missions, South Dakota. Mount Pleasant, SC: Arcadia, 2005.

Riggs, Stephen, ed. A Dakota-English Dictionary. 1890 Reprint ed. St. Paul, MN: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1992.

Garcia, Louie. Oahe., February 8, 2017.

High Dog. The High Dog Winter Count. n.p., 1911. Muslin cotton. State Historical Society of North Dakota.

National Park Service. “Oahe Reservoir: Archeology, Geology, History.” September 2008. Accessed February 9, 2017.

Locke, Kevin. Something To Stand On. August 2013.

Balmer, Randall. “Torpedo The Dams - And Free The Rivers.” December 15, 2012. Accessed February 9, 2017.

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