Ever since an early age, I knew what the word Manitou meant. Manitou is generally understood to be Algonquin for Great Spirit. My mom, a teacher and a lover of vocabulary, was able to satisfy my curiosity when I asked, “what does manitou mean” when I was younger than ten.
We lived by Manitou Road in Western New York, which was a long road that ran from Lake Ontario to Ridge Road – an area that eons ago was under water from the small but Great Lake that was found within ten miles of our home. Subsequently, when my husband and I moved to Delaware, Maryland, and Wisconsin, we noted the similarity of words and names in communities influenced by the individual area Native Americans.
Living in Wisconsin, the communities of Cornell, Ithaca, Corning, Seneca, Caledonia, and more resonate with me as words from my childhood and growing up in an area of New York State that historically belonged to the Iroquois Nation. Manitou was a word I first heard as a child in New York and now is a word that I know as a place in Wisconsin – Big Manitou Falls.
We’ve been talking of taking day trips in the Northwoods now that we are living at our cabin. The area is speckled with named reminders of communities we knew as children. Likewise, in this rural area you will find Amish and Mennonites, as well as Native Americans, Ojibwean instead of Iroquois, but original inhabitants, nonetheless.
A friend of mine posted a photo from Oneida Lake, Wisconsin. There’s a place named Oneida Lake in New York as well. The Oneida was one of the five original tribes of the Iroquois Nation in New York and means People of the Standing Rock, according to Brittanica.com. By 1883, after years of confrontation in New York, some of the tribe emigrated to the Green Bay Wisconsin area. And that explains how the Oneida name arrived in the state where I live now.
The etymology of words fascinates me. I think names of places can tell you a lot about the people that settled in that area, maybe not about the people that live there now. Still, it is important to make connections from where we came from to where we live now. I’ve never been disappointed when I’ve looked into the meaning of Native American words. More often than not, there is a tie to my past.
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