A “Thank You” to the First Americans

A pocket-sized copy of the New Testament—no larger than a deck of cards—became a part of our baggage partly because it contained more reading matter per ounce than any other book. When you tote a pack 27,000 miles, every ounce counts.
Great treasures can come wrapped in small packages. One small verse in that pocket Testament described the character and the import of the final ride which came our way in Oklahoma.
Referring to a mustard seed, the verse read: ” … (It) is the least of all seeds: but when it is grown it is the greatest among herbs, and becometh a tree, so that the birds of the air come and lodge in the branches thereof.” (Matthew 13:32 K. J. V.)
Our last Oklahoma ride was like that mustard seed—small and seemingly insignificant. It was only a few miles in length. We had time to speak only a few sentences with the driver. But that short ride became like the mustard seed. Symbolically, an enormous tree developed from it, with some vital verities resting in its branches.
A pickup truck pulled to the roadside.
“Want a ride? Only going five miles.” The driver’s voice was deep-throated and we were not quite sure we’d heard him correctly, which didn’t matter at all. Five miles, or fifty, was no concern to us. We jumped in.
Our host was stocky and dark-complexioned, with jet-black hair protruding from beneath his western hat. We soon discovered he was an American Indian. Though we tried not to show it, Win and I were excited. In our thousands of miles of travel this was our first ride with a native American.
On our entire trip, our only contacts with Indians, while deeply interesting, had never been on a one-to-one basis—not personal. It had been thrilling to see the colorfully attired Indians in the Bozeman Roundup parade. At Grand Canyon, the Hopi dancers had inspired us. There had been the strange episode of the circle of Indians who had passed Win’s watch around and marveled at its ticking. At Santa Fe and the surrounding area we had visited some of the Pueblo Indians, in their colorful dress and beautiful villages. But in none of these instances had we become acquainted with any individuals on a personal basis.
This was just a five mile ride. It was not the distance, but the driver, that was all-important. In his husky voice, our new host asked where we were from and where we were going. Quickly we answered but then turned the conversation to him. “This is a great state,” started Win. “We liked Oklahoma a lot.”
The Indian answered. Partly because of his husky voice and accent, partly because of the noisy truck and its clatter over the bumpy road, we caught only part of what he said.
Our new friend made some sort of reference to Oklahoma as his home—his land. There was some kind of reference to the meaning of the state’s name—we didn’t quite catch what. Never had a ride seemed to end so swiftly. It terminated at a crossroad, with a sincere expression of thanks on our part, and a pleasant response from him. That was it, or so we thought, as we bid him good-bye.
But that wasn’t it. “What was that he said about Oklahoma?” I questioned Win, as the truck turned into the side trail.
“I’m not sure. Something about its meaning,” came his reply. “An Indian name. I think he said his land had a special name. Let’s check at a library next time there’s a chance.”
A chance came the very next day. We spent an hour in a tiny library looking up facts about Oklahoma, discovering amazing things which our half month in the state had never revealed. In library after library these fact-finding sessions were continued along the way, and even after returning home. New horizons were opening before us. At every such fact-finding foray our blood boiled in disgust in thinking about the shallow textbooks—and their writers and sponsors—that had been our sole source of knowledge about America while in school.
The name Oklahoma, we discovered, was derived from two Choctaw Indian words—okla, meaning people, and homa, meaning red. “Land of the red people. “
“I do remember once hearing something about that,” I said to Win. “But look at this. We were in Kansas just a few days ago. That’s an Indian name too. It comes from the Kansa, or Kaw, tribe. And look at what it means; ‘People of the South Wind’.”
“It makes the state sound really romantic,” whispered Win. The librarian was casting strange looks our way; our excitement had caused our conversation to get too loud.
The next available library was in Fort Worth, Texas and our research there caused new reasons for raised voices—and more excitement. “`Tejas’ was the name of a federation of Indian tribes,” I whispered. “It says here the word probably means `friends’ . “
While Win was exploring one reference book, my nose was buried deep in another. We kept bombarding each other with new discoveries.
“Do you remember all those trestles we walked over, crossing the Arkansas River?” Win asked. “That river’s name comes from an Indian word and it means ‘downstream people’ . ” It refers to the Indians living down toward the river’s lower reaches. The state was later named after the river.”
Each day or so, especially in rainy weather, it was necessary to hunt up a library in order to catch up on diary entries and letter writing. Now each such visit was augmented with historical research. One big library had just the books we needed and some amazing discoveries developed. It was hard for us to believe until we had checked and double checked, but we found that the name of every single state in which we had traveled since leaving Cheyenne, Wyoming came from an Indian source. Without exception. Every one.
The city of Cheyenne, of course, was named from the Cheyennes, a plains tribe. Wyoming got its name from the Wyoming Valley in Pennsylvania, but it came from a Delaware Indian word meaning “great plains” or “upon the great plains.”
The next state we had touched was Nebraska and it didn’t seem possible that name had any Indian connections. Wrong again. “Nebrathka” is the Indian word for “flat river, ” the tribal name for the Platte, which flows lazily through the state.
Missouri had been next on our route. The state took its name from the great river flowing through it, and the river took its name from an Indian tribe living on its banks near its mouth, in the vicinity of present day St. Louis. Although some uncertainty exists, the term is thought to have meant “the people of the long canoes.”
Illinois was the next state we crossed. “There certainly can’t be any Indian connection there,” was Win’s rejoinder as we continued to research each state name, one by one. But there was. “Illini’-the name applied to that state university’s great football team—is the Indian word referring to the tribes living in what is now Illinois.
As our research kept revealing these facts which we had never even dreamed of before, it was not too hard to concede that Indiana, the next state we had crossed, had some Indian connection. It simply means “land of the Indians.” Simple.
Kentucky and Tennessee were different matters. Win and I had visited Kentucky’s Mammoth Cave on the first out-of-state auto trip our family had ever attempted. There had been no thought or hint that the state’s name had Indian origins. The words of Stephen Foster’s “My Old Kentucky Home” just did not conjure up thoughts of redmen. Our library research showed otherwise. We found that, without question, the state derived its name from an Indian word. The meaning of that word is not certain. It probably refers to “meadowland.”
The name Tennessee. Researchers believe that one of the main villages of the Cherokee Indians, named Tannassie or Tanasie, was gradually applied to the state’s principal interior river, then transferred to the state itself.
From Tennessee we had crossed Arkansas to Oklahoma, up into Kansas again, back to Oklahoma, then into Texas, the site of most of our research. The last eleven states we had visited—every one had a name derived from the Indians. To us, this was almost a startling fact, principally because we had never even dreamed of it before. Further research into the facts made our blood boil even more, in the realization that history had actually been concealed from us because of the textbooks we studied in school. In all likelihood, it had been concealed, on purpose, in the original writing of those textbooks.
In the early days of America, when most of the states were named, the Indian was often looked on as a noble person, and respected. It was no doubt natural to seek out Indian names for rivers, and cities, and states. Then the Indian tribes began to interfere with the westward movement. They got in the way. Their lands were needed for development. Attitudes toward these original settlers changed. “The only good Indian is a dead Indian” became a slogan, at first whispered, then generally accepted by many. Buffalo Bill, whom Win and I had once seen, became famous for hunting down the great plains animals as food for railroad workers putting through the Union Pacific. But in other cases there were other reasons for slaying the buffalo, which was a principal food source for Indians of the plains. Wipe out the buffalo and you get rid of the Indians, was the plan. The strategy almost succeeded.
In the “cowboy and Indians” movies of Win’s and my youth, the cowboys were always the heroes, the Indians, the villains. The cowboys always won; the “redskins” always lost. Every movie. Every time.
We wondered that our parents, such avid travelers and lovers of America, had not told us about the Indian origins of the names of so many of our states and landmarks. Researching a little more, I began to put two and two together. Our father was born in 1872, our mother three years later. They were four and one year old, respectively, at the time of Custer’s defeat at the Little Big Horn, by the Sioux Indians led by Sitting Bull. That crushing loss, at the hands of “savages,” was hard for white America to take. Reference books still refer to that battle as a “massacre.” The textbooks our parents studied, just as those we used, were written to denigrate the redman, and glorify their eventual conquerors.
These must surely have been among the reasons Win and I never learned that the name of our own state of Michigan was Indian in origin, deriving from the word which means “great lake.” Or that the state of my birth, Ohio, comes from the Indian word meaning “great,” applied first to the river and then to the state.
As our research continued, our amazement grew as to the Indian influence on the naming of the states which had made up our entire trip so far. A full two-thirds of them, we discovered, were Indian in origin. In fact, traveling all the way from Michigan to the Pacific coast, we’d encountered only one state—Montana, a Spanish word—not named for the redman or his world.
I have already referred to Michigan, Indiana, Illinois, Nebraska, Kansas, and Wyoming. To continue through the states on our westward trek, Iowa was named for the Indian tribe once occupying that area. The name Minnesota, we found, is derived from two Indian words which mean “sky-tinted water. “
“When you know where those state names come from,” Win commented, “the Indian words are so pretty it makes you like the states even better.”
Wisconsin has the Algonquins to thank for its name, originally “Wishkonsing,” thought to have meant “hole of the beaver.” The Dakotas, both North and South, can thank the tribe of that name, the Dakotas, or “Dacotahs” as Longfellow spelled it, in his poem “Hiawatha.” They are a branch of the Sioux.
Utah’s origin is rather obvious, since it has been—and still is—inhabited by the Ute or Eutaw Indian tribe. The name means “those who dwell high up.” What an apt description.
On our “Indian origins” journey from Michigan to the Pacific Ocean, this brought us to Idaho, then Oregon, which actually dips into the western sea.
When I discovered the origin of the state name, Idaho, my elation was so great I could scarcely contain myself. Idaho is where we had batched it for three months, had worked in the silver mines, and had taken hikes with our club of youngsters along the Whiskey Trail back into the mountains.
“Look,” I exclaimed to Win. “That Indian word `Ee dah how’ gave the state its name. And can you guess what it means?”
He couldn’t.
“It means ‘The sun comes down the mountain.’ How’s that for a mouth-watering description? If you want something even better, there is also another meaning; ‘It is morning’.”
Win’s and my thoughts went back to those autumn days in Burke when the beauty of the mountain mornings gave us goose-bumps of joy.
Finally, Oregon, bordering the Pacific. The great Columbia River had once been called “Ouragan” by the Indians, and the name stuck.
Those states, with their Indian names, carried us from Michigan to the Pacific. At the beginning of our return journey, we had traversed Arizona and New Mexico, the names of which had also derived from Indian sources. Arizona, from the Pima Indian word “Arizonac,” a place of silver discoveries in nearby Sonora. New Mexico, from the Aztec Indian God, Mexitli. We would soon be going through Alabama and Mississippi, even down to Miami—all names inspired by the first inhabitants of our country.

Our five-mile ride with the Oklahoma Indian had not only opened up a new world for us, it had made that world infinitely more meaningful because of the beautiful words and descriptive phrases with which the original Americans had clothed these states which make up the land we loved so much.
A five-mile ride, like a tiny mustard seed, had blossomed into a giant tree whose branches sheltered nearly all of America.

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