In researching our heritage there are times when I know I am looking for something, but don’t know what it is. One example of this for me has been to understand the name of our ancestor Massa Jones. Most commonly ‘massa’ is translated as ‘iron’ or ‘paint’ like William Byrd’s translation of Massamoni as ‘Paint Creek’. But these never seemed like adequate translations to me. Learning about western Siouan languages like Lakota made me think there was more meaning to the word than that.
Some months ago I realized that the prefix ‘ma’ means ‘earth’ in Siouan languages. (Pillahuk to William Meuse)
I filed that fact away in the back of my head. When I went to Philadelphia recently and attended the Quaker and Native Americans conference, I left with a new focus. The panel discussion that really resonated with me was the one about Quaker-run Indian boarding schools. In particular White’s Manual Labor Institute in Wabash, Indiana that was run by a Coppock (no doubt a cousin to me at some degree).
In learning about White’s I came to the story of Zitkála-Šá AKA Gertrude Simmons Bonnin. She was a student at the school who captured “the deep misery of having her heritage stripped away” at the school. As much as her Sioux traditions were misunderstood and disrespected, she kept on. She graduated from White’s and went on to attend Earlham College (Quaker) in Richmond Indiana. She became an accomplished violinist and author. She later took a position at the Carlisle Indian School in PA teaching music and leading debates on the treatment of Native Americans.
My mother bought me some of her writings for Xmas this year. Seeing the loss of culture (150 years after our Eastern Siouan ancestors) through her hers gives me new insight into how our own ancestors must have felt. It also gave me new insight into Massa’s name when I realized Zitkála-Šá means ‘red bird’, ‘sa’ means ‘red’. So ma+sa=earth+red or Red Earth.
This translation makes more sense – iron is the mineral that makes earth red, but this is a focus in English language. In Siouan language the words have spiritual significance as well – as in we are red earth people. Now it feels like I found the meaning I was looking for, and now know why I needed to learn Zitkála-Šá’s story. I am grateful. Pillahuk (thank you) to Zitkála-Šá for the understanding her work has helped create.
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