Monday, July 26, 2021


Q: Do you recognize the (Penobscot?) word Kiwa’kwe, documented by Frank G. Speck? It was the name of a game children played about a man-eating ogre, and, I understand, the ogre's name.

A: Yes, this is a man-eating ice giant of Wabanaki folklore. It is spelled many different ways such as Giwakwa, Kee-wakw, Kiwahq, etc. The reason for all the spelling
variations is that the Wabanaki languages were traditionally unwritten. At the time Frank Speck wrote his book, there wasn't any standardized Penobscot alphabet. In the modern Abenaki-Penobscot spelling system, the word is spelled Giwakwa. Here's our online information about this legend: Giwakwa

Our Abenaki and Maliseet volunteers have also heard this was the name of a children's game, but it's not one they ever used to play so we couldn't tell you how it goes!

Tuesday, April 30, 2019



Q: I was told that the word "terrapin" means "good to eat" in Native American, but I can't find it again. Do you know what language this comes from?

A: "Terrapin" was borrowed into English from an Algonquian word-- probably the Powhatan word torobe, which means "turtle." The Powhatan language is no longer spoken, but there are similar words meaning turtle in related Algonquian languages which are still spoken today, such as doleba (Abenaki) and tulpei (Lenape).

None of them mean "edible," "good to eat" or "tastes good," though. They only refer to turtles. The Abenaki word for "good to eat" is wigatôzo.

Hope that is interesting to you. Have a good day!

Further reading:

Powhatan language
Abenaki language
Lenape language
Native American turtles

Wednesday, April 24, 2019

Lakashi Tribe of Brazil

Q: I am looking for information about the Lakashi tribe and it isn't on your page of Brazil Indians.

A: That's because there is no Lakashi tribe in Brazil. It was made up by a white author who has never even met an indigenous Brazilian person to be a mystical prop in a romance book. She named them after her favorite cereal brand, Kashi. That's really all you need to know about that.

Hope that clears things up, have a good day!

Further reading:
Indigenous languages of Brazil
Literature by actual Native American authors

Friday, April 6, 2018

Pronunciation of "Acaxee"

Q: How do you pronounce "Acaxee?"

A: Good question. Unfortunately, the answer is no one knows for sure. The Acaxee language has not been spoken since the 1600's, and the one Jesuit grammar of the language has been lost.

We can make some good guesses though. According to Spanish spelling conventions in Mexico during the 16th and 17th centuries, we would expect a word the Spanish wrote down as "Acaxee" to be pronounced either ah-kah-shay, ah-kah-hay, or ah-kah-jay (with a raspy "j" as in "jalapeño.) The letter "x" was used to represent all three of these sounds at that time.

However, if we look through other Spanish texts, we can see the name was sometimes spelled Acage or Acajee. Since "g" and "j" can both be pronounced as  either "h" or the raspy "j" sound, but never as "sh," we can rule that out.

And finally, it is believed that Acaxee was a Taracahitic language, similar to Mayo or Yaqui. Neither of those languages has any j-as-in-jalapeño sound, but they do both have an h-as-in-hay sound. It is a reasonable guess that Acaxee would have been similar.

Therefore, our best guess is that Acaxee was probably pronounced ah-kah-hay.

Hope that helps, have a good day!

Further reading:
Acaxee language

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

The letter "8"

Q: In the section:  How is the Abenaki tribe organized?
in the final sentence, it reads "The leader or chief of each Abenaki band is
called sagama or sag8mo in their language."
I’m not sure but "sag8mo" seems like a typo.
Thanks for the info.

A:   Strange as it may seem, no... the "8" was an old linguistic symbol, used by missionaries, to represent a nasal "aw" sound as in "dawn," which is how the middle vowel in that word is actually pronounced.

Since most Native American languages were traditionally unwritten, the spelling systems that have been used for them have sometimes been a little on the unintuitive side.

Hope that is interesting to you. Have a good day!

Further reading:
Abenaki language
Abenaki alphabet
Abenaki tribe   

Friday, March 11, 2016

Amahuaca wife-beating sticks?

Q: I was on the museum website and I saw striped sticks of the Amahuaca tribe which were called "wife-beating sticks." What is that about? Why are they beating their wives?

A: I had to ask a friend of a friend to get this answer for you. The Amahuaca are a small tribe and very remote. She says "It was a ritual. The people believed bad things came from dark magic. If a woman was infertile, they would beat her with a sacred stick to drive out the bad magic. They also had special whips that the shaman would whip men in a ritual to make them stronger and drive away dark magic. This is what I hear from older people. Amahuaca still do many of our traditions but not these ones."

Hope that answers you question, have a good day!

Further reading:
Amahuaca language
Amazonian tribes

Sunday, February 21, 2016


Q: What is the meaning and language of the word gvlieliga?

AIt's Cherokee. It's a polite comment similar to the English phrase "you're welcome"-- something you say in response to "thank you." Literally it means "I'm glad," or "my pleasure."

Hope that is interesting, have a good day!

Further reading:
Cherokee language
Cherokee alphabet
Cherokee tribe