Native American words echo in the names of lakes, rivers, mountains, states, cities, and small towns across the United States. The first settlers, who put many European words on the map, also borrowed names from local tribes. They often mispronounced what they heard—that’s how the Washoe word dá’aw, or lake, became Tahoe. In some cases they changed Indian terms so much that linguists can’t identify the original language or meaning. Laypeople have often stepped into the scholarly void with fanciful interpretations that have become part of American folklore. Chesapeake, for example, is sometimes translated as”great shellfish bay.” But no one knows what the word meant to the Indians who coined it.
Most of the translations on our map reflect the best scholarly opinion on the meaning of the Indian terms. Translations are more certain in the West, and in Alaska and Hawaii, where the old languages were still spoken when linguists began to work. On the East Coast, many cultures had faded before most studies began, so some definitions represent a scholar’s best guess.
Another reminder that November is Native American Heritage Month.