Sauk people

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"Sacs" redirects here. For other uses, see SACS (disambiguation).
Massika, a Sauk Indian, left, and Wakusasse, right, of the Meskwaki. By Karl Bodmer, aquatint made at Saint Louis, Missouri in March or April 1833 when Massika pleaded for the release of war chief, Blackhawk, following the Black Hawk War.

The Sac or Sauk are a group of Native Americans of the Eastern Woodlands culture group. Their autonym is oθaakiiwaki, and their exonym is Ozaagii(-wag) in Ojibwe. The latter name was transliterated into French and English by colonists of those cultures.

Today they have three federally recognized tribes, together with the Meskwaki (Fox), located in Iowa, Oklahoma and Kansas.


Sac Indian family photographed by Frank Rinehart in 1899

The Sauk, an Algonquian languages people, are believed to have developed as a people along the St. Lawrence River. They were driven by pressure from other tribes, especially the powerful Iroquois League or Haudenosaunee, to migrate to Michigan, where they settled around Saginaw Bay. Due to the yellow-clay soils found around Saginaw Bay, they called themselves the autonym of Oθaakiiwaki (often interpreted to mean "yellow-earth".)

The neighboring Ojibwe and Ottawa peoples referred to them by the exonym Ozaagii, meaning "those at the outlet". French colonists transliterated that as Sac and the English as "Sauk". Anishinaabe expansion and the Huron attempt to gain regional stability drove the Sac out of their territory. The Huron were armed with guns supplied by their French trading partners. The Sac moved south to territory in parts of what are now northern Illinois and Wisconsin.

A closely allied tribe, the Meskwaki (Fox), were noted for resisting French encroachment, having fought two wars against them in the early 18th century. After a devastating battle of September 9, 1730, in Illinois, in which hundreds of warriors were killed and many women and children taken captive by French allies, Fox refugees took shelter with the Sac, making them subject to French attack. The Sac continued moving west to Iowa and Kansas. Two important leaders arose among the Sac: Keokuk and Black Hawk. At first Keokuk accepted the loss of land as inevitable in the face of the vast numbers of white soldiers and settlers coming west. He tried to preserve tribal land and his people, and to keep the peace.

Having failed to receive expected supplies from the Americans on credit, Black Hawk wanted to fight, saying his people were "forced into war by being deceived."[1] Led by Black Hawk in 1832, the mainly Sac band resisted the continued loss of lands (in western Illinois, this time.) Their warfare with United States forces resulted in defeat at the hands of General Edmund P. Gaines in the Black Hawk War.

About this time, one group of Sac moved into Missouri, and later to Kansas and Nebraska. In 1869 the larger group of Sac moved into reservations in Oklahoma, where they merged with the Meskwaki as the federally recognized Sac and Fox Nation. (The United States had been making treaties with them together since their residency in the Midwest.) A smaller number returned to the Midwest from Oklahoma (or resisted leaving.) They joined the Mesquakie at the Mesqwaki Settlement, Iowa.

Clan system[edit]

Originally, the Sauk had a patrilineal clan system, in which descent and inheritance was traced through the father. Clans which continue are: Fish, Ocean/Sea, Thunder, Bear, Fox, Potato, Deer, Beaver, Snow, and Wolf. The tribe was governed by a council of sacred clan chiefs, a war chief, the head of families, and the warriors. Chiefs were recognized in three categories: civil, war, and ceremonial. Only the civil chiefs were hereditary. The other two chiefs were recognized by bands after they demonstrated their ability or spiritual power.

This traditional manner of selecting historic clan chiefs and governance was replaced in the 19th century by the United States appointing leaders through their agents at the Sac and Fox Agency, or reservation in Indian Territory (now Oklahoma). In the 20th century, the tribe adopted a constitutional government patterned after the United States form. They elect their chiefs.[citation needed]

Federally recognized tribes[edit]

Today the federally recognized Sac and Fox tribes are:


Main article: Fox language

Sauk (or Sac) is one of the many Algonquian languages. It is very closely related to the varieties spoken by the Meskwaki and the Kickapoo tribes; linguist often describe these three as dialects of the same language. Each of the dialects contains archaisms and innovations that distinguish them from each other. Sauk and Meskwaki appear to be the most closely related of the three, reflecting the peoples' long relationship. (Goddard 1978).[3] Sauk is considered to be mutually intelligible, to a point, with Fox.

In their own language, the Sauk at one time called themselves as asakiwaki [a-‘sak-i-wa-ki], “people of the outlet. (Bonvillain 1995)[4]

The Sauk people have a syllabic orthography for their language. They published a Primer Book in 1977, based on a “traditional” syllabary which existed in 1906. It is intended to help modern-day Sauk to learn to write as well as speak their ancestral tongue. A newer orthography was proposed around 1994 to aid in language revival. The former syllabary was aimed at remaining native speakers of Sauk; the more recent orthography was developed for native English speakers, as many Sauk grow up with English as their first language (Müller 1994).

Sauk has so few speakers that it is considered an endangered language, as are numerous others native to North America.

In 2012, Shawnee High School in Shawnee, Oklahoma began to offer a Sauk language course.[5]


Sauk does not have a lot of phonemes, compared to many other languages: four vowels, two semi-vowels, and eight consonants.


Sauk consonant chart

(Figure 1: Sauk Consonant Chart - adapted from Müller (1994))

The voiceless glottal fricative /h/ was omitted in the 1977 syllabary. It has been added back into later editions, because it is an important distinctive sound in the Sauk language (Müller 1994). All the Sauk consonants are voiceless, with the exception of both nasals.

All three stops are recognized to have at least two allophones each, as follows (adapted from Müller 1994):

/p/ → [p, b]
/t/ → [t, d]
/k/ → [k, g]

Semi-Vowels (Glides)[edit]

Sauk semi-vowel chart

(Figure 2: Sauk Semi-vowel chart - adapted from Müller (1994))

Müller (1994)[6] uses the American Phonetic transcription of the palatal glide, /y/, in her article. The International Phonetic Alphabet is used for the above chart, transcribing the phoneme as /j/.


Sauk vowel chart

(Figure 3: Sauk vowel chart - adapted from Müller (1994))

Vowel length is important in the Sauk language. Müller presents four vowels, each with two allophones (1994):

/ɑ/[ɑ ɑː]
/e/[e eː]
/i/[i iː]
/o/[o, oː]

(Müller 1994)

Pitch and tone[edit]

Pitch and tone are also important when speaking Sauk (Müller 1994).

Syllables & Morphology[edit]

Sauk is a polysynthetic language – affixes are used to modify words. Because of this, in the Sauk orthography, words are written by identifying each syllable, to aid in language learning.

Both the Sac and Fox languages are known for “swallowing” syllables that are in word-final position, which can make identification of individual sounds more difficult for the language learner. (Müller 1994)


Two samples of written Sauk language, as they appear in Müller (1994):

Ho! Ne nu ta ma!

'Hi! I speak Sauk!'

Ni swi me cli ke a ki a la se te ke wa ki a la te ki ki

e ka ta wi ke mi yak i e we li ke mi ya ki ne ko ti

me cle ke a e cla gwe ne mo tti wi ne li wi tti cle we na

li ta ske wa ne li se ke

"Two turtles were sunning on a bank when a thunderstorm approached. When it began to rain, one turtle said to the other, 'I don’t want to get wet,' and jumped into the lake."

Geographical names[edit]

Lake Osakis in west-central Minnesota, the Sauk River,[7] which flows from Lake Osakis, and the towns of Osakis, Sauk Centre, and Sauk Rapids all were named for association historically with a small party of Sac who made camp on the shores of Lake Osakis. They had been banished from their tribe for murder. According to Anishinaabe oral tradition, these five Sac were killed by local Dakota in the late 18th century.[8]

Place names with "Sauk" references include:

Notable people[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ J. B. Patterson, Autobiography of Black Hawk or Ma-Ka-Tai-Me-She-Kia-Kiak, 1882, Access Genealogy
  2. ^ "Tribal Governments by Tribe: S." National Congress of the American Indian.. Retrieved 11 April 2010.
  3. ^ Goddard, Ives. (1978). "Central Algonquin languages", in Handbook of North American Indians, v. 16: Northeast, ed. Bruce G. Trigger (Washington: Smithsonian Institution), 583-587 (As quoted in Müller)
  4. ^ Bonvillain, Nancy. The Sac and Fox, Chelsea House Publishers, 1995, pp 13, 17
  5. ^ Carmen Bourlon (2012-08-11). "Shawnee High School to offer new course on endangered Sauk language". The Shawnee News-Star (Shawnee, OK). Retrieved 2012-08-21. 
  6. ^ Müller Reinschmidt, Kerstin. 1994. "Language preservation with the help of written language: The Sauk language of the Sac and Fox of Oklahoma," in Papers of the Twenty-Sixth Algonquin Conference. pp 413-430
  7. ^ The name of the Sauk River in Washington State, however, comes from the Sah-kee-ma-hu (Sauk-Suiattle tribe), a group related to the Skagit tribes, not from the Sac tribe of the Midwestern U.S. (James W. Phillips, Washington State Place Names, University of Washington Press, September 1976)
  8. ^ Upham, Warren (2001). Minnesota Place Names, A Geographical Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition. Saint Paul, Minnesota: Minnesota Historical Society. p. 53. ISBN 0-87351-396-7. 

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