Scholarly Goals of the Project

Scholarly reviewers of the NEH grant application were asked about the intellectual merit of the proposed Omaha and Ponca Digital Dictionary. They responded with the following comments.

The materials contained in James Owen Dorsey's work are of utmost importance to the field of Siouan linguistics. Dorsey is also a rich source for anthropological information. Inaccessible for the years since its creation in the 1800s due to a difficult orthography, unclear and sometimes handwritten notes, and other similar traits, with this project this material will be made accessible for scholars and anyone interested in the language of the Omaha and Ponca tribes.

This is probably the most valuable project that could be proposed for Omaha.

Omaha-Ponca is typical of most Native American languages in the US that have any speakers left at all. The fluent speakers are all elderly, and for the most part unable to pass the language along to children. The language is thus highly endangered. While there is some good modern descriptive work available on the language, the lexical richness of its past is documented only in obscure places and in a form that requires special training to understand.

As the currently most viable representative of the Dhegiha group of Siouan languages, the [Omaha] language has a pivotal role to play in any attempt to study the pre-history of the Siouan family. The need for the proposed work is thus urgent and genuine.

Broader Community Goals

In commenting on the broader impact of the Omaha and Ponca Digital Dictionary, reviewers contributed the following thoughts.

The broader impact of the proposal is quite obvious, it seems to me, and well stated in the proposal: enhanced community pride in their language, the inspiration to learn more of it, and, for the scholarly community, a substantial body of data rescued from obscurity and made consistent and easy to work with.

A dictionary like this will encourage and enhance teaching and learning the language in the community, though of course a real revival of the language requires much more. Moreover, having a comprehensive dictionary in a consistent orthography will help people get used to that orthography, at least passively, and begin to promote a written standard (which in my opinion is crucial to a language revival program that goes beyond a very local level).

Having a dictionary is a point of pride for all the Native American communities I have worked with who have one ─ and a source of regret for those that don't.

Having a good dictionary supports that pride with substantive knowledge.

The project will make available a vast collection of Omaha and Ponca language to native communities, students, and researchers. The material will be crucial as a record of heritage for the community and as a foundation for language and cultural education programs. It appears that the results will be well disseminated through an open website. The University of Nebraska will provide institutional support with experts in digitization, website construction, [and] linguists.

History of the Project

In the mid-1980s, I visited Washington, DC following a clue about the existence of Omaha and Ponca language materials collected by James Owen Dorsey (1848-1895). The resources were housed at the National Anthropological Archives (NAA) at the Smithsonian Institution. Among the materials were 15 boxes containing approximately 20,000 index cards with Omaha and Ponca words. To make a single photocopy of all the cards in this collection was beyond my financial means. Had I gone ahead in making a photocopy, I thought it would have only been a single copy, and of little use to the Omaha community. I asked the NAA officials if they had any plans to microfilm the Dorsey materials. They indicated that the collection was not considered popular enough to be financially viable. However, if I wanted a copy, they invited me to microfilm it for their collections from which I could then obtain a copy.

In the winter of 1988, after informing the Macy Senior Citizens of my project, I returned to Washington with a rented planetary microfilm camera. The NAA provided space in the public reading room to set up the camera and work for three weeks microfilming. By the time I had exhausted my personal funds I had produced eight 100 foot reels of microfilm. The 20,000 slip file filled the first three reels. The following five reels contained other Omaha, Ponca, Osage, Kansa, and Quapaw language and ethnographic materials created by Dorsey. The NAA received the master microfilms and I had two copies made; one for myself and one to share with the person who had alerted me to the existence of the collection.

The microfilms have remained under-utilized for twenty years. In the intervening years I witnessed the decline of the public usage of the Omaha language in the community. Efforts to document and teach the language on the Omaha Reservation have been an uphill struggle. Meanwhile, with the emergence of the Internet, the younger generation has been drawn into a new world of on-line technology and multi-media information.

In 2008, I applied for a highly competitive grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) to digitize the microfilm version of the 20,000 slips and create an on-line Omaha and Ponca Digital Dictionary (OPDD). Catherine Rudin, Professor and Linguist at Wayne State College accepted my request to bring her linguistic skills to the project as Co-Principal Investigator. The Center for Digital Research in the Humanities (CDRH), headed by CDRH Co-Director Katherine Walter, agreed to partner with us to provide the technical expertise and computer resources needed for this project.

Awarded to the University of Nebraska–Lincoln in 2008, the OPDD project was funded for three years (#PD-5007-08 2008-2011). The first year saw a flurry of meetings with CDRH, other UNL technology experts, Rudin, and me to flesh out a plan of action. An undergraduate student was hired under the grant to begin scanning the 20,000 microfilm images into computer files. A graduate student began entering the scanned data into a database created by the CDRH. The second year saw the addition of two more graduate student employees helping to enter data from the scanned images. Rudin and I began checking the entered data for accuracy based on the original slip image and performing some linguistic analysis and re-organization.

Representing the Dorsey orthography in the database, and the need to convert it to the Macy Standard Orthography (MSO), has posed a challenge. Regular meetings with the CDRH team help address these and other technology questions as we encounter them.

Key goals of this behind the scenes work are the preservation of Dorsey’s original slip image, the accurate replication of his 19th century writing system in the database, and the ability to convert that archaic writing system into one used currently by Omaha Nation Public School on the Omaha Reservation. This on-line public access dictionary that emerges from the database is intended to be fully searchable and user-friendly.

The on-line dictionary is designed for growth. New data will be uploaded as the slips are processed. In the future we plan to add appropriate images, sound files, and supporting Omaha text to augment each entry. The project hopes to connect with willing Omaha and Ponca speakers to annotate and update this otherwise 19th century dictionary.

A take-away point of the scanning, data entry, and database programming work is that it is extremely tedious and time consuming. This could never be accomplished without the dedication of everyone connected to the project. Many project participants have expressed their understanding of the project’s vision.

Our goal is to provide a language resource for current and future members of the Omaha and Ponca communities in an easy to understand, free, and accessible form.

Comments and questions regarding the Omaha and Ponca Digital Dictionary project can be directed to

Comments and questions regarding the technological support for this project can be directed to

The compilers of this dictionary web site are solely responsible for its contents

Pronunciation Guide

The following are the most commonly heard sounds of Umonhon and their orthographic (written) representation. This orthography reflects the current spelling protocols at Umonhon Nation Public School, Macy, Nebraska and the University of Nebraska–Lincoln Omaha Language Class.

Letter Umonhon example English Example With Target Sound in UPPERCASE
' t'é (dead) uh.—.oh (glottal stop between syllables)
a ská (white) f.A.ther
b búta (round) B.oy
ch chéshka (short) chur.CH (not aspirated)
chh nchhon CH.urch (aspirated)
d dúba (four) D.og
e shé (apple) w.AY
en hinthénkithe (hurry) w.AYN.e (with a soft n)
g égon G.irl
h huhú (fish) H.igh
i ní (water) b.EE
in wín (one) b.EAN (with a soft n)
j júba (a little bit) J.udge
k ké (turtle) s.K.ate (not aspirated)
kh akhí (I return home) K.ey (aspirated)
m mí (sun)
n nú (man) N.o
on nba (day) y.AWN (with a soft n)
p pá (not aspirated)
ph nPhon (elk) P.ot (aspirated)
q qubé (holy) ba.CH (harsh/raspy)
s sábe (black) S.un
sh shé (apple) SH.ip
t té (bison) sT.op (not aspirated)
th athí (I'm here) T.op (aspirated)
th tháwa (to count)
u tú (blue) bl.UE
w wa'ú (woman)
x xagé (cry,weep) ba.CH (muted/soft)
z zí (yellow) Z.oo
zh zhínga gara.G.e

Marking stress on the correct syllable is very important in Umonhon. Moving the accent mark can change the meaning of the word. For example:

First Syllable Stress Second Syllable Stress
WÁthathe—"table" waTHÁthe—"food"