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50 Years/50 Collections: Iapi Oaye/The Word Carrier, 1991

The records of the American Missionary Association (AMA) are a well-regarded source of information on African American education during Reconstruction and the development of historically black colleges and universities during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In recent years, scholars interested in missionary efforts and education among Native Americans have also increasingly turned to the AMA records. The overwhelming majority of the AMA’s missionary work among Native Americans took place in the Dakotas and Nebraska, most notably the Santee Agency in Nebraska and the Fort Berthold Agency in the Dakota Territory, both of which are well-documented in the AMA records and the papers of school principal Raymond Von Tobel.

In 1991, Amistad received a donation of a significant run of a Dakota-language newspaper entitled Iapi Oaye, as well as its English-language counterpart, The Word Carrier, from Mrs. C.F. Gutch, chairperson of the Historical Committee of the Southern Dakota Conference of the United Church of Christ. Mrs. Gutch’s grandparents were Rev. Thomas L. and Louise Riggs, who were missionaries among the Sioux, and her donation reflected not only the history of the AMA missions in the Great Plains, but the personal history of Mrs. Gutch’s family since various members of the Riggs family were long-time editors of the newspaper.

Iapi Oaye began at Greenwood, Dakota Territory, for the Dakota Mission, which was founded by the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions in 1835. The first issue of the paper appeared in May 1871 under the editorship of Rev. John P. Williamson with assistance from Rev. Stephen R. Riggs and was published in the Santee dialect of the Dakota language. Williamson and Riggs had between them over 45 years of mission work among the Sioux and were familiar with the Dakota language. Beginning with the second volume of the newspaper in January 1873, portions were printed in English and the paper adopted a bilingual masthead when “Word Carrier” was added to the title. Four years later the paper was transferred to the Santee Normal Training School, run by the American Missionary Association and in 1884, the newspaper split into two separate publications, Iapi Oaye (Dakota) and The Word Carrier (English). The newspaper would last until 1939, running longer than any other native-language newspaper in the United States.

Iapi Oaye/The Word Carrier, was in many ways typical of missionary newspapers. As scholar Todd Kerstetter has written:

The paper tried to keep its readers abreast of world events and to teach lessons, both oral and secular. The Dakota-language section emphasized religion and education and doled out heavy doses of translated scripture, hymns, and paraphrased Bible stories. It also contained commentary on government Indian policy and news from other reservations and from around the country and the rest of the world. The English portion relayed news of the school and the mission to supporters in the East. (Kerstetter. “Spin Doctors at Santee: Missionaries and the Dakota-Language Reporting of the Ghost Dance and Wounded Knee” in Western Historical Quarterly, Vol. 28, No. 1 (Spring 1997).

However, Kerstetter also points out that the paper provided the only native-language coverage of events surrounding the spread of the Ghost Dance among the Sioux, as well as the death of Sitting Bull and the Wounded Knee Massacre. In addition, the publication of Iapi Oaye in the Dakota language emphasized the focus the Dakota Mission and its teachers placed on native language as a pedagogical tool and contradicted policies established by the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs that emphasized English in schools.

Amistad’s run of the newspaper includes 184 issues of Iapi Oaye, dating from 1883 to 1933, and 171 issues of The Word Carrier, dating from 1884 to 1936. The Center also holds a complete run on microfilm. More information on the Center’s holdings can be found here.

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