New words for the Shemanese

Published Feb. 15, 2005
Conquerors bring their culture to the land they occupy, and part of that culture is words. The white conqueror, called Shemanese by the Shawnee for the swords the Virginia military men carried, brought his language to Ohio, but he absorbed Indian words into his speech even as he obliterated native culture, and those words connect us to a time when Ohio was wooded and when canoes, moccasins and hooves were the only transportation.
European words replaced Indian vocabulary except where whites had no equivalents: Moccasin, tomahawk, raccoon, moose, opossum, wigwam the log and bark house of the eastern Indians and papoose are Algonquian words that entered English in the early 17th century; and tepee, the conical house of poles and hide used by nomadic Plains Indians, is a Dakota word that entered English in 1743.
The Algonquian language stock comprised about 25 to 30 languages in much of the eastern and some of the western United States and included Abenaki, Delaware, Massachusett, Powhatan (also called Virginia Algonquian), Shawnee and Miami languages. The Algonquian stock was the largest in the Great Lakes area. Other stocks around the lakes were Iroquoian and Siouan.
Although most of the general lexicon disappeared, many words live on in place names. About half of our state names come from Indian words: Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, Connecticut, Idaho, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, maybe Oregon, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Wisconsin and Wyoming.
Of Ohio’s 88 counties, 19 have Indian origins (with the source and meaning in parentheses): Ashtabula (fish), Auglaize (Shawnee for fallen timbers), Coshocton (from Delaware Goschachgunk, Black Bear Town), Cuyahoga (crooked), Delaware (the Delaware river was named for Lord De La Warr, one of the early proprietors of the Delaware colony, and the Lenni Lenape were named by whites for the river along which they lived before migrating to Ohio), Erie (the Erie tribe, cat), Geauga (raccoon), Hocking (Delaware, a shortening of Hockhocking River, hockhocking meaning bottle), Huron (a tribe), Mahoning (the licks or at the licks, referring to salt licks that were so important to animals; to Indians, who hunted animals at the licks; and to white settlers, who rendered salt at the licks), Miami (a tribe, mother), Muskingum (Delaware for a town by the river), Ottawa (a tribe, trader), Pickaway (misspelling of Piqua, an important Shawnee town), Sandusky (Sandoostee, at the cold water), Scioto (Wyandot, deer), Seneca (a tribe), Tuscarawas (a tribe, open mouth) and Wyandot (a tribe).
Portage, though not an Indian name, is derived from a major Indian crossing. The word comes from the French porter, to carry, from Latin portare, and refers to the canoe carrying place in Akron that connected the Cuyahoga and Tuscarawas rivers and thus the Great Lakes with the Ohio and Mississippi valleys. When Portage County was formed, it included what later became Summit County, which was named for the northern summit of the Ohio-Erie Canal, which takes its name from a river and a lake with Indian names. Many Ohio streams carry Indian names: Nimishillen, Walhonding, Mohican, Maumee, Olentangy and Kokosing, and Tuscarawas, Muskingum, Scioto, Sandusky, Hocking, Auglaize, Cuyahoga and Ohio, already mentioned.
Although Indians live on reservations or have been forced into white society, they are by no means gone. It is estimated that about 1 million Indians lived in the United States in 1492, and their population now is estimated at about 500,000. A New York campground owner told me a few years ago that Indians in the Finger Lakes area are buying land with profits from their casino and are bulldozing the buildings, returning the land to its wooded state know by their ancestors 250 years ago. Maybe soon Indians will have more than mere names as their inheritance.

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