Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


Classification of Native Languages of the Great Plains


  • Arikara
  • Pawnee
  • Kitsai
  • Wichita
  • Caddo
  • Jumano (?)


  • Sarcee
  • Kiowa Apache
  • Jicarilla
  • Lipan
  • Jumano (?)


  • Mandan
  • Hidatsa
  • Crow
  • Assiniboine
  • Stoney
  • Santee-Sisseton
  • Yankton-Yanktonai
  • Teton
  • Iowa
  • Otoe
  • Missouria
  • Winnebago*
  • Omaha
  • Ponca
  • Osage
  • Kanza (Kaw)
  • Quapaw*


  • Blackfoot
  • Arapaho
  • Atsina
  • Cheyenne
  • Sutai
  • Plains Cree
  • Plains Ojibwa
  • Kickapoo*
  • Fox-Sauk*
  • Peoria*
  • Miami*
  • Kaskaskia*
  • Ottawa*
  • Potawatomi*
  • Shawnee*
  • Delaware*


  • Cherokee*
  • Seneca*
  • Wyandotte*


  • Choctaw*
  • Chickasaw*
  • Creek*
  • Seminole*


  • Shoshone
  • Comanche
  • Jumano (?)


  • Kiowa
  • Jumano (?)


  • Modec*


  • Nez Perce*


  • Tonkawa

* Removed to Great Plains by federal order

The Great Plains has long been the home to a multitude of distinct Native voices. The language of each family, band, community, or nation has developed to embrace and describe a dynamic life. Through their oral tradition, communities transmit a rich heritage of spiritual, historical, and practical knowledge to their children. The tools of archeologists, linguists, and historians can be combined with the memories of Native elders to study the rise, decline, and survival of these linguistically diverse communities. One useful linguistic device for organizing the many languages of the Great Plains is the "family." It works by placing languages and dialects into groups that exhibit features suggesting a common linguistic origin at some time in the past. Not all languages can be so easily categorized. For example, the Jumano language family of the Southern Plains has been variously identified as sharing features with the Athapaskan, Caddoan, Uto-Aztecan, and more recently, Tanoan language families.

Prior to the European advent of the Great Plains in the 1500s, two language families, Caddoan and Siouan, were already long represented in the region, and several others could be found along the perimeter. Caddoan speakers are some of the oldest communities of the region to survive into contemporary times. They were distributed from the Southern Plains (Wichitas, Caddos, and Kitsais), through the Central Plains (Pawnees), to the Missouri River in the Dakotas (Arikaras). Siouian speakers were the Mandans and Hidatsas of the middle Missouri River and the Crows of the Montana Plains. Except for the Crows, these Caddoan and Siouan speakers were agriculturalists residing near rivers.

Around the margins of the Great Plains were many communities taking seasonal advantage of bison resources. They represented a variety of language families, including Siouan speakers in the north and eastern periphery, Apachean Athapaskan speakers along the western edge, Uto-Aztecan and Tanoan speakers penetrating from the western mountains and moving southward, Algonquian speakers across the northern regions, and some linguistic isolates such as the Tonkawas in the south. The introduction and spread of the horse after the 1750s, together with increasing pressures from European American interests, encouraged many of these groups to become full-time Plains residents. Some entered into trading arrangements with Plains agriculturalists, Puebloans, or Spanish settlements. Communication between these diverse groups was facilitated by fictive kinship relations established through ceremonial adoptions, intermarriage, sign language, and the multilingual abilities of many Plains residents.

In the 1800s the equestrian nomadic bison hunters came to dominate the Great Plains. Their lifestyle became the stereotyped image of the region, including their use of sign language for intergroup communication. While there is no evidence of a single unified sign system, the dynamics of trade, alliances, and warfare created a need for a rich system of nonverbal communication. The greater mobility and contact with linguistically diverse groups in the Great Plains made sign language a necessity. Short-term alliances, such as the one among the Cheyennes, Sioux, Arapahos, Kiowas, Comanches, Apaches, and others against the Utes, may have served to standardize to some degree the gesture language in use by Plains residents.

After 1830 the federal government sanctioned the forced removal of many eastern, and some western, Native American communities into the Great Plains, which dramatically increased the linguistic diversity of the region, adding new voices from the Siouan, Algonquian, Muscogean, Iroquoian, Klamath-Modoc, and Sahaptian language families. However, catastrophic epidemics and other pressures from both inside and outside of the Native communities worked against the survival of Indigenous languages. Missionary and federal strategies of assimilation operated to vilify and reduce the use of Native languages and the cultural identities and communities they supported. The ongoing effect of such policies has been the slow strangulation of many Native voices. Languages such as Kitsai, Lipan, Missouri, Quapaw, and Tonkawa have been silenced, while many more have been weakened to a whisper.

Language helps to carry a people's history, culture, worldview, and wisdom. It is our great fortune that a diversity of Native languages has survived in the Great Plains. Geographic isolation and local willpower have assisted some communities in resisting assimilation to an English-only existence. Many more communities are joining a rising tide of Native American language awareness, maintenance, and revival efforts. However, their success is not guaranteed. Revival strategies vary between communities, due to differences in local needs, values, and resources. All are faced with the daunting task of securing a place for their voices when the mainstream language has such an overwhelming presence. Without vibrant Native voices lifting into the air with song, story, and prayer, how can we speak to our children about the history of the Great Plains?

Mark J. Awakuni-Swetland University of Nebraska-Lincoln

Campbell, Lyle, and Marianne Mithun, eds. The Languages of Native America: Historical and Comparative Assessment. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1979.

Hollow, Robert C., and Douglas R. Parks. "Studies in Plains Linguistics: A Review." In Anthropology on the Great Plains, edited by W. Raymond Wood and Margot Liberty. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1980: 98–109.

Schlesier, Karl H., ed. Plains Indians, A.D. 500–1500: The Archaeological Past of Historic Groups. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1994.

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