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Setting the Record Straight About Native Languages: Wasichu

Q: Does "Wasicun," the Sioux word for the white man, really mean "greedy person who steals the fat"?
A: No. Wasicun is a real word in both Lakota and Dakota Sioux (variously spelled Wasicu, Wašicun, Wasichu, Washicun, or Washichu), and it does mean "non-Indian." But its literal meaning is someone with special powers. Of course as American-Sioux relations went downhill, the word began to be viewed more negatively. But the claim that wasicu had a negative meaning like "steals the bacon" or "greedy" or "tells lies" is not actually true--if anything, the original meaning was a positive one. Today, wasicu does sometimes have the connotation of a greedy or dishonorable person, because many Sioux perceive white people as being rather greedy and dishonorable; however the word does not actually have this or any other negative meaning, and it is used in ordinary contexts in spoken Lakota, not just derogatory ones.

So where did the story that "wašicun" means "steals the fat" come from? Well, "wašin icu" means "takes the fat," and that does sound a lot like "wašicun" (especially in Lakota, since those n's are not fully pronounced). So it's possible some white person who didn't speak the language very well simply made a mistake... but in my opinion, it was probably a pun. "Wašicun--wašin icu" (the white man, takes all the fat.) It's a joke that practically writes itself. Wordplay is common in the Sioux languages, and deliberately mispronouncing an innocuous or complimentary name so that it sounds like something less flattering was not invented in the 1980's.

And here you thought we didn't have a sense of humor. :-D

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