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

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Further reading:
Tribal names
Algonquian languages
Iroquois Confederacy

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