Manataka American Indian Council

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

THE NAMING

OF NORTH AMERICA

 

By Jack M. Weatherford

   

 

 

 

 

A chapter from the book, "Native Roots - How The Indians Enriched America".

 

    Seattle points toward America's future.  For a long time after its founding, Seattle must have seemed like the end of America, tucked far away in the northwest corner, accessible only by ship up the Pacific Coast or by arduous trek overland. The Northern Railroad reduced the isolation by connecting Seattle to St. Paul on the Mississippi River, and thus with the remainder of the United States. Seattle became the connecting port for people and supplies between Alaska and the lower forty-eight states; it served as warehouse and general store for the Yukon Gold Rush.  It became a major point of exchange between the western United States and western Canada, and it was the United States' closest port to Japan, Korea, and northern Asia.

 

   Everything about Seattle seems new.  During most of the year, the frequent rains wash the dust and visible pollution off the buildings and the 'vegetation.  Fresh green vines cover the cement walls of the freeway and make overpasses look like forest tunnels. The Space Needle gives the city's skyline a futuristic shape, jutting up beside Elliot Bay, while streamlined ferries crisscross the bay, connecting Seattle with the other side of Puget Sound as well as with Alaskan and Canadian ports. Even the older dock district and the renovated "nostalgia" zone date back only to the beginning of the twentieth century, built after the dawn of the modern era of electricity. Rather than showing the age of the city, such areas emphasize its newness. 

 

    As a settlement of a more modern and prosperous America, Seattle, more than any other city in America, shared the largess of the surrounding water and land with the indigenous people of the area. Sometimes under-judicial and federal government control, but often of their own accord, the incoming settlers and the natives found a way to divide the bountiful fish harvest of Puget Sound and the adjacent ocean waters. Unlike many other parts of America that completely cut the native people off from the utilization of any natural resources, the natives of Puget Sound have managed to hang on to part of theirs, and thereby achieve a modest prosperity that allows them a more equitable position within the ranks of working people.

 

    Seattle has many unique aspects, but perhaps one of the most interesting derives from the city's name. Seattle is the largest city in the Americas named for a Native American. Other cities, such as Miami and Chicago, also bear Indian names, but the city of Seattle was named in honor of a particular Indian, a man of peace and of wisdom gained in the forests and waters of Puget Sound.

 

    Chief Seal'th lived in the area of the city named for him from about 1786 to 1866. In 1855 he signed the treaty with the white settlers that gave them ownership of the land of the Duwamish people, which today lies under Seattle's industrial zone. Even though he lacked the concept of selling land, he knew that his people were losing their land forever. A monument in Seattle commemorates his life, and books around the world have quoted him extensively on the subjects of the ownership of land, the way to treat the environment, how to assure equitable relations between ethnic groups, and the proper relationship of humans to the spiritual world.

 

    In a speech to territorial governor Isaac Stevens in 1854, Chief Seal'th summarized with great eloquence the difference between the way his people thought of the land and the way the newcomers did. "Every part of this soil is sacred in the estimation of my people," he explained. "Every hillside, every valley, every plain and grove, has been hallowed by some sad or happy event in days long vanished. The very dust upon which you now stand responds more lovingly to their footsteps than to yours, because it is rich with the blood of our ancestors and our bare feet are conscious of the sympathetic touch" (F. W. Turner, p. 253). Even though the text of the original speech may have been greatly altered and romanticized, the sentiment appears to be particularly Native American.

 

    The ways that people name their environments vary from one culture to another, and reflect many of the basic values of those people. Some places bear the names of generals, like Washington, D.C., or its Virginia suburb, Alexandria. Others bear the names of revolutionaries, like Leningrad, Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) and Juarez (Mexico). Or they use saints and gods, as for the cities of St. Augustine, Corpus Christi, or San Francisco.

 

    The name of Seattle reflects a much different choice from Vancouver (named for an explorer), Victoria (named for a European queen), or Astoria (named for the New York millionaire merchant). Already, by the time of the founding of Seattle, whole countries had been named for Europeans.

 

    Christopher Columbus himself had his name smeared throughout the Americas. The South American nation of Colombia bears his name, as does the city of Colon (the Spanish version of Columbus) in Panama. In North America his namesakes include British Columbia, the District of Columbia, and the Columbia River. 

 

    Columbia became the name of cities in South Carolina, Maryland, Illinois, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Missouri as well as of counties in Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, New York, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Washington, and Wisconsin. Columbus became the name of cities in Ohio, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Nebraska, Mississippi and Georgia, as well as a county in North Carolina.

 

    When the European aristocracy and their paid explorers sat down to carve up the map of North America, they approached it with the vanity of schoolboys scribbling on bathroom walls.  Each ruler wanted to leave his name or title, or perhaps the name of his wife, his children, or even his mistress on the map.  America acquired names such as Charles Towne in the colony of Carolina (which was also Latin for Charles) and Baltimore in Mary Land, as well as entire colonies named Georgia, New York, New Jersey, and Delaware. Poor Virginia acquired its name in honor of the dubious sexual condition of England's Queen Elizabeth I.

 

    Even the French and the Spaniards named places in honor of men, such as the colony of Louisiana or the settlement at Albuquerque, named for Francisco Fernandez de la Cueva, Duque de Albuquerque, who was viceroy of Mexico from 1702 to 1711.  Often, however, they used a saint's name, which may also have been the name of someone's hometown or his royal patron.

 

    In addition to making new names, the explorers and settlers recreated the geography of Europe in a jumbled way.  Mexico became New Spain, the northern Atlantic Coast became New Scotland (or Nova Scotia), and just to the south of that, of course, came New England. In between New England and New Scotland came the French provincial name of Maine, which lay adjacent to a New Hampshire and a New Brunswick, which, of course, should not be confused with Brunswick, the city on the coast of Georgia.

 

    Each cartographer used his own prejudices, nationalism, and simple fantasy to rename the various parts of North America.  A Hondius map published early in the seventeenth century, about the time the Pilgrims sailed for America, gave only three names for all of America north of Mexico.  Nova Francia appeared in the far north, Florida in the south, and everything in between was Canada. A century later, a Herman Moll map gave a much more detailed picture, but the details were confusing.  California appeared as a large Pacific island.  North of New England and Nova Scotia came New Britain, and nearby was the island of New Breton.  On the western side of Hudson's Bay appeared New York, New North Wales, and New Denmark.

 

    When all else failed, the colonists used some simple descriptive name such as Vermont, i.e. "green mountain," or simply Newfoundland.  Even in the Spanish territories the interlopers seem to have run out of saints' names as they turned to simple descriptive names such as Nevada ("snowy place") or Colorado (meaning red and referring to the color of the river of the same name).

 

    Through the power of the European monarchs, the early names stuck, but as the settlers moved into the interior of America, they followed Indian geography and used Indian guides. As the settlers arrived, they found that no matter what their maps and charts proclaimed, America already had its own names. The Indians had named the land, and the settlers learned the Indian names of the country.

 

    Even though virtually all of the coastal states and provinces of North America have European names, most of the states and provinces of the American interior still bear Indian names such as Yukon, Ontario, Manitoba, and Saskatchewan in the north, and Alabama, Mississippi, Texas, and Arizona in the south.

 

    Often these names reflect the tribal names of the people who lived in an area. Such names might be a tribe's own name for itself, or it might be the name given them by a neighboring group. We have states named for the Dakota, the Kansa, the Massachuset, the Illini, and the Utes.  Some are names that describe the land or the water.  Iowa is a Siouan word for "beautiful land," Wyoming derives from the Algonquian for a large prairie, Michigan is Ojibwa for "great water," and Minnesota is Siouan for "waters that reflect the sky."  The original meanings are often rather straightforward, but translators and local boosters have usually worked to derive the most poetic name possible.

 

    Nebraska means "flat" or "broad river" in the Omaha language; this makes it similar in meaning but not pronunciation to the Algonquian term for "long river" that eventually became ConnecticutOhio means "good river" in Iroquoian languages, and Oregon means "beautiful water" in Algonquian.  Kentucky has one of the more mysterious meanings: "dark and bloody ground."

 

    The native people often gave such simple, descriptive names as these to places because such names had a greater utilitarian value than names of people.  Because the native people rarely made or used maps, descriptive names helped native travelers to recognize places.

 

    In addition, they used mythological names or stories that helped others to recognize and remember a long list of place names.  In Inuvialuit, Tuktoyaktuk means "resembling a caribou," and refers to the ancient reef formations visible along the shore.  One legend says the name came from some caribou who wandered into the area and became petrified.  According to another story I heard from one of the residents, the first woman to come to the peninsula saw the reef formations from a distance and mistook them for caribou.  Neither story is more "correct" than the other, but in any case, the formations readily identify the land for even a first-time visitor.

 

    As mentioned earlier, the Inuit built distinctive piles of rocks in the shape of human beings.  The name for these structures, inukshuk, means "something like a human," and derives from inuk meaning "a person."  From this same root comes the singular of their collective name, inuit, meaning "the people."  The modern town of Inuvik on the Mackenzie delta also derives its name from this root; inuvik means "the place of human," although it is more often translated as "the place of man."

 

    Oddly enough, despite the stereotype of the Indians as bellicose people, three of the states have names that mean "friend."  The name Texas comes from the Caddoan word for "friend" or "ally."  The name Dakota has the same meaning in the Dakota language.  For this reason, even today, many Dakota people prefer to be called Dakota or Lakota, meaning "friend," rather than Sioux, which is the French corruption of the name given them by their traditional tribal enemies, and probably means "snake."  Today the Dakota live mostly in Minnesota, whereas their relatives the Lakota live in South Dakota; if names accurately matched he inhabitants. South Dakota would now be South Lakota.

 

    The colonists followed the same naming pattern with rivers as with lands. At first they renamed them after Europeans, like the Hudson River in New York, the Ashley and Cooper rivers in South Carolina, the James River in Virginia, and the Mackenzie River in northwestern Canada.  The Indian names of rivers, however, seem to have been even more persistent than the Indian land names. Most of the great rivers of North America still have Indian names, such as the Mississippi, Ohio, Minnesota, Illinois, Missouri, Arkansas, Tennessee, Wabash, Assiniboine, Ottawa, Saskatchewan, Athabasca, Potomac, Chattahoochee, Tallapoosa, Tallahatchie, Yukon, Kuskokwim, Congaree, Klamath, Sacramento, Quinnipiac, Suwannee, Oconee, Kennebec, Muskegon, Mohawk, and Catawba, as well as hundreds of smaller rivers, creeks, and streams in every state and province.  In  keeping with the persistence of Indian water names, most of the major lakes of America have Indian names, such as Ontario, Erie, Huron, Michigan, Nipigon, Baskatong, Michikamau, Winnipeg, Eufaula, Iliamna, Tahoe, Shasta, Okeechobee, and Winnebago.

 

    The most expansive Indian place name in all of the Americas is Canada, derived from the Iroquoian word kanata, meaning "village," and now applied to a whole country. The name Canada first appeared in the 1534 narratives of Jacques Carrier describing a community at Stadacona (Quebec). From this minute origin as a place name, it gradually spread to all of northern North America, covering nearly 4 million square miles, one of the largest nations on earth.

 

    The people of Mexico also chose a traditional Indian name for their country after achieving independence from Spain and freeing themselves from the name of Nueva Espana.  Mexico means "the place of the Mexica," another name for the Aztecs.  Mexico also preserved more of its native names than any other country in North America.  Many of the Mexican place names include Nahuatl words such as calli (house), co (place), tlan (at), pa (in), atl (water), tlan (near), tetl (stone) and xocitl (flower). 

 

    The Mexicans also use Mexico as the name of the capital of their country, and the Canadians have the name Ottawa, derived from an Algonquian name meaning "trade" or "trader," referring to the activities of a native group who lived in that area. Other major cities in Mexico and Canada, including Manitoba, Saskatoon, Acapuico, and Oaxaca, show their clear native origins.

 

    In his journal, on November 23, 1492, Christopher Columbus referred to the enemies of the Arawak people whom he had visited as the man-eating canibal. This one word eventually grew into a thick and tangled bramble of words, pronunciations, and meanings in many languages.  From this came the Spanish word canibal, from which English speakers derive their word cannibal. The new noun generated its own offspring by begetting the verb to cannibalize as well as the adjective cannibalistic and the nouns cannibalism and cannibalization.

   

   William Shakespeare derived the name Caliban from Carib and used it for the wild man in his play The Tempest.  In keeping with the British view of the natives of the New World, Shakespeare portrays Caliban as stinking, immoral, deformed, alcoholic, violent, and superstitious, without redeeming moral qualities and ready to rape a white woman whenever chance provides an opportunity.

 

   America almost acquired a native name for the entire northern and southern continents. As early as 1502 a map, known as the Kunstmann II map, depicted what was known of this New World and carried an illustration showing natives roasting one of Amerigo Vespucci's men on a spit over a raging fire. Illustrations for books on the New World frequently included scenes of the cannibals with parts of humans roasting on their fires or hanging for storage from a tree or post.  This inclusion of pictures of cannibals on maps led to so persistent a connection of America with the practice of eating human flesh that the continent almost took its new name from this practice. The 1540 Swiss map of South America in Sebastian Muenster's edition of Ptolemy labels the northern coast of what is now Brazil with the simple word Canibali, a corruption of the name Carib, but at this time the name did not yet have the full modern meaning of cannibal.  Other maps followed the tradition and referred to that part of the New World as simply "the place of cannibals" (Quinn, pp. 64047).

 

    With a slightly different pronunciation, cannibal and carib occurred interchangeably in early reports, but eventually the latter became the proper name for many of the inhabitants of the West Indies, including the native populations of Cuba and Haiti.  When it became obvious that the islands were not a part of India and that they needed a new name other than West Indies, they became known as the Caribbean.  Only a quirk of fate prevented this early label of Caribbean from being applied to all of the New World.

 

   Not all of the American place names derived from native languages reflect names actually given by the Indians.  Explorers and settlers often misappropriated Indian names or phrases and applied them seemingly without discrimination.  In many cases the colonists adopted an Indian name such as Massachusetts, which referred to the rocky hills of the area, but, lacking knowledge of the Indian languages, the colonists applied this description of land to the water of the bay and eventually to the whole colony.  The colonists often applied the native name of a section of a river to the entire river, as happened with the Connecticut and Penobscot.

 

   Some Indian languages offered a decisively different way of dividing up the landscape and applying names than did the European languages.  The naming pattern varied from one native group to another, depending on the topography of their native landscape, on the kind of language they spoke, and on their own values. 

 

   People such as the Kwakiuti, who live along the British Columbia coast and survive by harvesting the waters, consequently use many place names that indicate the relative position of upstream, downstream, seaside, inland, off a point, or in dangerous water.  They also use names that reflect what happens there, such as "place of many salmon," "cedar bark on rocks," "small mussels," "finding whales," or "having elk." Living on the ocean and along rivers and scattered islands, the Kwakiuti used a variety of words for water, but they would not name a place simply for its water, springs, or river the way the Aztecs or Arabs would do, since they lived in areas where the location of water could be a matter of

life or death.

 

    Whereas Kwakiuti names describe the land, Dakota names sometimes describe the environment, such as missouri, meaning "water flowing along," but they also frequently describe historical episodes such as "buffaloes return running," "where Pawnee camped," "they who find a woman," or "jealous ones fight" (Boas, p. 20). They also named places for people, such as "Flying-By's camp" or "Four Bears' camp."

 

    Many of the Indian names still in use simply described a place. An Algonquian description of a place where onions or smelly weeds grew became the present name of Chicago.  The phrase for "abandoned town" or "old town" in Muskogean (Creek) became the name Tallahassee in Florida. The Tohono'odam description "black base," referring to a nearby mountain, became the name Tucson.  The Algonquian description of "separated island" became Chappaquiddick Island in Massachusetts.  The Cree words kishiska, meaning "rapid," and djiwan, meaning "current," became the name of the Canadian province of Saskatchewan.  Similarly the Cree words win (dirty) and nipi (water) became Winnipeg, the name of a river and the capital of Manitoba province.

 

   In addition to describing the place, Indian place names often described an activity done there. Pojoaque, New Mexico, derives its name from the Tewa- language meaning "drink-water place."  Manomet, Massachusetts, gets its name from the Algonquian word meaning "portage." Minnehaha comes from the Dakota for "falling water" or "waterfall"; contrary to some pseudo-poetic interpretations, it does not mean "laughing water." Auilby Creek, Alabama, despite its English sound, is a tranliteration of the Choctaw phrase koi-ai-albi meaning "panther-three-killed" (G.R. Stewart 1945, p. 7). The Wisconsin name Weyauwega comes from the Ojibwa meaning "he embodies it" and refers to a mythological action.

 

   To understand the native names of America, one needs to understand both the geography and the culture. The heavy dependence on waterways for transportation in the eastern half of the continent meant that many of the native names described the water, but differently from the way the European settlers did. The European colonists named rivers and lakes, but often lacked a name for the outlet of a river.  For the Europeans, the outlet did not seem to be a separate thing requiring a separate name.

 

   By contrast, native cultures usually named the outlet of a lake, or named a river in parts, but did not use a single name for the whole body of water, which the colonists perceived as a single entity.  For Indian canoeists on a lake, the outlet was the most important part, because that was the water exit from the lake.  So long as they could identify the spots on the lake where water flowed in and out, they did not need a name for the remainder of the water.  They emphasized the connection or edge of what Europeans saw as two separate things, a lake and a river.

 

   In the Iroquoian languages, the outlet of a river was called the oswego, which meant literally "flowing out." This became a place name in New York and in several other states because it occurred so frequently in names within Iroquois territory, and can be found as far south as South Carolina.

 

   Confusion sometimes arose over Indian naming practices in regard to mountains.  Mountains occur mostly in large clusters or massifs where it is problematic to separate precisely one mountain from another.  The shoulder of one seems to jut into the ridge of the next; one has three peaks, and the other appears to have no peak. Most Indian cultures did not try to name whole mountains or whole ranges; instead they named features. Each peak carried its own name, as did each ridge and hollow.

 

    Despite this difference in naming pattern, mountains frequently have Indian names, even though they may not be the same names given to them by the Indians.  When Cabeza de Vaca explored the Florida coast in 1528, he found a town known as Apalachen at the armpit of the Florida peninsula.  The Spaniards applied this name to Apalachee Bay on the ocean side of Apalachen, and gradually the same name spread to the mountains found inland from the area.  Over the coming century of European exploration, this name became Appalachia.  The name became so important and widespread that Washington lrving proposed it was the name for the whole United States (G. R. Stewart 1970, p. 19).  Not until the scientific work of Arnold Henry Guyot, published in 1861, did the name Appalachian Mountains come to apply to the whole range extending from Georgia north to Newfoundland and Quebec.

 

    Mountains ranges and parts of ranges bear Indian names throughout North America. These include the Allegheny, Aleutian, Adirondack, Taconic, Ouachita, Pocono, Wasatch, Absaroka, Shenandoah, Hoosac, Skeena, and Caribou mountains.

   

   The popularity of assigning Indian names varied with whims or fashions in North American literature, politics, and popular culture over the decades.  In the eighteenth century, settlers favored classical names that harked back to ancient Greece, Rome, Palestine, or Egypt.  They frequently mocked the Indian names, which seemed unusual to European ears.  James Kirke Pudding compared the harsh consonants of native American names to the harsh sounds of "a catalogue of Russian generals." A similar thought was expressed by David Humphreys in 1794 when he proclaimed "CONNECTICUT! Thy name uncouth in song" (G. R. Stewart 1945, p. 275).

 

   This view of native names contrasts starkly with that of the poet Lydia Sigourney as she expressed it in her romantic little poem "Indian Names":

 

Old Massachusetts wears it

Within her lordly crown,

And broad Ohio bears it

Amid his young renown.

Connecticut hath wreath' d it

 

Where her quiet foliage waves,

Atld bold Kentucky breathes it hoarse

Through all her ancient caves.

 

    By the nineteenth century, the newcomers to America had accustomed their ears and tongues to Indian sounds and had begun to use them more frequently and easily. Washington lrving wrote extensively in favor of Native American names, and Walt Whitman defended the use of native names in his American Primer: "[H]ere are the aboriginal names. . . . What is the fitness --What the strange charm of aboriginal names? . . . They all fit.  Mississippi! -- the word winds with chutes -- it rolls a stream three thousand miles long."

   

   American settlers became so enamored of Indian place names that they started inventing new names for areas and indiscriminately using names from eastern Indian places for places in the far West.  By using primitive Indian-English dictionaries or simple word lists compiled by marginally educated missionaries and explorers, land developers and railroad companies put together Indian words to make names from word combinations never used by any Indian nation. Thus Oregon acquired a name that meant roughly "beautiful water" in the language of the Algonquian-speaking peoples who lived on the East Coast and around the

Great Lakes, thousands of miles from Oregon.

 

   Wyoming got an Algonquian name from Pennsylvania meaning "large prairie," but the adoption came only after a long fight.  Decades before the settling of the present state of Wyoming, its name achieved popular acclaim after an 1809 poem, "Gertrude of Wyoming," by Thomas Campbell.  The poem recalled the Iroquois defeat of a group of Tory settlers and the ensuing death of 350 of them during the chaos of the American Revolution.  By the time Congress created the territory of Wyoming in 1868, ten communities in Rhode Island, New York, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Kansas, and Nebraska had already claimed the name. The name had grown in popularity and was proposed for the new Western territory, even though it had no historical relationship to the area, to the native people who lived there, or to the languages spoken there.  One Anti-Wyoming group of Congressmen favored the name Cheyenne, since that name referred to the native people living  there, but Congress rejected Cheyenne for fear that European) might confuse it with the French word chienne, meaning "female dog." No one in the seemly Victorian era wanted a state whose name meant "bitch" (G. R. Stewart 1945, p. 312).

 

   The explorer and writer Henry Rowe Schoolcraft invented a number of such names in his capacity as Indian agent for the territory of Michigan.  He made Algoma from the Al of Algonquian and the Algonquian word for "lake," goma. Several towns took this name or a slightly different spelling of it, such as Alcon; County in Michigan and a town in Iowa) where the post office accidentally changed it to Algona, the name that stuck.

   

   Schoolcraft also invented the name losco, which he translated from the 0)ibwa as "shining water." It became the name of towns in Michigan, Minnesota, and even New Jersey.

 

   A bastaridized Indian name could be made by combining the Greek word for 'city," polis, with an Indian prefix such as minne the Dakota word for "water." This produced "water city" or Minneapolis.  A similar process created Indianapolis or "Indian city."

 

    A more convoluted mixture of languages occurs in Zumbrota, the name of a Minnesota town between the state capital of St. Paul and Rochester. The Zumbro River received its name from the English pronunciation of the French name aux embarras meaning "at the obstacles," the obstacles being the jam of driftwood that accumulated annually on the river.  The Dakota people added ta to Zumbro in order to signify a place on the river, thus creating an English-French-Dakota hybrid.

   

   In 1874, settlers from Indiana founded a community in Los Angeles County, California, and named it Indiana Colony, but the following year the United States post office refused to accept that name for fear that mail carriers might confuse the state of Indiana with Indiana Colony.  The settlers decided that if they could not have Indiana, then they wanted a name that still stressed an Indian connection, but they could not find a local name) since the community no longer had any speakers of the native language.  Dr. T. B. Elliot, president of Indiana Colony, wrote to a missionary among the Ojibwa of Wisconsin for help in finding an appropriate Indian name.  The nominations from the missionary included Gish kadenapasadena, "peak of the valley," Weoquanpasadena, "crown of the valley," Daegunpasadena, "key of the valley," and Pequadenapasadena, "hill of the valley."

   

   All of these names proved too long and cumbersome for ease of pronunciation or spelling, but since they all ended in the rather euphonious pasadena, that became the name of the new city meaning simply "of the valley" (Gudde, p. 239). Communities in [California,] Texas and Maryland later borrowed the name.

 

   Wewanta, West Virgina, has a pseudo-Indian name that supposedly came from the phrase "We want a post office" (G. R. Stewart 1970, p. 531).  Wewaset, in Pennsylvania, has a pseudo-Indian name invented by the railroad but having no known meaning in English or any other language.

 

   Some American settlers used fictional Indian names for real places, and some American writers used real Indian names for fictional places. William Faulkner lived in Lafayette County, Mississippi, but he set fourteen of his novels and many short stories in the fictional Yoknapatawpha County. He borrowed that name from the original name of the Yocona River, on the southern border of his county. The Chickasaw phrase yoknapatawpha meant "flowing, muddy water," but through time it had been shortened to Yocona.  Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha County bears a name in keeping with the real counties of Mississippi, including Yazoo, Tallahatchie, Coahoma, Oktibbeha, Pontotoc, Tishomingo, Itawamba, Noxubee, and Yalobusha.

 

   Just as some apparently Indian names are not actually Indian in origin, some English, French, and Spanish names are direct translations of older Indian names. Lockout Mountain, Tennessee, originally had a Creek name that meant "rock rising to a point"; in its original form it became the name of Chattanooga (G. R. Stewart 1945, p. 231). Talking Rock in Georgia is a translation from a Cherokee phrase that essentially means "echo."

 

   Translations from native languages are obvious in English names like Medicine Lake or Medicine Hat, where "medicine" is the usual English translation of the Dakota wakan, meaning "sacred," "holy," "mysterious," or "unusual." 

 

   Sometimes transliterations of Indian words into English make them sound English and thus obscure the native origins.  No name could sound much more English than Wheeling, West Virginia, a city named for the Wheeling River.  It orginated, however, from the Lenni-Lenape phrase wih link, which meant "place of the head," supposedly in reference to a captive whose severed head was placed on a pole beside the river at the spot where the community later arose.

 

   French names such as Lac du Flambeau in Wisconsin come from Indian names that could just as easily have been translated into English as Lake of the Torches. Lac Qui Parle in Minnesota is a rough French translation of the Dakota name meaning "lake that whispers to itself." Fond du Lac in both Wisconsin and Minnesota is the French translation of Indian names specifying the head or source of lake, referring to their position at the head of Lake Superior.

 

   The Platte River of Nebraska appears to have a good English name reminiscent, perhaps, of the River Plate in Argentina, but it comes to English from a French translation of an Omaha phrase, fit, meaning "river," and bthaska meaning "flat." This concept of the "flat river" eventually became the Platte. The original Omaha phrase ni-bthaska survives in the name of the state of Nebraska, giving the state and the river the same basic name in the Omaha and English languages.

 

   Spanish names also frequently cover a native origin, as in the case of El Capitan peak in Yosemite National Park, even though the Spanish name was given it by English-speaking explorers in 1851.  The Paiute name Tote-ack-ah-noo-la meant roughly "rock of the supreme one," referring either to a chief or to a supernatural being.  The explorers rejected the native name and decided that the English translation from Pauite to "Chief Peak" or "Captain Peak" sounded too prosaic, so they gave it the Spanish equivalent.  El Capitan, which resonated with a romantic image of conquistadors.

 

    Tijuana, the name of a town and river in Baja California on the border with San Diego, appears to be a typically Spanish name.  The name's origin appears to be Tia Juana, Spanish for "Aunt Jane," and from this arose many interesting stories about a mythical woman of that name operating a border cantina.  Old Spanish maps, however, show an earlier Indian place name, tijuan, with a now-unknown meaning.

   

     An Indian origin often lies behind a modern place name with the colors white, blue, yellow, or red in the name.  This includes White Plains, New York, from the Weckquaeskeck name of the same meaning; White Earth Reservation in Minnesota; and Blue Earth, the name of a county and a river also in Minnesota.

   

   The Yellowstone River (and the park named for it) derives from the Siouan word mitsiadazi. Similarly, Yellow Medicine County, Minnesota, is the English translation of the name of a yellow plant also called moonseed (Menispermum canadense) that grows in that area. Yellowknife, the capital of the Northwest Territories, is the English translation of a Dene (Athabascan) name for the native people who lived there and carried knives made of a yellowish native copper they mined in the north.

 

   Indians frequently used animal names in making place names, such as Ecola Point, Oregon (from a Chinook word for "whale"), and Elwa Creek, Alabama (from Choctaw for "soft-shelled turtle"), a practice that continued much more commonly among European settlers in America than among the Europeans in Europe.  Europe did have some animal names, such as Oxford and Frogmore in England, or the Teutonic names of Wolfsburg and Schweinfurt in Germany.  The Canary Islands derived their name from canis, Latin for "dog," and in turn that became the name of a bird that lived there.  Despite these exceptions, animal names occur much less frequently in the Old World than in America.   The European settlers in America quickly assimilated the Indian habit of using animal names in their nomenclature.

 

    The first known use of a Native American animal name in an English place name occurred in Virginia in 1607, when colonists started using the name Turkey Island. It is unknown whether they picked this name up from local Indians or whether the colonists invented it based on their own observations or hopes.

 

   Buffalo, New York, derived its name from the name of an Indian who had been named for the animal. Buffalo also occurs in names such as Buffalo Leap (Nebraska), Buffalo Bull Knob (West Virginia), Buffalo Lake (Alberta), and in numerous towns that have cow or bull as a part of their names.

 

   Many Indian nations held the turtle sacred as the emblem of a clan or, in the case of the Iroquois, as the name for all America, which they called Turtle Island. The name occurs in Turtle River (South Dakota), Turtle Lake (Michigan), and the Turtle Mountain area of North Dakota.

 

   Many animal place names come from native languages. Thus, Bear Creek, South Dakota, derives its name from a Lakota translation.  In the case of Moquah, Wisconsin, the name of the town is the Algonquian word for "bear." Several hundred places in America have names containing the word bear, including Bear Lake and White Bear Lake (Minnesota), Great Bear Lake (Northwest Territories), Bear Gulch (Oregon), Bear Creek (Colorado), or simply Bear (Arizona). Sometimes the names come from English surnames or simply from English names given by settlers, so it is difficult to tell which are indigenous. Beeren Island, New York, comes from the Dutch word for "bears." The Spanish word for "bear," oso, also occurs frequently in names like Oso Flaco Lake and Canada de los Osos in California, as well as La Osa, Arizona.  Animal names occur in such places as Possurntown (Kentucky), Beaver Tree Canyon (Nebraska), Elkwood (North Dakota), Horse Head (Saskatchewan), Birdtail Creek (Manitoba), Raccoon Mountain (Georgia), Rabbithole Spring (Nevada), Coon Creek (Kansas), Frog Lake (Alberta), Pelican Rapids (Minnesota), Sturgeon Falls (Ontario), Thunder Hawk (South Dakota)), Wapiti Lake (Wyoming), Frogville (Oklahoma), Swan River (Saskatchewan), Pigeon River (Ontario), Blackduck (Minnesota), Rattlesnake Creek (Kansas), and Eagle Creek (New Mexico). Minnesota alone has ten Moose Lakes. Caribou occurs commonly in names across Canada and Alaska as well as New England and the Great Lakes area.  Coyote occurs commonly in names across the southwestern United States.

 

   Dog occurs frequently in names like Whitedog, Ontario, or Dog Creek, South Dakota, which comes from an individual's name.  The French name of Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin, means "of the dog," and is a translation of the personal name of a Sauk chief.  Dog also occurs in the name of the Dogrib people of northern Canada, who claim descent from a mythological dog who became a man.

 

   Deerfield, Massachusetts, was one of the first places named for the deer, having received its name around 1677. Deer commonly appears in names across North America, such as Red Deer Lake in Manitoba, the city and river called Red Deer in Alberta, Red  Deer River in Saskatchewan, Deer River in Maryland, and Lame Deer, South Dakota. Variations such as fawn, stag, and doe also dot the map.

 

   Not all names derived from animals actually refer to the animal.  Dovesville, South Carolina, derived its name from the Dove family, and Cormorant Island, British Columbia, took its name from HMS Cormorant, which explored the area in the eighteenth century.  Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, had nothing to do with a moose or a jaw in its aboriginal form.  The original name moosgaw merely described the warm breezes for the area, but when pronounced in English it sounded like, and thus became.  Moose Jaw (Lowes, p. 21).  By a similar process, Moosomin, Saskatchewan, (pronounced moose-o-men) has nothing to do with moose or men, but supposedly derives from a Cree name for a crossing of paths.

 

   Some names in North America represent Indian objects or tools, such as Calumet, Wisconsin, named for the sacred pipe used to smoke tobacco.  Dull Knife Community College in South Dakota has an obviously Indian-derived name similar to Cut Knife Hill in Saskatchewan or Knife River in northeastern Minnesota. We also find Fish Hook River (Minnesota), Kayak Island (Alaska), and Bow River (Alberta). 

 

    The European settlers frequently named places for people, a habit that they extended to naming places for Indians. After naming much of the coastal areas for themselves, the European settlers used a variety of Indian personal names, usually that of a person associated with a given area as a friend of the settlers, or in some cases as their enemy.

 

   Michigan and Illinois both have communities named Pontiac, after the eighteenth-century Ottawa chief who fought diligently against the English. Similarly, Tammany became the name of a mountain in New Jersey and a parish in Louisiana, in honor of the Lenni-Lenape chief. Pokagon in Indiana and Michigan take their name from the nineteenth-century chief Leopold Pokagon.

 

   After the American Revolution, Indian names became popular among the newly nationalistic American patriots as symbols of resistance to European domination and for defense of liberty.  Even when Indian leaders fought against the settlers and lost, the settlers often perpetuated the memories of these men in place names.  A Ute chief gave his name to Ouray, Colorado, and Chief Yokum, an eighteenth-century chief, gave his name to both a pond and a mountain in Massachusetts.  Pocatello, Idaho) was named for a nineteenth-century Bannock chief. Minnesota has a Wabasha city and county named for the hereditary personal name of a line of Dakota leaders.  The Apache chief Geronimo has been remembered in Mount Geronimo, Arizona.  South Dakota has a Crazy Horse Creek.

 

   Most of the Indian personal names adapted for places came from males, usually great chiefs, but in a few cases the settlers used the names of Indian women.  Thus a county in Iowa was named Pocahontas, after the daughter of Powhatan.  Pocahontas County has a township named for her father as well as one named for her English husband, Rolfe.

 

   The name of Sacajawea, the guide of Lewis and Clark, came from the Shoshoni, meaning "Bird Woman." Her name also became the name of a peak in the Wallowa Mountains of Oregon.

 

   The Dakota commonly called a firstborn child Winona if female and Chaska if male. Both of these became place names in Minnesota.  The town of Winona derived its name from a Dakota heroine.  She was popularized in the 1881 poem "Winona" by H. L. Gordon, and several other communities around the United States adopted the name.  It also found use among the general population as a personal name for a girl. This makes Winona one of the few personal names adopted by Europeans from the Indians.

 

   In addition to places in almost half of the states in the United States bearing the name Osceola for the Seminole chief, towns in Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, and Missouri are named after Oskaloosa, one of Osceola's wives. 

 

    In the twentieth century a few Indian names have managed to defeat imposed names, especially when an imposed name had an insulting or negative connotation to the native people.  British authorities named the long, narrow bay at the base of Baffin Island after the explorer Martin Frobisher, and the town at the head of the bay also bore the name Frobisher Bay, after the first Englishman to visit it in 1576. Before starting his search for the Northwest Passage from the Atlantic to the Pacific, Martin Frobisher had been an African slave trader.  Aside from killing and kidnapping many Inuit and nearly inciting a mutiny among his own men, his only claim to renown came from his mining two hundred tons of supposed gold ore which he carried back to England, only to find that it was worthless pyrite, fool's gold.  Undeterred he returned to the Arctic and mined another thirteen hundred tons of the stuff.

 

    Frobisher's life might have been a farce had it not had such tragic consequences for Africans, Inuit, and his own sailors.  The Inuit preserved the tales of his treachery and evil, and finally, after Canadian independence, they managed to change the legal name of their community from Frobisher Bay to the Inuit name lqaluit.  In neighboring Greenland, the Inuit still use the native name Kalaalltt Nunaat in place of the Viking misnomer used by the rest of the world.

 

   By a similar process, Tuktoyaktuk took back its native name after bearing the much plainer name of Port Brabant.  In recent years the Dene natives of the Mackenzie River have been insisting on the use of the traditional name Dehcho, meaning "big river." Twenty-five-year-old Alexander Mackenzie named it Disappointment River in 1789, after he found that it flowed into the Arctic instead of giving him a direct passage into the northern Pacific. The British later changed the name to Mackenzie, an insult to the Dene who lived there and whom Mackenzie described as "meager, ugly, ill-made people, particularly about the legs which are very clumsy and covered with scabs."  He went on to say that they "appear to be in a very unhealthy state, which is owing, as I imagine, to their natural filthiness" and were "covered with a coat of dirt and grease" (Mowat, p. 94).

 

   The Indian names of America have deep roots that five hundred years of European colonization have not been able to eradicate.  The European settlers wanted to make a New England, a New France, a New Spain, a New Sweden, a New Netherlands, a New Scotland, and indeed a whole New Europe in America. They succeeded only in part, and from Miami to the Yukon and from Arizona to Ottawa, Indian names still help us to understand where we are on this continent, and help give us our local identity.

 


Credits:

Jack Weatherford, Native Roots - How the Indians Enriched America, Ballentine Books, New York, 1991.

 

 

 

 

 

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