Please note that this site is not in any way sanctioned or sponsored by the Omaha or Ponca Tribes or by any members of or organizations within these tribes. Neither is it sponsored by SILP or the University of Colorado. The views expressed herein are my own and need not reflect the views of others, including particular individuals or organizations cited herein. Direct corrections or comments to John E. Koontz.
Omaha-Ponca is a Siouan language. It is part of the Mississippi Valley subgroup. This subgroup consists of three dialect continuums - Dakotan, Dhegiha, and Chiwere - and one more or less uniform language - Winnebago (Hochank or Hochangara). The Dhegiha dialect continuum is made up of four languages, Omaha-Ponca, Kansa, Osage, and Quapaw. These languages are similar in character and to some extent mutually intelligible, though existing native speakers assessments tend to suggest that comprehension was somewhat directional and not always perfect. Siouanists call them languages, rather than dialects, because the ethnic groups or nations speaking them are politically distinct, with no tradition of united action, and because, in the absence of any shared prestige dialect, the real linguistic differences among them would make it impossible to create a shared written system for them.
The five tribes do acknowledge a kinship among themselves, probably because they are so similar linguistically, and because there are obvious parallels in organization and culture. However, the five tribes were already distinct at contact, and there are no traditions dating to a period of unity of the whole, except a very generic account that includes the Chiwere and Winnebago speakers, too, and seems to me to be a recent concoction, dating to the treaty period.
Omaha-Ponca is the language of the Omaha (UmaNhaN) and Ponca (PpaNkka) nations. Although shared by two distinct nations, it is treated as a single language because mutual comprehension is complete. In fact, the precise differences between the Omaha and Ponca dialects are unknown to linguists. The existing written materials are indistinguishable to me at my present level of expertise. Omaha speakers do indicate that they can distinguish the two groups by speech, and I believe them, but the cues they use are not clear to me. They may consist largely of subphonemic differences in pronunciation too subtle for my inexperienced ear and similarly subtle differences in patterns of word use. There are a few lexical differences of modern origin, e.g., kkinaN'naNge vs. kkippi'naNge 'automobile', and one or two of earlier origin, e.g., Dorsey claims that the Ponca call the Platte NiN ttaNga '(the) Bigwater', while the Omaha call it NiN bdhaska '(the) Flatwater'. The word ne 'lake' (cf. Teton Dakotan ble) may be restricted to Ponca.
The Omaha and Ponca do share an explicit tradition of historical unity, though the precise time of the split into two nations has never, to my knowledge, been identified with any certainty. It may have been as recently as the 18th Century, but it was clearly in effect by then and seems to antedate contact by at least a few years. Apart from a recollection of unity illustrated in various ways in the Dorsey texts, it is clear that one has to combine the Omaha and Ponca clan systems to arrive at the full Dhegiha clan system as exemplified among the Kansa and Osage. In addition, the Omaha and Ponca may have formed effectively a single linguistic community within the historical period. For example, the Say Vocabulary of Omaha, dating to the Long Expedition, gives *gdhebdhaN 'ten', corresponding regularly to other Siouan forms, cf. Dakotan (wi)kc^emnaN, while both modern Omaha and modern Ponca have the irregular development gdhebaN, suggesting that whenever and wherever this form originated, it was able to oust the regular form in both groups by the late 1800s. The logic here is not airtight, but it is suggestive.
The discussion of Omaha offered here is divided into the following headings.
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