Trip of the Tongue by Elizabeth Little by Elizabeth Little - Read Online
Trip of the Tongue
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Editor’s Note

“Summer road trips…”To become immersed in another culture, you may just need to look around your neighborhood. A celebration of the ethnic, cultural, and — most of all — linguistic diversity that makes up the United States.
Scribd Editor


Though we speak English as a nation, it's no secret that America is far from uniform. Spanish, in particular, has long been touted as the language that will figure into our national future; much has been written about the need to recognize it in our laws and schools.
Yet billing America as a bilingual country is a gross misrepresentation. They speak Basque in Nevada, Hindi in San Jose, and Gullah in South Carolina. We speak European, Asian, and Native American languages, as well as hybrids like Creole and Spanglish. And Elizabeth Little's home--Queens, New York--is among the most ethnically, culturally, and linguistically diverse places on the planet.
Small surprise, then, that Little felt a yearning to find the cultural and linguistic soul of the country. And she has done it in the most American way imaginable: on a road trip.
This book is the result: a festive roadmap of the bounties of our country. We'll learn about the struggle of the French-speaking population of Maine to get along with the community around them; the traditional ways of the German-speaking Amish in Pennsylvania; and the rich history of the little-known African population of Nantucket. Elizabeth Little is a witty and endearing tourguide for this memorable and original trip.
Published: Bloomsbury USA an imprint of Bloomsbury USA on
ISBN: 9781608198290
List price: $17.50
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Chapter One

Montana: Crow

The first place I’m going to tell you about is Montana. This might seem a strange place to start, particularly given that I didn’t make my way there until midway through my travels. But it was in Montana that I began to get to know the diverse group of languages and cultures that have been in America the longest. And, therefore, it was in Montana that I began to lay the groundwork for my understanding of everything that came after.

Going into my research, this first group of languages—the languages of Native America—was without a doubt the group of American languages I was least familiar with. I like to think I had a fairly liberal education, but as a child I was exposed to only the barest minimum about the people and cultures of the Americas before the arrival of European explorers, colonists, and conquerors. Much like millions of other American schoolchildren, I learned about the first Thanksgiving, the construction of tipis, and, of course, the way that the Indian appreciated the earth and therefore honored each and every last piece of the buffalo. The only notable difference in my experience was, perhaps, my proximity to and therefore slight familiarity with the Cahokia Mounds.

Not that I could tell you very much about the Cahokia Mounds, apart from the fact that they are, indeed, quite moundy.

The languages of Native America were also the languages I found most intimidating. I’d read a few pages here and there about Algonquin noun class or the Cherokee syllabary, but only as part of my general fetish for linguistic novelty. I had never stopped to consider the broader scope of Native languages, either in terms of linguistic complexity or in terms of their role in American history and culture.

So five years ago languages such as Crow or Navajo—much less Lushootseed, Quileute, or Makah—would have primarily inspired in me an intellectual trepidation. I was, you see, afraid to discover just how much I didn’t know. As Douglas Adams once wrote, In an infinite universe, the one thing sentient life cannot afford to have is a sense of proportion. Once I opened my eyes to the vast landscape of indigenous American languages, I feared I would have to acknowledge just how microscopic the dot was that said You are here.

I wasn’t wrong. To call the time I’ve spent with Native languages eye-opening would be a gross understatement. But they provided me with a crucial framework for understanding the mechanics and ramifications of language loss. And, even more critical, they awakened in me an unexpected zeal. The languages that I once approached so cautiously—so reluctantly—are now the languages I would defend most ardently.

I came to Montana from South Dakota, driving west along Interstate 90 through the Badlands and into northeast Wyoming. In a city called Buffalo the highway jogs north some 120 miles before heading west again at Hardin toward Bozeman Pass. Along this stretch you’ll find two great landmarks of the American West: the inn in Sheridan, Wyoming, where Buffalo Bill Cody auditioned for his Wild West Show, and the Little Bighorn Battlefield, where George Armstrong Custer had his last stand. You’ll also find my eventual destination, the great, grassy expanse of Crow Nation.

The Crow Indian Reservation is the largest reservation in Montana and the sixth-largest reservation in the United States, comprising some 2.3 million acres. It is home to more than 8,000 Crow—about 70 percent of the tribe’s total enrollment—the majority of whom work for the tribe or for federal programs. The bulk of the tribe’s businesses and administrative offices are located in Crow Agency, an unassuming town just north of the Little Bighorn Battlefield on I-90. I stayed in Billings, some sixty miles to the west, hoping my research might benefit from the city’s relatively more expansive tourist infrastructure. But as I picked through the conspicuously flimsy collection of maps and brochures in my hotel’s lobby, I realized I wasn’t sure what I was going to find here—if, indeed, I was going to find anything.

When I was a kid, I’d thought Montana impossibly uninteresting. Every few summers we would drive out to visit my father’s family, and Montana felt like an endless in-between. It was past Mount Rushmore but still days from the Pacific Ocean, north of Yellowstone but south of my grandmother’s house. There were so few other cars to spot that my license plate tally invariably leveled off, and despite being promised otherwise, I never saw a single grizzly bear. It was the kind of state that made me want to catch up on my reading—or my sleep. The only thing I remember clearly from those trips is how the roads seemed to have an improbably gradual slope, as if I were seeing the Earth itself curving away into space.

By the time I drove onto the reservation for the first time I was rethinking things. I decided instead that the landscape in Montana is like a Rorschach inkblot. Before long you start to see in the grass and trees and ground all the things that happen to be swirling in your subconscious. And that day I was clearly fixating on my own inadequacies.

The view from the highway through the reservation is the same as it is anywhere in eastern Montana, a panorama of compact, grassy hills and wide, grassy plains. But tucked out of sight are the valleys fed by the glittering, meandering tributaries of the Bighorn and Little Bighorn rivers. To the south the hills give way to the Bighorn, Pryor, and Wolf mountains and the part of the reservation that is open only to members of the tribe. As a child I’d thought there was nothing to see in Montana, but as an adult I began to wonder if maybe I just didn’t know what I was looking for. I was perpetually aware of some great presence looming in the distance; I worried I would never get close enough to know its shape.

I didn’t pick the Crow language out of a hat. I picked it because Crow is one of the more vital Native languages in the country, and I wanted to visit a Native community that still spoke its traditional language on a regular basis. But I was also interested in exploring the relationship between Natives and outsiders, between the preconceptions of a non-Native and the discoveries of a fully engaged visitor. And each June, this patch of Montana provides an opportunity to do exactly that, as members of Crow Nation, residents of nearby Hardin, and tourists from across the country gather to celebrate the anniversary of one of the most famous armed conflicts in American history, the Battle of the Little Bighorn.

The seeds of the Battle of the Little Bighorn were sown in the early 1870s, when gold was discovered in the Black Hills of the Dakota Territory. Previously, this area had been set aside by the U.S. government for the exclusive use of the Lakota Sioux, but the illegal intrusion of white prospectors led to escalating tensions between the Lakota and their allies and the government. In 1875 U.S. leaders decided to stop enforcing mining restrictions in the Black Hills, and in the first sally of what would later become known as the Great Sioux War, the commissioner of Indian Affairs ordered all Lakota and Cheyenne to report to their agencies or face the threat of military force. Hostilities commenced soon after the January 31, 1876, deadline.

By June 1876, several thousand Lakota, Cheyenne, and Arapaho—including the men known as Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse—were encamped along the Little Bighorn River. In an effort to drive the Indians back to their reservations, General Philip Sheridan sent three columns of soldiers to the area. George Armstrong Custer got there first. And despite warnings from his scouts about the size of the encampment, which some estimate held between ten thousand and fifteen thousand people, Custer chose not to wait for reinforcements.

And so, on the afternoon of June 25, 1876, a cavalry force led by Major Marcus Reno crossed the Little Bighorn River and began the battle that would take its name. Very quickly, Reno recognized that he was seriously outnumbered and retreated, inadvertently allowing the Lakota, Cheyenne, and Arapaho forces to concentrate their efforts on Custer and his men. There are conflicting reports about what happened next, but one thing is certain: every U.S. solider who attacked with Custer died that day. It was the greatest defeat the U.S. military has ever suffered at the hands of American Indians.

The Little Bighorn battlefield has been catnip for curiosity seekers ever since. The first gathering at the battlefield took place just a year after the battle itself, and the first reenactments were held at the tenth anniversary. In 1964 Crow Nation and the Hardin Chamber of Commerce agreed to produce an annual reenactment, but mounting political tension and criticism from the American Indian Movement led to the show’s cancellation in 1976. Hardin revived the reenactment in 1990, and today it is a part of the town’s Little Bighorn Days Festival, which includes a fancy-dress ball, a parade, and a variety of local events.

When I arrived in Hardin, I went first to the County Historical Museum and visitor center to pick up a schedule and tickets for the reenactment. The two teenage girls working the desk pulled out a pair of pamphlets as soon as I approached the counter. Hardin, just fifty miles east of Billings, is otherwise the kind of town that typically merits only a cursory sort of acknowledgment in a travel guide: By the way, you can probably get gas and a sandwich here. Little Bighorn Days is, as you can imagine, the most popular tourist attraction in town, and there was something refreshing about the fact that no one expected me to be here for any other reason. It’s not like New York, where locals can’t seem to help but roll their eyes at the tourists who come to see a show and eat at Sardi’s.

I took the pamphlets gratefully and asked how much the tickets cost. Which one do you want tickets for? they asked.

What do you mean, which one?

Which reenactment. There’s the one here in Hardin, then there’s the one the Crow do.

Competing reenactments? I asked, a bit dumbly.

Something like that.

Which one do you recommend? I had visions of cold war–style one-upmanship, possibly involving horses, definitely involving pyrotechnics, but ideally involving both.

They shared a smug look. Oh, ours, for sure—it’s way better.

Not wanting to seem rude, I smiled and bought tickets for the Hardin reenactment. But, of course, I also took down the information for the Crow reenactment. After all, I hadn’t driven two thousand miles just to get one side of the story.

The Hardin show takes place a few miles west of the town center, in a field between Old U.S. 87 and the railroad. The set for the reenactment was larger than I expected, about the size of a football field. To the left was the façade of a wooden fort; to the right was a cluster of tipis. Behind the bleachers was a sort of souvenir shantytown, tables and booths that sold an unexpectedly eccentric array of items, from gyros to quesadillas to crossbows. Just a stone’s throw away, a Burlington Northern Santa Fe train rumbled past.

I found a space on the metal risers and settled in. Quickly I discovered that the show was less a strict reenactment than a historical pageant. The early minutes of the production were dedicated to the story of contact between Natives and European explorers, traders, and settlers. We met Lewis, Clark, and Sacagawea.a We were introduced to mountain men and covered wagons and war cries. We were shown how to erect a tipi. Eventually Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse, and Custer and his wife made their appearances. Then, finally, we eased into the events of June 1876.

I don’t exactly have a strong background in military history, but as far as I could tell, the battle was true to life in at least one respect: it was messy and fast. I watched in some dismay as a chaotic tangle of men on horseback resolved almost immediately into two groups: victors and corpses. If you’re looking to understand with any precision how exactly Custer’s forces were defeated in the battle, a reenactment like Hardin’s will likely be of little help.

Nor did it manage to convey a sense of how horrific the battle must have been, despite the grave tone affected by the show’s narrator. Rather, the Hardin reenactment had the sweet self-consciousness of any amateur production. The participants weren’t quite able to summon the ferocity of battle, and any hard edges were rapidly smoothed by the patent delight on the faces of the younger actors. Many wore costumes that wouldn’t have looked out of place on a middle school stage. Some wore denim shorts under breechcloths; others simply donned khaki shorts they decorated with leather fringe. After the show, audience members climbed down from the bleachers to take pictures with and beg autographs from the actors—many of whom, I got the impression, they already knew.

There were moments of solemnity and there were moments of revelry, but the Hardin reenactment felt overwhelmingly like old-fashioned family fun, with all the historical accuracy that implies. Although the narration and program emphasized that the reenactment was based on the notes of a Crow tribal historian and was from the Indian perspective, it was clear that a number of choices were made to privilege pageantry over pedagogy. One of the more blatantly sentimental scenes, for instance, depicted Custer taking leave of his wife, Libbie. Even if you’re relatively uninformed about the history of the American Indian it’s quite clear that Custer wouldn’t be considered a romantic hero from the Indian perspective.

The Crow reenactment is a more intimate affair. One of its main selling points is that it takes place in sight of the Little Bighorn River, a few miles south of Crow Agency on Real Bird Ranch, on land that was actually part of the original battlefield. This fact is, as I understand it, enough to coax dedicated and experienced historical reenactors to participate for free. The other feature that distinguishes the Crow reenactment from the Hardin show is that it purports to show the Native American perspective.

I sensed from the start a vague hint of controversy surrounding this assertion, but at first I couldn’t figure out why. Frankly, the two shows are not substantially different. The reenactments may take place on two different plots of land and they may employ two different George Armstrong Custers, but they tell largely the same story. As it turns out, both scripts were written by members of Crow Nation. (The Crow script was, in fact, written by the grandsons of the author of the Hardin script.) To be sure, the show I saw on Real Bird Ranch had a slightly greater focus on Native traditions and cultures than the version I saw in Hardin. Though it, too, included set pieces about Lewis and Clark and the arrival of Montana’s mountain men, it also, for instance, took the time to emphasize the cultural importance of the horse in Crow culture. Participants wore traditional breechcloths and rode bareback, the latter choice adding immeasurably to the suspense of the battle sequences. And at various points during the show, a circle of tribe members sang and played traditional instruments while the show’s stage manager, a stout man in a yellow plaid shirt and a cowboy hat, rode back and forth on his horse issuing curt instructions in Crow into a walkie-talkie. Custer was referred to pointedly as Custer Yellow Hair, the one who killed babies and old people.

But though their dramatic accoutrements felt outwardly more authentic, the Crow reenactment was, in the end, still a twenty-first-century show starring enthusiastic but amateur performers. The children in the Real Bird production had the same braces, sneakers, and eager expressions as those in the Hardin production.

It wasn’t until much later that I recognized why the Crow reenactment—or any Crow reenactment, for that matter—was potentially problematic. In laying claim to the so-called Native American perspective, the Crow had glossed over an important fact of history: the Crow actually fought on Custer’s side.

I feel the need to emphasize that an alliance between Natives and the U.S. military was not standard practice. The Crow, like so many other Native groups, suffered the brutal one-two punch of disease and diplomatic trickery. The first treaty the Crow signed with the United States was an 1825 treaty of friendship that laid out very little in real terms save an official acknowledgment of the supremacy of the U.S. government. It wasn’t until the signing of the Fort Laramie Treaty in 1851 that boundaries for Crow lands were set down. And though this treaty granted the Crow 38 million acres, their territory was reduced just seventeen years later to only 8 million acres. Over the course of the next forty years, Crow Nation was further reduced to 2.3 million acres, the reservation’s current size.

Nevertheless, at the time of the Battle of the Little Bighorn, the Crow were at odds with the Lakota, Cheyenne, and Arapaho, whom they believed to be encroaching on their territory. So the Crow, briefly, allied with the U.S. Army. Today, I understand, there still exists some discord between the groups both on account of the proximity of the Northern Cheyenne and Crow reservations and the fact that territorial boundaries give the Crow the right to conduct Native American tours of the area where the Lakota, Cheyenne, and Arapaho claimed their historic victory.

It would be very easy at this point to pretend I’d known this from the start. But in the interest of making a larger point, I’ll own up not just to not knowing these things but also to the sticky bit of prejudice that led me to assume the Crow had fought against the United States. I had been so focused on the potential dichotomy between Native and non-Native that I’d fallen into an old trap and let myself forget that all Native peoples are not, in fact, part of one big, homogenous culture.

I realized then that if I was going to learn about the Crow language, I would probably benefit from a general familiarity with the breadth of Native American language.

As I’ve said, my exposure to Native history and culture was next to nothing. But my exposure to American Indian languages was even less—which is to say actually nothing. And I’m not alone in this. Fewer than 4 percent of American high schools offer instruction in languages other than Spanish, French, German, and Latin, much less in languages such as Crow, Cherokee, or Algonquin. Colleges are little better. Harvard, for instance, offers courses in Old Church Slavonic, Medieval Welsh, Akkadian, Hittite, Sumerian, and Egyptian. But the only indigenous American language you can take is Classical Nahautl, the language of the Aztecs.b

Now, this isn’t true across the board. You can, for instance, get an associate’s degree in Shoshoni at Idaho State University. You can also go to the University of Alaska in Fairbanks, which offers majors in Inupiaq and Central Yup’ik, or to its affiliated Alaska Native Language center, which offers courses in Aleut and other indigenous Alaskan languages. But according to the Center for Advanced Research on Language Acquisition at the University of Minnesota, there are currently only about a hundred two- and four-year programs—that’s about 2 percent of all institutions—that offer Native language instruction in the United States.

So for me and many other Americans, the history of the relationship between English and indigenous American languages began in one of two places: sometime around the fourth Thursday in November or the second verse of Colors of the Wind. There isn’t really any popular conception of Native languages that is much more sophisticated than the fictions propagated by old Hollywood westerns, where Indians played the villains or sidekicks, invariably relying on pidgin English and the word kemosabe. Somewhere along the line most of us are taught to hold up our hands and say How in a deep, booming voice, and we are often given the idea that most Native personal names are of the verb-preposition-animal variety. And that’s about as nuanced as it typically gets.

Luckily, I’d put together something of a traveling language library before leaving New York, and so it took only a few minutes of digging around in the trunk of my car to pull together a crash course in indigenous American languages. Here’s what I learned—what I wish I’d learned long ago.

Estimates of the pre-contact population of North America are varied and unreliable, and the same goes for the estimates of the number of pre-contact languages. Nevertheless, reputable sources have suggested that anywhere from 250 to more than 400 languages were spoken prior to the fifteenth century. Modern-day estimates are more reliable, but still less than conclusive; Michael Krauss of the Linguistic Society of America estimates that 175 indigenous languages are still spoken in the United States.

The two most well-known language families in the eastern United States are probably the Algonquin and Iroquois languages. The Algic family, which according to linguist Marianne Mithun covers the widest territory of all North American families, includes Mi’kmaq and Malecite-Passamaquoddy in the East; Arapaho, Blackfoot and Cheyenne in the Plains; and Wiyot and Yurok in California. The Iroquoian languages, largely concentrated in the East, include Seneca, Mohawk, and Oneida.

Then there are the Caddoan languages (Pawnee, Wichita, and Caddo), which are spoken in several Plains states, and the Muskogean languages (Choctaw, Creek, Alabama, Chickasaw), which can be found in the Southeast. Kiowa-Tanoan languages (Kiowa, Oklahoma), meanwhile, are spoken on the southern Plains and in the Southwest. Also found in the Southwest is the Yuman family, which includes Mohave and Havasupai-Hualapai-Yavapai, the languages of the Grand Canyon. (Havasupai is spoken by the people who live at the bottom of the canyon, Hualapai by those on the south rim.)

The Athabaskan-Eyak-Tlingit family, which encompasses more languages and more modern-day speakers than any other North American language family, includes Navajo, Apache, and eleven Alaskan languages.c Other large families include Salishan in the Pacific Northwest (Clallam, Skagit, Snohomish, Lushootseed, Spokane, Coeur d’Alene, Quinault), Siouan in the Great Plains (Crow, Hidatsa, Mandan, Assiniboine, Dakota, Lakota, Osage, Ho-Chunk), and Uto-Aztecan in the Southwest (Hopi, Comanche, Shoshoni).

Also found in Alaska are the Eskimo-Aleut languages—languages such as Inuktitut, Inupiaq, and Yup’ik that are spoken not just in the United States and Canada but also in Russia and Greenland. And far to the west but still under the auspices of the U.S. government are the Pacific Islands of Hawai’i, Guam, Samoa, and the Northern Mariana Islands and the indigenous Austronesian languages Hawaiian, Chamorro, Carolinian, and Tanapag.

All in all, an impressive number of indigenous languages are spoken in the United States. Though this level of linguistic diversity isn’t unheard of—more than 400 languages are spoken in India, for instance, while SIL International’s Ethnologue currently lists 830 living languages in Papua New Guinea—neither is it unremarkable. Because if you compare the languages of North America to, say, the languages in Europe, you’ll notice that the vast majority of European languages are actually all from the same Indo-European family. Though there are outliers—Basque, Hungarian, Finnish—there is certainly nothing to approach the linguistic diversity of North America.

As such, you can cast aside any assumptions of broad mutual intelligibility among indigenous American languages. In a 1946 article, the influential linguists Edward Sapir and Morris Swadesh presented sample sentences—translations of the phrase he will give it to you—in order to highlight the differences between North American languages. According to Sapir and Swadesh, speakers of Wishram, a Chinookan language in Oregon and Washington, said ačimlúda. The idea that these groups could understand one another seems ludicrous on even the most casual inspection.

Nevertheless, the fact remains that the most widespread misconception about Native languages is that there’s only one of them.d This is as instructive as any of the linguistic detail I just shared, because for such a nonsensical notion to exist there has to be an incredibly deep and pervasive preconception that the only distinction that matters is the one between Native and non-Native—a preconception so deep and so pervasive that we often don’t even realize it’s there. This assumption is wildly counterproductive, obscuring not only the diversity of Native languages but also the relationship between Native languages and European languages such as English. After all, it’s almost easy to overlook the fact that American English actually owes much of its distinctiveness to words it has acquired in the New World.

Our popular understanding of the early history between English colonists and American Indians relies heavily on narratives of cultural exchange and cooperation facilitated by translators of near-mythic proportions. In Plymouth, that translator was Tisquantum (more popularly known as Squanto), a member of the Patuxet tribe; in Jamestown it was Pocahontas, the daughter of a Powhatan chief. Though we often read of their skills with English, we rarely learn about their native languages, Wampanoag and Powhatan. These languages have nevertheless had a notable impact on American English.

Wampanoag (also called Massachusetts) and Powhatan are both members of the Eastern Algonquin subfamily, a group that also includes Munsee and Mohegan-Montauk-Narragansett (which was spoken, among other places, on Long Island). Wampanoag was spoken in and around Boston and Cape Cod, while Powhatan was spoken in Virginia from the Potomac to the James River. Along with Eastern Iroquois languages such as Mohawk, Cherokee, and Oneida, they provided many early colonial borrowings into English.

Some of these borrowings were used to identify unfamiliar plants and animals, giving us English words such as woodchuck (Cree), raccoon (Algonquin), skunk (Abenaki), and squash (Narragansett). Opossum, the name of what I consider to be a singularly nasty creature, comes from a Powhatan word. William Strachey, the first secretary to the Jamestown colony, recorded the word as aposoum, a beast in bignes[s] of a pig and tast[e] alike. I prefer John Smith’s description: An Opassom hath a head like a Swine, and a taile like a Rat, and is of the bignesse of a Cat.

English has, quite naturally, also adapted words from American Indian languages to describe American Indian culture. Squaw, papoose, and wigwam are of Algonquin derivation. Tipi, meanwhile, comes from a Lakota word for dwelling.e But there are also Native words that have become wonderfully, quintessentially American. One of my favorites is an Algonquin word meaning marshy meadow. It eventually gained traction as a dismissive term for an unsophisticated village the middle of nowhere. You probably know it as podunk.

The greatest Native linguistic influence, however, is to be found in American place names. Take the Abenaki, an Algonquin people who lived in New England, Quebec, and the Maritime Provinces, and who were particularly important for their contribution to Maine place names such as Ogunquit, derived from an Abenaki phrase meaning a sand bar lagoon, or Kennebunk, the combination of the Abenaki words kenne, long, and benek, cut bank.

Wampanoag, the language of Tisquantum, has left traces all over New England. In Wampanoag and other Algonquin languages, a final -t is a locative marker (meaning at), which accounts for many of the New England names that end in -t or -tt—for instance, Swampscott (at the red rock) or Cohasset (at the stone ledge). The notorious Chappaquiddick also comes to us via Wampanoag. The island, which is separated from Martha’s Vineyard by a narrow strait, gets chappa from the word chippi, separate, and quiddick from acquidne, island.

The vast majority of state names are also derived from indigenous American languages. Some, such as Alabama, Illinois, Kansas, and Missouri, are versions of tribal names. Others are more localized place names that were appropriated for the larger state. Alaska, for instance, comes from an Aleut word meaning the object toward which the action of the sea is directed—that is, the mainland. Texas, reflecting that area’s complex linguistic history, is a Spanish rendition of a Caddo word for friend. The name Oklahoma was originally suggested by Choctaw chief Allen Wright—from the Choctaw oklah, people, and hommaʔ, red—as an alternative to Indian Territory.f

Wyoming is a particularly interesting case. Although there has historically been a diverse group of American Indians who have called Wyoming home, the name Wyoming actually comes from the same language that was spoken in and around what is now New York City. In the Munsee language, chwewamink means at the big river flat. Wyoming, the anglicization of this word, was first used to name a valley in northeastern Pennsylvania before being popularized by Thomas Campbell’s poem about the Revolutionary War–era massacre:

On Susquehanna’s side, fair Wyoming!

Although the wild-flower on thy ruin’d wall,

And roofless homes, a sad remembrance bring,

Of what thy gentle people did befall;

Yet thou wert once the loveliest land of all

That see the Atlantic wave their morn restore.

Sweet land! may I thy lost delights recall,

And paint thy Gertrude in her bowers of yore,

Whose beauty was the love of Pennsylvania’s shore!

Whether due to the popularity of the poem or perhaps to some inherent appeal to the rhythm of the word itself, there are now Wyomings in thirteen other states, Ontario, and New South Wales, Australia.

To be sure, the American place names that have been borrowed from Native languages have something of a phonetic leg up in that they sound different from the boring old Indo-European sounds we’re used to. In Made in America, Bill Bryson writes, "You have only to list a handful of Indian place-names—Mississippi, Susquehanna, Rappahannock—to see that the Indians found a poetry in the American landscape that has all too often eluded those who displaced them. Though I don’t disagree, I would argue that these names have an emotional resonance—that they have poetry—not because of their sound but rather because so many words from Native languages are words Americans use for home."

Once I’d generally oriented myself within the universe of indigenous American languages, I was ready to start thinking about the specifics of Crow. On a hunch, I went back to the girls at the visitor center. Without batting an eye, they pointed me toward a bookshelf where, among the usual titles about Custer and the battle, I found a surprisingly extensive selection of books on the Crow language. I bought a heavy blue grammar by Randolph Graczyk and spent the rest of my afternoon poking about in it.

The Crow call themselves Apsáalooke, or Children of the Large-Beaked Bird.g Their ancestors migrated to the plains in search of buffalo in the sixteenth century, leaving a Land of Many Lakes (an area thought to be in Wisconsin) for the Dakotas. Here, the tribe split in two, with one band—the Apsáalooke—moving up into the area in eastern Montana that they today call home.

The Crow language is a member of the Siouan family, which includes Mandan, Ho-chunk, Lakota, and Dakota, among others, and extends primarily throughout the Plains, east into Minnesota and Wisconsin, and south to Arkansas and Mississippi. Within the family, Crow is most closely related to the language of the Hidatsa, and based on linguistic evidence, scholars such as the linguist G. Hubert Matthews have concluded that the Crow and the Hidatsa were originally part of one larger tribe before they split nearly 500 years ago. The languages of the Crow and Hidatsa have also diverged in more immediately apparent ways, however. While Hidatsa has only a small group of fluent speakers still living and is struggling to survive, there are still several thousand living speakers of Crow, making it one of the more widely spoken American Indian languages.

As I sat in my hotel room in