When reading Sherman Alexie's stories it's hard to not think about the ways that Native American language has been adapted and used by white settlers and contemporary multicultural America. Many American place names originated in Native American languages, though spelling, pronunciation, and other linguistic qualities have been adjusted and modified. Scholarship on the etymology of such names is often tricky, and occasionally defaults to guesswork where evidence is scarce. Some names, though, have fairly direct origins.
Alexie's hometown of Spokane, for example, is named for the Spokane tribe that Alexie's mother is a part of. In the Salish languages of the Pacific Northwest, Spokane translates to mean "children of the sun" or "sun people."
The city where Alexie now lives received its name from a Duwamish and Suquamish tribal leader whose name has been translated as Sealth, Seathle, Seathl, and See-ahth, which eventually became Seattle. Chief Seattle had a significant influence on how frontiersmen settled the Puget Sound, and Angeline Street in Seattle's Beacon Hill neighborhood is named for his daughter (More about Angeline is covered in the 'Beyond the Book' for Short Nights Of The Shadow Catcher).
Other American names that are fairly confidently linked to Native origins include Oklahoma (derived from Choctaw words meaning "land of the red people"), Ohio (from the Seneca "ohiyo" which is what they called a "nice river"), and North and South Dakota (from the Dahkota tribe). For more fun facts about the origins of many American state names, click here.
The image is of the only known photograph of Chief Seattle, taken 1864.
This article was originally published in October 2012, and has been updated for the
October 2013 paperback release.
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