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