Monday, December 8, 2014

Cherokee for Heather

Q: My wife and I are expecting our first baby and want to name the little girl Heather. What would her Cherokee name be and is there any meaning behind that purple lil' flower named heather?

AThanks for writing. There is no traditional Cherokee word for heather, because the heather plant was not originally native to North America. You will have the best luck finding words for heather in European languages, North African languages, and parts of Asia.

Here is a good website about the heather plant:

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

Further reading:
Native American plants
Native American words  

Thursday, September 11, 2014

American Indian word for Vegetarian

Q: Hello, could you please settle a bet by telling me the true meaning of the American Indian word for "vegetarian" in any dialect. Thanks.

AI'm sorry, but we don't know of any Native American language which has a native word for "vegetarian." To the best of my knowledge there was no indigenous tribe in the Americas which practiced true vegetarianism (although there are many with heavily plant-based traditional diets.) We have one Native American volunteer in our organization who is personally a vegetarian and the explanation she gives in her language literally is "does not eat meat."

The idea that there is some Native American tribe out there which embraces vegetarianism probably comes from one of two sources:

1) A common confusion about "Indian religion" or about "American Indians" versus "Indian Americans." Many Hindu, Jainist, or other people from the country of India do indeed practice vegetarianism, and the ambiguous name "Indian" has caused many mistakes over the years.

2) A story about a fictional tribe of Native Americans who are vegetarians and whose tribal name, which was given to them by an adjacent tribe, means "lousy hunters." This is a joke, not a true story.

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

Further reading:
American Indian food
American Indian words  

Tuesday, September 2, 2014


Q: Hello, I am looking for the correct spelling and pronunciation of
the word butterfly. I see it most commonly spelled Aponi.
One website said it is a variant of the Blackfoot word
Apaniwa but that it is often shortened to just Apani. I have
seen it spelled: Aponi, Apani, Apponi, Appani, Aponni, Apanni,
Aponii, Apanii

Which of these, if any, are correct? If none of them are,
what is? I wish to be accurate and I know the internet is
not reliable. Thank You.

AThanks for writing. The Blackfoot language was traditionally unwritten, so the spellings of Blackfoot words in English sometimes vary a lot, as you've seen. For the same reason there really is no "right" spelling. However, in the modern Blackfoot orthography (spelling system) which is most commonly used, this word is spelled Apaniiwa or just Apanii. ("-wa" is a common animate suffix in Blackfoot and is not always pronounced by all speakers of the language, so the word is sometimes pronounced uh-pah-nee-wuh and other times uh-pah-nee.)

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

Further reading:
Blackfoot language
Blackfoot tribe
Native American names 

Friday, August 15, 2014

Ain Tain Tether Fether

Q: Can you help me? My great grandmother was born in Missouri. My father had 3 brothers and 4 sisters and all were taught this count by their grandmother. They all said it the same.  I do not know the accurate spelling but can only spell as how it sounds. They said that she was Indian. However have not found her or family on any roll. The count sounds like this: Ain, Tain, Tether, Fether, Fip, Sata, Rata, Poe, Aindic, Taindic, Featherdic, Yaya, Koo

There were 20 numbers but that is all I can remember.  Does this sound like any Indian count to you?  OR,,,is this Gaelic? If you could enlighten me on this or guide me to where I could find out more I would greatly appreciate it.  This has been a puzzle in our family for almost 100 years. 

AYep, that's Gaelic (Celtic to be more precise!) It's an old sheep-counting rhyme from England; here are some websites about it:

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

Further reading:
Native American numbers
Indian counting rhyme  

Monday, July 28, 2014

Oota Dabun

Q: I am trying to research the etymology of a supposed Algonquin name before I use it in a project. The name is Oota Dabun and supposedly means "Day Star." I have been unable to find any reference to this outside name sites and have absolutly no clue about Native American languages-- is there any truth to this?

A: Thanks for writing. The good news is I believe I've tracked down the origin of this supposed name: Silas Rand's 1888 dictionary of the Micmac language, which you can see here.

The bad news is, none of our Micmac volunteers recognize this word whatsoever. It's definitely not the word for "day" (na'kwek) or the word for "star" (kloqowej). "Day star" seems to be an old Biblical reference to Venus, and Rand was a missionary, so I guess he must have been referring to Venus as well, but whatever the original Micmac word was he was trying to write down, it's not something any of us knows.

Sorry not to be more help. Best wishes!

Further reading:
Micmac language
Micmac Indians
American Indian names  

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Grandson in Apache

Q: Hello, my family is Apache from Arizona. Could you please tell me how to say son and grandson in Apache.

A: "My son" is "shiye" in Western Apache. "My grandson" is "shinalé" if it's your son's child, or "shiwóyé" if it's your daughter's child.

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

Further reading:
Apache language
Apache tribe
Apache pronunciation 

Monday, May 19, 2014

Noon Way

Q: When I was a kid, I attended Camp Kennebec in North Belgrade, Maine. The youngest campers were divided into Indian tribes (MicMac, Malacite, Penobscot, Passamoquoddy – all of the Abenaki nation).  Several times during the season, we had “Grand Council”.  I recall that the “Sachem” would greet us saying something that sounds like “ayoon kooneyaasnay”  and we would respond  “noon way”.  Does that have any meaning in any of the Abenaki dialects or is it gibberish made up by the camp director?

A: It doesn't mean anything in any of the Wabanaki languages, but I bet it was borrowed from Lakota Sioux. Nunwe (pronounced somewhat similar to noon way) is a Lakota way of saying "Amen!" The other phrase may be corrupted Lakota too, though I don't recognize it. Let me post it and see if some of our native speakers can puzzle it out. :-)

 ETA: Yes, I believe these phrases were taken from a 1930 book called "Woodcraft and Indian Lore," which you can see here.

The language is definitely (slightly corrupted) Lakota Sioux, not Abenaki.

Have a good day!
Native Languages of the Americas

Further reading:
Abenaki language
Lakota Sioux language  
Sioux tribes

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Heng, God of Typos

Q: I found a reference to an Iroquois Storm God named Heng. Can you please tell me which Iroquois tribe this god came from because I cannot find anything else about him anywhere.

A: We're pretty sure this is a typographical error. The thunder god is named Hinon in Iroquois mythology (pronounced similar to hee-noan or hee-noon, with a half-pronounced "n" sound as in French.) This name is spelled many different ways, partially because of dialect differences and partially because all the Iroquois languages were traditionally unwritten: Hino, Hinu, Hinun, Heno, etc. In some orthographies, particularly those used by linguists, the character "ǫ" is used for the nasal vowel at the end. Most likely, somebody at some point misread "Henǫ" as "Heng," or even just mistakenly printed a "g" instead of an "o" (this kind of error happens all the time in OCR texts converted from old anthopology books.) It's definitely not pronounced Heng in any of the Iroquoian languages.

Tribes whose traditional mythology included Hinon, in any of his spelling variants, include the Mohawk, Wyandot/Huron, Seneca, Cayuga, and Tuscarora.

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

Further reading:
The Iroquois tribes
Native American gods

Monday, March 17, 2014


Q: Hi, I am looking for the name of a great great grandma of mine. She is called See As Kau on the petition of one of the treaties. A person with knowledge of the HoChunk language thought her name may be Siaska of the bear clan. What are your thoughts? Any idea of the meaning and why she was given the name? I would appreciate your input as it took me so many years to gather this information.

A: Seems plausible to us. It's hard to know for sure with proper names from many years ago, since they've usually been written down somewhat randomly by non-native speakers. Siaska means "sweet foot" or "delicious paw," more or less, referring to a bear's paw. But I know from experience how divergent those treaty spellings can get. It could have been Cehaska, "white robe." It could have been Sįaska, "good rice" (though that seems like a very unlikely Siouan personal name-- could have been a nickname though.) It's hard to completely confirm a person's actual name from a single spelling in a ledger. We can agree with your friend that "sweet foot" is a believable name, though! Here's a book where it's listed as a Bear Clan name (spelled Si-asga): The Winnebago Tribe.

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

Further reading:
Ho-Chunk language
Ho-Chunk tribe
Native American names

Friday, February 21, 2014

Hello and Goodbye in Tlingit

Q: I have searched everywhere but can not find how to say "hello," "goodbye," or "how are you" in the Tlingit language. Or is there another common greeting that is used?

A: Thanks for writing. Not all languages actually have words for "hello" or "goodbye." These words seem like they should be universal to English speakers, but in fact, not all cultures make verbal announcements when they meet another person or take their leave. In the Tlingit language, there is no traditional word for "hello" or "goodbye."

"How are you?" is "Wáa sá iyatee?" in Tlingit. That is pronounced similar to "wah sah ee-yah-te." But that is not generally used as a greeting. Modern Tlingit people sometimes greet each other with "Yak'éi yagiyee" which literally means "good day."

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

Further reading:
Tlingit language
Tlingit tribe
Native American words

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

The Dog-Face Star

Q: I read a story online about the star Sirius being called the Dog-Face Star in Blackfoot. Of course this is really interesting because Sirius also means Dog Star in Latin. In the story I read, Dog-Face was a peasant boy and he taught the Blackfeet the Sun Dance and then became a star. Have you heard about this story? What is the name Dog-Face in Blackfoot language?

A: The information you found is not entirely accurate. The name in question is Payoowa (often anglicized "Poia,") an important Blackfoot mythological figure who was fathered by the Morning Star (Venus.) However, this name actually means scar-face, not dog-face. Also, we've always heard that his astronomical reference is Jupiter, not Sirius. A lot of star lore has been diluted or lost over time, so it's not impossible that Poia was actually Sirius, but since the legend always connects the wanderers Poia and Morning Star, it would be strange for Poia to be a fixed star like Sirius (most ancient cultures were well aware that the planets Venus, Jupiter, and Mars moved around the sky differently than other stars.)

"Sirius" doesn't literally mean "Dog Star," by the way... it means "searing" in Ancient Greek. The Romans called the star Canicula, "little dog" or "she-dog," and associated it with the dog of the hero Orion, whose constellation is nearby.

Q: Thank you very much for your time on this. What about the Pawnee name for Sirius? Wikipedia says it is the Wolf Star.

A: Very close... the Pawnee name for Sirius is Ckiriti'uuhac, pronounced tskee-ree-tee-oo-hots, which means "fools Wolf." This comes from folklore in which Wolf foolishly mistook Sirius for the Morning Star.

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

Further reading:
The Blackfoot tribe
Native American star myths

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Akouessen or Ohquese

Q: My many times great-grandfather lived in Montreal (Ville Marie), Huronia and Longueuil, Quebec circa 1640-1685. He was called Akoussen and Ohquese which I understood to mean ‘Partridge’ but have recently found out that the partridge did not exist in North America at that time. Do you know of any books or stories that involve or explain that term in the Mohawk, Onondaga or general Iroquois history?

A: Thank you for writing. There weren't partridge in North America but there were grouse, which were called "partridge" in a lot of early colonial literature, and the Mohawk word for grouse is very similar to what you describe, ahkwesen (pronounced similar to ah-kway-sun, with a half pronounced N sound at the end.) Since the letters "ou" were commonly used to spell "w" sounds in French, it seems likely to me that this word was the source of both the spellings you gave. The Oneida word for grouse is also similar, Ohkwe:sv: (pronounced oh-kway-sun-- the "v" is usually written upside down, which I'm unable to accomplish with this font!) The Onondaga word for grouse is completely different, however (nų:nya:gae'i.)

Hope that's interesting to you, have a good day!

Native Languages of the Americas

Further reading:
Mohawk pronunciation
Oneida pronunciation
Iroquois Indians
Grouse symbolism

Friday, January 10, 2014

Mohawk Spelling

Q: Hi, I was wondering if you could help me with the proper spelling for the word family in the Mohawk language. I was told it was spelt Akwahtsire but I just want to make sure because I am working on a project for my children who are Mohawk.

A: There is no single correct way to spell Mohawk words, because Mohawk wasn't traditionally a written language. Using the two Mohawk orthographies (spelling systems) we're familiar with, it's either Akhwatsire or Akhwá:tsire. But there's nothing really wrong with the spelling you're using, Akwahtsire, either. It's definitely recognizable to a Mohawk speaker.

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

Further reading:
Mohawk language
Mohawk Indians
Mohawk alphabet