July 1, 2002

How many Native American words do you know? Probably more than you think.


Suppose you had been one of the early explorers or immigrants to North America. You would have found many things in this new land which were previously unknown to you. 

The handiest way of filling voids in your vocabulary would have been to ask local Native Americans what words they used.

The early colonists began borrowing words from friendly Native Americans almost from the moment of their first contact, and many of those names remain in our everyday English language today. Here are some examples.



caribou (Micmac)

chipmunk (Ojibwa)

moose (Algonquian)

muskrat (Abenaki)

porgy (Algonquian)

opossum (Algonquian)

woodchuck (Narraganset)

raccoon (Algonquian)

skunk (Algonquian)


squash (Natick)

pecan (Algonquian)

hominy (Algonquian)

pone (Algonquian)

pemmican (Cree)

succotash (Narraganset)


sachem (Narraganset)

papoose (Narraganset)

mugwump (Natick)


moccasin (Chippewa)

toboggan (Algonquian)

tomahawk (Algonquian)

wigwam (Abenaki)

tipi (Dakota)

wampum (Massachuset)

hogan (Navajo)

hickory (Algonquian)

kayak (Inuit)

totem (Ojibwa)


potlatch (Chinook)

caucus (Algonquian)

pow wow (Narraganset)


bayou (Choctaw)


Some of our loveliest place names began life as Native American words: Susquehanna, Shenandoah, Rappahannock. Such names are the stuff of poetry. William Penn did not know “a language spoken in Europe that hath words of more sweetness and greatness.” To Walt Whitman, Monongahela “rolls with venison richness upon the palate.”

If you look at a map of the United States, you will realize how freely settlers used words of Indian origin to name our states, cities, towns, mountains, lakes, rivers, ponds, and creeks.

Four of our five Great Lakes and 28 — more than half — of our states have names that were borrowed from Native American words. They are:

Alabama -Indian for tribal town, later a tribe (Alabamas or Alibamons) of the Creek confederacy.

Alaska -Russian version of Aleutian (Eskimo) word, alakshak, for “peninsula,” “great lands,” or “land that is not an island.”

Arizona -Spanish version of Pima Indian word for “little spring place,” or Aztec arizuma, meaning “silver-bearing.”

Arkansas -French variant of Quapaw, a Siouan people meaning “downstream people.”

Connecticut -From Mohican and other Algonquin words meaning “long river place.”

Delaware -Named for Lord De La Warr, early governor of Virginia; first applied to river, then to Indian tribe (Lenni-Lenape), and the state.

Hawaii -Possibly derived from native word for homeland, Hawaiki or Owhyhee.

Idaho -A coined name with an invented Indian meaning: “gem of the mountains;” originally suggested for the Pike’s Peak mining territory (Colorado), then applied to the new mining territory of the Pacific Northwest. Another theory suggests Idaho may be a Kiowa Apache term for the Comanche.

Illinois -French for Illini or land of Illini, Algonquin word meaning men or warriors.

Indiana -Means “land of the Indians.”

Iowa -Indian word variously translated as “one who puts to sleep” or “beautiful land.”

Kansas -Sioux word for “south wind people.”

Kentucky -Indian word variously translated as “dark and bloody ground,” “meadow land” and “land of tomorrow.”

Massachusetts-From Indian tribe named after “large hill place” identified by Capt. John Smith as being near Milton, Mass.

Michigan -From Chippewa words mici gama meaning “great water,” after the lake of the same name.

Minnesota -From Dakota Sioux word meaning “cloudy water” or “sky-tinted water” of the Minnesota River.

Mississippi -Probably Chippewa; mici zibi, “great river” or “gathering-in of all the waters.” Also: Algonquin word, “Messipi.”

Missouri -An Algonquin Indian term meaning “river of the big canoes.”

Nebraska -From Omaha or Otos Indian word meaning “broad water” or “flat river,” describing the Platte River.

North & South Dakota-Dakota is Sioux for friend or ally.

Ohio -Iroquois word for “fine or good river.”

Oklahoma -Choctaw coined word meaning red man, proposed by Rev. Allen Wright, Choctaw-speaking Indian, said: Okla humma is red people.

Tennessee -Tanasi was the name of Cherokee villages on the Little Tennessee River. From 1784 to 1788 this was the State of Franklin, or Frankland.

Texas -Variant of word used by Caddo and other Indians meaning friends or allies, and applied to them by the Spanish in eastern Texas. Also written texias, tejas, teysas.

Utah -From a Navajo word meaning upper, or higher up, as applied to a Shoshone tribe called Ute.

Wisconsin -An Indian name, spelled Ouisconsin and Mesconsing by early chroniclers. Believed to mean “grassy place” in Chippewa. Congress made it Wisconsin.

Wyoming -The word was taken from Wyoming Valley, Pa., which was the site of an Indian massacre and became widely known by Campbell’s poem, “Gertrude of Wyoming.” In Algonquin it means “large prairie place.”

Tribes by Language
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