The two meanings of wakan.

Rankin, Robert L. rankin at KU.EDU
Fri Nov 1 20:50:11 UTC 2013

Subject:  > Sky wrote: And one more thing while I’m thinking about it.  In the same paper I mentioned above by Dorsey, he is a big fan of “Wakąnda” being translated as “great serpent” (waką + dana) although he does go through a few other possibilities.  Still, “great serpent” seems to be the translation he likes the best.  I can see how he came to that conclusion.  But he also notes that “In the Dakota language, wa-kan’ means mysterious, wonderful, incomprehensible;”  And in “Early Western Travels – 1748-1846, Vol. 24 (pages 223-224), Maximilian (via Thwaites) writes, “This name is composed of two words; and, therefore, is not to be written as one.  The first word, uakan, less correctly wakan,  is the expression for god, divine, supernatural; the second, tanka, not tunka, means great.”

>  So that got me thinking about our term waxoñita/xoñita for sacred/holy and I am curious if that “waxo-“ is related to the “waką” that Dorsey mentions and if the idea is really closer to the “great mysterious one” rather than “great serpent.”  Or do they both mean the same thing and it just depends on what sense you are using?  I can only think of one other instance off the top of my head where “xo-“ is used by itself to indicate sacred and that is Jimm Goodtracks’ translation of William Whitman’s term “mixoge” (berdache…mi- (female) + xo- (sacred) + -ge (quality of)).

Jimm wrote: The (IOM) dictionary also contains an in depth discussion of the relationship between “wakan (snake)” and “Wakanda (God/ Thunders)”.

The relationship between wakhan 'holy' and wakan 'snake' is areal.  In other words, the term means 'holy, sacred, mysterious', etc. throughout most of Mississippi Valley Siouan, Dakotan and Dhegiha, and that was likely its original meaning.  The change in meaning to 'snake' (IOM) or (in Omaha) 'water monster' occurred in an area of the old midwest extending from around Ohio in the East to Iowa and Nebraska in the West.  This might be thought of as accidental except for the fact that exactly the same change in meaning is found in the Algonquian languages spoken in the same region.  These included Shawnee, Kickapoo and Sac-Fox.  It seems evident that there was some cultural factor operating in this area that led to identical changes in meaning in both language families.  There appear to be archaeological correlates in this area also, but I am not qualified to talk about those.

I talk about the terms themselves in:  Oliverio, Giulia R.M. and Robert L. Rankin.  2003.  On the Subgrouping of Tutelo within Siouan.  In David Costa and Blair Rudes, eds., Festschrift in Memory of Frank Siebert, Winnipeg: University of Manitoba.  A copy of this paper is attached as a .pdf.
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