Everything you always wanted to know about the word, Tama, but were afraid to ask!

by Richard L. Thornton, Architect & City Planner

In this article of our series on Native American words, we will look at a simple four letter word that appears again and again as a root to other words in several Southeastern Indigenous languages. If ANY anthropologist in the Southeast had bothered to pick up a Totonac or Itza Maya dictionary, the ridiculous opposition by their branch of the anthropology profession to Mesoamerican immigration into North America would have ended.

Tama (SE) – Tama was the name of a capital town and province, visited by the Hernando de Soto Expedition in the spring of 1540.  It also has become the root word for many town and ethnic names in the Southeastern United States, which are all invariably mistranslated because of lack of knowledge, concerning its origin.

  • Dubious etymology – Tama is the Creek word for a large river or swamp.  Tama is the Creek word for a mourning dove.  *Absolutely not for both definitions! 
  • Etymology – Tama has multiples meanings among indigenous languages in North America, but the original meaning was the Totonac (Mexico) verb meaning “to trade,” which was borrowed by the Itza Maya language during the period between 200 AD and 600 AD that the Itzas were dominated by the Totonacs.  Other meanings are:

Different meanings of Tama in the Americas

  • Itza Maya, Itsate Creek and Timucua = noun for trade
  • Lake Tama was a 21 miles long shallow body of water near the confluence of the Ocmulgee & Oconee Rivers in central Georgia.  It was visited by an expedition from Fort Caroline led by Lt. La Roche Ferrière, when it paddled a barge (one-sail boat) in a northwestern direction up the May River (Altamaha) upstream from Fort Caroline.  The description of this journey in the memoir of Captain René de Laudonnière, Commander of Fort Caroline is absolute proof that Fort Caroline was at the mouth of the Altamaha River, not in Florida.  The expedition only encountered Native American tribes, known to have been indigenous to Georgia, not Florida.  Also, there is no river in Florida, which flows in a southward then southeastward direction from the Appalachian Mountains.  In his 2001 book, Three Voyages, Florida author, Charles E. Bennett, intentionally deleted the cardinal directions and some details of this journey from a supposedly precise translation of De Laudonnière’s original French language book to conceal the subterfuge involved in placing a fake 1/12 scale reproduction of Fort Caroline near Jacksonville, FL.  Lake Tama shrank in the 1700s due to a decline in mountain snow melt and construction of drainage ditches.   Its remnant is now the Little Ocmulgee River Swamp.
  • A large, culturally-advanced Itsate Creek province near the confluence of the Ocmulgee & Oconee Rivers and the headwaters of the Altamaha River in central Georgia. It was visited by the Hernando de Soto Expedition in March 1540. (See Altamaha River) The language spoke in Tama was similar to Itsate and Cho’i-te Maya.
  • State recognized Creek tribe in the State of Georgia (see article)
  • Muskogee Creek and Japanese = drum
  • Chickasaw and Kansa = town . . . the Chickasaw also used tamahi.
A Kansa village on the Coosa River near Rome, Georgia
  • Why a Chickasaw word for town among the Kansa? The Kansa originally lived on McKee Island, Alabama (near Guntersville) then migrated to the Oostanaula and Coosa Rivers in Northeast Georgia in close proximity to Chickasaw towns. After they migrated westward, their capital town, Kansagi, became the site of New Echota, the short-lived capital of the Cherokee Nation in Georgia. This is why one of the alternative names of the Kansa was formerly, the Coosa. The statement in Wikipedia that they originally lived on the Ohio River is totally bogus.
  • Shawnee = maize (Indian corn) It is presumed that the Shawnee originally obtained Indian corn seed from Tamahiti traders in Virginia and Tennessee.
A Creek social dance at Tama

Tama Creek Tribal Town (GA) – Tama was the original name of a state-recognized Creek Indian reservation in Whigman, GA (near Cairo) in deep southwestern Georgia.  Its current official name is the Lower Muskogee Creek Tribe.  Tribal members are descendants of Pro-United States Creeks, who settled in Southwest Georgia in the early 1800’s as citizens of the United States and Georgia, in anticipation of continued friendship with their neighbors of other races. Instead, virtually all of their constitutional rights were taken away by the State of Georgia.  Their ancestors had to conceal their identity until the mid-20th century. When the Creek Nation East of the Mississippi merged to a more formal government there were three Chiefs, Neal McCormick (Georgia), Wesley Thombley (Florida), and Houston McGee (Alabama) who signed a pact of unity in February 1973.  

The unified Creek tribe fell apart because of the issue of gambling.  Alabama Creeks wanted to operate gambling casinos.  In the meantime, the administration of Georgia Governor Jimmy Carter was very supportive of the Tama Tribal Town.  It developed significant facilities on its reservation, but has never been able to gain federal recognition.  Why the tribe originally chose the name, Tama, is not clear because the Tama Creeks living in another part of Georgia and were not Muskogees.

Tamacoa or Tamakoa (GA) – This was a Muskogean-Arawak tribe living near the mouth of the Altamaha River during the 1500s. Alternative names recorded by European explorers were Thamacoa, Thamagua, Timacua and Thamacoggin.  It was mentioned frequently in the memoir of Captain René de Laudonnière, Commander of Fort Caroline (1564-1563).  This was an entirely different ethnic group that

After the Spanish took possession of the present-day Georgia and Florida Coastal regions, they “borrowed and modified” the word Tamakoa to make it Timucua, a name that they applied to all the related tribes in what is now Northeast Florida and the southeastern edge of Georgia.  The real Tamakoa migrated up the Altamaha River to the Oconee River to escape Spanish domination.  They were living at the headwaters of the Middle Oconee River in present day Jackson County, GA in the late 1800s. 

Tamahi (Mexico & Southeast) – Totonac, Itza Maya and Itsate Creek word for a trader or merchant.

Model of a Tamahiti Town at the Muskogee-Creek National Capital

Tamahiti or Tomohitan (GA, VA & TN) – This is an Itsate-Creek tribe, which specialized in regional trade.  It originated in Southeast Georgia. The Tamahiti were associated with several towns with ceremonial mounds in southwest Virginia and the northeastern tip of Tennessee.  Virginia and Tennessee academicians label them by their Algonquian name of Tomohitans and are usually not aware that they were a Creek tribe from Georgia.  In those states the Tamahiti are typically miss-classified as either Algonquians, Yuchi or Cherokees.

The Tamahiti may have been the occupants of the many villages and towns in the Shenandoah Valley, which had mounds, but the valley was almost uninhabited, after a massive slave raid in the late 1660’s or early 1670’s.  After the Creek-Cherokee War started in early 1716, the Tamahiti left Virginia and returned to their kin in Southeast Georgia.  Some Georgia maps show them living north of the Okefenokee Swamp. They apparently migrated into Florida after a few decades, where there were more game animals and vast tracts of uninhabited land. From that time onward, they became identified as Seminoles.

  • Etymology – Tamahiti is the Itza Maya word for “Merchant People,” derived from the Totonac word, tamahi, which means “merchant.”  IM & Totonac

Tamale, Tamaule or Tamauli (Mexico and Southeast) – This is a hybrid Totonac-Uchee ethnic name, meaning “Trade People.  It appears in the name of the State of Tamaulipas, Mexico and in several Muskogean tribes in the Southeastern United States.

Tamasee, Tamassee or Tamasi (GA, SC, NC & TN) – This is the name of several towns and villages in the Southeast. All were originally Itsate Creek towns, but some were later occupied by the Cherokee.

  • Dubious etymology – Tamassee is a Cherokee word, which means “Place of the Sunlight of God.” *This has to be the funniest bogus definition I have ever seen!
  • Etymology – Tamasee is the Anglicization of the Itsate Creek word, Tvmvsi, which means “Descendants of the Province of Tama.”  A2
A Tamauli trade canoe on the coast of Tamaulipas

Tamaulipas (Mexico) – This is the Itza Maya name of a state in northeastern Mexico.  However, ironically, Mexican anthropologists have never been able to fully translate the word, because they do not realize that Uchee traders once ranged as far as the Gulf Coast of Mexico.

  • Etymology – Tamaulipas means “Trade People – Place of” IM & AI Note that even in Mexico, the Archaic Irish-Swedish (Uchee) suffix “re” . . . often interpreted as “le” or “li” . . . was used along the Gulf Coast.

Tamulté (Tamaulte) de las Sabanas (Mexico) – This branch of the Mayas in Tabasco State fled Tamaulipas (Northeastern Mexico) around 1200 AD when the region was overrun by Chichimec barbarians. Culturally, they are “Creek” Indians, who now speak Spanish as their primary language.  They formerly spoke a dialect of Itza, hence the Itza and Hitchiti Creek suffix for people at the end. In fact,  Miccosukee and Hitchiti Creeks can carry on conversations with them.  Most of these refugees headed northeastward to present day Georgia, kicking off the explosion of construction activities and population growth that anthropologists labeled the “Middle Mississippian Period.”   In Georgia, they were eventually called the Tama, Tamauli, Tamale or Tamaute Creeks. 

The Tamulté are the only indigenous people in Mexico, who eat grits and corn on the cob. Of course, they also eat a lot of tamales . . . from which this beloved Mexican cuisine got its name. The Creeks also ate tamales! They are also the only indigenous Mexicans, who celebrate the Green Corn Festival and start their new year on the Summer Solstice.  They, the Huitzals and the Highland Mayas are the only indigenous Mexicans, who dance the Stomp Dance . . . although it is quite popular in Central America and Northwestern South America. 

Thamacoggin (GA) – This was the original name of the county seat in Jackson County, GA.  It was derived from the name of a tribe from the coastal area of Georgia, which had lived at the same location, just before the land was ceded.  The name was soon changed to Commerce.  (See Tamacoa.)

2 Comments

  1. It is worth considering that Tama was Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphic word for Sea. The Egyptian term for the Sea People is Tamahu.(TmH in Beinlich’s Ancient Egyptian word-list, p. 742.) This name could refer to “North Sea Peoples” or “White People” or Libyans (whose country-name, like Lebanon, is rendered in many languages as “white”). Ramses III said their bounds reached to the ends of the earth. The ethnonym would appear to be the same as the “Tamahitans” who guided Gabriel and Needham to the ancient capital at Rome, Ga. in 1673. Tamahitan is also mentioned in several Cherokee migration stories recorded by Payne/Butrick. So before it was a Creek element it was an Egyptian word.

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    1. It is actually a Totonac verb and noun meaning “trade” That word was borrowed by the Itza Mayas, whose colonists continued to use it after they mixed with Muskogeans. However, once could see how the word for ocean could become the word for trade.

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