Dakota Writing System

The writing system used by SICC draws its origin from the States. In the 1970’s and early 1980’s Sinte Gleska University, Oglala Lakota College, and Black Hills State University initiated an endeavour to standardise the Dakota/Nakota/Lakota writing system and other aspects of the language. Over a ten period meetings were held on a regular basis. For each meeting invitations were extended to all the Dakota/Nakota/Lakota tribes, schools, institutions teaching the language, and others working with the language. Each session lead to extensive discussion and debate with regard to standardisation and teaching. Often the debates were very heated. Finally in 1982/1984 consensus was reached.

Objectives of the Writing System:

  • To reduce the confusion caused by having many different writing systems;
  • To develop consistency in what is being taught to students. (ie: that each teacher will teach and use the same writing system); and,
  • To develop a practical layman’s writing system that non-speakers can use without becoming confused. The new writing system should clearly distinguish which consonants have a sound that is different than the sound that is commonly known for it in English and each letter should represent only sound. (ie: so students don’t confuse ©añ with can or waßþe with waste, etc) Also it should allow students to go back and forth between the language and English with ease. Notes: The writing system used by linguists is complex and confusing and it is not what is used every day, even for writing English; Writing systems, such as Paul War Cloud Grant’s, that attempt to write the language based on English phonetics are more confusing because English does not have all the sounds. The Dakota/Nakota/Lakota writing system developed by Riggs (published in 1854), is not based on linguistics and has been used extensively. It has been the base for nearly all the other writing systems. (ie: Buechel) Therefore it should be the base of the new writing system and an endeavour should be made to address the shortcomings of the Riggs writing system. (ie: distinguish between the 3 kinds of c, the 4 kinds of k, the 4 kinds of p, and the 4 kinds of t)
  • To develop consistency in the spelling of words.
  • To make it possible to share teaching materials.Note: Other than to develop a writing system, the other objectives were never achieved. To this day, nearly every teacher has his or her own way of writing and materials are still being produced in a wide variety of writing systems.

Marking on the letters:

  • Historically some teachers tried to minimize the number letters with added marks because it was difficult to make the markings on a regular typewriter. But today with computers this does not pose a problem.
  • Some teachers believe that the markings on the letters make it more difficult to learn the language and they use few markings, with the intent of making things easier for the student. But by not marking the letters that sound different than in English, the students become confused. In analysis it would make much more sense for the students to take a week or two to memorize the letters with the markings than to struggle with the uncertainty of which sound should be made to pronounce a word and with the confusion that is caused when the letters are not marked.

Dakota Nations of Canada

In 1985 when Dakota Nations of Canada (DNC) undertook to do curriculum development, one of the first issues addressed was the selection of a writing system to use. At that time, it was decided to use the writing system sited, with a slight modification. The grave accent mark is used to mark the s which makes the sh sound and c which makes the ch sound. Computer fonts were developed for it and it was used for all of the DNC publications.


When the agreement was made between SICC and DNC in 1991 to create a Dakota/Nakota/Lakota developer position at the SICC, the writing system was adopted by the SICC. All publications produced by the SICC in Dakota/Nakota/Lakota, since then, have been done in this writing system.

Features of the Writing System:

  • Utilises the standard roman orthography used by English.
  • It is a modified form of the Riggs Dakota/Nakota/Lakota orthography published in 1854. Therefore the older people who learned how to read and write from missionaries are able to follow along with this writing system.
  • Each consonant has only one sound. The issue as to whether the vowels have more than one sound has yet to be resolved.
  • The assignment of markings to the letters is consistent and follows a pattern which makes it easy for them to be learned.
  • Consonants that have sounds which are equivalent to the sound that English commonly assigns to it, have no markings. These are: b, d, g, h, k, l, m, n, p, s, t, w, y, and z
  • Consonants which have an unaspirated sound, which is only found rarely in English or not found in English are marked with a line above the letter. Unaspirated k’s, p’s and t’s are many in Dakota/Nakota/Lakota but most writing systems do not distinguish them from the regular aspirated form, which causes a lot of confusion.These are: ¤, ú, ö, and þ.¤ - is a sound mid way between the English j and ch – it does not exist in English – it is found in words like ©isþiñna (small).ú - is a sound found mid way between the English g and k – it only exists in a very few English words – an example is when you say the English word skill – you hear somewhat of a g sound – but it is not a true g and it is not a k.ö – is sound found mid way between b and p – this also only exists in a very few English words – an example is the English word spill – you hear somewhat of a b sound but it is not a true b and its not a p.þ- is a sound mid way between d and t –again there are very few English words with this sound – an example is the English word still – you hear somewhat of a d sound but it is not a true d sound and it is not a t sound – this is a sound used in words like þuwe, þona, þaúu, etc.
  • Consonants which have a velarized or guttural sound, are not found in English. These are marked with a dot above the letter. These are: Ð, ü, í, ó, and å.
  • Consonants which have a glottal stop following them or make stopped sound, are marked with an accent mark following the letter. These are: É,,ø,×, á, ¡, ç, and æ.
  • Most writing systems write the ch sound with just a c. This causes a lot of confusion for beginners and children who have to work with both languages. In the original Riggs orthography, this sound was marked with a grave accent above the letter c. It is represented this way in the writing system: ¢©.
  • Most writing systems do mark the s that gives the sh sound, but there is inconsistency as to what marking is used. For consistency in this writing system it is marked with a grave accent above the s. Therefore both sounds, which typically are written as a consonant blend in English, have a grave accent above them. It is represented this way in the writing system: §ß.
  • The voiced equivalent to the sh sound or zh was represented by a j in the original Riggs orthography and is represented as such in a number of other writing systems. Some writing systems however represent it by a z with a dot above it or below it or with a grave accent above it. The j is preferred by many of the older people, therefore it is represented with a j in this writing system.
  • The five oral or regular vowels continue to be represented as they were in Riggs’s original work: a, e, I, o, and u.
  • In the Riggs orthography a long tailed n is used to represent the nasal sound of the nasal vowels. This is common in a number of the writing systems that are not based on the international linguistic alphabet. Those writing systems make a nasal symbol below the vowel. There are however a number of writing systems and published works that just use a regular n, which causes confusion. In this writing system, the nasal vowels are represented as follows: Añ. eñ, iñ, oñ, and uñ.
  • The writing system represents all the consonant sounds that exist in the Dakota/Nakota/Lakota language, so it can be used by any dialect and can accommodate the various spellings of words. It should be noted that issues pertaining to which sounds are actually contained in a word, technically are not a writing system issue. They are a phonics and/or spelling issue.

Points of Interest


Birds of Prey Program

Annually, the Birds of Prey Program allows for the distribution of feathers and other items from birds of prey such as Eagles and Hawks....

SICC Elders Council

The Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations (FSIN) Convention Act Section 29 provides for the establishment of an Elders Council. This Council...

SICC Board of Governors

Uphold, advocate and assert the First Nations Inherent and Treaty Rights to language, culture, traditional arts and history...

INdigenous languages & cultures program

The Saskatchewan Indigenous Cultural Centre (SICC) is now accepting applications for the 2020-21 program year!

The Saskatchewan Indigenous Cultural Centre exists to protect, preserve and promote the languages and cultures of the eight language groups of what is now known as Saskatchewan: Plains Cree, Swampy Cree, Woodland Cree, Dene, Saulteaux, Dakota, Nakoda and Lakota.


Saskatchewan Indigenous Cultural Centre
305 - 2555 Grasswood Road East
Saskatoon SK S7T 0K1

Phone: 306-244-1146
Fax: 306-665-6520