by Richard L. Thornton, Architect & City Planner
Work continues on the creation of a glossary and etymology for Native American place names in the Southeastern United States . . . and there are some surprises.
It’s a monumental task, but the work needs to be done and is very similar to the techniques I used in the production of regional planning documents. Well, at least that’s the way I am doing it . . . assembling vast amounts of information into one document then using statistical methodology to analyze them. I was surprised how little scientific analysis has been done on the indigenous languages of the Southeastern United States, with the sole exception of Choctaw. Mississippi academicians studied Choctaw throughout the 20th century. By scientific, I mean etymology . . . not just translating place names or assembling glossaries. As a result there is a wealth of knowledge about the original five dialects of Choctaw and two modern dialects.
In the Southeast, serious interest in indigenous languages is led by Dr. Julian Granberry, Language Coordinator for Native American Language Services in Florida. He is both a linguist and anthropologist. His books on these languages are about all you can find. I also use his book on Swedish grammar! LOL Granberry is now in the golden years of his life. There is really no one to replace him in the stables.
An internet journey along the websites of linguistics programs in Southeastern universities reveals virtually no experts on the indigenous languages of the region, with the exception of Cherokee at the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill and Western Carolina University. Otherwise, what you see are faculty members for teaching Spanish, French, German, Russian and Chinese, plus a token linguist or two in the anthropology program, who obtained a PhD in some obscure South American or African language.
Shockingly little research has been done on the Creek languages since the 1880s, when German-born Smithsonian Institute ethnologist, Albert Gatshet, became fascinated with Creek history and culture. John Swanton’s early 20th century translations of Creek place names and words are mostly erroneous. Unfortunately, academicians since then have merely replicated Swanton’s speculations without fact checking them with a Creek dictionary. In fact, during a face to face argument that I once had with a University of Georgia anthropology graduate over the meaning of a Creek word, he refused to acknowledge the validity of the official Muskogee-Creek Dictionary, and announced that he would continue to teach his students what his professor taught him . . . which was Swanton’s translation. Thus, Southeastern archaeologists know next to nothing about the Pre-Columbian cultural heritage of the Creeks, when they interpret town sites that they have labeled “Proto-Creek.”
About two decades ago now retired University of Georgia anthropology professor, Mark Williams did for a few years teach an introductory course on Hitchiti (Itsate). However, Williams did not know how to pronounce Creek words and he was blissfully unaware that many of the words on his glossary were loan words from Itza Maya and Totonac. Of course, he also didn’t know that Itsate meant “Itza People.”
Here is something interesting. A preponderance of the place names in the Southeast, beginning with A are of Creek origin. In contrast, the majority of place names beginning with a B are Choctaw words. There is no B in the Creek Alphabet. Although references and text books make one think that Choctaw and Creek are very similar languages. They are not. I think it is safe to say that “some” of the ancestors of the Choctaws and Creeks spoke the same language, they obviously have been mixed with other languages, which are now lost.
Who in the heck are the Cherokees?
The Cherokees are definitely not the proto-indigenous people of the Americas as they now claim. Genetic studies proves that fact. Their language contains many borrowed words, even from as far away as Turkey. Dr. Brent Kennedy of Wise, VA discovered that almost all the words in Cherokee, involving female family relationships (mother, cousin, aunt, grandmother, etc.) are Anatolian words . . . the language spoken by the Christians of eastern Turkey. The Cherokee prefix for “tribe or people” . . . ani . . . is also Anatolian. Most telling is Brent’s discovery that the name of a famous 18th century Cherokee chief, Atakullakulla, means “he who rides a reddish-brown horse” in Anatolian.
I was a friend of Brent, before he had his tragic stroke. He was living in Atlanta when I was, then we kept in contact through the years. He was openly hated by a lot of people at the time that he had a massive brain hemorrhage, after eating a meal in a restaurant. He was thoroughly “messing up” the traditional history of the Southern Appalachian region. At that point in time, Brent was carrying out genetic studies of federally-recognized Cherokees and Cherokee descendants. He was finding many had no Native American DNA, but lots of Middle Eastern DNA. Many of the federally-recognized Cherokees had twice as many Semitic DNA markers as the average American Jew. He had come to the conclusion that there was very little genetic difference between many Cherokees and Melungeons. Some families had become associated with the tribe. Others had chosen to live like European settlers.
Brent is not the only controversial person, I know of, who had a catastrophic stroke immediately after eating at a restaurant in the first decade of the 21st century. In fact, it might have happened to me. On a blind date in Roswell, GA I noticed the gal slip a $100 bill to the waiter after I had paid for the meal. On the way home, my brain began swelling. As I drove down I-575, blood was coming from around my eyes and nose. I consumed many Vitamin C and aspirin tablets to stop the potentially fatal swelling.
My research is mirroring Brent’s suspicion that the Cherokees are a hybrid people. Very, very few of the Cherokee village names, prior to 1785, are ethnic Cherokee words. None of the major rivers in the Lower Southeast have Cherokee names. Oh, I know that there bunches of books and websites out there claiming to translate Cherokee place names, but they are by people, who knew absolutely nothing about the other indigenous languages of the Southeast . . . languages that were spoken in the Southern Highlands long before the Cherokees arrived.
I put the official meanings of the supposed Cherokee place names into both the official Cherokee Nation website translator and the Microsoft Cherokee translator and get entirely different Cherokee words! Long ago, Brent told me that the British officials always had to bring along at least four translators when dealing with representatives of multiple Cherokee bands. The members of these bands could not even communicate with each other. Their languages were THAT different.
Scholars of the Cherokee language will tell you that the Lower Cherokee and Valley Cherokee dialects are extinct and thus their words cannot be translated. Not so. I am able to translate all of the Lower Cherokee words and most of the Valley Cherokee words. Lower Cherokee is merely an Itsate Creek dialect that even can be translated with a Muskogee-Creek dictionary. Valley Cherokee was an Apalache-Creek dialect. It was a mixture of Itsate Creek with many words from the Panoan and Southern Arawak languages of Peru. And what are we finding in the genetic profiles of Native Americans from the Hiwassee River Valley? . . a mixture of Itza Maya and Peruvian DNA markers. Thus, the label “Cherokee” for these peoples merely meant that they were politically allied with ethnic Cherokees from northeastern Tennessee . . . not that they were Algonquians.
The situation for the non-Cherokee, non-Creek tribes in South Carolina is another matter. Many were labeled “Siouan” even though only place names or tribal names survive. So far the only region of the South Carolina Low Country, where I can translate the place names is where the tribes were members of the Cusabo alliance. Those tribal names are being translated with a Panoan dictionary from Peru. A Catawba dictionary will NOT translate the names of ethnic groups and rivers among the other supposed Siouan tribes in South Carolina. At this point, I am still trying to find a language that does match those words. The truth is out there somewhere!