The Athabaskan Language Family

The Athabaskan (also spelled Athapaskan and Athabascan) language family is found in the western American Indian culture areas. Linguists feel that the Athabaskan language family is one branch of a larger genetic grouping called Athabaskan-Eyak. Eyak is a single language which was spoken on the south coast of Alaska and which is nearly extinct. Proto-Athabaskan and Proto-Eyak became differentiated from each other by 1500 BCE. Michael Krauss and Victor Golla, in their entry on the Northern Athapaskan languages in the Handbook of North American Indians, report:

“Whenever it occurred, the linguistic split between Proto-Athapaskan and Proto-Eyak was apparently followed by a total cessation of communication between the two groups, for there is no evidence of subsequent linguistic interinfluence.”

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The Algonquian Language Family

In North America, linguists generally recognize 58 language families and isolates. Understanding language families is one of the keys to understanding the historical relationships between the Indian groups. The Algonquian language family is a large American Indian language which is found in the Eastern Woodlands, the Plains, and California.

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The Uto-Aztecan Language Family

Linguists studying and comparing languages throughout the world have noted that some languages are similar to each other in terms of vocabulary, sound patterns, and grammatical structure. Using these comparisons, they group languages into language families. According to linguists Laurence C. Thompson and M. Dale Kinkade, in their chapter on languages in the Handbook of North American Indians:

“Language families are groups of languages that can be shown to be genetically related, using techniques developed by comparative linguistics.”

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The Michif Language

The French, unlike the English and the Spanish, saw Indians as trading partners. The French saw that their best opportunity for economic gain was to be found in the fur trade in which their Native American trading partners would retain their autonomy and provide them with furs. The French explorers quickly established trading relations with the Native nations.

The best way for the French traders to establish trading relations was for the traders to marry into the Indian societies, as traditional trade relied heavily upon kinship relations. Having married an Indian woman, the trader would have a kinship network which could be utilized for trade.

One of the consequences of marriage is often children. The offspring of the French-Indian marriages grew up in multilingual households with a French-speaking father and an Indian-language-speaking mother. These children also grew up with two cultures: one European and one Aboriginal. The two cultures blended and created a new group of people known in Canada as Métis.

Out of the Métis culture also came a new language: Michif (also spelled Mitchif).  Catherine Callaghan and Geoffrey Gamble, in a chapter in the Handbook of North American Indians, write:  “Mitchif arose around 1800 in the central Canadian provinces as the result of intermarriage between French fur traders and Cree-speaking women who were often the daughters of their Indian trading partners.”

Michif is sometimes described as a mixture of Cree and French.  While there are some who confuse Michif with pidgin trade languages, such as the Chinook trade language spoken along the Columbia River, it is not a pidgin (a language with a reduced vocabulary and grammar), but a true language. Linguist John McWhorter, in his book The Power of Babel: A Natural History of Language, writes:  “Michif is not a fallback strategy for people who could not really manage their ancestors’ languages, nor is it a jolly sort of pig Latin—it is a new language altogether.”

Michif utilizes French-origin noun phrases which retain lexical gender (something unusual in the Algonquian Indian languages) and adjective agreement. At the same time, Michif uses Cree-origin verbs with a polysynthetic structure. Polysynthetic structure simply means that instead of using a bunch of words to give additional nuance and meaning to a verb, this is done through a series of prefixes and suffixes. The result is some very long words: verbs can incorporate up to twenty morphemes (sounds which have specific meanings). Thus, Michif grammar tends to be Cree-based.

In general, most of the Michif nouns (an estimated 83-94%) are of French-origin, while most verbs (an estimated 88-99%) are Cree-origin. The language also uses Cree personal pronouns, question words, and demonstratives. In addition to French nouns, Michif uses French numerals, adjectives, and articles.

The study of language origins, particularly the study of creole languages, has strongly suggested that new languages tend to be formed by children. In the case of Michif, linguists generally feel that the children were fairly fluent in both French and Cree when they developed Michif. Until fairly recently, most Michif speakers were trilingual, speaking French, Cree, and Michif.

Linguists generally see a pidgin-creole continuum in which creoles evolve out of pidgins (second languages which often function as trade languages and are learned by adults). Michif, however, does not fit this model. Pidgins, such as they are learned by adults, have a reduced morphological complexity. Catherine Callaghan and Geoffrey Gamble write:  “Mitchif represents the opposite of a jargon or a pidgin-based creole, since the language underwent an increase rather than a reduction in morphological complexity during its formation.”

At the present time, Michif is classified as a moribund language, meaning that relatively few children are learning it. In the United States, there are probably fewer than 1,000 Michif speakers, most of whom are associated with the Turtle Mountain Reservation in North Dakota. In Canada, where the Métis are legally and socially recognized as a distinct people, there are many more Michif speakers.

Renegade Indians

It has been common to describe American Indians as renegades, particularly when they wished to continue their traditional lifeways and refused to conform to Euro-American behavioral expectations. So where did the word “renegade” come from and how did it come to be used to describe American Indians?

“Renegade” came into English at the end of the sixteenth century from the Spanish “renegade” which entered Spanish from the Medieval Latin “renegātus,” the past participle of “renegāre” meaning “to deny.”

Like other European nations, the Spanish justified their legal right to invade and subdue Native American nations with the Discovery Doctrine which claimed that Christian nations have the right, and possibly the obligation, to rule all non-Christian nations. By 1513, Palacios Rubios, Spain’s master jurist, had drafted the “requirement” (“requerimento”) which recited the Christian version of the history of the world. Once this document had been read to Native Americans, they were required to accept the Christian fable as true and to submit themselves to the Catholic Church and the Spanish Crown. The document was, of course, read to them in either Spanish or Latin, and from a Spanish perspective it didn’t make any difference if they understood it or not: once the words had been read, conversion to Christianity was required.

There were some Indians, perhaps most, who did not convert and thus they were “renegades,” meaning that they denied the Christian history of the world. From the legal perspective of the time, a “just war” could then be waged against those who denied the Spanish Catholic view of the “truth.”

English-speaking people in the Americas, who also felt that the Discovery Doctrine gave them superior rights to rule, quickly adopted the Spanish concept and Anglicized the word to “renegade.”

The word “renegade” today is used to denote someone who has abandoned their own nation or belief system; one who has left a group or religion and has joined another which opposes it; someone who chooses to live outside of laws or conventions. The term “renegade” is often seen as being synonymous with “apostate” and “traitor.” With these definitions, use of the term “renegade” in referring to American Indians who refused to submit to Christianity or to foreign rule is not appropriate.

During the nineteenth century, the term “renegade” was applied to those Indians who refused to be imprisoned on the reservations and to those who continued to practice their “pagan” religions. Thus, the Apache chief Victorio and the Apache spiritual leader Geronimo were classified as “renegades” in the popular press of the time and later in western movies and academic histories. Neither of these men denied their own culture.

The Iroquoian Language Family

The Iroquoian language family, found in the Eastern Woodlands Culture Area, includes the languages of the League of Five Nations (Oneida, Onondaga, Mohawk, Seneca, and Cayuga), Nottoway, Tuscarora, Cherokee, Huron, Susquehannock.  Some linguists feel that this language family may be a part of the larger Macro-Siouan phylum, which indicates a very distant relationship with Siouan.

With regard to the origins of the Iroquoian language family, there are some who feel that Iroquoian had a homeland outside of the Northeast and thus Iroquoian-speakers are intrusive in the region. However, archaeological data at the present time does not support this hypothesis.

Some linguists feel that Iroquoian has been spoken in the area of central New York state and north-central Pennsylvania for at least four millennia. From here, they suggest, there were migrations first to the south and then to the north and immediate west.

Historical linguists have long noted that some parts of language tend to change faster and earlier than others, while other parts of language tend to resist change. Using a standard word list chosen from the most resistant vocabulary, linguists are able to compare languages within the same language family to determine how long ago two languages shared a common ancestor, how long ago they separated from each other. This process is called glottochronology.

Glottochronology suggests that Southern Iroquoian (Cherokee) broke off about 1800 BCE. Linguist Michael Foster, in a chapter in the Handbook of North American Indians, writes that  “the divergence between Northern and Southern Iroquoian is probably somewhat greater than that between any of the languages of the Germanic or the Romance families, but not so great as that between languages belonging to the separate branches of Indo-European.”

While the Tuscarora were located geographically close to the Cherokee, their language is actually Northern Iroquois. Glottochronology suggests that Tuscarora separated from the Five Nations’ languages about 400 BCE.

Within the northern division of Iroquoian, Onandaga, Cayuga, and Seneca broke off from Mohawk and Oneida between 1,000 and 1,500 years ago. The relationship between Mohawk and Oneida is fairly close with a great deal of mutual intelligibility between the two languages.

With regard to the division of Iroquoian into distinct languages, linguist Blair Rudes, writing in Anthropological Linguistics, reports:  “Among Northern Iroquoian languages, it is fairly certain that the earliest division involved a dialect group comprising the ancestors of the Tuscarora and Nottoway.”

Next came the splitting off of Cayuga and the Wendat languages (Huron and Wyandot). This was followed by the Seneca, then the Onondaga, and then the Oneida and Mohawk.

In the northeastern culture area, Iroquoian and Algonquian people lived next to each other, they traded, they fought, and they intermarried. With regard to language, there was relatively little borrowing between the two language families.

Linguists consider the Iroquoian languages to be polysynthetic, fusional, and incorporating. Floyd Lounsbury, in his chapter on Iroquoian languages in the Handbook of North American Indians,  explains:  “That is to say, words may be made up of a great many component parts, whose relative order is strictly determined; these parts are variable in their phonetic forms (adjusting to variable contexts) and are unintelligible and without meaning if taken out of proper context; and verb forms may incorporate noun roots—as direct objects with transitive verb roots, and as subjects with intransitive verb roots—as well as incorporating subject and object pronominal preference.”

As with other American Indian groups, the Iroquoian-speakers took pride in good oratory. The Iroquoian people appreciated and cultivated skillful language use, particularly in political and ceremonial oratory. Story-telling and snappy repartees were highly regarded skills.

While most American Indian languages did not develop writing, the Cherokee—the most southern branch of the Iroquoian language family—not only developed their own writing system, they also had a higher rate of literacy than their English-speaking neighbors.

In 1821, Sequoia (also spelled Sequoya) developed a syllabary of 86 characters for Cherokee which made it possible for Cherokee to become a written language. Sequoia neither spoke nor read English, but he had seen the English alphabet and so took many of these letters to represent Cherokee sounds. There is, however, no correspondence between the sounds represented in the two languages. The letter D, for example, is pronounced a in Cherokee.

The Sequoia syllabary made it possible for a Cherokee speaker to quickly learn to read and write in Cherokee. It is said that Sequoia could begin teaching his syllabary in the morning and by sundown his students would be literate in Cherokee. Linguist Kenneth Katzner, in his book The Languages of the World, writes:  “That an unlettered hunter and craftsman could complete a task now undertaken only by highly trained linguists must surely rank as one of the most impressive intellectual feats achieved by a single man.”

The Hokan Language Family

During the nineteenth century linguists—scholars who are engaged in the scientific study of language—began to adopt a biological model of language development in which they viewed languages evolving in much the way that organisms had. With this model, linguists were able to put together family trees which provide a simplified genealogy of a language’s development and relationships. This genealogy groups related languages together into language families. With regard to American Indians, the study of language families helps us understand the relationships among different tribes, their histories, and their migrations.

The California culture area of Native Americans includes seven major language groups and more than 100 languages. This means that this area is the most linguistically diverse culture area in North America. The oldest language family in California is Hokan which includes Chimariko, Palaihnihan, Yana, Esselen, Salinan, Karok, Pomo, Shasta, Seri, and Washo. Several of these languages are not well-known as they are endangered or extinct.

Some linguists feel that Hokan may have been the language first spoken by American Indians 20,000 years ago. According to one hypothesis, Hokan speakers may have originally inhabited the great intermountain basin north of the Grand Canyon. Eventually, the Uto-Aztecan speakers moved north into this area and displaced the Hokan speakers.

Outside of the California Culture Area, the Coahuiltecan-speaking people of the Western Gulf Culture Area in Texas and Mexico appear to be related linguistically to the Hokan.

Chimariko:

The Chimariko language was spoken by only a few hundred people in the Trinity River area. There are no known speakers at the present time.

Palaihnihan:

The Palaihnihan group includes two languages: Achumawi and Atsugewi. These two languages are the most closely related in the Hokan Family. There were an estimated 3,000 Palaihnihan-speakers in aboriginal times.

Achumawi is nearly extinct at the present time with only older adults speaking the language. All speakers are considered semi-speakers or passive speakers. Some linguists have reported that there were originally nine dialects of Achumawi.

Yana:

The Yana group has two languages: Yana and Yahi. The last known speaker of Yahi was Ishi. One of the characteristics of Yana is the distinction between the speech of men and women. Men’s speech was longer in that in women’s speech the final vowel of nouns more than two syllables in length is devoiced. When men were talking to men, men’s speech was used. At all other times, women’s speech was used. Women would use men’s speech only if they were giving a direct quote.

Esselen:

Very little is known about the Esselen language which was spoken by only a few hundred people in the area around the Carmel River and the Big Sur coastal area. Esselen was the first Native American language in California to go extinct after Spanish colonization. During the mission era, a few word lists were collected. There are currently attempts to revive this language.

Salinan:

 The Salinan language was spoken by about 2,000 people and had two or three major dialects, including Antoniano and Migueleño. There are presently no known speakers of this language. The last speakers died in the early 1960s. There is, however, interest at the present time in language revival.

Karok:

In aboriginal times there were an estimated 1,500 to 2,000 Karok speakers. Presently there are only 10 speakers. This language is the most distantly related of the Hokan languages.

Pomo:

The Pomoan group includes seven languages which are designated by area: Northeastern, Eastern, Southeastern, Northern, Central, Southern, and Southwestern. One of the interesting features about Central Pomo is the remarkable array of prefixes. Using the root yól which means “to mix” some examples of prefix use include:

ba- means “orally” and thus bayól means “to insert words suddenly while humming; that is, mix orally”

s- means “by sucking and thus syól means “to wash down cookies or doughnuts with coffee; that is, to mix by sucking”

da- means “by pushing with the palm” and thus dayól means “to fold in dry ingredients while baking”

m- means “with heat” and thus myól means “to throw various ingredients into a pot; that is, to mix by heating”

qa- means “by biting” and thus qayól means “to eat several things together, such as meat and potatoes; that is, to mix by biting”

By 2000, it was estimated that there were only 255 speakers of the Pomoan languages. Of these, 45 are between the ages of 5 and 17, including 15 with limited English proficiency.

Shasta:

The Shastan group consists of four languages: Shasta, New River Shasta, Okwanuchu, and Konomihu. There are currently no known speakers of this language.

Seri:

 The Seri people live along the Sonora, Mexico coast. The language is still spoken by all age groups. Some linguists feel that this is a language isolate rather than a part of the Hokan language family.

Washo:

Washo is the only language in the Great Basin culture area which is not a part of the Numic division of the Uto-Aztecan family. While the 2000 Census counted 252 Washo-speakers, there are some who feel that there are only about 10 fluent speakers.

American Indian Place Names in Washington

While Washington was named for an American President who was not known for his love of Indians, many of the town names in Washington reflect the many different Indian nations which originally inhabited the state.  

Asotin: this was originally a Nez Perce winter camp site. The Nez Perce called the nearby creek Has-shu-tin which means “eel” for this was an area where the eel where plentiful. When the Americans moved in following the 1877 Nez Perce war, they spelled Has-shu-tin as Asotin (or Assotin).

Cathlamet:  this town is named for the Cathlamet Indian tribe, a Penutian-speaking group linguistically and culturally related to the Multnomah, Clackamas, and Wasco-Wishram. The designation “Cathlamet” (also spelled “Kathlamet”) is said to mean “stone” in reference to the rocky course of the Columbia River in their traditional homeland.

Chehalis: this town is named for the Chehalis Indian tribe, a Salish-speaking group linguistically and culturally related to the Humptulips and Wynoochee. Governor Isaac Stevens met with the Chehalis and other tribes in treaty council at Grays Harbor in 1855. Stevens and the American negotiators fully intended for the tribe to be placed on the Quinault Reservation, but tribal leaders objected and refused to sign the treaty. They were eventually allowed to have their own reservation.

Chelan: this town is named for the Chelan Indian tribe, a Salish-speaking group linguistically and culturally related to the Entiat, Method, and Wenatchee. The first fur traders who entered the area in 1811 were told that the name of the river was Tsill-ane which then became Chelan. The name means “land of bubbling water” in reference to the rapids.

Chewelah: this town is named for the Chewelah Indian tribe, a Salish-speaking group linguistically and culturally related to the Pend d’Oreille, Kalispel, and Flathead.

Chimacum: this town is named for the Chimacum (also spelled Chemakum and Chimikum) Indian tribe, who are linguistically related to the Quileute. Jake Palmer (1847-1881) is generally considered the last of the Chimacum Indians.

Clallam Bay: this community takes its name from the Klallam Indians, a Salish-speaking group linguistically related to the Lummi, Saanich, Samish, Semiahmoos, Songhees, and Sooke. The Klallam call themselves Nu’sklaim which means “strong people.”

Claquato: this is a Salish term meaning “high land.”

Cle Elum: this is a Salish term meaning “swift water.”

Entiat: this town is named for the Entiat Indian tribe, a Salish-speaking group linguistically and culturally related to the Chelan, Method, and Wenatchee. The designation “entiat” is said to refer to “rushing water.”

Enumclaw: this was a traditional campsite for the Duwamish Indians. Translations of “Enumclaw” range from “place of evil spirits” (probably a European misconception of Native sacred places), “thundering mountain,” and “loud, rattling noise.”

Hoquiam: this seems to be an interpretation of the Indian word “ho-qui-umpts” which means “hungry for wood” which refers to the driftwood at the mouth of the river.

Ilwaco: this town was named for the son-in-law of Chinook Chief Comcomly, Elowahka Jim which then became Ilwaco.

Issaquah: This was the hunting and fishing ground of the Snoqualmie Indians. According to some accounts, the Indians called the area “Ishquoh” which may have meant “the sound of the birds.” When pronounced in Indian, the word has a glottal stop which English-speakers have difficulty with and so they pronounced it as “squak” In 1899, the town was officially designated as Issaquah.

Klickitat: this town was named for the Klickitat Indian tribe, a Sahaptian-speaking group who are linguistically related to the Yakama, Kittitas, Upper Cowlitz, and Taitnapam.

Mukilteo: this was a traditional Indian ceremonial and council ground. The name “Mukilteo” means “good camping ground.”

Nahcotta: this community is named for Chinook chief Nahcati who was friendly with the American settlers when the town was established in 1888.

Naselle: this settlement is named for the Na-sil band of Chinook Indians.

Neah Bay: this is the capital of the Makah Indian nation and was named for the Makah chief Dee-ah. In 1828, Captain Henry Kellett met chief Dee-ah and, unable to pronounce his name correctly, named the site Neah Bay. Makah is a designation given to the tribe by the neighboring Klallam which means “generous with food.” They call themselves Kwih-dich-chu-ahtx which means “people who live by the rocks and seagulls.”

Newhalem: this is based on a Salish word which means “goat snare.”

Okanogan: this is based on the Salish word “okanagen” which means “rendezvous.”

Omak: this town takes its name from the name of a lake, Omache, which means “great medicine.”

Palouse: this town takes its name from the Palouse (also spelled Palus, Pallatpallah, and Pelusha) Indian tribe. This is a Sahaptian-speaking tribe linguistically related to the Walla Walla and Wanapam.

Queets: this town is named for the Queets Indian tribe, a Salish-speaking group linguistically related to the Quinault, Copalis, and Oyhut.

Quilcene: this was originally the home of the Twana Indians who apparently called it Kwil-sid. The name may mean “salt water people.”

Salkum: probably means “boiling up” which refers to a section on the Cowlitz River where the falls are located.

Seattle: is named for Suquamish Chief Sealth. Alki Point takes its name from the Suquamish word “alki” which means “by and by” or “after a while.”

Sequim: located in the homeland of the S’Klallam Indian tribe, the bay was called Such-e-kwai-ing which means “quiet water” and was then Anglicized into Sequim (which is pronounced “skiwm”.)

Skamania: this is a Shahala Indian word which means “swift water.”

Skykomish: this town is named for the Skykomish Indian tribe, a Salish-speaking group linguistically related to the Duwamish, Muckleshoot, Nisqually, Puyallup, Skagit, Snohomish, Steilacoom, Stillaguamish, and Swinomish.

Snohomish: this town is named for the Snohomish Indian tribe, a Salish-speaking group linguistically related to the Skykomish.

Snoqualmie: this town is named for the Snoqualmie Indian tribe, a Salish-speaking group linguistically related to the Skykomish.

Spokane: this town is named for the Spokan Indian tribe, a Salish-speaking group linguistically related to the Kalispel, Cheweleh, Pend d’Oreille, and Flathead.

Steilacoom: this town is named for the Steilacoom Indian tribe, a Salish-speaking group linguistically related to the Skykomish.

Tacoma: the Salish-speaking Indians in the area referred to it as Shubahlup which means “the sheltered place.” American settlers later named it Tacoma which is supposedly from Takohoma which has been reported to mean “frozen waters,” or “nourishing breast,” or “near to heaven” which may refer to the nearby Mt. Rainier.

Tenino: this name comes from the Chinook word which means “meeting place” in reference to it being a meeting ground and trading place. In addition, the Tenino are a Shaptian-speaking tribe related to the Umatilla and the Celilo.

Tonasket: this was a traditional Okanogan Indian camping place and was named for Chief Tonasket.

Toppenish: located on the Yakama Indian Reservation, this name may come from Thap-pahn-ish meaning “People of the trail which comes from the foot of the hills.” Some people, however, feel that it comes from Qapuishlema which means “people from the foot of the hills.”

Tumwater: the Salish-speaking Indians called the Deschutes River Tum Chuk which referred to the falls. While the town was originally named New Market, it changed to Tumwater in 1857.

Twisp: appears to be from the Chinook word “t-wapsp” which means “yellow jacket.”

Walla Walla: this is named for the Walla Walla Indian tribe, a Sahaptian-speaking group linguistically and culturally related to the Palouse and Wanapam. Walla Walla is often translated as “many waters.”

Wapato: this is from the Chinook word “wapatoo” which means “potato” referring to the camas root which was commonly used for food.

Wenatchee: this town is named for the Wenatchee Indian tribe, a Salish-speaking group linguistically related to the Chelan, Entiate, and Method.

Wishram: this is a Chinook word meaning “flea” or “louse.”

American Indian Place Names in Oregon

The etymology of Oregon begins in 1765 with a petition to the British King regarding Ouragon, the mythical River of the West. According to the petition, Ouragon was the name given by the Indians to this great river. By 1778, the spelling had shifted to Oregon. While the 1765 petition seems to imply that Oregon has its origins in a Native American language, there are others who feel that its roots are in French (“ouragan” which means “windstorm” or “hurricane”) or in Portuguese (“Aure il agua” meaning “hear the waters.”)

When the Europeans first began their invasion of Oregon, it was occupied by many different Indian nations with different languages and histories. Part of Oregon’s Indian heritage can be seen in some of the place names in the state.  

Champoag: known in Oregon histories as the “Birthplace of Oregon Government,” the Hudson’s Bay Company established a trading post at this location in 1821 because it was a part of the Kalapooian Indian territory and it was a place where Indians gathered to trade. The name “Champoag,” according to some sources, comes from Cham-poo-ick which was the name for some type of unidentified edible plant.

Clatskanie: this town is named for the Klatskani Indian tribe (also spelled Klats-kani, Tlatskani, Klaatshan, and Klatsskanine), an Athabaskan-speaking group related to other Athabaskan groups on the Northwest Coast such as the Haida, Tlingit, Eyat, Tututni, and others. In 1851, the tribe signed a treaty with the United States in which they ceded their land to the United States. In exchange, they were to be paid in goods and service. The U.S. Senate, however, did not ratify the treaty and so tribal members were never paid even though the U.S. assumed title to their lands.

Imnaha: this community is named after the Nez Perce chief Imna and the name means “land where the Imna lives.”

Klamath Falls: this community is named after the Klamath Indian tribe, who are linguistically related to the Modoc. They called themselves Eukshikni which means “people of the lake.”

Molalla: this community is named after the Molalla (also spelled Molala) Indian tribe. Some people feel that the name means “deer berries.”

Necanicum: this community started off as Ahlers in 1896, then changed its name to Push and then to Necanicum. The name may come from Ne-hay-ne-hum which describes an Indian lodge.

Neskowin: this was the aboriginal home of the Nestucca band of Tillamook Indians. When the first American settlers moved into the area in the 1880s, they often used wood for their homes which had been stolen from the Nestucca burial canoes. The bones in the canoes were simply dumped on the ground.

Netarts: By 1400 CE, archaeological findings show that the Tillamook Indians were inhabiting the Netarts area. The Tillamook called the area Ne-Ta-At which then became Netarts.

Scappoose: the Chinook used Scappoose Plains area for their potlatches. The Hudson’s Bay Company moved into the area in 1828 looking for land for their livestock. Scappoose supposedly means “gravelly plains.”

Siletz: the Siletz Indian Reservation was established in 1856 as the new home for 26 bands of Indians. The traditional territories of the bands were being invaded by gold miners and the government wanted the Indians out of the way of the miners. There are two possible origins for the designation “Siletz.” Some people feel that the name comes from a Rogue River Indian word, “silis” which means “black bear.” Another source says that “Siletz” comes from “Se-La-Gees” meaning “crooked rope” which refers to the many bends in the river.

Tillamook: this community is named for the Tillamook Indian tribe, a Salish-speaking group related to the Nehalem, Netucca, and Siletz. The name means “land of many waters.”

Umatilla: this community is named for the Umatilla Indian tribe, a Sahaptian-speaking groups related to the Celilo and Tenino-Tygh. There are some reports that indicate the name means “water rippling over sand.”

Yachats: the Alsea Indians, a Penutian-speaking group, had lived in this area for thousands of years. In Alsea “ya” refers to “water” and a number of possible meanings for Yachats have been advanced: “silent waters,” “little river with the big mouth,” “dark water between the timbered hills,” and many others.

Yoncalla: this community is named for the Yoncalla Indian tribe, a Salish-speaking group, linguistically related to the Alsea, Cathlamet, Chinook, Clackamas, Clatsop, Coos, Hanis, Kalapyan, Kiksht, Miluk, Multnomah, and others.  

The Michif Language

The French, unlike the English and the Spanish, saw Indians as trading partners. The French saw that their best opportunity for economic gain was to be found in the fur trade in which their Native American trading partners would retain their autonomy and provide them with furs. The French explorers quickly established trading relations with the Native nations. The best way for the French traders to establish trading relations was for the traders to marry into the Indian societies as traditional trade relied heavily upon kinship relations. Having married an Indian woman, the trader would have a kinship network which could be utilized for trade.  

One of the consequences of marriage is often children. The offspring of the French-Indian marriages grew up in multilingual households with a French-speaking father and an Indian speaking mother. These children also grew up with two cultures: one European and one Aboriginal. The two cultures blended and created a new group of people known in Canada as Métis.

Out of the Métis culture also came a new language: Michif.  Michif is sometimes described as a mixture of Cree and French.  While there are some who confuse Michif with pidgin trade languages, such as the Chinook trade language spoken along the Columbia River, it is not a pidgin (a language with a reduced vocabulary and grammar), but a true language. Linguist John McWhorter writes:

“Michif is not a fallback strategy for people who could not really manage their ancestors’ languages, nor is it a jolly sort of pig Latin-it is a new language altogether.”

Michif utilizes French-origin noun phrases which retain lexical gender (something unusual in the Algonquian Indian languages) and adjective agreement. At the same time, Michif uses Cree-origin verbs with a polysynthetic structure. Polysynthetic structure simply means that instead of using a bunch of words to give additional nuance and meaning to a verb, this is done through a series of prefixes and suffixes. The result is some very long words: verbs can incorporate up to twenty morphemes (sounds which have specific meanings). Thus, Michif grammar tends to be Cree-based.

In general, most of the Michif nouns (an estimated 83-94%) are of French-origin, while most verbs (an estimated 88-99%) are Cree-origin.

The study of language origins, particularly the study of creole languages, has strongly suggested that new languages tend to be formed by children. In the case of Michif, linguists generally feel that the children were fairly fluent in both French and Cree when they developed Michif.

At the present time, Michif is classified as a moribund language, meaning that relatively few children are learning it. In the United States, there are probably fewer than 1,000 Michif speakers, most of whom are associated with the Turtle Mountain Reservation in North Dakota. In Canada, where the Métis are legally and socially recognized as a distinct people, there are many more Michif speakers.

Plains Indian Sign Language

During the 18th and 19th centuries, the world of the American Indians who inhabited the Great Plains changed greatly. The first, and perhaps most significant, change began with the adoption of the horse following the Pueblo Revolt of 1680. The horse not only extended the hunting range of the Indian nations which already inhabited the Plains, such as the Blackfoot and Crow, but it also brought a number of newcomers into the area. The increased number of tribes on the Plains not only spoke different languages, but their languages were often totally unrelated.  

On the Plains, a sign language developed to allow for trade and easier communication among the many different Indian nations in this area.  This sign language seems to have been a pidgin language: it was a second language with a simplified grammar and vocabulary. However, there are some who feel it may have arisen out of a deaf language. Linguists feel that this sign language originally developed in the area of  south Texas and the Gulf Coast and then spread north, developing some local variations.

While the Plains sign language was a pidgin language, it is generally seen as an elaborate and efficient form of nonverbal communication. It permitted linguistically alien groups to transmit fairly complex messages.  Sign language was the lingua franca for trade among the different tribes. Many of the early European explorers, such as Lewis and Clark, relied heavily upon Plains sign language.

By the nineteenth century Plains Sign Language was used by tribes which spoke more than three dozen languages. Not every individual in the tribe was fluent in sign and there was great variation between the tribes regarding fluency in sign. Some individuals had a vocabulary of 3,500 words while most functioned quite well with a vocabulary of 500 to 1,000 words in sign.

One of the advantages to sign language is that it enabled the people to communicate over fairly long distances. Thus, on the Plains two groups could talk to each other and exchange information before they came within voice range.

Rushing Bear 1880

Shown above is an 1880 photograph of Rushing Bear illustrating the sign for “now” (Smithsonian collections).

Among the Arapaho, the elders report that at one time all children acquired the use of sign language. They tell of a time when people used sign language most of the time while they spoke Arapaho. They also used it to talk across rooms or large areas during social events.

With regard to tribal proficiency in sign, on the Northern Plains the Crow, the Northern Cheyenne, and the Blackfoot were considered the most proficient, while on the Southern Plains, the Kiowa were considered the best.

While most of the linguist study of Indian sign language has focused on the Plains tribes, there are some suggestions that sign languages also developed independently in other areas. The Plateau Culture Area-the area between the Rocky Mountains and the Cascade mountains that includes western Montana, northern Idaho, eastern Washington, northeastern Oregon, and southeaster British Columbia-appears to have developed its own distinctive sign language prior to the adoption of the horse. Once the Indian nations of the eastern portion of this area had the horse, they began hunting buffalo on the Great Plains, putting them into contact with the Plains tribes. At this time they seem to have adopted the Plains sign language which eventually replaced the Plateau sign language.

In the Southeast, a sign language was developed to facilitate communication among the various nations affiliated with the Creek Confederacy. Little is known about this sign language today.  

Indian Words in English

English really isn’t a Native American language, but virtually all of today’s Indians speak this as their first and primary language. During the past several centuries the English-speaking Europeans and their descendents who have come to occupy what is now the United States and Canada have consistently shown intolerance for other languages. Consequently, native languages have been suppressed. Native Americans have been required to learn English, and have not been allowed to use their native languages.  

In the early days of contact between Native Americans and the English-speaking colonists, the need for communication between the two groups resulted in the formation of Pidgin English. Pidgin English is a stripped down version of English which allows for basic communication. Pidgin English was primarily a trade language. During the seventeenth century, American Indians, if they learned English at all, learned it only as a medium for basic communication with alien invaders.

Another interesting aspect of the use of English and its incorporation into Indian cultures is in swearing: in general, Indian languages do not have swear words. As the Indians came into contact with English-speaking people, they acquired the art of swearing which was always done in English.

As the Europeans invaded the North American continent they encountered many things which they had never seen. Having no words to describe these things, the European colonists-English-speaking, Spanish-speaking, and French-speaking-borrowed many words from the Indians.

Some of the Indian words which have been incorporated into English included words for plants, animals, and foods:

Abalone

Avocado

Caribou

Cashew

Cassava

Chili

Chipmunk

Chocolate

Condor

Cougar

Coyote

Hickory

Hominy

Iguana

Maize

Moose

Muskrat

Ocelot

Opossum

Pecan

Persimmon

Petunia

Potato

Puma

Raccoon

Skunk

Squash

Succotash

Tobacco

Tomato

Woodchuck

Some of the words described clothing and tools:

Canoe

Hammock

Kayak

Moccasin

Tipi

Toboggan

Tomahawk

Wampum

Wigwam

Some of the other words English has acquired from American Indian languages include:

Barbecue

Bayou

Buccaneer

Caucus

Chinook

Hurricane

Mackinaw

Podunk

Powwow

Quinine

Totem

“Caucus” comes into English from the Algonquian caucauasu which means “counselor” and was first recorded in print by Captain John Smith, an early English colonist.

“Buccaneer” originally meant “someone who dries meat on a wooden frame over a fire” and has its origin in the Tupi language of the Caribbean islands. It came into English through French.

This list of words is not complete, but illustrates some of the words which English has borrowed. In some cases, English has borrowed the words directly from Indian languages (most of these have come from the Algonquian languages), while in other instances the Indian words have come into English from Spanish or French.

In addition to borrowing words to describe the new wonders they were seeing, the Europeans also borrowed a number of place names. Adjacent to the United States, both Canada and Mexico are Indian names. More than half of the states in the United States bear Indian names:

Alabama

Alaska

Arizona

Arkansas

Connecticut

Dakota

Illinois

Iowa

Kansas

Kentucky

Massachusetts

Michigan

Minnesota

Mississippi

Missouri

Nebraska

New Mexico

Ohio

Oklahoma

Oregon

Tennessee

Texas

Utah

Wisconsin

Wyoming

On the local level, many cities and towns, including Chicago, carry Indian place names.  

Voting and Native Languages

( – promoted by navajo)

The federal election voter guide is now available in the four most commonly spoken Native American/Alaska Native languages:  Cherokee, Dakota, Navajo and Yup’ik. These languages are spoken by about 220,500 Americans.

Native American Languages:

Five centuries ago, there were more than 500 distinct Native American languages spoken in North America. With European contact, Native languages began to disappear. The death of these languages was brought about by two basic factors: (1) the death of the people who spoke them, caused by European diseases and deliberate genocide, and (2) the active suppression of Native languages by the American government.

By the 1960s, there were still 175 Indian languages being spoken in the United States and Canada. Of these languages, 136 had fewer than 2,000 speakers and 34 had fewer than 10 speakers. By 2007, it was estimated that only 154 Indian languages were still being spoken and that half of these were spoken only by elders.

At the present time, it estimated that there are 46 Indian languages which are still being spoken by significant numbers of children. Languages which are being learned by children have some chance of survival.  A flourishing language is one in which the contact or colonial language is used almost entirely as a second language. In North America only Navajo, Mississippi Choctaw, and some Cree communities fit this definition.  

Retention of the native language is an important issue for many tribes. Many Native American communities have language programs to try to teach their languages to children.  As a consequence there are on many reservations programs which are intended to maintain the language. In communities in which the children no longer speak the native language, the goal is language revival in which the Indian language is taught as a second language. By 1986 there were 98 language projects involving 55 different Indian languages. There was an enrollment of more than 14,000 students in these programs. By 2006, there were 62 native languages being taught in 101 programs in 24 states and provinces.

In 1990, Congress passed the Native American Languages Act which declared a national policy of respect for Native American languages and encouragement of their continued vitality. In 1997, the Indigenous Language Institute began to put an emphasis on the revitalization of Indian languages, not just their preservation. With new technologies, such as computers, and working with Native communities, languages can be revitalized as a part of daily life.

Navajo:

Navajo (Diné bizaad) is an Athabaskan language which is spoken by more than 140,000 native speakers. Over half of the Navajo speak the language at home and the language is commonly used for everyday communication. Many parents still pass on the Navajo language to their children as a first language.

During World War II, Navajo was used as a code in the Pacific by bilingual code talkers to send military messages over the radio.

While many Navajo still speak their language, a recent survey shows that only 5% of the school-aged children on the reservation speak the language fluently. In an attempt to counter this language loss, many elementary school classes on the reservation are now offering immersion classes in Navajo. One study found that in Window Rock, Arizona, Indian children who began school in Dine (Navajo) and learned English as a second language performed almost two grade levels above their peers who started school in English.

Census data from the Navajo reservation indicate that between 1980 and 1990 the proportion of Navajos aged 5-17 who spoke only English rose from 12% to 28%, and by 2000, the figure reached 43%.

The language most closely related to Navajo is Apache.

Dakota:

There are about 20,355 speakers of Dakota in the United States and Canada. On the Spirit Lake Reservation in North Dakota, there are only 120 fluent speakers out of a tribal population of 4,435. All of the Spirit Lake fluent speakers are elderly. In order to retain the language, people meet in the school gym every other Tuesday for soup and conversation in Dakota.

Cherokee:

Cherokee is an Iroquoian language which is spoken in Oklahoma and in North Carolina. It is estimated that there are between 12,000 and 22,000 fluent speakers. Cherokee is unique among the languages of Native American cultures in North America as it has its own writing system.

Yup’ik:

Yup’ik is an Eskimo-Aleut language which is spoken by about 10,000 Natives in Alaska. Since the mid-1970s, educational programs have been implemented to revive and sustain the language. The University of Alaska Fairbanks offers a bachelors degree in Yup’ik language and culture and in Yup’ik Eskimo, as well as Associates Degrees in Native Language Education, with a concentration in Yup’ik, and in Yup’ik Language Proficiency.

An American Indian Teaches the Japanese

In 1853 Commodore Matthew C. Perry brought the American Navy to Japan and forced Japan to end its policy of isolation from the rest of the world. In the negotiations, the Japanese government had interpreters who spoke English. Since Japan had isolated itself from the rest of the world and had barred foreigners from their island nation, how did Japanese interpreters come to speak English? The answer to this question lies in the hidden history of American Indians.  

Ranald McDonald was born near present-day Astoria, Oregon in 1824. His mother was the daughter of the prominent Chinook leader Comcomly and his father, of Scots heritage, was an official in the Hudson’s Bay Company. As a Métis child in a fur trading household, he grew up hearing a mixture of languages-French, English, Gaelic, Chinook, Iroquois, and other Indian languages. Thus he was able to quickly adapt to different cultures.

As a child growing up in the Pacific Northwest, he heard many stories about Japan and about the Japanese sailors who had been shipwrecked and then rescued by the Makah, a Northwest Coast tribe whose homeland is on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula. These stories nourished within him the dream of visiting this island nation.

He started his formal education by attending a Hudson’s Bay Company school at Fort Vancouver, Washington. At the age of ten he was then sent to the Hudson’s Bay Company school at the Red River Settlement in Manitoba. After graduating from school, he became a bank clerk apprentice, but soon quit and joined the crew of a whaling ship.

In 1848, Ranald McDonald made a deal with the captain of a U.S. whaling ship. The ship carried him across the Pacific and put him secretly ashore on Rishiri Island in northern Japan. When he landed he was met not by Japanese but by Ainu, the indigenous people of Japan. The Ainu, whose men have beards and abundant body hair and whose women tattooed their upper lips, do not Japanese.

The Japanese, however, soon captured him and took him to Nagasaki. Here he spent six months as a prisoner. During this time he taught English to the Japanese interpreters who would later carry out the negotiations with Commodore Perry.

He was deported from Japan in 1849, but instead of returning to the United States or Canada, he continued traveling around the world. By 1891 he had returned to Astoria, Oregon where he was respected as the only lineal descendent of chief Comcomly. He died in 1894 on the Colville Reservation in Washington. As he died in his niece’s arms, his last words were “Sayonara, my dear, sayonara…”

Today, the Japanese remember Ranald McDonald as the “first teacher of English.” There is a monument to him in Nagasaki, Japan. In addition, there is another monument to him in Astoria, Oregon with the inscription written in Japanese.

Indian Languages

( – promoted by navajo)

It is estimated that there were between 250 and 400 distinct American Indian languages were being spoken in what is now the United States and Canada at the time of first contact with Europeans. By the 1960s, there were 175 Indian languages still being spoken north of Mexico. Of these languages, 136 had fewer than 2,000 speakers and 34 had fewer than 10 speakers. By 2007, it was estimated that only 154 Indians languages were still being spoken and that half of these were spoken only by elders.

At the present time, it estimated that there are 46 Indian languages which are still being spoken by significant numbers of children. Languages which are being learned by children have some chance of survival.  A flourishing language is one in which the contact or colonial language (English) is used almost entirely as a second language. In North America only Navajo, Mississippi Choctaw, and some Cree communities fit this definition.  

Language is more than a collection of sounds which can be formed into meaningful words: it is a form of communication which allows us to talk about the future and the past as well as the present; which allows us to talk about fantasy as well as reality.

Humans are born with the capacity to acquire language. During the first few years of life, children acquire language or languages. While all languages have about the same amount of complexity, they vary greatly in their sound patterns and in the way in which they categorize both time and the perception of the material world. As a result, we see the world through the language or languages that we speak.

The Hollywood vision of American Indians has them speaking in grunts with an occasional “ugh” or “how” thrown in for good measure. The implication in many movies and in many popular writings is that Indian languages are somehow “primitive” and less developed than European languages. Indian languages are as fully developed and as complex as English. Indian languages, in spite of the common stereotypes, are as capable of expressing feelings, imagination, creativity, poetry, and thoughts as any European language. They are very different from English which means that translation is not just a matter of word substitution.

During the nineteenth century, many Christian missionaries went to work with Indian tribes assuming that because Indian cultures were felt to be “inferior” to Euro-American culture, the Indian languages would be somehow simpler and less complex. Many of these missionaries, in their attempts to translate Christian concepts into Native languages, found this to be a difficult job. On the one hand, Native languages often lacked words for important Christian concepts, such as “religion,” “god,” “heaven,” and “hell.” As a consequence, many missionaries assumed (and some still assume) that Indians also lacked religion.

In addition, the concept of time in the Indian languages was often very different than in the Indo-European languages. In talking about the past, for example, there is a tense that indicates that the speaker had personally witnessed a past event and that it was an event related by another person. In some languages there are multiple past tenses which indicate how long ago something happened.

Another feature of language is what the linguists call syntax: sentence structure and formation. In English, for example, we use a subject-verb-object syntax. That is, word order tells us what is the subject of the sentence and what is the object of the sentence. In many Indian languages, action may be expressed in a prefix or suffix without having to use a verb. In Ojibwa (Anishinaabe), for example, almost four-fifths of all words are verbs, whereas in English nouns, adjectives, and adverbs predominate. Ojibwa orators put the verb first in a sentence, before the noun. Ojibwa-speakers learning to speak English have to learn to talk backwards.

Morphology refers to word structure and formation. Languages may use prefixes or suffixes or compounding to change the meaning of the word. Many Indian languages differ from European languages in that they use morphology rather than syntax to express changes in meaning. Many Indian languages are polysynthetic, which means that they use a process of word formation in which a single word contains grammatical and semantic information that would be expressed in a sentence in Western European languages.

In Navajo, an object at rest is placed in one of 15 general categories based on criteria such as animate/inanimate, size, position, cohesiveness, rigidity, shape, and degree of containment. These general categories are signified by the verb stem. Each of these 15 general categories is further subdivided into 15 categories based on variables such as plurality, grouping, and patterning. When a speaker of Navajo describes an object at rest, he places the object in one of 225 categories.

The Navajo language, and particularly Navajo grammar, reflects and reinforces the Navajo world-view of motion. The Navajo world is a world of motion-a world of action in which all beings and entities are either acting or being acted upon; a world of change in which both individual entities and systems are constantly going through phased cycles and processes of deformation and restoration; a world of things in motion and things at rest, but one in which even things at rest are defined by the withdrawal of motion and are classified according to their ability or potential to move or to be moved.

Historical Linguistics:

One approach to the study of language is historical linguistics, which studies the history of language(s) and how languages have changed over time. Historical linguistics involves the comparison of languages with a view to ascertaining which ones are related. For example Indo-European is the common ancestor of languages such as Latin, Greek, Sanskrit, Anglo-Saxon, etc. A grouping of related languages is known as a language family. A language family is composed of a group of related languages.

Understanding language families is one of the keys to understanding the historical relationships between the Indian groups. In other words, the language provides us with some clues about the history of the language and its people. It can provide some insights into migrations and to the divisions of different groups. By overlaying languages and geography, we can get suggestions about aboriginal homelands as well as migrations.

In comparing languages within the same family, glottochronology can be used to determine how long ago two languages shared a common ancestor, how long ago they separated from each other. Glottochronology is simply a mathematical method for calculating when two related languages split apart. It is generally felt that glottochronology has a practical range of about 5,000-6,000 years. In other words, glottochronology can date the separation of two languages as long as this occurred within the past 5,000-6,000 years.

Importance of Indian Languages Today:

Retention of the native language is an important issue for many tribes. At the present time, many Native American communities have language programs to try to teach their languages to children. As a consequence there are on many reservations programs which are intended to maintain the language. In communities in which the children no longer speak the native language, the goal is language revival in which the Indian language is taught as a second language. By 1986 there were 98 language projects involving 55 different Indian languages. There was an enrollment of more than 14,000 students in these programs. By 2006, there were 62 native languages being taught in 101 language project.  

A study conducted on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation by media anthropologist E. B. Eiselein found that: “Among Northern Cheyenne Tribal members, 42% understand the Cheyenne language well; 42% understand it a little; and 16% don’t understand it at all.” Among people over 55 years of age, 69% understand the language well. Among teenagers, on the other hand, only 4% understand the language well and 67% understand it a little.  The study also found that 78% of the tribal members are very interested in having radio programs that teach Indian language. Among teenagers, only 65% are interested in this type of radio program.

In 1990, Congress passed the Native American Languages Act which declared “a national policy of respect for Native American languages and encouragement of their continued vitality.” In 1997, the Indigenous Language Institute began to put an emphasis on the revitalization of Indian languages, not just their preservation. With new technologies, such as computers, and working with Native communities, languages can be revitalized as a part of daily life.  

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