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The web has only the English term, or other European languages (most of those translate to "eternal hunting land", rather than "happy"). Frustratingly, even native storytellers use the English expression. But what was the actual name for Happy Hunting Ground, in Lakota, Narragansett, or any other language that had this concept? And what was the literal meaning?

Edit: After finding completely different expressions in several plains Indians' languages (what is the PC term, plains Native Americans?), I'm beginning to think that the beliefs of plains tribes are the wrong place to look; perhaps the expression originated with the east coast woodland tribes (e.g. Hurons) and was carried west, paradoxically, by whites.

  • Hi and welcome to M&F SE, please take some time to take our tour. Nice question, the only improvement I see, could be adding a link to the English term you found. – Calaom Jul 19 at 7:20
  • In a way, this isn't answerable as asked, as there was no single "Native American" language or culture. It'd be a bit like asking the same question about Asians. – T.E.D. Jul 19 at 18:11
  • Any language where the concept exists is good enough for me, as I said in the question. – Ralf B Jul 20 at 0:47
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    There is an approximation of this concept in Native American sign language. – Codosaur Jul 24 at 14:40
  • @Codosaur: An interesting way of expressing it, fairly direct---and it says nothing about hunting, which alas reinforces what others are saying, that HHG is a white expression, not native. – Ralf B Jul 25 at 6:34
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I'm afraid there probably isn't one.

Growing up with some Native family myself, I gathered "Happy Hunting Ground" was not an actual native term they used, but rather one of those phrases white men use to make fun of them, like "firewater" and "thunder-stick". That's the context I always heard it in.

However, there appears to be a legit Wikipedia page for it, so its gotta have been A ThingTM, right? And that page mentions the Lakota by name. Those people are closely related to my own Osage, with very similar names for what are usually pretty much identical beliefs. That's significant, because there exists an Osage/English dictionary, created by one of the world's first indigenous linguists way back in the late 1800's. This was when the Osages still remembered their old beliefs, and that dictionary is chock full of religious and ceremonial terms. If it exists, it must be in there. And I happen to have a copy....

Short answer: its not in there. Nothing remotely like it is in there.

So I think, perhaps this is my first ever encounter with a large religious difference between Siouxan peoples? The online Lakota dictionary must have it...

Nope. Nothing like that under "happy" or "hunting." In fact, if you try looking up "heaven" there, you get the following:

mahpiya wokichunze n heaven (Christian concept; coined by the missionaries)

In other words, the Lakota didn't have anything like that. The above two words are actually the Lakota words for "sky kingdom".

A bit more online ...er... hunting, netted me this explanation for the mystery:

Concerning beliefs regarding an afterlife among Plains Indians, Sioux physician Charles Eastman writes: “The idea of a ‘happy hunting-ground’ is modern and probably borrowed, or invented by the white man.”

Charles Eastman wasn't just a physician, but an acknowledged lecturing expert in Sioux history. Born in 1858, his maternal grandfather was a Santee Dakota chief, and his Dakota name was Ohíye S'a. We aren't going to get much closer to a primary source.

So the "Happy Hunting Ground" is indeed a myth, but its a white man's myth


OK then, you might ask, what was the native view of the afterlife?

Again, nothing's universal. However, the Siouan people largely shared an animist belief in a omnipresent spirit they all call something like "Wakonda". This is often translated as (more literally) "Great Mystery" or (more commonly) "Great Spirit". Europeans found it easiest to equate it to God (or The Holy Spirit), but to modern audiences its probably best to think of it as The Force. It has no gender, and it permeates everything and everyone. From this point of view, when you die, your spirit doesn't really go anywhere. It just becomes one with Wakonda. It might even be available for consultation from time to time, say if a Death Star needs blowing up or something.

I understand some unrelated tribes had similar beliefs, but this almost certainly wasn't universal of course.

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    Search for "hunting ground" in the Lakota dictionary: wanáǧi wičhóthi "the afterlife, the place where the spirits of the dead live (so-called Happy Hunting Ground in English)" – b a Jul 21 at 14:42
  • I've always thought "firewater" and the like were translations into English not from spoken languages, but from the NA sign language. That's because a lot of whites doing business with native people used the sign language to communicate. – Ralf B Jul 22 at 7:14
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    With help from uncle Google I've been able to translate wanáǧi wičhóthi as "spirits' campground", or perhaps more correctly "spirits' habitation". Nothing about hunting, happy, eternal, or otherwise. I'm beginning to be convinced that HHG is a fake term, and my search is in vain. But "spirit campground" is cool; I'll use it in my campaign. – Ralf B Jul 25 at 6:41
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    @RalfB - As near as I can tell, PISL was not used in the eastern half of the modern US (although it was used by the Lakota and Osage). That doesn't mean you are wrong, but it does mean any such joke/pun/insult would have been completely lost on indigenous peoples living east of the Mississippi. – T.E.D. Jul 30 at 2:32

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