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