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Calling People Names: An Expression of Colonial Power

Outsider-imposed names are not the names that the various indigenous peoples knew themselves by in their own language.

Naming indigenous peoples in North American has been an expression of colonial power. From the time of early contact, this power has almost completely monopolized the representation of the people in all media: conversations on the street, official records, place names on maps, history and other school books, television and movies.

These outsider-imposed names (exonyms) are not the names that the various peoples knew themselves by in their own language (autonyms). The names chosen colonially and reproduced over and over frequently come from another language. They can come from the colonial power itself or from another indigenous group with whom the colonizer was in contact first — often, at the time that the group whose word was chosen was not in a good relationship with the people being named. The name would end up as an entrenched insult.

In the early 17th century, the French helped set the pattern by ignoring the autonym Wendat (elsewhere Wyandot or Wyandotte), replacing it with the now well-known Huron. An early story of its origin comes from the Jesuit Father Jérôme Lalemant, writing in 1639:

“Arriving at the French settlement, some Sailor or Soldier seeing for the first time this species of barbarians, some of whom wore their hair in ridges — a ridge of hair one or two fingers wide appearing upon the middle of their heads, and on either side the same amount being shaved off, then another ridge of hair; others having one side of the head shaved clean, and the other side adorned with hair hanging to their shoulders-this fashion of wearing the hair making their heads look like those of boar [hures], led him to call these barbarians ‘Hurons.’ And this is the name that has clung to them ever since.”

This hairstyle is often referred to today as a mohawk. As historical geographer Conrad Heidenreich has duly noted, “an alternative explanation of the name comes from Old French, meaning a ‘ruffian,’ ‘unkempt person,’ ‘knave,’ or ‘lout.’” This name has been applied not just to the people, but to a Great Lake in Ontario County, city streets, schools and more.

What’s In a Name?

In those times, the Wendat fought a people known throughout contact history as the Mohawk. The name comes from a term used in the early 17th century by the Narragansett living in southern New England to the east of the people so named. This people spoke an unrelated language, one that belonged to the Algonquian family. A major grammatical distinction made in Algonquian languages is between subjects and objects that are animate versus inanimate.

The Narragansett word was written as mohowawog (the -wog is an animate plural) meaning “they eat animate things.” This is usually interpreted as calling the Mohawk cannibals. But the name could refer to apples, trees or even bark, as both are deemed animate in their grammatical system. The Mohawk called the Narragansett people and their Algonquian neighbors Adirondack, meaning “they eat trees.” Fortunately, the name went to the mountains, not the people.

The name Mohawk has been given to a major river in New York, along with the surrounding valley and county. As with the Huron, streets and schools also bear this name. The Mohawk autonym is Kanien’kehá:ka or Ganyen’geha:gaˀ, meaning “people of Kanien’ke or Ganye’ge,” literally meaning “at the flint.” It refers to what was their principal community in the 17th century. The -há:ka– or -ha:gaˀ is an suffix for “people of.”

North of the Kanienkehaka and east of the Wendat are people whose neighbors, the Mikmaq, called Malecite or Maliseet. Their two languages are closely related Algonquian languages. The word is typically translated as a negative comment about their speech, that it is “broken,” “lazy,” “bad” or more neutrally “different.” Their own name for themselves refers to the Saint John River central to their territory in New Brunswick and Maine: Wolastoqiyik, “people of the Wolastoq or beautiful river.”

If you swing to Canada, back to the 18th century and to the Northwest Territories, you will see a lake known as Great Slave Lake. It is the deepest lake (at maximum depth of 2,014 feet) in North America and the 10th largest lake in the world. Traditionally, Dene-speaking people known to themselves as Dene Tha — who are also known as Slave or Slavey — inhabited the area. This springs from a name that came from the Algonquian-speaking Cree.

During a period in the 18th century, the Cree had a weapons advantage over the Dene Tha and related peoples because they were earlier intensively involved with fur trade companies who supplied them with guns. This resulted in the Cree labeling the Dene Tha Awokanak, which typically refers to a domesticated animal, but could be extended to captured prisoners. The French traders called the lake that was at the center of their territory the Grand lac des Esclaves.

Move down south to the American southwest and you will encounter another Dene people called by a negative term, Apache. The Spanish encountered them late in the 16th century. They had a name imposed on them from their Zuni neighbors, who spoke an unrelated language. It came from their word meaning “enemy.” Their own term for themselves is Dine (people).

Undoing the Colonial

Like the name Apache, one learns the word Comanche early in life, in the cowboys-and-Indians films that you would regularly watch on Saturday afternoons. That word comes from the distantly related language of Ute, and means “enemy” or “stranger.” This certainly fit with the role they often played in the popular shows. Their autonym is Nᵾmᵾnᵾᵾ — “people.” The word is hard for English speakers to say as the vowels are front rounded. It is rather like saying “oo” with your lips sticking out and in a round shape.

The Anishinaabe people (usually known by imposed names such as Ojibwa, Chippewa, Saulteaux and Algonquin) traditionally spoke of people who did not speak an Algonquian language as Naadawe, which means “snake.” Iroquoian people such as the Kanienkehaka (Mohawk) would be called that. The Saulteaux (named by the French because some had moved west from the Sault Ste Marie area of northwestern Ontario) referred to certain neighbors speaking a different language as Naadawensiw (with -ag added for the animate plural), which added a diminutive and meant “little snakes.” This was recorded by a French writer as Nadaouessioux, from which the name for the people was taken from the last five letters Sioux.

The people themselves have names such as Dakota, Lakota and Nakota, all of which refer to people who are “friends, allies” in different dialects. At least in this case two states were given the first of these names.

How do you undo or disrupt the colonial here? First, as they say in 12-step programs, you have to recognize that there is a problem. This article is directed towards that end. Secondly, the history of the names should be made available to teachers and writers of educational textbooks. The rest is up to you, the reader.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

Photo Credit: meunierd / Shutterstock.com

John Steckley

John Steckley is a professor at Humber College, where he has taught sociology, anthropology and Aboriginal studies since 1986. He has published 16 books, including five textbooks, and five books on the Wendat (Huron) language.

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