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George Sword's Warrior Narratives: Compositional Processes in Lakota Oral Tradition

George Sword's Warrior Narratives: Compositional Processes in Lakota Oral Tradition

by Delphine Red Shirt

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Published through the Recovering Languages and Literacies of the Americas initiative, supported by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation

The general focus in Lakota oral literary research has been on content rather than process within oral traditions. In this groundbreaking study of the characteristics of Lakota oral style, Delphine Red Shirt shows how its composition and structure are reflected in the work of George Sword, who composed 245 pages of text in the Lakota language using the English alphabet. What emerges in Sword’s Lakota narratives are the formulaic patterns inherent in the Lakota language that are used to tell the narratives, as well as recurring themes and story patterns. Red Shirt’s primary conclusion is that this cadence originates from a distinctly Lakota oral tradition.

Red Shirt analyzes historical documents and original texts in Lakota to answer the question: How is Lakota literature defined? Her pioneering work uncovers the epistemological basis of this literature, which can provide material for literary studies, anthropological and traditional linguistics, and translation studies. Her analysis of Sword’s texts discloses tools that can be used to determine whether the origin of any given narrative in Lakota tradition is oral, thereby opening avenues for further research.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780803295049
Publisher: Nebraska
Publication date: 11/01/2016
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 376
File size: 592 KB

About the Author

Delphine Red Shirt (Oglala Sioux) is a lecturer in Native American studies and in the Special Languages Program (Lakota) at Stanford University. She has a PhD in American Indian studies from the University of Arizona and has previously served as chairperson of the nongovernmental organization committee on the International Decade of the World’s Indigenous People. Red Shirt is the author of Bead on an Anthill: A Lakota Childhood (Nebraska, 1997) and Turtle Lung Woman’s Granddaughter (Nebraska 2002). 

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George Sword's Warrior Narratives

Compositional Processes in Lakota Oral Tradition

By Delphine Red Shirt


Copyright © 2016 Board of Regents of the University of Nebraska
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8032-9504-9


Lakota Tradition

Briefly, the aim of the study was to fix with exactness the form of oral story poetry to see wherein it differs from the form of written story poetry. Its method was to observe singers working in a thriving tradition of unlettered song and see how the form of their songs hangs upon their having to learn and practice their art without reading and writing.

Adam Parry, The Making of Homeric Verse

In this study I describe and examine the practice of oral narrative among the Lakota people in order to determine the factors that make a certain form necessary, and then I analyze that form in detail. Initially this research began as a long-standing interest in the work of one individual, George Sword, who composed 245 pages of text in the Lakota language using the English alphabet. My interest was in how George Sword composed these long narratives, in particular the longer Sun Dance narrative, without the aid of any written text as a reference. Historically, scholars in Homeric studies found it difficult to explain how longer works were achieved in oral-tradition-based literature (Lord, Singer 10–11). They could not comprehend the technique of oral composition in oral poetry and in longer narrative works. Perceiving this problem early in this study, a way was cleared for seeking an answer to the question of how George Sword composed these narratives: to determine if his work was the product of an oral tradition that is older than any written text that existed at the time he wrote these narratives. The exact period when these texts were written is unknown, but it could have been at some time between 1896, the year that Dr. James R. Walker arrived at Pine Ridge, and 1910, the year that Clark Wissler refers to George Sword's writings. The curator of the Colorado Historical Society, Keith Schrum, has stated that although the manuscript is not dated, it is thought that George Sword may have written the narratives in the years prior to 1905.

The value of George Sword's work comes from his ability to read and write in Lakota using the English alphabet. My intuitive approach first led me to learn to read his distinctive handwriting in the original text written in the Lakota language and grammar and then to translate four narratives from the large collection of his texts, kept at the Colorado Historical Society in Denver. During the two years it took to translate George Sword's text from Lakota to English it became more and more apparent that it is of a poetic nature, arising from a practice that is old and conservative.

What was missing then was an analytical framework within which to analyze the problem of how George Sword composed these narratives. The work of Parry and Lord provided an attractive framework for analyzing George Sword's text, particularly Parry's emphatic edict to seek a solution from the text. George Sword's narratives are analogs to the epic poetries that Parry studied, and what Parry concluded about Homer's poems applies to George Sword's narratives: "An artifice of composition of this variety and of this thrift must have called for the long efforts of many poets who all sought the best and easiest way of telling the same kind of stories in the same verse form" (Making 266).

George Sword composed these narratives, some of great length, with only memory and the spoken word as his guide. An important factor that guided both Parry and Lord and that influenced this study is their determination that the poem in oral epic song — and by analogy, George Sword's narratives — originates in sound, not writing, and is composed in the same style other narrators used, which the singer or narrator remembers and follows (Parry, Making 270). According to Parry, writing may be known, but it will not influence the style or form of oral narratives, which are cultural and traditional (Making 270). Indeed, some Homeric scholars thought that the question of writing was more or less irrelevant to the study of oral narratives. Friedrich Wolf (1759–1824) pointed out that literacy was limited at the time the original pieces of the Iliad and the Odyssey were composed, and both narratives were unwritten. Wolf believed that they were "composed around 950 B.C. orally for recitation by rhapsodes, [and] were handed down by oral transmission until ... the sixth century B.C." (Parry, Making xv). Similarly, George Sword lived at a time when there was a limited use of writing for literary or any other purposes among the Lakota people, and the narratives he composed were unlike those that have been written since; it could be stated that although they were written, they were oral. He stated at the onset that he wrote as he spoke, preferring the old language and rejecting the new (Walker Collection, folder 108:1). In composing he used syllables, words, and word groups that he combined into sentences, stanzas, themes, and story patterns that he could easily recall, as he was culturally familiar with how they were used in composition in the Lakota oral tradition. He was able to construct these narratives by putting together both short and long narratives. He used familiar words and narrative phrases in accordance with fixed patterns determined by Lakota narrative tradition (Parry, Making 269).

In the Lakota language, according to George Sword, syllables are combined to form words; this is true for nouns and conjugated verbs, which are used to form sentences. In a simple Lakota sentence, the conjugated verb can serve as both the subject and the verb with the insertion of a pronoun syllable as a prefix or infix; verbs play a special role in composition, as will be shown later. Lakota verb conjugation becomes complex as one progresses from simple sentence construction to the sophisticated syntax found in George Sword's narratives. Indeed, the Lakota language comprises approximately five hundred syllables that form all words: of these, approximately 20 percent are complete words; of the rest, many are stems only, some are prefixes or suffixes, and a few are used as stems, prefixes, or suffixes (Buechel, Grammar 129).

Although he was free to weave his narrative, George Sword was bound by the traditional Lakota style he used. That is, his way of telling a narrative is not entirely his but is a way, within the Lakota culture, of telling these narratives, a style used by many others in Lakota oral tradition. This is similar to a tradition seen in the Yugoslav oral tradition, for example, where oral poets recite epic poetry in a diction that is made up of a large number of word groups that serve two functions: first, each one expresses an essential idea; and second, each fills a space in a verse to make a sentence (Parry, Making 270). Lord takes Parry's work further by defining formula using these elements as well as expanding on them (see chapter 4). In assessing style, Parry analyzed texts to determine whether the diction used in constructing narrative poetry through formulas was oral and traditional. What Parry found was that the more formulas in a poet's diction, the less likely one could attribute their use to a single poet (Making 272). This line of reasoning holds for George Sword's text, in particular the Sun Dance narrative (see chapters 4 and 6).

George Sword's knowledge of writing is proof of his literacy, although his literacy may have been restricted to the Lakota language. His proficiency in writing the English language is highly questionable given the time period in which he lived and wrote these narratives (see chapter 3). At the time George Sword composed these narratives, the Lakota culture was in transition between an oral world and one in which writing had been introduced. According to Parry, "Writing may be known ... the knowledge of writing may thus have some bearing on the text of the poem. But it will not have any upon its style, nor upon its form, nor upon its life in the group of poets and the social group of which its author was a part." Thus a good way to judge whether a given style is oral and traditional or not is to hear it in use or to compare it to the work of other poets who have composed verses using the same formula (Making 270). For George Sword's text a comparative example would be the hanbleble chapter in Black Elk Speaks, which uses formulaic language similar to Sword's (see chapter 4). The greatest single obstacle to our understanding of Homer, according to Parry, was a failure to see the difference between written and oral verse (Making 269), which is analogous to how scholars view oral tradition–based literature in American Indian and literary studies. Early in his work Parry's interest was in how these poems were made; they were influenced by literacy at the time they were composed (Making 421, 270). This is also true for American Indian oral tradition–based literature.

Purpose and Research Perspective

The purpose of this study is to demonstrate how oral narratives are composed by the Lakota people, to show how their practice produced a form. The focus is on four Lakota narratives written by George Sword, whose use of language, related to both historical and contemporary Lakota culture and society, is set apart by special conventions and traditions. An important assumption in this study is that literary genres — kinds of stories that are set apart in various ways by the texture of their language, by their form and structure — occur within a cultural framework that is not imposed upon externally.

The research perspective is qualitative, concerned with exploring, describing, and explaining a culturally specific oral narrative. This type of research is more commonly found in history and ethnographic disciplines, where ethnographic research is a special type of case study research. The primary method is an analysis of historic documents and original text in Lakota. I began by evaluating primary sources of oral narrative, including recordings and text written in Lakota, at the Oral History Center at the University of South Dakota, Vermillion; the Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, Washington DC; and the Colorado Historical Center in Denver. However, only the George Sword manuscript was selected for this study; the sheer number of lines of text and the extensive use of the Lakota language were dominant factors in the selection of these narratives. This primary text, written in Lakota, includes three shorter narratives and a longer narrative on the Sun Dance that I translated to analyze a tribally specific oral tradition. The historic recordings and text that I identified and evaluated are a small sample of the vast amount of oral literature that exists in the Lakota language.

Research Methods

The methodology involved three steps: first, an analysis of the content of the original text of the narratives in the Lakota language; second, word-for-word and literary translations of the text into English; and third, an application of oral theory to analyze the Lakota text in order to determine the process of composition of these narratives. Thus 2,240 lines of narrative text were fully translated from their original language, Lakota, into English. In the process of translation, the basic structure of these narratives was fully analyzed in order to determine how they were composed and to gain firsthand knowledge of what Lakota oral composition is. The goal was to determine the form of Lakota oral narrative. The term structure is used here to mean the formulaic structure, line by line and stanza by stanza. The foundation for this study is the work of translating these narratives from the source language, Lakota, to the target language, English. The focus is on the Lakota language and culture in the work of George Sword, who spoke the old language and wrote it as he spoke it. George Sword's essay on change in the Lakota language is evidence of the rapid transformations the Oglala Band of the Lakota people experienced after colonization or forced relocation in 1882 to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.

Translation occurred in three steps: first, a word-for-word translation from Lakota to English; second, a syllable-by-syllable analysis of each word to obtain meaning; and third, analysis of each word in context within each stanza. As stated earlier, in Lakota, syllables are combined to form words; the language comprises approximately five hundred syllables that are used to form all words. The Lakota text and literary translation for all four narratives are in the appendixes.

Of the translation methods used, the syllable-by-syllable approach accurately demonstrates verb conjugation when meaning is not so apparent. For example, George Sword uses eyapi, a formulaic word that is a verb meaning "they said." The base word, eya, is conjugated to function as a final or closing element in the narrative. In Lakota, verb conjugation occurs for first-person, second-person, and third-person singular and plural, with a special designation occurring in the first-person plural form, identified as the "dual" form. The dual form is culturally specific, used to include the speaker in the narrative. George Sword does not use this form. Instead he uses a third-person plural form — the "they" form in eyapi — to indicate that these narratives are told by the people. The practical application of a syllable-by-syllable approach allows for a grounded approach that does not theorize or generalize about what George Sword meant. This approach allows the text to speaks for itself.

A second level of meaning emerges when syllables are combined to form words or phrases or sometimes whole sentences, as with the insertion of a pronoun in a verb in verb conjugation. These syllables are meaningful when combined to form words, and in turn these words are meaningful within the context in which they are used. In Lakota, for example, a compound word like wakinyan tonwanpi is identified as two separate words in the word-for-word translation; however, when put into context, the term is defined to mean "lightning" (Buechel, Lakota-English Dictionary 531).

Originally, Lakota was not a written language. Thus when George Sword adapted the English alphabet to represent both consonant and vowel sounds in Lakota, he did not use any differentiating marks for special consonant sounds. As a speaker of the language, George Sword intuitively knew that Lakota is very phonetic and generally easy to pronounce; that is, a fluent speaker could read it and pronounce words easily if it were written using the English alphabet. In Lakota it is important to know how speech sounds are articulated, for example, voiced sounds, as in z or v, or voiceless sounds, as in s or f; in the Lakota language, the English letters v and f are not used (Yule 41). The letters of the English alphabet used then and now are: a, b, c, e, g, h, i, j, k, l, m, n, o, p, s, t, u, w, y, z; the letters d, f, q, r, v, and x are excluded. Thus Lakota sounds are produced as bilabials, alveolars, alveo-palatals, velars, and glottals; there are no sounds in labiodentals or dentals. Voiceless glottal sounds are found in the sounds made as alveo-palatals. Consonants peculiar to the Lakota language are often indicated using diacritical marks. This book follows George Sword's orthography, where the letter r indicates a guttural h and the letter q indicates a glottal stop. He assumed that the reader would be familiar with Lakota syntax and could therefore rely on context for proper pronunciation, for example, in the difference between the pronunciation of he, meaning "that," and re, meaning "a high hill"; thus one who is fluent can be guided by word placement in the sentence.

Other aspects of the Lakota language include glottalized stops, affricates, nasals, and approximates, with a limited number of fricatives. In Lakota, the approximates [w] and [y] act as semivowels or glides that are typically produced with the tongue moving or gliding to and from the position of a nearby vowel; both are voiced when they occur at the beginning of wa, we, wi, wo, ya, ye, yo, and yu. Today there are phonetic symbols for consonants and vowels that are commonly used to transcribe Lakota; these symbols were not in use, however, at the time George Sword composed his narratives.


Excerpted from George Sword's Warrior Narratives by Delphine Red Shirt. Copyright © 2016 Board of Regents of the University of Nebraska. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


1. Lakota Tradition,
2. Lakota Practice,
3. George Sword,
4. Lakota Formulas,
5. Textual Analysis,
6. Lakota Theme,
7. Traditional Implications,
Appendix 1: Narrative 1 and Literary Translation,
Appendix 2: Narrative 2 and Literary Translation,
Appendix 3: Narrative 3 and Literary Translation,
Appendix 4: Sun Dance Narrative and Literary Translation,

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