Omaha and Ponca Digital Dictionary

National Endowment for the Humanities
Grant #PD50007-08

Ahó! Thathithe udon!

Greetings! It is good that you have arrived here!

This page leads you to the microfilm images of the James Owen Dorsey (1848-1895) Omaha/Ponca unpublished lexicon. The approximately 20,000 index card slips in this file are stored in 15 boxes housed at the National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C. In 1988, I had the opportunity to microfilm this file along with other Dhégiha (Omaha, Ponca, Osage, Kaw, Quapaw) collected by Dorsey in the latter half of the 19th century.

Now twenty years later, with the support of the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL), this invaluable resource is becoming accessible to the Omaha and Ponca peoples, the scholarly community of linguists and researchers across many disciplines, and the public at large. The Omaha and Ponca Digital Dictionary (OPDD) is a three-year project that will create a comprehensive dictionary where none currently exists, at a time when there are only a few dozen elderly fluent speakers of Omaha in Nebraska, and of Ponca in Oklahoma. The Dorsey slip file is the core data source in this effort. It will be augmented with other archived, published, and out-of-print documents from nearly a dozen sources.

The Center for Digital Research in the Humanities (CDRH), housed in Love Library at UNL is a partner on the NEH project. Using their equipment and supported by their technical staff, UNL Omaha language student Justin Hathaway (Anthropology) has taken on the challenge of scanning the Dorsey slips. Each frame of microfilm contains four discrete slip images. Justin must position and focus the digital scanner on the computer for each frame. The image is then cropped and enhanced where possible. It is saved as a TIFF file in the computer. Each slip receives a discrete identifier file name that references its position on the microfilm reel. The files are organized in folders that are named using the same alphabetical headers as found in the original 15 boxes of slips. The process is very tedious and requires constant attention to details. The images are then mounted to this public access website by Laura Weakly and Stacy Rickel at the CDRH. This completes the first step in the on-line dictionary process.

The results will continue to emerge on this webpage for your enjoyment!

So What Comes Next?

The Dorsey slips are alphabetized on the Omaha word, and in a writing system that is not used by the Omaha people today. That means simply printing off the slip images will not result in a useable dictionary.

The next step in the NEH project is to transcribe the information from each slip and put it into a dictionary database. UNL Omaha language student David Nesheim (History Ph.D.) has begun this work using an interim spreadsheet approach while the database is being constructed. David's efforts have immediately uncovered several technical and linguistic questions that are helping shape the creation of the final database. It is into this database, being created by CDRH programmers, that all data will soon be directly entered. The database will allow us to reorganize the materials, re-alphabetize on the English, do searches for strings of words, single words, or parts of words, and a vast number of other creative things. In sum, its goal is to make this comprehensive language resource user friendly and completely accessible to Omaha and Ponca language learners.

OPDD Co-Principal Investigator Catherine Rudin and I will join David in transcribing slip information into the database. All materials will be entered preserving Dorsey's unique orthography. The database will display the lexeme (word) in the contemporary orthography (writing system) used by Umonhon Nation Public School and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Entries will also appear in the Siouanist orthography and the writing system adopted by the Ponca Tribe of Oklahoma. The digital dictionary will be in an XML database that conforms to current standards. This feature will give the database the ability to merge with other dictionary databases such as TOOLBOX.

Omaha has a complex verbal morphology with the possibility of multiple affixes. All entries, especially verbs, will be analyzed to determine their roots, their appropriate placement in the dictionary, and which affixed forms should be included. Phonemic contrasts which Dorsey or other sources did not write or wrote inconsistently will be clarified or, if the correct pronunciation is not known, flagged for later checking. The dictionary will be supplemented by a brief grammatical sketch, including a description of the phonemes of the language, its major phonological and morphological patterns, and an outline of sentence structure.

In the NEH grant application narrative this is how I described the wider importance and implications of this project:

The intellectual merit of this project goes beyond its value to the local community. This project makes a significant contribution to knowledge in several areas of linguistics and anthropology. The dictionary will be far more robust and usable than any existing lexical resource on Omaha and Ponca, making it valuable for comparative Siouan studies as well as for language teaching and learning. The only existing published dictionary, Swetland (1977/1991), includes only 4,500 entries and has shortcomings, especially in the treatment of verbs. The Dorsey slip files have been available only at the Smithsonian or on microfilm, and only to those willing to decipher handwriting and a sometimes challenging orthography. Other lexical resources on the language are few and scattered. Analysis and correction of the entries will advance the study of Omaha and Ponca grammar and thus constitute a contribution to Siouan phonology, morphology, semantics, and syntax. Issues that will be dealt with include supplying corrections such as vowel-length marking where these are known, parsing verb morphology and deciding how to deal with prefixed and suffixed morphemes in the dictionary, and clarifying the meanings of roots and affixes. Sentential examples of the usage of many of the entries will also be analyzed and clarified where this is needed, enhancing our very deficient knowledge of Omaha and Ponca syntax. Updated meanings and the inclusion of newer words will provide material of interest to students of language change and contact.

Broader impacts of this project include making a vast collection of Omaha and Ponca language available to native communities, students, and researchers. We hope that creating a digitized data base will encourage the Omaha community and public schools to engage in further technological development. Field checking the 19th century lexicon with contemporary speakers under a separately funded project will create an exciting opportunity to capture semantic and cultural materials. These materials will be used by UNL, UNPS, tribal community colleges, community members, related tribes, linguists, anthropologists, and other scholars. This project will provide an important tool for language maintenance and revival, as Tribal members can expand their knowledge of Omaha and Ponca vocabulary and usage, now and in the future.

The Co-Principal Investigators, Mark Awakuni-Swetland (University of Nebraska-Lincoln), and Catherine Rudin (Wayne State College) have a long track record of working in the Omaha community and producing scholarly publications and conference papers describing Omaha language, culture, and history. They have assembled an experienced team of digitization, website construction, and linguistically trained colleagues. The University of Nebraska provides strong institutional support to this research and public outreach as shown by the recent internal grants awarded to Awakuni-Swetland supporting on-line Omaha curriculum materials and development of an Omaha language textbook.

This resource is for your use and enjoyment. In it you will discover a wealth of Omaha language, and the rich culture that it transmits. It captures an historic period of the Omaha people during the early Reservation period. The sample sentences give us an insight into the daily life of the Omaha people as an agrarian, rural, Native community. The elder speakers who chose to share their language and culture with Dorsey are also speaking to us, today. Thanó n'on te. You should listen to them.

Use the link on this site to send your comments and questions.

View the images

I thank you.

Mark Awakuni-Swetland, Ph.D.
Anthropology-Ethnic Studies
(Native American Studies)