Did American Indians Have Names For Trees?

Many times forestry books speak of the discovery of trees in North America with phrases such as "the tree was first
discovered and named by ...." This makes it appear as though the American Indians were not aware of the trees and shrubs in
their surroundings and that the European settlers were responsible for the identification and uses of trees. Nothing could be
further from the truth. The American Indians had names and uses for all the plants in their environment.

The fact sheets in the Natural Source have identified the common names given to the native trees of South Dakota. Since
many of these trees were native to a large portion of the plains, several common names are listed as each tribe had its own
name, no different from the Germans, French and Spaniards calling maple, ahorn , e'rable and acre , respectively. Since the
most recent occupants of what is now South Dakota are the Lakota and Dakota, the names they gave each native tree have
been identified. For trees assigned individual fact sheets the common names given to them by other plains people, the Omaha,
Pawnee and Winnebago, have also been identified, if known.

What Native Languages Are Spoken In S.D.?

The languages spoken in the central plains are classified under the broad category of Siouian languages. This group of related
languages includes Winnebago, Dakota, Mandan, Hidatsa and Crow. It also includes the Dheginha languages which include
Omaha. In the area which was to become South Dakota and Minnesota, lived the Dakota. The Dakota people are further
divided into groups that spoke different dialects, Santee, Yankton, Yanktonai, Teton (Lakota), and Assiniboine. Each of these
groups lived in different areas.

During the early 1800's, the Tetons occupied the area east of the Missouri River to the James, while the Santee occupied the
large area between the Big Sioux River and the St. Croix. Each group spoke the Dakota language, but spoke a different
dialect. On the fact sheets, the names given are from Lakota dialects.

How Were The Trees Named?

The names given to the different tree species often relate to their use or appearance just as do the names the European settlers
gave trees.

Yamnúmnugapi , the Lakota name for hackberry, comes from yamnumnuga , "to crunch," because the berries were crunchy. The name for sugar maple, canhasan , means "white bark" in reference to the light colored bark of the tree.

How Did American Indians Use Trees?

The American Indians made use of the trees and shrubs in their environment just as people in other cultures have. Since they
were not an industrial-based economy, many of the purposes they had for trees were different from the European settlers.
Boxes, crates, railroad ties, handles to agricultural implements, furniture, and wood framed houses were not a major part of
their needs. They used wood products as poles for transporting or construction, ropes, bows, arrows, small implements,
firewood and charcoal. The American Indians primary uses for trees were as foodstuffs and medicine. Maple trees were
tapped for syrup, berries collected and eaten fresh or dried for winter storage, and medicines made from fruits, nuts, leaves,
twigs, bark and roots. The uses the American Indians had for each tree species are identified on the fact sheets.

Lastly, the religious value of trees should not be overlooked. Many of the American Indians place great spiritual value on
trees. The Sacred Pole of the Omaha is made of cottonwood. The concept of sacred trees is not limited to only American
Indian cultures. Trees have had special meaning to people of all cultures throughout history. In many cultures, the tree itself is
not worshipped, but is considered the dwelling of the deity.

The following diagram shows the location of the Dakota east of the Missouri River in the 1830's.


Lund, Duane, R, Early Native American Recipes and Remedies.
Rogers, D.J., 1980. Lakota Names and Traditional Uses of Native Plants by Sicangu (Brule) People in the Rosebud Area,
SD. Rosebud Educational Society, Inc. St. Francis, SD 57572.

Written by:
Dr. John Ball, SDSU, Brookings, SD 57007.
Dave Erickson, SD Division of Forestry, Pierre, SD 57501.

Reviewed by:
Craig Brown, SD Division of Forestry, Watertown, SD 57201.
Jim Green, SDSU, Brookings, SD 57007.

Publication of the American Indian Names for Trees was funded by the S.D. Department of Agriculture, Division of
Forestry, Pierre, SD.