Do you live in a Native American state?

State Name Origins

© 2012 Native American Composition & Performance, Limited

By Jamie K. Oxendine, Lumbee/Creek

Native American Speaker

Director, Black Swamp InterTribal Foundation


Most Americans have no concept of the origin history of their state or the state they live in and this includes the knowledge of the origins of the state name.  Most of our state’s names have origins in Native American Languages.  There are many debates on these origins as each name may have more than one language base as well as have bad interpretations from the European Languages of English, French, Spanish, Dutch, Russian and more.  The other major debate is the spellings of the original words.  The earliest spellings come from the closest concept of phonics and pronunciations as known by the languages that first encountered the Native American word.  It was very common for the Europeans and later Americans to gravely miss pronounce many Native American words and also miss-understand Native American meanings of the same words.  Often times the very poor interpretation of Native American words by both the Europeans and later Americans led to many words and many spellings for the same thing.

Just one example of how confusing this can be is the many pronunciations and spellings there have been for the Tribe and state known as Iowa:

The Iowa Tribe has been known as the Aiaoua, Aiaway Ainovines , Aiodais, Aiouez, Ayaabois,  Ayoes, Ayouos, Ayous, and Yoais among the French, as the Ajoues among the Spanish, as the Ioways and Iowaas among the English, as the Aiaouez, Aiauway, Aiaway and Aieway among early Americans and finally as the Iowa as accepted for the Tribe and territory by 1835.

The list of state name origins below is far from definitive as research indicates that there can be several origins of each word from more than one Tribe as well as several different interpretations of Native American words by the Europeans and Americans.

*Greatly Debated


Alabama from the name of the Alibamu or Albaamu Tribe with origins among the Creek meaning town and Choctaw meaning thicket clearers and vegetable gatherers and cutters of medicine plants.

Alaska from the Aleut word alakshak meaning peninsula or great land.

*Arizona from the Pima and Papago word arizonac meaning place of small springs or little spring place as well as from the Spanish interpretation of the Aztec arizuma.

Arkansas from the name of the Quapaw Tribe from other neighboring Native American Nations as well as bad French interpretation of the word acansa meaning downstream place.

Connecticut from the Mahican word quinnehtukqut meaning beside the long tidal river.

*Idaho from the area tribes meaning gem of the mountains as told by early settlers of the territory but actually time showed that it was a created word by a mining lobbyist from a possible Shoshone word and possible Plains Apache word idaahe.

Illinois from the French interpretation of Algonquin Miami iliniwek and ilenweewa meaning warriors and tribe of superior men as well as an adaptation of Odawa ilinouek.

Indiana meaning Land of Indians as given by the Americans for the many tribes that lived there and that were moved there before Indiana became a state as it was the real first Indian Territory established by the United States.

Iowa from the name of the Ioway Tribe, but also possible corruption of the word Kiowa as used by the Meswaki Nation for the Tribe that lived south of them on the Iowa River to describe those that wander.

Kansas from the name of the Kansa or Kaw Tribe meaning people of the south wind.

Kentucky from the Wyandot word kahtentah and the Lenape word kahntukay and the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) words kentahten, kantake and ketakeh meaning land of tomorrow describing the area that was a mutual and neutral hunting ground for many Tribes.

Massachusetts from the Algonquian Narragansett messatossec, massawachusett, and massachuseuck of the Massachusetts Tribe meaning people of the Green Hill.

Michigan from the Anishinaabe micigana, meicigama or meshi-gami meaning great waters or great lakes.

Minnesota from the Lakota word minisota meaning sky tinted waters for the many lakes.

Mississippi from the French interpretation of the Anishinaabe and Algonquin words for the river misissipi, messipi and misiziibi meaning Great River.

Missouri from the Iliniwek Missouri Tribe wimihsoorita meaning owners of big canoes. Other origins include the Lakota word for the Missouris Tribe meaning town of large canoes or wooden canoe people and even river of the big canoes.

Nebraska from the Oto word nebrathka, the Omaha-Ponca nbdhaska, and the Ioway-Otoe nbraske meaning flat water or flat river for the Platte River.

New Mexico from mexitli the Aztec God and named by Spain for its new territories north of the Rio Grande River.

North Dakota & South Dakota named for the Territory of Dakota from the Dakhota (Dakota) Tribe and possible the Santee dakhota as well as possible Omaha-Ponca dakkudha.

Ohio from the Haudenosaunee word oheo or ohioway for the confluence of the Alleghany and Ohio Rivers meaning good river and beautiful river.

Oklahoma from the Choctaw words okla for people and humma for red meaning land of the red people.

*Oregon from the possible French interpretation of Algonquin Native words wauregan and ouregon for the Oregon River (what would be called the Columbia River) and maybe French word ouaricon-sint for the Wisconsin River.

Tennessee from the Aniyunwiya (Cherokee) word tenasi or tanasi for the Little Tennessee River and one of their main villages that at one time was the capital of the Nation.

Texas from a Caddo word teyshas meaning friends or allies.

Utah for the Ute Tribe meaning high up people and later poorly translated people of the mountains as they were sometimes referred to by the Apache from the word yudah and yuttahih.

Wisconsin from the Anishinaabe words wishkonsing, or miskwasiniing, or wazhashkwiishing as well as Miami meskonsing with various meanings from red place, red stone place, place of the beaver, or place of muskrat lodges, or has also been attributed to the French interpretation ouisconsin of wiishkoonsing meaning grassy place.

Wyoming from the Algonquin Lenape word maughwauwama meaning large plains at the big flat river as their word for the Wyoming Territory that reminded them of the same area of the Wyoming Valley in their homeland of Pennsylvania.


As one can see, this is just another example of our rich Native American Culture in the United States.  This greatly extends to names of regions, counties, cities, streets, lakes, mountains, rivers, and so much more.  We are a country of Native American word origins.

This is also just one small study into the linguistics nightmare of a short list of words with Native American origins.  One can see that the various ways of pronouncing and spelling a Native American word over time has created much debate on where and when the original names of our states came.


Afable, Patricia O. & Beeler, Madison S.  1996.  Place Names.  In Languages.  Ives Goddard, Ed. Vol. 17 of Handbook of North American Indians.  William C. Sturtevant, Ed. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution.

Bright, William.  2004.   Native American Place Names of the United States. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.

Campbell, Lyle.  1997.   American Indian Languages: The Historical Linguistics of Native America. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Chamberlain, Alexander F.  1902.  Algonkian Words in American English: A Study in the Contact of the White Man and the Indian.  The Journal of American Folklore, 15, (59) 240-267.

Crowley, Terry. 1992.   An Introduction to Historical Linguistics.  Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Cutler, Charles L. 1994.  O Brave New Words! Native American Loanwords in Current EnglishNorman: University of Oklahoma Press.

DeMallie, Raymond J.  2001.  Plains.  Vol. 13 of Handbook of North American Indians.  William C. Sturtevant, Ed.  Washington DC: Smithsonian Institution.  

Flexner, Stuart B. & Hauck, Leonare C.  Eds.  1987.   The Random House Dictionary of the English Language.  New York: Random House.  

Guyton, Kathy.  2009.  U.S. State Names: The Stories of How Our States Were Named.  Nederland, CO: Mountain Storm Press.  

LeClaire, Nancy, & Cardinal, George.  1998.  Alberta Elders’ Cree Dictionary.  Earle Waugh, Ed.  Edmonton:  U of Alberta Press.

Nyholm, Earl & Nichols, John D.  1995.  A Concise Dictionary of Minnesota Ojibwe.  University of Minnesota  Press.

Rankin, Robert.  2005.  Quapaw.  In Native Languages of the Southeastern United States, eds. Heather K. Hardy & Janine Scancarelli, Eds.  Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.

Rhodes, Richard A.  1985.  Eastern Ojibwa-Chippewa-Ottawa Dictionary.  Trends in Linguistics Documentation 3.  Berlin:  Mouton.

Rhodes, Richard A.  2002.  Multiple Assertions, Grammatical Constructions, Lexical Pragmatics, and the Eastern Ojibwa-Chippewa-Ottawa Dictionary.  In Making Dictionaries:  Preserving Indigenous Languages of the Americas.  Frawley, Hill, and Munro, Eds.  Los Angeles:  University of California Press.

Sanders, Thomas E., & Walter W. Peck. Eds.  1973.  Literature of the American Indian. Berkeley: Glencoe.

Sturtevant, William C. Ed.  1983.  Handbook of North American Indians.  Washington, DC:  Smithsonian Institution.

© 2012 Native American Composition & Performance, Limited

Jamie K. Oxendine, Lumbee/Creek

Native American Speaker

Director, Black Swamp InterTribal Foundation

A Non-Profit 501(c)(3) Native American Organization

4 thoughts on “DO YOU LIVE IN A NATIVE AMERICAN STATE? State Name Origins

  1. Peter Lynch
    1:59 pm - 11-3-2020

    This is GREAT!

  2. Julie Perez
    10:29 am - 11-23-2021

    Saw your American Indian Heritage Celebration presentation. That was AWESOME!

  3. David Wise
    6:59 am - 1-22-2023

    Also very GOOD!

  4. James Nips
    12:09 pm - 1-27-2023

    This is so very good! I have used it many times in classes. Thanks!

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