World Water Day: 12 Native Words for Water

With surprising water connotations to state names, there are numerous names for water among Native languages, 'Mní' being the best known.

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.”

The true origin of the Arizona’s state name remains uncertain, but some scholars link it to a Tohono O’odham phrase “Ali-Shonak,” meaning “small spring,” according to the Arizona State Library.

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.

According to Missouri’s Secretary of State website, the state’s name refers to the Dakota people who lived beside the river in a “town of large canoes.”

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.

The Wisconsin Historical Society attributes “Wisconsin” to a mispronunciation of the word “Meskonsing,” or “river running through a red place,” used by the Miami people who lived near Green Bay.

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

Imik – Iñupiat (drinkable water)

Nipiy or Nîpîy (ᓃᐲᕀ) – Cree

Mahpe – Northern Cheyenne

Nec – Northern Arapaho

Ohkí – Blackfeet

Mirí – Hidatsa

Ohne·kánus – Oneida

A-ma – Cherokee

Neenah – Ho-chunk