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  • Writer's pictureNotes From The Frontier

States with Indian Names

Updated: May 30, 2023


It’s not surprising that more than half of the states of the United States got their names from their original inhabitants, Native Americans. Historians believe that between 20-100 million indigenous people lived in North America when the first European first set foot on the shores of our continent. Those many millions were comprised of more than 650 tribes settled across the continent, from the Atlantic to the Pacific Oceans and all points north in the icy Arctic to the tropics in the south. For tens of thousands of years, they had explored the vast lands and had already named rivers, mountains, plains, hills, swamps, and deserts. Early European explorers, then later early fur traders and mountain men, befriended various Native tribes and adopted their existing names when drawing maps and giving landmarks for others to follow.

Here are the 27 states whose names came from Native American origins:


Alabama – from the Albaamaha, a tribe native to the state.  It could be derived from the word albina, which means "campsite" in their own language, or from the Choctaw alba amo, which mean "clearing brush."

Alaska – from Alaxsxix, a name from language of the Unangan people whom the Russians called Aleuts. It means "place the sea crashes against."

Arizona – from Arizonac, a Spanish corruption of a local Indian name-- possibly the Tohono O'odham word alishonag, which means "little spring."

Arkansas – from Akansa, the word the Illinois people called the Ugakhpa people native to the region, meaning "wind people” or “people of the south wind."

Connecticut – from Quinnitukqut, "long river," which is what the Mohegan tribe called the longest river in New England.

Hawaii -  Believed to be from Hawaiian Hawai'i, from Proto- Polynesian hawaiki, meaning "place of the gods." 

Illinois - derived from Illiniwek, which is what the Illini tribe called themselves.  It means roughly "superior people." 

Iowa - comes from the Iowa tribe (also spelled, Ioways), a Sioux tribe. Generally the word was believed to be derived from the Algonquian word meaning “beautiful land,” where the Iowa lived. The first European explorer to go up the Mississippi River in 1634, Jean Nicollet, referenced the area in his writing as the Algonquian word “Ah-ho-la-king” meaning “beautiful land.”

Kansas - the name of the Kansa tribe. Literally the name means "south" and is a shortened form of their own tribal name for themselves, "People of the South Wind."

Kentucky – from Kentake, which is believed to derive from Iroquoian words for "meadow" or "field."

Massachusetts – from Massachuset, which is a Wampanoag Indian name meaning "by the hills."

Michigan – from Mshigem or Misigami, the native names for Lake Michigan in the Potawatomi and Ojibwe languages. Both names mean "great lake."

Minnesota – the origin is debated among language scholars. It may be derived from misshikama, meaning "big lake" in the Ojibwe language.  It could also be derived from the Dakota Mnisota, which means "cloudy water."

Mississippi – from Misiziibi, from the Ojibwe language meaning "big river," a reference to the longest river in North America.

Missouri - from Ouemessourita, what the Illinois people called the tribe native to this state: "Big canoe people."

Nebraska – from Nibthaska or Nibrathka, which are the native names for the Platte River in the Omaha-Ponca and Otoe languages. Both names mean "flat river."

New Mexico- named after the country. Mexico is a place name from the Aztec language Nahuatl, "city of the Aztecs."  May also reference Mextli, the Aztec war god.

North and South Dakota – from Dakota, which is the tribal name of the Dakota people, "friends" or "the allies."

Ohio – origin is somewhat ambiguous. Could be taken from Ohiyo, "beautiful," which is the name of the Ohio River in the Seneca language.  It could also be taken from the Huron peoples word meaning "the large one."

Oklahoma - from the Choctaw okla homma, which means "red people."

Oregon – Language scholars have long debated this origin. One theory is that it derives from oolighan, a Chinook name for a small fish found in the state's water.

Tennessee -from Tanasi and/or Tanasqui, names of what some believe are two separate Cherokee towns in the region but may actually have been dual names for the same town.

Texas – from Taysha, which means "friend" or "ally" in the Caddo Indian language.

Utah – from the Ute Indian, the tribe native to the state. This tribal name may have come from the word nuutsiu, which means "the people" in their own language.  It may also be derived from yuttahih, the Apache word for "people higher up."

Wisconsin – from Wishkonsing, the Ojibwe name for the Wisconsin River which was derived from the Miami word, meskonsing, or “river running through a red place,” a reference to the red sandstone formations along the river that bisects the state.

Wyoming – from Chwewamink, which means "by the big river flat" in the Lenape Indian tribe. The Lenape were a Delaware tribe from the east coast but it is believed that white settlers from that area brought the name with them when they moved to this western state.


AMENDMENT: Sometimes we can't see the forest for the trees! Notes from the Frontier reader, Jim Smith, pointed out I missed the most obvious state of all! 🙈🙊 INDIANA,"Land of the Indians." My apologies to Indiana. Thank you for reading Notes from the Frontier.


You may also enjoy these posts:

-American’s Earliest Cities Were Native

-Native American Sacred Places

-Native Americans: Back from the Brink

-Today’s Largest Indian Tribes


©2023 NOTES FROM THE FRONTIER

4,132 views6 comments

6 Comments


Roberto Mendoza
Roberto Mendoza
Oct 20, 2023

Indians is not an Indigenous word. It was Columbus mistake as he thought he was in India. So Indiana is not an Indigenous name either.

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jim.smith06
May 30, 2023

Interesting article, except it has a glaring omission. Indiana literally means "land of the Indians".

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Rustin Erb
Rustin Erb
Oct 10, 2023
Replying to

ur a monkey

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hightechexec1
hightechexec1
Apr 28, 2020

Very interesting reading and a subject never brought up in school nor except for a few may have known some of the information but at least those who live in a specific state should be interested in learning!

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Deborah Hufford

Author, Notes from the Frontier

Deborah Hufford is an award-winning author and magazine editor with a passion for history. Her popular NotesfromtheFrontier.com blog with 100,000+ readers has led to an upcoming novel! Growing up as an Iowa farmgirl, rodeo queen and voracious reader, her love of land, lore and literature fired her writing muse. With a Bachelor's in English and Master's in Journalism from the University of Iowa, she taught students of Iowa's Writer's Workshop, then at Northwestern University, Marquette and Mount Mary. Her extensive publishing career began at Better Homes & Gardens, includes credits in New York Times Magazine, New York Times, Connoisseur, many other titles, and serving as publisher of The Writer's Handbook

 

Deeply devoted to social justice, especially for veterans, women, and Native Americans, she has served on boards and donated her fundraising skills to Chief Joseph Foundation, Missing & Murdered Indigenous Women (MMIW), Homeless Veterans Initiative, Humane Society, and other nonprofits.  

 

Deborah's soon-to-be released historical novel, BLOOD TO RUBIES weaves indigenous and pioneer history, strong women and clashing worlds into a sweeping saga praised by NYT bestselling authors as "crushing," "rhapsodic," "gritty," and "sensuous." Purchase BLOOD TO RUBIES online beginning June 9. Connect with Deborah on DeborahHufford.com, Facebook, and Instagram.

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