The Fight for the Dakota Language

“The white and the Indian must mingle together and jointly occupy the country...uniformity of language will do this; nothing else will." -John D.C. Atkins

John DeWitt Atkins (1825-1908)

Credit: The J. Paul Getty Museum

After the Civil War, the United States ​addressed "the Indian question." Seeing Native Americans as barriers to industrial and economic progress, the government sought to assimilate them into American society. 

The U.S. did this through boarding schools. In 1887, Commissioner of Indian Affairs John Atkins banned schools from teaching students in their native languages. Native children's lives were to be erased, beginning with their languages.

Boarding schools often sent "before and after" pictures to Washington as evidence of student assimilation. Pictured above is Carlisle Indian School student Tom Torlino. 

Credit: Carlisle Indian School Digital Resource Center

The Santee Normal Training School (1870-1936)

Credit: South Dakota State Historical Society

By 1887, the Santee Normal Training School had been open for nearly seventeen years and was growing in size and reputation. Riggs attributed his school's success to its teaching in the Dakota language.

Riggs also believed his school created "self-sustainable" Dakotas. Because he thought there would always be Native Americans resistant to white missionary efforts, Riggs pushed his pupils to become teachers and pastors in their native languages to further assimilation among tribes. 

Riggs complied with Atkins's order but found his school struggling to adjust to the government's demands. After six years of pleading to the commissioner for a repeal of the order, he ended his school's contract with the government in 1893.


Riggs's struggle for teaching Dakota reveals the systematic assimilation the U.S. government put upon the Santee children. However, as other schools physically and mentally abused  students for speaking in Native languages, his pupils' ability to interact with theirs was nevertheless remarkable. 

Background Image: "Taku Wicayazan Kage Cin" by Theodore Riggs

Credit: The Antiquarian Booksellers' Association of America