- Published: 03 February 2010
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Joyce Chanbors, age 12, of Enott, Idaho, for her question:
What did the Indians call themselves before Columbus?
Columbus called them Indios because he mistook the New World for India. But the original Americans had never heard of India and even if they had they would have known they were not Indians. We use the word Indians to cover all the natives of the New World, but they never thought of themselves as one people. To them, each was a member of his own tribe and all other tribes were either allies or enemies ‑ much as the nations of the world still think of themselves.
Each tribe had its own language or dialect and named itself with a word usually meaning the men or the people; We know of some 600 dialects, sometimes so different that neighboring villages could not understand each other. North of the Rio Grande, there was no written language. Sometimes the tribe name was mispronounced in translation and sometimes the meaning was lost.
In their own language, the name of the Hopi, a tribe of western farmers, meant the peaceful ones. In most cases, the name which survived was one given to a tribe by another tribe or by the various settlers from the Old World. The warlike Apaches were named by the Zuni with the Zuni word for enemies. The Cheyenne were named by the Sioux with their word meaning to speak a strange language. Obviously the Cheyenne and the Sioux had difficulty communicating.
The Sioux called themselves the Dakotas, a name which probably meant the allies. The name Sioux was given to them by the Iroquois and spelled out by the French. In Iroquois, the name Sioux meant the little snakes or the big snakes. Obviously the Sioux thought more kindly of themselves than their neighbors did.
This very human characteristic shows up again in the tribal name of the Iroquois themselves.
They called themselves by a very long name meaning we of the long house. The tribal name which survived was given to them by the Algonquins in whose language Iroquois meant the real adders.
Other tribes were named by the French, Spanish and English settlers. The Hurons were named by the French with a word meaning ruffian or untidy hair. To the dapper French, it seems, the Hurons were a tribe of sloppy dressers. The Delawaros, both the state and the tribe, were named for governor Lord De La Warr. The Navajos were named by the Spanish with a Spanish word meaning the great fields, the name given to the place where Spaniards and Navajos first met. The Spaniards also named the village dwelling Pueblo with their word for village, a word which came into Spanish from the older Latin word meaning the people.
A few tribes were named for places. The Algonquins were named by the French Canadian Micmac Indians with a word meaning the place for spearing fish. The Havasupai named themselves with a word meaning people of the blue‑green water. This small tribe sought refuge at the bottom of Grand Canyon from their enemies, the warlike Apache. They settled where a bluegreen creek joins the tumbling Colorado River and. they live there to the present time.