January 7, 2007

What is the meaning of the words Wha-she-sho-wee-ko?


Would you know the meaning of the words Wha-she-sho-wee-ko? A Lakota Souix I know said it meant crazy white man. But someone else said complete idiot. I’m beginning to think the latter. But I was watching the series Into the West and saw the subtitles and everytime they used the word wahsee, white was the subtitle. Which is it?
–Submitted by Charles B.

Your Lakota friend is correct for the whole phrase.

Many of the Indian Wars were the result of translators leaving out nuances, or mistranslating or oversimplifying the things said in one language when translating them to the other language, and much of this misrepresentation and misunderstanding continues today by non-native speakers of Indian language phrases or even by Indians who are no longer fluent in their own languages.

The Into the West series didn’t translate everything strictly by what it literally means in Lakota. The Lakota language is complex, with many nuances.

There are differences in pronunciation even on the same reservation, much as Southerners who speak English speak it differently than Northern English speaking people. There are also variations depending on whether the speaker is male or female, or a younger person speaking to an elder or to a relative or to someone their own age. The tone of voice used, or the context of it’s use can also change the meaning.

Additionally, as languages evolve over time, literal translations are often replaced by general ideas or popularly accepted meanings, and people begin to forget the literal meaning, or root of words in use today.

The Lakota language only recently became a written language, so there are also many spelling variations. As is true with most languages, most Lakota words actually represent complex phrases or thoughts rather than single expressions.

By “wahsee” I think you mean “wasicu” which is pronounced wah-see’-chew. In Lakota, the accent is nearly always on the second sylable, and often the last sylable is barely pronounced or commonly contracted, like don’t is in English when it is commonly understood to mean do not.

Wasicu is a derogatory word the Lakota used to refer to the white man. The literal translation is “fat takers” or “the fat eaters,” which was a reference to the white man’s greed and wanton disregard with preserving the earth’s resources for the next seven generations. This was a foolish thing to do, and the Lakota word for crazy actually means foolish, so perhaps that is how the popularity of the phrase “crazy white man” came about. Wasicu also means any “greedy person,” regardless of whether or not they are white.

During the time the buffalo were being slaughtered and exterminated, white men often took just the tongue and the hump, and left the rest of this 2,000 pound animal to rot. These were the most choice parts of the buffalo meat and the hump is like tenderloin surrounded by a large amount of rich fat. This act came to represent the white man’s general greediness and wastefullness, and over more time became the commonly used Lakota word for any white person.

Witkotkoke (pronounced wit-coat’-koh-keh) is the Lakota word used for crazy. It actually literally means “foolish.” In it’s contracted form, it is spelled witko (pronounced wee-KO). In Lakota, when you use an adjective with a noun, the adjective goes after the noun. In English we put it before the noun. So wasicu witko (pronounced wah-see’-choo wee-ko) would be loosely translated as “white man crazy” in the Lakota language, or as we say in English, “crazy white man.”

There is no Lakota word for idiot. Stupid in Lakota is waslolyesni (pronounced wash-loh’-yeh-shnee) and the literal translation is “he/she does not know things.”

Ska is the Lakota word for the color white. Wica (pronounced weh-cha) is the word for a human male, wicasa (pronounced weh-cha-shaw) is a young man, and koskalaka is an old man. Winyan means woman, wikoskalaka is a young woman, and winuhcala is an old woman. So technically, you could also say wica sha to mean a white human male, etc, although this is not the usual practice.


Reading and Writing the Lakota Language

Lakota: A Language Course for Beginners

The Lakota Way : Stories and Lessons for Living

Meditations with the Lakota: Prayers, Songs, and Stories of Healing and Harmony

Lakota Dictionary: Lakota-English/English-Lakota

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Eye Witness account of the Massacre at Wounded Knee in 1890

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Eyewitness accounts of the Ghost Dance


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Memories of Wounded Knee

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Remembering Wounded Knee 1973

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Sitting Bull, Hunkpapa Sioux leader

Chronology of Red Cloud’s life

Sioux Wedding Prayer

Lakota prayer for the dead

White Buffalo Calf Woman Prophecy

Wovoka’s Ghost Dance vision

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