Mitákuye Oyás’iŋ (All Are Related) is a phrase from the Lakota language. It reflects the world view of interconnectedness held by the Lakota people of North America. This concept and phrase is expressed in many Yankton Sioux prayers, as well as by ceremonial people in other Lakota communities.
The phrase translates in English as “all my relatives,” “we are all related,” or “all my relations.” It is a prayer of oneness and harmony with all forms of life: other people, animals, birds, insects, trees and plants, and even rocks, rivers, mountains and valleys.
In 1940, American scholar Joseph Epes Brown wrote a study of Mitákuye Oyás’iŋ and its relevance in the Sioux ideology of “underlying connection” and “oneness.” He noted how the phrase has been misappropriated and misused as a slogan and salutation by peoples from outside the Lakota cultures.
Francis White Bird asserts that only Lakota can use this phrase because it applies only to Lakota culture.
- François, Damien (2007). The Self-destruction of the West: critical cultural anthropology. Publibook. p. 28. ISBN 2-7483-3797-2.
- Maroukis, Thomas Constantine (2005). Peyote and the Yankton Sioux: The Life and Times of Sam Necklace. University of Oklahoma Press. p. 160. ISBN 0-8061-3649-9.
- “US: Indigenous Lakota women face harsh winter wrath under climate change”. November 2, 2010.
- Lupton, Mary Jane (2004). James Welch: A Critical Companion. Greenwood Publishing Group. pp. 23–24. ISBN 0-313-32725-4.
- White Bird, Francis. “Levels of Lakota language”. Lakota Country Times. Lakota Country Times. Retrieved 25 February 2017.
There is a simple but profound Lakota prayer: Mitakuye Oyasin. These two words mean “All My Relations” or “We are All Related”. To pray this prayer is to petition God on behalf of everyone and everything on Earth.
The following is the second part of a two part series on the levels of the Lakota language. The first part was published in last week’s Lakota Country Times.)
Another phrase from level four is, “mitakuye oyasin.” This has been badly mistranslated into, “we are all related.” There are two aspects of Lakota culture which is paramount. One is the extended family relationship and the other is warfare for the men.
The Lakota culture has a definite taboo in marrying a relative, even a very distant relative. When I was a young man, I would go to a white dance and my aunt would ask me who I danced with the next morning.
When I told her the names, she would tell me who were my relatives and it was not proper to dance with them again. There was a great fear of having inborn children. There were other reasons as having a dispersed relation base in case a village gets wiped out by the enemy in pre-reservation days. A person could go to another village where s/he has relatives. The other is the survival of the fittest. A Darwinian practice.
This translation of all of us being related would destroy our culture as there would not be any marriages.
The other aspect of relationships is the warfare of Lakota men. We were the enemy to many of the tribes around us as well as the early pioneers.
They tried to take our hunting areas as well as killing us and taking the Lakota women and children. Our forefathers developed a method where there was honor to touch or kill the enemy and earn an eagle feather. All the eagle feathers culminated into a wap’aha or war bonnet. The key word is war. A person had to go to war to get this prized object which recorded the body count of the person.
A Lakota man could not wear his father or grandfathers wap’aha. He had to earn all the feathers of his own wap’aha. This also applied to the wapaha. The notion that a communal wapaha existed is erroneous. A wapaha had to be earned by the individual and also could not be passed on to a family member or a relative.
Earning a wap’aha brings a great honor to the family. Wearing an unearned wap’aha brings shame, ridicule and dishonor to the person wearing. Wearing a wap’aha or using a wapaha from a family member is like wearing their military uniform. Besides, there is a law about a person wearing a military uniform. Only those people who served in the military can wear their uniforms if they have an honorable discharge.
This phrase, “mitakuye oyasin,” was protected by the people who were practicing Lakota spirituality when it was underground up to the late 1960s.
This word was so protected, very few people knew the significance of this word. It was used only when a person finished praying and also used in certain Lakota spiritual ceremonies. Now it is shamefully printed in books, used as a slogan and used in meetings so casually that it has lost its meeting.
This desecration of this word is the work of people who do not speak Lakota. If they understood what the phrase meant and how it was used, they would have left it alone.
Mitakuye oyasin translated at level two means, “all your relatives.” The key phrase is ya in oyasin. If I said, “WAcin,” I am saying, “I want.” If I said, “YAcin,” I am saying, “you want.” The letter o in owasin forms a noun of a verb. If I were to say, “mitakuye owasin,” I would translate it at the fourth level as “everything is related to the existence of all MY Lakota relatives.”
I hope whoever reads this column does not shout to the high heavens about the correct phrase and misuse and dilute the true meaning of this phrase as well as use it as a trite slogan.
This Lakota phrase applies only to Lakota culture. It is not a generic phrase such as “Native American.” Only Lakota can use this word as it is in our language.
I know other tribes who have lost their language as well as white people have been using this phrase and not giving Lakota people the rightful recognition of the concept. I call these people, “cultural thieves.” I have heard of a Chippewa man in the East who gives lectures on the story of the White Buffalo Calf and says it is a Chippewa story.
One last point, all the people who have used their tribal identity to get positions in educational institutions have become role models.
They have a responsibility and obligation to learn how to speak Lakota language fluently and teach the courses in Lakota. Once a concept is translated into English, there is a danger to mistranslate and miss the point of the concept being taught.