Language and Societies

ANT/LIN 5320 at Wayne State University

Anishinaabe Toponyms in Michigan: A History of Colonized Folk Etymology and Anishinaabe Cultural Renaissance

Anishinaabe Toponyms in Michigan: A History of Colonized Folk Etymology and Anishinaabe Cultural Renaissance

Josh Wolford

A specific name given to a geographic location is referred to as a ‘toponym’, there are numerous places across North America whose toponyms were given to them by their indigenous inhabitants. This is most certainly true in Michigan, a region that has been inhabited by the Anishinaabe peoples for thousands of years and has thus received numerous toponyms with Anishinaabe origins. These toponyms elucidate the cosmological, environmental, and practical positions these places hold for the Anishinaabe. While there are numerous toponyms indigenous in origin, there’s a multitude of toponyms and folk etymologies that were fabricated by Euro-Americans. By examining the historical and cultural literature I attempt to illuminate the historical contexts of colonization of Anishinaabe culture and language told by European and American scholarly invaders. Then shed light on the resurgence and renaissance of Anishinaabe culture and language from their own words, taking this knowledge to task against some folk etymologies of Michigan that persist today. I rely heavily on modern Anishinaabe scholars, such as Basil Johnston, for much of my cultural and linguistic analysis of the Anishinaabe, as well as ethnographic analysis from anthropologists and ethnologists. I analyze folk etymologies and fabricated words made primarily by Henry R. Schoolcraft and Henry W. Longfellow from their works and find that many of the toponyms and stories in Michigan we now think as holding Native American origins are, in many cases, not true. But they are instead the product of colonized Anishinaabe language and culture mixed with foreign lexicon, creating entirely fabricated stories and terms far from indigenous origins.

April 6, 2017 - Posted by | abstract


  1. I trust you have the story on the naming of “Algonac.” I have found R. D. K. Harman’s article, “The Aloha State: Place-Names and the Anti-conquest of Hawai’i” (Annals of the Association of American Geographers 89(1):76-102) a useful source of comparable examples. Somewhere out there is a YouTube clip of George Carlin explaining that real estate developers name their subdivisions after the things they destroyed in order to build (think “Forest Estates”).

    Comment by Dan Harrison | April 6, 2017 | Reply

    • Very interesting Dan! I’m going to be looking these up. Although it’s not my paper, thank you for the input as I am certainly benefiting from it!

      Comment by Athena Zissis | April 10, 2017 | Reply

  2. Hey Josh! The article I told you about refers to how the colonization of the US and subsequent appropriation of Native territories, as well erasure of Native culture was effected through language. It demonstrates how the language of treaties, of correspondence between representatives of the US government, as well as judges’ written rulings shaped ideas and ideologies about Native peoples. Parts of it might dovetail nicely into your paper. I will bring a copy to class on Tuesday, but in case you want to look at it sooner, it is called “Confronting Colonialism: The Mahican and Schaghtcoke Peoples and Us”, by Russell G. Handsman and Trudie Lamb Richmond, 1995.

    Comment by Stacy Markel | April 8, 2017 | Reply

  3. This sounds very interesting Josh. Although it wasn’t stated directly, I appreciate the implication that your approach does not frame colonialism as being completed. These misrepresentations of Anishinaabe culture(s) continue to implicitly erase Anishinaabe cultural narratives while also framing them as having taken place in the past.

    If you are willing to share your final product, I will look forward to reading it!

    Comment by Athena Zissis | April 10, 2017 | Reply

  4. Loved talking to you about this and it not only ‘fascinating’ but it matters: it is such a disrespectful colonial idea that we get to change words in languages not out own.

    Comment by Miriam Jacobs | April 18, 2017 | Reply

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