American Indian Heritage Month: Commemoration vs. Exploitation
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State Names, Native American Derivations

Roughly half the states in the United States of America have names that derive, in some way, from Native American languages. Most are English or French adaptations of the original Native American words. Sometimes, more than one meaning has been attributed to a name, in which case both are listed.

Alabama: From alipama or alibamu, a Muskogee tribal name meaning "Those who clear the land."

Alaska: From the Aleut word for their homeland on the Alaska peninsula, Alakhskhakh; also Aleut for "great land."

Arizona: A Pagago word, airzonac, probably meaning "small springs."

Arkansas: From the Illinois name for the Quapaw, akansea. The same word has been said to mean "downstream people."

Connecticut: Mohegan or Pequot for "long tidal river" or "wind-driven river."

Dakota (North and South): A Dakota Sioux term for themselves (dahkota), meaning "friends" or "allies." It is interesting that the immigrants expropriated the Sioux's own name for themselves, with its friendly connotations, meanwhile assigning the Dakota a corruption of an old French word Sioux, meaning "snake" or "enemy."

Idaho: The Native language from which this state name is derived is unknown; it is said to have meant "gem of the mountains"; some say it means "The sun is coming up."

Illinois: The name of an Algonquian confederation, meaning "original people" or "superior men," after a term that the Illinois Indians used for themselves. The name originated with the Algonquian iliniwak, modified by French traders as Illinois.

Iowa: For the Ioway Indians, modified through French, from the Fox language, as aayahooweewa (possibly from the Sioux ayuhba). Both words mean "sleepy ones."

Kansas: Kansa for "people of the south wind."

Kentucky: From kenta, possibly an Iroquois word for "planted field." Some say the word is Cherokee for "meadowland."

Massachusetts: Meaning "people of the big hill," this name was used to describe an Algonquian people who lived near a steep hill near Boston.

Michigan: Meaning "great water" (michigamea) or "big lake," the name is probably derived from the Algonquian or Ottawa language.

Minnesota: From minisota, a Dakota word meaning "sky-tinted water."

Mississippi: A combination of two Algonquian or Ojibway words: misi, meaning "great" or "large" and sipi, meaning "water," usually taken to mean "big river."

Missouri: A French adaptation of an Illinois (Iliniwak) word meaning "people with dugout canoes." This is also the name of a tribe that lived near the river and also may be taken to mean "big muddy river," after the Missouri Indians' name for it, Pokitanou, which carries that meaning. To this day, inhabitants of cities along the river customarily call it The Big Muddy.

Nebraska: From the Omaha name Nibdhathka, meaning "flat river" or "flat water," named for the shallow but wide Platte River. Some sources say the word is from the Oto language; it may be from both.

New Mexico: As a province of New Spain, New Mexico's name was derived from Mexica, the Aztecs' name for themselves.

Ohio: Derived from a Seneca word meaning "beautiful river."

Oklahoma: "Red men" in Choctaw, a translation of "Indian Territory" into the Choctaw language.

Tennessee: From Tanasi, a Cherokee name for the Little Tennessee River, as well as a principal Cherokee town by the same name. It is said to mean "area of traveling waters."

Texas: First a Spanish (Tejas), then an English derivation from taysa, a word used among members of the Caddo tribal confederacy meaning (like "Dakota") "friends or allies."

Utah: From the tribal name Ute, anglicized from yuuttaa, the Utes' name for their homeland, "the land of the sun."

Wisconsin: The name of a tribal confederacy living near the Wisconsin River, the English name is probably derived from the Ojibway Wees-konsan, "gathering of the waters" and "grassy place."

Wyoming: This name, meaning "big meadows" or "big river flats," originated with the Delaware (Leni Lenápe) of present-day Pennsylvania and New Jersey, and was carried by non-Indian migrants to the state that now bears the name. "Wyoming" is anglicized rather liberally from the Leni Lenápe maughwauwame, a name given first to the Wyoming valley of Pennsylvania.

Bruce E. Johansen

Further Reading
"Substance of the Speech of Good Peter to Governor Clinton and the Commissioners of Indian Affairs at Albany." 1814. New York City: Collections of the New York Historical Society, 1st Series, 2: 115.; Abram, Charles. 1923. "Law of the Woman Chief, May 21, 1923." Hewitt Collection, BAE Manuscript No. 1636, NAA. Smithsonian Institution.; Allen, Paula Gunn. 1986. The Sacred Hoop: Recovering the Feminine in American Indian Traditions. Boston: Beacon Press.; Anthony, Susan B. 1985. History of Woman Suffrage. Edited by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Matilda Joslyn Gage. North Stratford, NH: Ayer Company.; Axtell, James. 1981. The Indian Peoples of Eastern America: A Documentary History of the Sexes. New York: Oxford University Press.; Barreiro, José. 1992. "The Search for Lessons." In Indigenous Economics: Toward a Natural World Order. Edited by José Barreiro. Akwe:kon Journal 9, no. 2 (Summer): 18–39.; Birchfield, D. L. 1997. The Encyclopedia of North American Indians. Vol. 5. Tarrytown, NY: Marshall Cavendish.; Brown, Judith K. 1970. "Economic Organization and the Position of Women Among the Iroquois." Ethnohistory 17, nos. 3–4 (Summer-Fall): 151–167.; Cameron, Kenneth W., ed. 1967. The Works of Samuel Peters. Hartford: Transcendental Books.; Carr, Lucien. 1884. The Social and Political Position of Women Among the Huron-Iroquois Tribes. Salem, MA: Salem Press.; Case, Nancy Humphrey. 2002. "Gifts from the Indians: Native Americans Not Only Provided New Kinds of Food and Recreation; They May Have Given the Founding Fathers Ideas on How to Form a Government." The Christian Science Monitor. November. Available at: 002/CO_11302002_Gifts.htm. Accessed January 9, 2007.; Cohen, Felix. 1952. "Americanizing the White Man." American Scholar 21, no. 2: 177–191.; Cohen, Felix. 1960. The Legal Conscience: Selected Papers of Felix S. Cohen. Edited by Lucy Kramer Cohen. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.; Corkran, David H. 1962. The Cherokee Frontier: Conflict and Survival, 1740–62. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.; Cronon, William. 1983. Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England. New York: Hill and Wang.; Crosby, Alfred W. 1972. The Columbian Exchange: Biological and Cultural Consequences of 1492. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.; Edwards, Everett E. 1934. "The Contributions of American Indians to Civilization." Minnesota History 15, no. 3: 255–272.; Fenton, W. N. 1941. Contacts Between Iroquois Herbalism and Colonial Medicine. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution.; Foner, Philip S., ed. 1945. Complete Writings of Thomas Paine. New York: Citadel Press.; Forbes, Jack. 1964. The Indian in America's Past. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.; Frachtenberg, Leo J. 1915. "Our Indebtedness to the American Indian." Wisconsin Archeologist 14, no. 2: 64–69.; Gipson, Arrell Morgan. 1980. The American Indian: Prehistory to Present. Lexington, MA: D. C. Heath and Company.; Grinde, Donald A., Jr., and Bruce E. Johansen. 1991. Exemplar of Liberty: Native America and the Evolution of Democracy. Los Angeles, CA: UCLA American Indian Studies Center.; Grinde, Donald A., Jr., and Bruce E. Johansen. 1995. Ecocide of Native America: Environmental Destruction of Indian Lands and Peoples. Santa Fe, NM: Clear Light Publishers.; Johansen, Bruce E. [1982] 1987. Forgotten Founders: How the Iroquois Helped Shape Democracy. Boston: Harvard Common Press, 1987.; Keoke, Emory Dean, and Kay Marie Porterfield. 2002. Encyclopedia of American Indian Contributions to the World. New York: Facts on File.; Kraus, Michael. 1949. The Atlantic Civilization: Eighteenth Century Origins. New York: Russell & Russell.; Moquin, Wayne. 1973. Great Documents in American Indian History. Westport, CT: Praeger.; Porterfield, Kay Marie. 2002. "Ten Lies About Indigenous Science —How to Talk Back." October 10. Available at: Accessed January 9, 2007.; Public Broadcasting Service. No date. Africans in America: Revolution, Resource Bank, part 2: 1750–1805. "Crispus Attucks." Available at: Accessed February 20, 2003.; Selsam, Millicent. 1959. Plants That Heal. New York: William Morrow & Co.; Weatherford, Jack. 1988. Indian Givers: How the Indians of the Americas Transformed the World. New York: Fawcett Columbine.; Weatherford, Jack. 1991. Native Roots: How the Indians Enriched America. New York: Crown.

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