Arikara, or Sáhniš as called by its people, is part of the Caddoan language family, a group of languages that comes from the Caddo dialect, which is over 3000 years old. It is made up of languages spoken around the Missouri and Mississippi River Valleys. Apart from Arikara there are four other distinct Caddoan languages: Caddo, Wichita, Kitsai, and Pawnee. Unfortunately, Kitsai and Wichita are both extinct, although final native Wichita speaker Doris McLemore left recorded language materials.
Caddo has 25 speakers and Pawnee and Arikara both have 10. It is amazing so few speakers remain, considering the Arikara used to have one of the largest populations on the Northern Plains, with vibrant farming and hunting traditions. They were made up of villages organized into bands along the Missouri river and their people lived and travelled between South Dakota, Nebraska, and Kansas, and they all spoke Arikara.
It wasn’t until European settlers devastated the tribe with smallpox that the language started dying out. The tribe suffered major losses, going from an estimated population of 30,000 to 6,000. The epidemic from 1780 to 1782 reduced the number of villages from 32 to only 2. The neighboring Lakota sabotaged healing efforts with repeated raids, forcing the Arikara to move upriver near the Mandan and Hidatsa, with whom they formed an alliance in the early 1800s to become the Three Affiliated Tribes we know today. This restored some strength in the language, but US policies prohibited traditional practices and separated villages and families with dams. This all led to a decline in the language. People have continued to speak it, but the fluency is declining.
Around this date in 2010, the last fluent speaker, Maude Starr, passed away. However, she dedicated her life to teaching young people the language and her lessons live on today with some tribal members speaking it on the Fort Berthold Reservation.
Today there are efforts to revitalize indigenous languages. In 2016, the MHA Language Project offered a workshop that brought together teachers and learners. In 2014, the Arikara Cultural Center worked to develop an app that teaches kids the language through fun games. And Yvonne Howard Fox stands strong as the most knowledgeable person about the Sáhniš. She worked with the Sáhniš Cultural Society and created a book by combining information from the North Dakota State Historical Society files, elders, and other resources.
Dakota Datebook written by Lucid Thomas