Native Americans Gave Places, Animals, Plants Their Names
Editor’s note: November is Native American Heritage Month. First proclaimed by President George H. W. Bush in 1990, it is an opportunity to acknowledge the histories and cultures of Native people across the U.S., highlighting the challenges they have faced, their sacrifices and their contributions.
“Native Americans have influenced every stage of America’s development,” noted President Donald Trump in his October 31, 2017 proclamation. “They helped early European settlers survive and thrive in a new land. They contributed democratic ideas to our constitutional framers. And, for more than 200 years, they have bravely answered the call to defend our Nation, serving with distinction in every branch of the United States Armed Forces.”
This month, VOA is highlighting Native American contributions to U.S. language, history and culture.
When Spanish, English and French explorers, fortune seekers and settlers arrived in the Americas, they encountered plants, animals, places and cultural objects which they had never seen before. They borrowed names from the hundreds of different Native tribes and languages they encountered across the continents. Today, those loan words are so thoroughly incorporated into American English and other contemporary languages that many aren’t aware of their origins.
NOTE: In some cases, word origins are still in dispute.
Avocado – Nahuatl ahuácatl, ‘testes’
Barbecue – Taino barbacoa, a raised wooden frame used for grilling meat or fish.
Bayou – Choctaw bayuk
Caribou – Micmac γalipu
Cashew – Tupi acajú
Caucus – Algonquian caucauasu ‘counselor’
Cayenne – Tupi kyinha
Chocolate – Nahuatl chocolatl, an edible substance made from the seeds of the cacao tree.
Chinchilla – Aymara chinchilla
Chipmunk – Algonquian chitmunk
Cigar – Maya sik’ar, “smoke”
Coyote – Nahuatl cóyotl
Hammock – Taíno, via Spanish, hamaca, “fish net”.
Hickory – Algonquian pawcohiccora
Hurricane – Taino, via Spanish, hurakán ‘god of the storm’
Iguana – Arawak iwana
Jaguar – Guarani jaguá
Kayak – Inuit qajaq
Moccasin – Natick mohkussin
Moose – Natick moos
Muskrat – Natick musquash + ‘rat’
Opossum – Virginia Algonquian aposoum
Parka – Aleut parka ‘skin’
Persimmon – Cree pasiminan ‘dried fruit’
Piranha – Tupi pirátsainha
Poncho – Araucanian pontho
Potato – Taino batata
Quinine – Quechua kinakina
Raccoon – Algonquian arathkone
Skunk – Massachuset squnck
Squash – Massachuset askōōtasquash
Terrapin – Algonquian toolepeiwa
Tobacco – Arawak tzibatl
Totem – Ojibwa nintōtēm
Tomato – Nahuatl tomatl
Woodchuck – Algonquian otchek
In addition, many place names were taken from Native Americans, including half of the 50 U.S. states:
Alabama. The name of the Albaamaha, a tribe native to the state. It could be derived from the word albina, which means “campsite” in their own language, or from the Choctaw alba amo, which mean “clearing brush.”
Alaska. Alaxsxix, which is a name from language of the Unangan people whom the Russians called Aleuts. It means “place the sea crashes against.”
Arizona. Arizonac, which is a Spanish corruption of a local Indian name– possibly the Tohono O’odham word alishonag, which means “little spring.”
Arkansas. Akansa, the word the Illinois people called the Ugakhpa people native to the region, meaning “wind people” or “people of the south wind.”
Connecticut. Quinnitukqut, “long river,” which is what the Mohegan tribe called the longest river in New England.
Hawaii. Likely from Hawaiian Hawai’i, from Proto-Polynesian hawaiki, meaning “place of the gods.” It may also refer to the Polynesian hero Hawaiʻiloa, who according to legend, discovered the islands.
Illinois. May be derived from Illiniwek, which is what the Illini tribe called themselves. It means roughly “superior people.”
Iowa. Ayuhwa, which is one of the tribal names of the Ioway tribe, meaning as “sleepy ones.” They say it’s a nickname given them by Sioux tribes.
Kansas. Kansa, which is the name of the Kansa tribe. Literally the name means “south” and is a shortened form of their own tribal name for themselves, “People of the South Wind.”
Kentucky. Kentake, which is believed to derive from Iroquoian words for “meadow” or “field.”
Massachusetts. Massachuset, which is a Wampanoag Indian name meaning “by the hills.”
Michigan. Mshigem or Misigami, which are the native names for Lake Michigan in the Potawatomi and Ojibwe languages. Both names mean “great lake.”
Minnesota. Still debated. It may be derived from misshikama, which means “big lake” in the Ojibwe language. It could also be derived from the Dakota Mnisota, which means “cloudy water.”
Mississippi. Misiziibi, from the Ojibwe language meaning “big river,” a reference to the longest river in North America.
Missouri. From Ouemessourita, what the Illinois people called the tribe native to this state: “Big canoe people.”
Nebraska. Nibthaska or Nibrathka, which are the native names for the Platte River in the Omaha-Ponca and Otoe languages. Both names mean “flat river.”
New Mexico. Named after the country. Mexico is a place name from the Aztec language Nahuatl, “city of the Aztecs.” May also reference Mextli, the Aztec war god.
North and South Dakota. Dakota, which is the tribal name of the Dakota people, “friends” or “the allies.”
Ohio. May be taken from Ohiyo, “beautiful,” which is the name of the Ohio River in the Seneca language. It could also be taken from the Huron peoples word meaning “the large one.”
Oklahoma. From the Choctaw okla homma, which means “red people.”
Oregon. Scholars don’t agree on whether this state’s name is actually taken from Native Americans, as some theorize. One theory is that it derives from oolighan, a Chinook name for a small fish found in the state’s water.
Tennessee. From Tanasi and/or Tanasqui, names of what some believe are two separate Cherokee towns in the region but may actually have been dual names for the same town.
Texas. Taysha, which means “friend” or “ally” in the Caddo Indian language.
Utah. Ute is the name of an Indian tribe native to the state. This tribal name may have come from the word nuutsiu, which means “the people” in their own language. It may also be derived from yuttahih, the Apache word for “people higher up.”
Wisconsin. Wishkonsing, which is the Ojibwe name for the Wisconsin River. However, this word does not have a specific meaning in the Ojibwe language. It may have been derived from the Miami meskonsing, or “river running through a red place,” a reference to the red sandstone formations along the river that bisects the state.
Wyoming. Chwewamink, which means “by the big river flat” in the Lenape Indian tribe. The Lenape were a Delaware tribe from the east coast. It’s believed that white settlers from that area brought the name with them when they moved to this western state.