At least 10 of the 50 U.S. states have within their names, Native references to water—constant reminders, one might hope, of how to protect and honor such a sacred resource. Here are some surprising ties that contemporary place names have to water, followed by a dozen Native words for it, in commemoration of World Water Day.
While the name Alaska stems from the Aleut word Alyeska, said to mean “great land,” that word has also been translated to mean “the land against which the sea breaks.”
Speculation has it that Connecticut got its name from the Algonquin word “Quinnehtukqut,” or “beside the long tidal river,” referring to the river today also named Connecticut.
Many people may recognize the words “Gitchee Gumee” from Longfellow’s Hiawatha poem. The likely mispronunciation of gichigami, the Ojibwe name for the “great lake” known as Lake Superior. You might from this then see the origins of a state the borders that Great Lake. Michigan comes from michigami (perhaps misi-gami), or “large lake.”
The “land of 10,000 lakes,” Minnesota, is appropriately named with a Dakota word, mni-sota, reflecting the sky-tinted waters of all those lakes.
The name for the state at the end of the longest river in the U.S. may have gotten its name from the Native peoples at its beginning. According to MS.gov, the Mississippi River and the state both get their name from the Ojibwe words for “large river”—michi (or misi) ziibi.
Nebraska’s name is said to come from the Otoe people who were moved from that land to Oklahoma. The name may mean “flat water.”
“Ohi-yo,” the Iroquois phrase for “great river,” names the state of Ohio for the river today with the same name.
Here are a dozen words for water:
Nibi – Ojibwe
Mní – Lakota/Dakota (popularized during the Dakota Access Pipeline crisis as the battle cry Mní Wiconi, roughly translated as “water is life”)
Tó – Diné
Nipiy or Nîpîy (ᓃᐲᕀ) – Cree
Mahpe – Northern Cheyenne
Nec – Northern Arapaho
Ohkí – Blackfeet
Mirí – Hidatsa
Ohne·kánus – Oneida
A-ma – Cherokee
Neenah – Ho-chunk