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The Sioux Language

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

In the summer of 1834, Major Bliss, the commandant of Fort Snelling at the head of navigation on the Mississippi, finally gave Samuel and Gilvert Pond permission to set up a mission near an Indian village on the south shore of Lake Calhoun a league or so from the fort. The brothers built a snug and sturdy two-room log cabin as a church and living quarters. They learned to hunt in order to supply themselves with food. Then they realized they were not quite ready. Perhaps it was when they turned to the task of translating the Bible that they realized a potential problem: language. Neither brother spoke the Sioux language; even if they had, there was no written language to translate.

The brothers were not discouraged. The mission would just have to wait a bit longer. Samuel and Gilvert patiently learned the language over the next two years. At the same time, they devised a way of adapting the English letters the Sioux language. They took letters not needed in Dakota, as the language was called, and used those letters to represent strange Dakota consonant sounds not found in English. In the Pond alphabet, as it came to be called, each letter represented one sound and one sound only.

By 1839, the Ponds had a dictionary collection of three thousand Dakota words, complete with a grammar. Sioux Indians using the Pond alphabet quickly learned to read and write in their own language. Soon, the Ponds had added a Dakota spelling book, a Dakota First Reading Book, and then a Dakota Second Reading Book. In 1850, Gilvert Pond began editing a Dakota language newspaper, the Dakota Friend.  In 1852, the Smithsonian Society published a large Grammar and Dictionary of the Dakota Language based on the work of the two brothers who had fixed that language in written form, and recorded Sioux customs already vanishing.

The Ponds did write a few religious texts in Dakota, including A History of Joseph from the book of Genesis, and a catechism, and they did eventually set up the mission they had come from Connecticut to establish, and they persisted in mission work in Minnesota to the ends of their lives, though they found the Sioux had a "general tendency to reject the white man's religion." Perhaps the Sioux were too busy reading books.

Rock Island Lines with Roald Tweet is underwritten by the Scott County Regional Authority, with additional funding from the Illinois Arts Council and Augustana College, Rock Island.

Beginning 1995, historian and folklorist Dr. Roald Tweet spun his stories of the Mississippi Valley to a devoted audience on WVIK. Dr. Tweet published three books as well as numerous literary articles and recorded segments of "Rock Island Lines." His inspiration was that "kidney-shaped limestone island plunked down in the middle of the Mississippi River," a logical site for a storyteller like Dr. Tweet.