Sunday, December 29, 2013

The Jersey Devil

Q: Hopefully you can help me in my quest.  Here in New Jersey, we have a legend about the "Jersey Devil" born of a witch. But years ago, I talked to an historian about the folk lore, and he said that a native tribe who lived by the Jersey shore, had a legend about flying sea dragons that were around for hundreds of years.  And this fits the description of
the Jersey devil.  This person told me that there were colonies of these creatures that also lived in the caves.  I thought that if this was true, you would definitely know for sure.

A: Thanks for writing. I've never heard of the Jersey Devil having any basis in Native American myth... it's a folk tradition of English settlers, with an origin story in the 1700's (being born to a settler woman at that time.) But there certainly were plenty of monsters and other creatures in the folklore of local Native American tribes as well. I'm not sure underwater monsters are a good match for the Jersey Devil, which was a winged devil-like creature that lived in the pine forest. But here's our page on Lenape mythology-- maybe you can find something of interest there. (The historian you were talking to was probably thinking of underwater panthers, a race of dragonlike big cats that lurk in lakes and drag people to a watery grave.)

Hope that helps, have a good day!
Native Languages of the Americas

Further reading:
Native American legends
New Jersey Native Americans
Lenape language

Monday, December 9, 2013


Q: Is it true that Shappa means Red Thunder in Sioux?

A: No, it's not. Baby name websites claim that "Shappa" means "Red Thunder" in a Sioux language, but this is false. "Red Thunder" is Wakinyan-Luta in Lakota or Wakinyan-Duta in Dakota. "Shappa" means "dirty" if you sound it out phonetically (shah-pah), but historically, this was the English way of spelling a Lakota man's name Capa (chah-pah), which means "beaver." The mistake apparently came about because there was a Dakota man named Shappa (Capa) who became chief and took the honorific name Wackhawendutah (Wakinyan-Duta).

Hope that helps, have a good day!
Native Languages of the Americas

Further reading:
Dakota language
Sioux Indians
Native American names

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Gros Ventre Dictionary

Q: Is there a detailed dictionary to learn the Gros Ventre language? If so, how can I get it?

A: There is no published Gros Ventre dictionary that we know of. Sorry! If you're good at linguistics, you could try this book, Arapaho Dialects. Gros Ventre is one of the Arapahoan languages discussed in that book. There is a lot of Gros Ventre vocabulary in there. It can be a little hard to understand if you're not familiar with linguistics, though.

You could also try contacting the Center for the Studies of the Indigenous Languages of the West. Last we heard, they were working on developing a Gros Ventre dictionary... but that was several years ago, so we have no idea of the status of that project.

Hope that helps, have a good day!
Native Languages of the Americas

Further reading:
Gros Ventre language
Gros Ventre Indians
American Indian dictionaries

Wednesday, November 20, 2013


Q: I am looking for the meaning of the Indian name for a creek that runs through our families property. The name of this creek is Ske-ne-da which is a Winnebago/Hochunk name. The creek is located in Dane County, WI. The name is from a 1835 map made by Horace Greely I ran across at the State Historical Society. Today it is called Door Creek.

 A: This is probably what is called a "pseudo-Indian" or "faux Indian" name, made up by non-Indian mapmakers in the 1800's based on Indian words. (We have a lot of those in Minnesota thanks to Henry Schoolcraft.) It was said to mean "pure water" in the Ho-Chunk language. "Ske" does mean "pure" in Ho-Chunk, and "Nira" does mean "water" (it was frequently written as "Nida" in English sources in the 1800's.)

The reason our Ho-Chunk volunteer believes this was a faux Indian name rather than a real one is that adjectives almost always attach to the end of nouns in the Ho-Chunk language. If this were a real Ho-Chunk name it should have been Niraske, not Skeneda. So it looks to us more like the cartographer picked the words from a dictionary (or, as is usually more common, from a book of legends or folklore,) than that he adapted it from the Ho-Chunk name for the creek. With place names though, it's hard to ever know their origin with 100% certainty unless you find the diary of the person who recorded the name-- proper names get corrupted so much over time that it's hard for native speakers of the original language to even recognize them sometimes!

Hope that helps, have a good day,
Native Languages of the Americas

Further reading:
Ho-Chunk language
Ho-Chunk people
American Indian names

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Wampanoag Numbers

 Q: I'm going to be talking to a 2nd-grade class about the Wampanoag and Timucua Indians for a few minutes.  I've been  making presentation cards comparing the two indigenous tribes that, hopefully, are geared towards 7 and 8 year olds.  Anyway, I thought it would be fun to show them how to count to 10 in both languages, but I can only find  numbers to 1 to 5 for the Wampanoag on your site.  Is that all that's known?  Do you happen to have  numbers 6 through 10 anywhere?

 A: Yes, those numbers were taken from an 18th-century dictionary of Massachusett (Wampanoag). Here is the full set of ten numbers from that dictionary:

1) aquit
2) nees
3) nis
4) yoaw
5) abbona
6) nota
7) enotta
8) sonaske
9) assaquoquin
10) piocke

The source is Wood's Vocabulary of Massachusett.

Of course, this is a very old dictionary, and it lacks a pronunciation guide or standardized spelling even for the English words. The modern Wampanoag tribe is working on a language revival program, where they are taking words from old texts and from cultural memory and comparing them with words from related Algonquian languages to reconstruct their native language with a real alphabet, pronunciation guide, etc. to help their children learn to speak it again. This is a work in progress, but if you're interested, here's their webpage:

Hope that helps, have a good day!
Native Languages of the Americas

Further reading:
Wampanoag language
Wampanoag Indians
American Indian numbers

Monday, November 4, 2013

Kids' Corner: Crow and Blackfoot

Q: Hi. Did the Crow ever have their own language? Were the Crow ever part of the Blackfoot? What about the Absarokee?

 A: Yes, the Crow have their own language. It is still spoken by some Crow Indians today. Here is a website about the Crow language.

The Blackfoot are a different tribe. Their language is not related to the Crow language. They are neighbors, however. They are both Native people of the northern Plains.

Absarokee is the Crow tribe's name for themselves in their own language.

Hope that helps, have a good day!
Native Languages of the Americas

Further reading:
Crow Indians for Kids
Blackfoot Indians for Kids
Plains Indian cultures

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Nantan Lupan

 Q: Upon reading an entry on the internet concerning American General George Crook, I saw his Native American scouts who were of the Apache nation, nicknamed him Natan lupan which was translated as Grey Wolf. You will be aware the Latin for wolf is lupus, I find it strange that two races, 1,000 years and 5,000 miles apart should use the same name for the wolf without apparent contact.

I would be grateful for your opinion!

 A: Thanks for writing. No, the Apache word for "wolf" is not "lupan," it is ba'cho. George Crook's nickname usually seems to be spelled "Nantan Lupan," at least online. Nantan means "chief" or "leader" in Apache; if "Lupan" meant "wolf" then that part of his name must have come from Spanish, which was widely used in the Southwest in the 1800's (many famous Apache people also have nicknames with Spanish origins, including Geronimo and Mangas Coloradas.) The usual Spanish word for "wolf" is "lobo," but more Latinate forms like Lupe and Lupán are still used in proper names.

Hope that helps, have a good day!
Native Languages of the Americas

Further reading:
Apache language
Apache pronunciation
Apache Indians

Saturday, October 26, 2013


Q: I am the proud father of a new baby girl. My wife and I have an international family, so we had to find a name that would work (and be pronounceable) in all the languages we and/or our families speak. After a long search, we settled on the name of Aponi. Aponi is described, on French and American baby-naming websites, as being a "Native-American name meaning butterfly."

We love the name Aponi, its sound and its meaning. But I'd really like to know what language this word comes from, if it's even Native American at all. Can you help me answer this question?

A: Congratulations on your new daughter! Although those online baby name sites are notoriously inaccurate, you are in luck... you picked a name that actually does have Native American roots. It comes from the Blackfoot Indian word Apaniiwa (pronounced ah-pah-nee-wuh), which is often just spelled and pronounced Apani (ah-pah-nee) by many Blackfoot speakers. (The extra "-wa" is an animate noun ending that is oftentimes dropped by Blackfoot speakers.) It does indeed mean "butterfly."

Hope that helps, have a good day!
Native Languages of the Americas

Further reading:
Blackfoot language
American Indian baby names
American Indian butterfly legends

Thursday, October 24, 2013

How many Native Americans are there in the US?

Q: I'm in 7th grade and I'm writing an essay on Native Americans for Language Arts class. I'm learning a lot, but I can't find the correct number of Native Americans in America anywhere. I see some numbers on the Internet, but they're all different from each other so I don't know which one is right! Can you help me find the answer and also a good source I can cite? I am not allowed to use Wikipedia.

A: Thanks for writing. The main reason you are finding multiple different answers to your question is that different people define "being Native American" differently!

1) There are about two million official members of Native American tribes in the United States. The exact number today is not known, because the tribal population count is not updated every year. In 2005, the number of Native American tribal members in the US was 1,978,099. It has probably gone up since then. You can cite the Bureau of Indian Affairs website for that number.

2) There are about three million people in the United States who identify their own ethnicity as Native American. According to the Census Bureau Website, in 2010, the number of Americans who identified themselves as American Indian or Alaska Native was 2,932,248. Besides Native American tribal members, that number also includes indigenous people from other countries (Native Canadians, Mexican Indians, etc.), people who belong to tribes that are not recognized by the federal government, and people who have family members who are Native American tribal members but never joined the tribe themselves.

3) According to the same website, there were an additional 2,288,331 people who identified themselves as part Native American in 2010. If you add that to the people from #2, that makes a total of 5,220,579 Americans who told the census they have any American Indian or Alaska Native heritage at all, even if it is just a Native American great-great-grandmother in their family tree. Since many other people also have Native American ancestry and just never mention it to the census, this number is definitely inexact-- but no one knows exactly how many Americans truly have some amount of Native American blood. I've heard it suggested that more than 50% all Hispanic Americans do, and as many as 5% of other Americans. But unless every person in America wants to do genealogy research or get a DNA test, those are merely guesses!
Hope that information helps. Have a good day,
Native Languages of the Americas

Further reading:
Native American tribes
Native American ancestry

Friday, October 18, 2013

Chief Seattle

Q: Can you tell me what's the proper way to spell Chief Seattle's name? Some places say Seattle but others say Si'ahl.

A: There's no single correct way to spell Chief Seattle's name. His native language (Puget Sound Salish, also known as Lushootseed) was never a written language, so there is no traditional way to write Salish words-- in Chief Seattle's time, there was not even a Salish alphabet or writing system at all. English speakers just wrote them down however they happened to hear them, resulting in very inconsistent spellings. Seattle is also spelled Si'ahl, Si'aɫ, Sealth, and many other ways. It's pronounced similar to see-alth... the final consonant sound is a lateral fricative sound like the "ll" in the Welsh name "Llewellyn."

In the Duwamish tribe, where Seattle ruled as chief, the correct way to spell Chief Seattle's name in the modern orthography is Si'ahl. But in many other Lushootseed-speaking tribes, the standard spelling of the same name is Si'aɫ.

Hope that's helpful, have a good day!

Native Languages of the Americas

Further reading:
Lushootseed language
Salishan tribes
Native American names

Monday, October 14, 2013

Algonquian tribes?

Q: I was looking for information on the Statue of Liberty and on U.S. National Park Service website they write ”In 994 A. D., the first people to occupy the island were Native Americans. These Native Americans, members of the Algonquian tribes, visited …..”-  and so on. When I googled these tribes, I read on your page: "There is no Algonquian tribe." Is the park service website wrong?? Or are you?

 A: We're both correct, though we could both have used slightly clearer language. :-) The park service website might have said "members of the Algonquian-speaking tribes," if they wanted to be more precise, and we might have said "there is no Algonquian tribe, although there are many tribes that speak Algonquian languages."

Algonquian isn't a tribal name, in other words. It's an anthropology and linguistics term used to refer to a group of related Native American languages. The Ojibwe tribe is an Algonquian tribe (or again, to be a little more specific, an Algonquian-speaking tribe.) So is the Cheyenne tribe, and so is the Wampanoag tribe. They can't understand each other's languages, but they are all related, just like the English, French, and Russian languages are all related to each other. But there is no Indo-European culture-- there's England, and France, and Greece, and Russia, etc. Similarly, there is no "Algonquian culture"; there's Ojibwe, and Cheyenne, and Blackfoot, and Wampanoag, etc.

So it's a little confusing, but not really incorrect, to refer to the Ojibwe, Blackfoot, Cheyenne, and Wampanoag collectively as "Algonquian tribes." But there still is no single "Algonquian tribe" that they all belong to. Their cultures are not the same, and they've never been under the same tribal leadership.

The Algonquian-speaking people native to the New York City area near where the Statue of Liberty is located were primarily Delaware, Mohican, and Wappinger tribes, by the way.

Hope that clears things up, have a good day!
Native Languages of the Americas

Further reading:
Algonquian language family
New York Indian tribes

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Bee Bi'nishnííh: Navajo translators wanted

Heads up to our Diné friends... we've gotten a request for native speakers of Navajo interested in freelance work translating health care materials from English to Navajo. Anyone who's interested, please drop us a line and we'll be glad to forward you the email with the job information!

Further reading:
Native American translation
Navajo language

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Blackfoot syllabary question

Q: I was contacting you to see if you could help me out with a situation. I was looking for the proper symbols and way to spell out the word family in the native language of Blackfoot Native Americans.

A: This is a frequently-asked question of sorts. :-) Let me show you how to do it!

First, you find how to spell the Blackfoot word (or name) you want in English letters. In this case, the word "family" is spelled nikso'kowaiksi in the English alphabet.

Second, you find a chart of the Blackfoot syllabary (writing system.) Here's one from our website, complete with an explanation of how to find each character on the chart: Blackfoot syllabary.

Third, you write each character down in order, left to right. You can either write them out longhand, or download a Blackfoot font. I like this Blackfoot font from LanguageGeek.

Here is the final result for nikso'kowaiksi:

There is one character for each of the syllables ni, kso, ko, wa, i, and ksi. There's no way to represent the glottal stop ' in the Blackfoot syllabary, which was adapted by missionaries who were not native speakers of Blackfoot and missed several nuances of the language.

Hope that helps, have a good day!
Native Languages of the Americas

Further reading:
Blackfoot language
Blackfoot names
Native American language translations

Monday, October 7, 2013


Q: I want to understand the meaning behind the lake I live on.  I've heard different meanings. The lake is called Tichigan. In the past this was spelled Tish Shar Gan.

A: Unless somebody contemporary wrote down what the meaning of the name was supposed to be, there's a lot of educated guesswork involved in puzzling out place names. The final version of the name rarely bears enough resemblance to the original to be 100% certain of its origins. In his book Native American Placenames of the United States, the extremely reliable linguist Bill Bright suggested it might have been shortened from "tchigi-kitchi-gama," from the Ojibwe words jiigew-gichigami, which mean "along the great lake." We'd add that it could even have just been corrupted from gichigami, "great lake." Although it's not exactly common for English speakers to change a "g" into a "t" unprovoked, stranger things have happened.

In either case, the final spelling of "Tichigan" was probably influenced by the better-known place name Michigan, which comes from a different Ojibwe synonym for "big lake" or "great lake" (mishigami).

Hope that helps, have a good day!
Native Languages of the Americas

Further reading:
Native American Indian names
Ojibwe language
Michigan tribes

Saturday, September 21, 2013


Q: I am wondering, is Sokanon a real name?  I  came to the conclusion that I would like to look for a baby name meaning "rain" or "rainbow" and I found Sokanon. Does this mean "rain" in Algonquin? Thank you.

A: "Sokanon" is not an Algonquin word-- it is probably a corruption of the Narragansett word sokenun, which means "rain." Narragansett is distantly related to Algonquin and belongs to the Algonquian language family. It's not uncommon at all for words from other Algonquian languages to be misidentified as "Algonquin."

The Algonquin word for "rain" is kimiwan (pronounced similar to kih-mih-wun) if you were curious.

Have a good day!

Native Languages of the Americas

Further reading:
Native American baby names
Algonquin language
Narragansett language

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Place Name Miscommunications

Q: Thanks for an interesting site. I am designing some curriculum about the many uses of maps, and I wonder if you might be able to guide me to some information.

Specifically, I have heard stories (which might be not true) about place names given to North American regions, towns, features (mountains, rivers, etc.) which were the result of European misunderstanding or arrogance.  For example (this is just made up), a European tries to communicate with a Native American  by pointing at an island and saying "What is that called?" in French or Spanish. The Native American responds by saying, "What is the funny-looking man pointing at?," and the European thinks that the words he just heard are the name of the place or thing, so the river is called "What is the funny-looking man pointing at?" from then on.

I have tried many different resources and search tools. While I have found many, many references to names that actually (at least somewhat) relate to their native American equivalents, such as tribal names, etc. But I have not had luck in the material I am looking for. Possibly it doesn't exist and these stories are just urban(?) legend.

If it would not be too inconvenient for you, any help or direction you might suggest would be appreciated.

A: Thanks for writing. That's an interesting question, and we can look into it for you. Probably the most common one is the many rivers named a Native American word for "river." I can just imagine the European explorers pointing at the river and asking "What is this river called?" and the Native people patiently telling them "That's a river." :-)

Regrettably, I'm pretty sure that the indigenous names most commonly said to mean "I don't know" or "I don't understand you," like "kangaroo" and "Yucatan," do not actually have that meaning. But there may be more like that. I know of one funny example in an early Algonquian dictionary where an Englishman wrote down what is clearly the phrase "I will give you food" and translated it as "hungry." Obviously when he tried to pantomime hunger in an attempt to elicit the Algonquian word for "hungry," his host mistook him as being actually hungry and went to fetch him something to eat. :-)

ETA: We've got one for you, though it's roundabout: Pima County, in Arizona, is named after the Pima tribe. Their own name for themselves is Akimel O'odham. "Pima" is thought to be a Spanish corruption of the O'odham word for "I don't know," which is Pinimahch. If that's true, then that name was undoubtedly the product of a misunderstanding!

As for the redundant names, I know I've seen many over the years, but never thought to write them down, and they turn out to be very difficult to search for. One we were able to think of is Askom Mountain in Canada. "Askom" definitely comes from the Lillooet word for "mountain," askwem. So Askom Mountain does indeed mean "Mountain Mountain."

Hope that helps, have a good day!

Further reading:
American Indian names
Algonquian languages
Pima language

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Indian Tribe whose name sounds like "Shoe Shop"

Q: I was told of a tribe whose name sounded like "shoe shop" and told it could be different in English. This tribe should be located on the east coast of Canada. Is there anyway to determine what tribe "shoe shop" might be?

A: He probably meant the Shuswap tribe. Their own name for themselves is Secwepemc, but their English name, Shuswap, is pronounced "shoe swap," which is extremely close to what you heard. They live on the west coast of Canada though, not the east!

Hope that helps,
Native Languages of the Americas

Further reading:
Shuswap culture
List of American Indian tribes
Canadian First Nations map

Monday, September 9, 2013

Native American Language Classes in Denver?

Q: Hello - thanks for this site. I am having a difficult time finding someone in the Denver, Colorado metro area to help me learn a Native language. My family is Cherokee but I am interested in any language. I do not do well with self-learning, and would really love to have someone who can teach me a language. Can you help? Any thing that you can offer would be greatly appreciated.

A: Unfortunately it's really hard to find Native American language classes, especially off-reservation. The reason why most Native American language learning lessons are self-learning is that there are so few speakers of each language remaining compared to the general population of the US. The only Native American language course I was able to find in Colorado is a Navajo language class at Fort Lewis College. That's a heck of a commute from Denver.

Have you tried the Denver Indian Center? There are no language classes or language materials mentioned on their website, but they may have more things happening on an occasional basis than they publicize. Or they may have a member who's a fluent speaker of a Native American language, and could be persuaded to give some beginner's language lessons if you and a few other people were interested.

Anyone who knows any other language learning resources in the Denver area, please chime in with a comment!

There do exist some very good Cherokee audio courses. If language learning books and websites have not been working for you but you haven't yet tried an audio lesson, you could check out one of these two Cherokee language sets, each of which contains a book and accompanying CD set recorded by native speakers: Introduction to Cherokee and Beginning Cherokee.

Hope that helps, have a good day!
Native Languages of the Americas

Further reading:
Cherokee language learning
Native Americans in Colorado
Native American dictionaries

Tuesday, September 3, 2013


Q: I was wondering if you could help me find the origin of an apparent Native American name I've heard: Bemossed.

The meaning of Bemossed is stated to be 'walker.' It is referred to as Native American origin, but no tribe is given, and there's no other information to back this up with. So is this actually a Native American name or word?

A:Yes, "Bemossed" undoubtedly comes from the Ojibwe word Bemosed (pronounced bay-moh-sade,) which means "one who walks."

Hope that helps, have a good day!
Native Languages of the Americas

Further reading:
Native American translations
Ojibwe language
Ojibwe words

Friday, August 30, 2013

R and L in Mohawk

Q: How do you pronounce the Mohawk word Aweri (sweetheart)? I found conflicting pronunciations online. Is the "r" pronounced like an r, or like an l?

A: It depends on the dialect. In Akwesasne (and among some Six Nations speakers), it's pronounced like English "l." In other dialects, it's pronounced more like the "r" of Spanish.

Are you sure "aweri" can mean "sweetheart," though? Neither of our Mohawk speakers has ever heard it used that way. It literally means "its heart."

Hope that helps, have a good day!
Native Languages of the Americas

Further reading:
Mohawk language
Mohawk words
Iroquois tribes

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Dakota Wicohan

One of the many great Native organizations working on preserving a particular Native American language is Dakota Wicohan, a Minnesota nonprofit organization working on revitalizing the Dakota Sioux language. Dakota is less endangered than many Native American languages, with around 25,000 speakers (if the Lakota dialect is included), but most of the Dakota-speaking communities are located in the Dakotas and Canada. Few Dakota speakers remain in Minnesota (only five fully fluent speakers now, according to the organization.)

To address this problem, Dakota Wicohan is involved with a number of language preservation projects ranging from video recordings of fluent speakers to elder-apprentice and language-nest programs. We're hoping to be able to support their work through one of our Language Preservation Grants next spring, but you can help them directly at this donation page. Every little bit helps!

Pidamaya ye,
Native Languages of the Americas

Further reading:
Dakota language
Tribes of Minnesota
Language revitalization

Tuesday, August 20, 2013


Q: My family is of French Canadian descent. There is a family tradition/lullaby of singing "Manush, Manush" while caressing a child's face followed by "tat-tat-tat" and lightly tapping the child's forehead.  I  believe we have Huron, Algonquin, & Abenaki  ancestors. I was wondering if this might be where this lullaby came from.

A: There's no word quite like "manush" in any of the languages you mention, but if it could have gotten corrupted somewhat, noozhis does mean "grandchild" in Ojibwe and Algonquin, and sounds a little like "noosh," so if that could have gotten mixed up with the French word for "my," perhaps?

"Manouche" is also a French word for Roma ("gypsy,") and it's not a derogatory one-- it comes from the Romani language itself. So maybe it's a Roma song that got borrowed at some point.

Hope that is helpful, have a good day!
Native Languages of the Americas

ETA: A Francophone friend has solved this riddle. "Faire minouche" is regional French slang for petting or caressing; it is used in both baby talk and lovey-dovey talk. "Manush" or "manoosh" must be corruptions of "minouche." It does not come from a First Nations language, nor from Romani-- it is derived from the French word for "kitten," minou. (The Cree word noted in the comments is borrowed from French, not the other way around. Housecats aren't native to the Americas.)

Hope that helps!

Further reading:
Algonquin language
Native American words
Cree language

Monday, August 19, 2013

Shaw Wa Ne Quay

Q: My great-great-grandmother was Native American and her Algonquin name was Shaw Wa Ne Quay. Can you tell me what her name meant?

A: This was probably a corruption of the Algonquin name Jàwanikwe (pronounced similar to zhah-wuh-nih-kway; the Algonquin "j" is similar to the French "J" in Jacques.) The same name is Zhaawanikwe in the closely related Ojibwe language.

If so, the meaning of this name has variously been given as "bluebird woman," "south wind woman," or "southern woman." Zhaawan/Jàwan literally means "south" in the Algonquin and Ojibwe languages, but in Algonquin and Eastern Ojibwe, it is also the word for a bluebird, and sometimes it is also used to refer to the south wind. The specific meaning probably depended on the community your ancestor lived in.

Hope that is helpful, have a good day!
Native Languages of the Americas

Further reading:
Ojibwe language
Native American names
Native American bluebird meaning

Friday, August 16, 2013

The Name Seneca

Q: My last name is Seneca, and I hope this site and the people behind it can answer a question for me.  Does the tribe, Seneca, have any connection to Seneca the old who was born in Spain and later on was forced to commit suicide by Nero?

A: Only in a roundabout way.  :-)  The tribal name Seneca probably came from a Native place name, Osininka. English speakers corrupted that to "Seneca," undoubtedly influenced by the name of the Roman philosopher/statesman they would have already have been familiar with from school. It was pretty common for indigenous names to get corrupted into different names the English speakers found easier to pronounce.

As for the Seneca people, their own name for themselves in their language is not Seneca (or Osininka) at all, but Onödowága (also spelled Onondowaga, Onandowaga, Onötowáka, Onundawagona, and any number of other ways.)

Hope that is interesting to you, have a good day!
Native Languages of the Americas

Further reading:
Seneca language
Native American names
Native American tribes

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Native American Slavery

Q: Is it true that there was no slavery among Native American tribes?

A: No, that is not true. Slavery was rare in the Americas, but Northwest Coast tribes like the Haida and Tlingit and some South American cultures practiced slavery. Here's a book about slavery in the Northwestern tribes: Aboriginal Slavery on the Northwest Coast of North America.The Haida word for a slave is xaldaang, and the Tlingit word is gux. None of these tribes practice slavery today.

It is true that many colonial stories about slavery in North America were inaccurate. The Native Americans described as slaves by the colonists were actually adopted captives. When a Native American war party brought living prisoners back to their village, they were often adopted by families in the village. But they did not become slaves-- they were considered full members of the tribe, and had the same social status as the family that adopted them. There are many stories of captives who became a chief or medicine person of their new tribe, or married one of the chief's children.

Hope that helps, have a good day!
Native Languages of the Americas

Further reading:
Northwest Coast culture area
Haida language
Tlingit language

Friday, August 9, 2013

The Meaning of Minnehaha

Q: Does the name Minnehaha mean Laughing Waters?

A: No. In his popular 19th-century poem "Hiawatha," Longfellow named his heroine Minnehaha and translated it as Laughing Water. Longfellow took most of the Indian words in "Hiawatha" from a book of Ojibwe legends, and they are reasonably accurate, but in the case of Minnehaha, he made an error. Minnehaha comes from the Dakota Sioux name of a waterfall, mnihaha (also spelled mniaa or mnixaxa... the "h" sounds are pronounced raspily, like the "j" in "jalapeño.") This means "water of the falls" or, more literally, "curling waters."

The idea that "haha" sounded like laughing probably came from an English speaker either playing a joke or inventing a meaning. It's possible that it could have been an honest mistranslation, though, since the Dakota word for "laugh" is the rather similar-sounding iha.

Hope that helps, have a good day!
Native Languages of the Americas

Further reading:
Native American names
Dakota language
Words in Hiawatha

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

The Hawaiian Language Vs. the DMV

Hawaiian isn't one of the languages we work with ourselves-- Hawaiian is a Polynesian language, not an Amerindian one, and it's a stretch to even call it a language of the Americas (Hawaii isn't anywhere near North America geographically, and is only associated with the Americas at all due to a quirk of historical colonialism.) Native Hawaiians have gone through many of the same struggles with preserving their language and culture that Native Americans have, though, so it was interesting to read this week's news about a Hawaiian man's ongoing quest to use his traditional Hawaiian language at the Kaneohe DMV:

This isn't just some random guy trying to use a loophole to get out of a ticket-- if you Google "Daniel Anthony" and "Hawaiian" you can see that he's been promoting traditional Hawaiian culture for a long time, and was pushing to use the Hawaiian language for official purposes previous to his arrest. This is undoubtedly a protest action on his part. And he seems to have a particularly valid point-- Hawaiian is actually one of the official state languages of Hawaii, the only US state to have an official language besides English. What's the point of having an official language, taught to children in schools, if people can't use it in state offices like the DMV or the courthouse the same way they can use unofficial languages like Spanish or Japanese?

One of the most important elements of successful language maintenance and revival is having practical opportunities to keep using the language. The DMV may be as good a place to start as any.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Apache Mythological Names

Q: I have been trying to find (without success) the Apache
words for--

White-Painted Woman

Would you be willing to translate these for me?
I would very much appreciate it.

A: These are the names of mythological figures. The names are a little different in the different Apache languages. White Painted Woman and Woman Without Parents are the same person. Her name is Isdzánádleeshé in Mescalero Apache and Isdzán Nádleeshe in Western Apache. Pollen Girl is named Tádidin It'éeké in Mescalero, and Hádintin Na'ilín in Western Apache.

Hope that helps, have a good day!
Native Languages of the Americas

Further reading:
Native American legends
Apache language
Native American translations

Friday, August 2, 2013

Native American Gender

Q: I read that Native Americans didn't have male and female genders, instead they just had animate and inanimate genders. Do Native Americans still feel this way? Is this why there are two-spirits in Native American culture?

A: Actually, more than anything, this is just an example of an English word changing its meaning over time. "Gender" originally just meant "category," which is the Latin word it came from. In Latin, nouns were categorized into groups of "masculine" nouns, "feminine" nouns, and "neuter" nouns, which used different grammatical endings. (You can still see this in many European languages, like Spanish.) That is how "gender" eventually came to specifically refer to masculinity/femininity, which is how it is usually used today.

Native American languages do not have masculine or feminine noun categories. Instead, some of them (such as the Ojibwe language) have animate and inanimate noun categories. Animate nouns, like "dog," take different grammatical forms than inanimate nouns, like "shoe." When linguists talk about "animate gender," they are using the older definition of "gender," and they mean the category of words that are animate.

This doesn't mean Native American cultures don't have male and female genders, don't care about gender, or don't have any traditional gender roles. It is solely a grammar issue. For comparison, the English language also does not have any grammatical masculine or feminine noun categorization.

As for two-spirits, in some Native American tribes, two-spirits were a special class of people who displayed both masculine and feminine qualities. They are completely unrelated to grammar.

Hope that helps, have a good day!
Native Languages of the Americas

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Grandmother in Cherokee

Q: I am going to be a grandmother for the first time. I am part Cherokee and would like my granddaughter-to-be to call me by the Cherokee word for Grandmother, but I don't know what it is. Could you help me?

A: Congratulations! The Cherokee language has different words for paternal and maternal grandparents. So traditionally, if this was your daughter's baby she would call you Elisi (pronounced similar to ay-lee-see), and if it was your son's baby she would call you Enisi (ay-nee-see.)

Today though, many Cherokee people have given up this distinction and use Elisi to address any grandmother.

Hope that helps, have a good day!
Native Languages of the Americas

Further reading:
Native American translations
Cherokee names
Cherokee kids page

Tuesday, July 30, 2013


We're pleased to announce that work has been completed on the Ioway tribal documentary by filmmakers Kelly and Tammy Rundle that we have been helping to sponsor, Lost Nation: The Ioway. I know the title may seem a little apocalyptic-sounding, but it's referring to the forced migrations of the Ioway people and the loss of their homelands, not suggesting anyone's extinction or disappearance.  :-)  Both Ioway tribes were involved in this project, and-- the reason we got involved-- there is an extensive alternate soundtrack in the Báxoje (Ioway) dialect of the Chiwere language, narrated by one of the few remaining elders to speak the language well. This should be a valuable resource for the Ioway, Otoe, and Missouri people as they work to reinvigorate their language.

As of this month, all three DVD's of this documentary are now available for sale from the website above. Go on and check it out!

Further reading:
Lost Nation: The Ioway
Ioway-Chiwere language
Ioway-Otoe-Missouria online dictionary

Monday, July 29, 2013

Iroquois and Rattlesnakes

Q: I heard that the word "Iroquois" means "rattlesnake" or "real snake" in an Algonquian language. Is this true? If so, was it an insult?

A: No one is really sure where this name first came from or what it signified. It's definitely true that the name for the Iroquois Confederacy in some Algonquian languages comes from the word for snake. In the Algonquin language, for example, the name for an Iroquois person is Nàdawe, which comes from the name of a species of rattlesnake. The word "Iroquois" is said to have been a French corruption of another Algonquian name with a similar meaning, sometimes rendered as "Irinakhoiw" or "Irinakwa." It's hard to guess at the original form of a name that's been passed around so many foreign mouths, but perhaps it had a Delaware source... in Munsee Delaware, lunii means real or typical, and axkook means snake. (You may have to be used to seeing mangled place names a lot before it occurs to you that "luniiaxkook" might turn into "irinakhoiw," but trust us, we've seen stranger ones!)

So was it supposed to be insulting? That's hard to say. Snakes have both positive and negative connotations in Algonquian cultures. There are monstrous and villainous snakes in the folklore of many Algonquian tribes, but on the other hand, snakes are also associated with awe and power (the general word for "snake" is the same as the word for "spirit" in Potawatomi.) So maybe names like these were identifying the Iroquois as enemies, or maybe they were just referring to their military might. It's also possible that like many tribal nicknames, these originally just came from a place name and had nothing to do with the people at all. An example of this is the name "Winnebago," which means "stinking water"; it wasn't meant to imply that the Ho-Chunk people were smelly, but was the name of a local river.

Native speakers being unsure of the meaning and intention of proper names is actually very common worldwide, by the way. Once a name gets strongly identified with a place or a group of people, previous meanings of the word start disappearing from memory. No one really knows where the word "German" originally came from, either.

Hope that is interesting, have a good day!
Native Languages of the Americas

Further reading:
Tribal names
Algonquian languages
Iroquois Confederacy

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Something New

Welcome to our new blog! We're in the process of migrating Pinny's Q&A section of our website to this new blog format to make it easier for multiple volunteers to participate. While we're in transition, some of the older queries may not be accessible. Please feel free to keep submitting newer ones. We'll get to them as soon as we get used to this new system. Thanks!