January 7, 2007

What does the word ‘Washoe’ mean?


What does the word “Washoe” mean?

As is the case with the names most Indian tribes called themselves, “Washoe” means simply “the People,” and was also used to describe the area they lived in. If you stop to think about it, this isn’t too strange. After all, the term “Americans” simply means “people who live in a region called America.”

Often, when the white man came, he either created a name from a mispronounciation of the native name of a tribe, or frequently adopted another name used by a neighboring tribe (who spoke another language) to describe the tribe in question. Many times, the invaders weren’t sure if a newly encountered tribe was hostile or not, so they often asked a neighboring tribe they were already friendly with rather than asking the tribal members in question.

For example, the Lakota were known as “khota” (which meant “friends” or “allies”) to neighboring tribes they were on good terms with, and the la, da, and na prefixes specified regions of residence of particular bands, so the generally accepted meaning of Lakota became just “friend” or “allie.” However, to the Lakota people “Lakota” simply meant “the people” and the “la” prefix referred to their place of residence on the plains.”

But the French asked one of their enemies, the Chipewa (Ojibwa) what they were called and they said “Nadowe siu” which meant “little snake” in the Chipewa language (which was their symbol for enemy and meant to be a derogatory term) . The french shortened this unpronouncable word to Sioux (giving it a French spelling in the process) which is actually the “little” portion of the Chipewa phrase, and passed this name along to English speaking people and eventually it was officially adopted by the US government to refer to this tribe of Indians.

Because of language barriers, explanations were often accompanied by sign language. Frequently the signs were misinterpreted, resulting in a totally new name for a tribe. For example, when the Crow tribe were asked, they said they were the Big Bird People, in reference to the eagle which held spiritual power for them and is an integral part of their religion. Because there had been a recent buffalo hunt near the camp, there were a lot of crows in the area scavenging, and the white men thought that was the big bird they were referring to, so that tribe became known as the Crow Indians.

In the case of the Washoe Indians, the first white men asked the Washoe themselves what they were called, and they said Washoe (which means “the people” in their language) and it wasn’t too hard to pronounce or spell, so that tribe retained it’s original name.

–Question Submitted by Kathy W.


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Native American Names: What should we call them?

Native American Sign Language (Scroll down for symbols)

American Indian Language Resources

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