Sauk people

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Massika, a Sauk Indian, left, and Wakusasse, right, of the Meskwaki. By Karl Bodmer, aquatint made at St. 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, who lived primarily in the region of what is now Green Bay, Wisconsin, when first encountered by the French in 1667. 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 west by pressure from other tribes, especially the powerful Iroquois League or Haudenosaunee, which sought control over hunting grounds in the area. Some historians believe that the Sauk migrated to what is now eastern Michigan, where they settled around Saginaw Bay (Ojibwe: Zaagiinaad-wiikwed - "Of the Outlet Bay").

The neighboring Anishanabeg Ojibwe (Sauk name: Ochipwêwa) and Odawa peoples referred to them by the exonym Ozaagii(-wag), meaning "those at the outlet". French colonists transliterated that as Sac and the English as "Sauk". The Sauk/Sac called themselves the autonym of Othâkîwa, Thâkîwa, Thâkîwaki or Asaki-waki/Oθaakiiwaki people of the yellow earth [("people coming forth [from the outlet]," i.e., "from the water")], which is often interpreted to mean "yellow-earth people" or "the Yellow-Earths", due to the yellow-clay soils found around Saginaw Bay. This interpretation possibly derived from the Sauk words Athâwethiwa or Athâw(i) ("yellow")[1] and Neniwaki ("men, people"). This was later shortened to "Asaki-waki". In addition, the Fox (Meskwaki) were generally known among neighboring tribes as the "people of the red earth" - the Sauk and Fox also used this term: Êshkwîha or Meshkwahkîha ("people of the red earth").

Some Ojibwe oral histories also place the Sauk in the Saginaw Valley some time before the arrival of Europeans.[2]

But, the Sauk may have been mistakenly recorded at this location near Lake Huron at that time. There is little archaeological evidence that the Sauk lived in the Saginaw area.[3]In the early 17th century, when natives told French explorer Samuel de Champlain that the Sauk nation was located on the west shore of Lake Michigan, Champlain mistakenly placed them on the western shore of Lake Huron. This mistake was copied on subsequent maps, and future references identified this as the place of the Sauk. Champlain never visited what is now Michigan.[3]

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. In the seventeenth century the Sauk also maintained close relations with the Potawatomi (Pehkînenîha or Shîshîpêhinenîha). This relation has been found by borrowings of Sauk vocabulary that appear in the Potawatomi language.

In a loose coalition of tribes - including Dakota (Ashâha), Ojibwe, Odawa, Potawatomi, Kickapoo (Kîkâpôwa), Meskwaki (Fox), and Sauk, along with the Shawnee (Shâwanôwa), Cherokee (Shanahkîha), and Choctaw (Châkitâha) from the Southeast - they attacked the tribes of the Illinois Confederation ("Illinois/Inoca") (Mashkotêwa) and tried to invade their tribal areas. The "Illinois/Inoca" became their worst common enemies. The coalition warred for years until they destroyed the Illinois Confederation.

Later they moved out on the prairie (Mashkotêwi) along the Mississippi and adopted the semi-sedentary lifestyle of Plains Indians (Mashkotêwineniwa). In addition to hunting buffalo, they lived in villages, raised crops, and actively traded with other tribes. The Sauk and allied eastern tribes had to compete with tribes who already occupied this territory. Disputes and clashes arose with the Dakota, Pawnee (Pânîha) and, most of all, the powerful Osage (Washâsha).

The Sauk had good relations with the English (Thâkanâsha) through trading. At first, the Sauk had good relations with New France too, until their alliance with the Meskwaki (Fox) made them short-term enemies of the French (Mêmehtekôshîha, Wêmehtekôshîha).

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 9 September 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. This made them subject to French attack in turn. The Sac continued moving west to Iowa and Kansas. Keokuk and Black Hawk were two important leaders who arose among the Sauk. 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".[4] 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, after the Civil War, the United States forced the larger group of Sac to move into a reservation in Indian Territory (now the state of Oklahoma). They merged with the Meskwaki as the federally recognized Sac and Fox Nation. (The United States had been making treaties with the two tribes 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]

The Sauk and Fox peoples were divided into two moieties or "divisions", which in turn were subdivided into Patri-lineages and Clans as local subgroups (segments).

The moieties were known as the Kishko/Ki-sko-ha/Kîshkôha (male: Kîshkôha, female: Kîshkôhkwêha) ("the long-haired") and as the Oskush/Askasa/Shkasha (male: Shkasha/Oshkashîwiwa, female: Shkashîhkwêwa/Oshkashîhkwêwiwa) ("the brave"). The two moieties were each symbolized by two colors: The Askasa/Shkasha painted their faces and partly their bodies with charcoal in mahkatêwâwi (black) and the Ki-sko-ha/Kîshkôha painted their bodies with white clay in wâpeshkyâwi (white). This duality was also celebrated by the two moieties in the oft extremely brutally played Lacrosse toughen young warriors for combat, for recreation, as part of festivals, and used as preparation for imminent wars or raids.

This division has survived to the present day, but is now more related to the political system of the United States: the supporters of the Democratic Party are associated with the Kîshkôha/Kîshkôhkwêha, while the supporters of the Republican Party are associated with the Shkasha/Shkashîhkwêwa.

Originally, the Sauk had a patrilineal and exogamous clan system, in which descent and inheritance was traced through the father. Clans or Mîthonî distinguished and named on the basis of totem animals, which are: Mahkwithowa (Bear Clan), Amehkwithowa (Beaver Clan), Peshekethiwithowa (Deer Clan), Ketiwithowa / Mekethiwithowa (Eagle Clan), Nemêthithowa (Fish Clan), Wâkoshêhithowa (Fox Clan), Kehchikamîwithowa (Ocean/Sea/Great Lake Clan), Keshêhokimâwithowa (Peace Clan), Ahpenîthowa (Potato Clan), Akônithowa (Snow Clan), Nenemehkiwithowa (Thunder Clan), Manethenôkimâwithowa (Warrior Clan), and Mahwêwithowa (Wolf Clan).[5]

Saukenuk or Saukietown (today: Black Hawk State Historic Site) near the mouth of the Rock River (Sinnissippi - "rocky waters") into the Mississippi (Mäse'sibowi - "great river"),[6] the most important Sauk settlement in the 18th and 19th centuries with about 4,000 inhabitants, was divided into 12 districts, which were assigned to the respective clans.

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.[7]

Federally recognized tribes[edit]

Today the federally recognized Sac and Fox tribes are:


Language codes
ISO 639-3sac
Glottologmesk1242  Meskwaki

Sauk is one of the many Algonquian languages. It is very closely related to the varieties spoken by the Meskwaki and the Kickapoo tribes; linguists 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.[9] Sauk is considered to be mutually intelligible, to a point, with Fox.

In their own language, the Sauk at one time called themselves asakiwaki [a-‘sak-i-wa-ki], "people of the outlet".[10]

The Sauk people have a syllabic orthography for their language. They published a Primer Book in 1975,[11] based on a "traditional" syllabary that existed in 1906. It is intended to help modern-day Sauk to learn to write and 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 (Reinschmidt 1994).

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

In 2005, A Concise Dictionary of the Sauk Language was published using the Algonquianist Standard Roman Orthography.[12]

In 2012, Shawnee High School in Shawnee, Oklahoma, began to offer a Sauk language course.[13]


Sauk does not have many phonemes in comparison to many other languages: four vowels, two semivowels, and nine consonants.


The following consonant phonemes are given in Reinschmidt (1995):[14]

Consonant phonemes
Bilabial Dental Alveolar Palatal Velar Glottal
Stop p t k
Fricative θ s h
Nasal m n
Approximant j w

The representation of /h/ was omitted in the 1977 syllabary. It was added back in later editions because it is an important distinctive sound in the Sauk language[page needed].

Reinschmidt[14] symbolizes /j/ as /y/, following Americanist practice.

All four stops have at least two allophones each, one fortis and one lenis[page needed]:

/p/[p, hp]
/t/[t, ht]
/t͡ʃ/[t͡ʃ, ht͡ʃ]
/k/[k, hk]

Reinschmidt (1994)[14] symbolizes /j/ as /y/, following Americanist practice.


Sauk vowel phonemes[14]
Front Back
unrounded rounded
High i o
Mid e
Low ɑ

Vowel length is important in the Sauk language.[how?] Reinschmidt presents four vowels, each with two allophones[page needed]:

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

Pitch and tone[edit]

Pitch and tone are also important when speaking Sauk.[how?]


Both the Sauk and Fox languages are known for "swallowing" syllables in word-final position, which can make identification of individual sounds more difficult for the language learner.[page needed]


Sauk is a polysynthetic language. Because this can easily pose great difficulties to learners with little to no experience with highly synthetic languages[15][16][14][citation needed], the Sauk orthography has words written by identifying each syllable.[clarification needed]


Two samples of written Sauk language, as they appear in[14][page needed]:

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,[17] 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.[18]

Place names with "Sauk" references include:

Notable people[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Meskwaki-Sauk Color Words
  2. ^ AB
  3. ^ a b Jeremy W. Kilar, Saginaw's Changeable Past: An Illustrated History, St. Louis, MO: G. Bradley Publishers, 1994, p 15
  4. ^ J. B. Patterson, Autobiography of Black Hawk or Ma-Ka-Tai-Me-She-Kia-Kiak, 1882, Access Genealogy Archived 23 July 2012 at
  5. ^ Gordon Whittaker: A Concise Dictionary of the Sauk Language
  6. ^ The Decolonial Atlas - St. Louis in the Fox Language
  7. ^ "Government - Sac & Fox Nation". Sac & Fox Nation. 2009. Retrieved 17 June 2018.
  8. ^ "Tribal Governments by Tribe: S". Archived 12 April 2010 at the Wayback Machine National Congress of the American Indian. Retrieved 11 April 2010.
  9. ^ Goddard, Ives. "Central Algonquin languages". In Sturtevant, William, C.; Trigger, Bruce G. (eds.). Handbook of North American Indians. 15: Northeast. Washington D.C.: Smithsonian Institution. pp. 583–587. (As quoted in Reinschmidt 1994)
  10. ^ Bonvillain, Nancy (1995). The Sac and Fox. Chelsea House Publishers. pp. 13, 17.
  11. ^ McCormick, Mary F. (1975). Sac and Fox Tribe of Indians of Oklahoma Primer Book Sac and Fox Language compiled and edited by Mary F. McCormick
  12. ^ Whittaker, Gordon (2005). A Concise Dictionary of the Sauk Language (PDF). Stroud, Oklahoma: The Sac & Fox National Public Library.
  13. ^ Carmen Bourlon (11 August 2012). "Shawnee High School to offer new course on endangered Sauk language". The Shawnee News-Star. Shawnee, OK. Archived from the original on 29 January 2013.
  14. ^ a b c d e f Reinschmidt, Kerstin Müller (1995). "Language Preservation with the Help of Written Language: The Sauk Language of the Sac and Fox of Oklahoma". Papers of the Twenty-Sixth Algonquin Conference: 413–430. ISSN 0831-5671. Retrieved 3 September 2019.
  15. ^ "I love Sauk Language | Cultural Survival". Retrieved 16 March 2017.
  16. ^ "Mesquakie-Sauk Pronunciation Guide, Alphabet and Phonology (Sac and Fox)". Retrieved 16 March 2017.
  17. ^ 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)
  18. ^ Upham, Warren (2001). Minnesota Place Names, A Geographical Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition. Saint Paul, Minnesota: Minnesota Historical Society. p. 53. ISBN 0-87351-396-7.
  19. ^ Pielack, Leslie (2018). The Saginaw Trail From Native American Path to Woodward Avenue. Chicago: Arcadia Publishing Inc. p. 10. ISBN 9781439664865. OCLC 1044964376.
  20. ^ Morrison, Roger L. (Autumn 1937). "The History and Development of Michigan Highways". Michigan Alumnus Quarterly Review. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Bureau of Alumni Relations. 39 (54): 59–73. OCLC 698029175.

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