That’s Siouan for Water

On June 13, 2013 · 6 Comments

I noticed an interesting geographic prefix as I explored Minnedosa, Manitoba in Triple Letter – Canada. The same prefix also applied to one of the individual United States, specifically Minnesota. In both cases the "Minne" portion derived from a Siouan word for water. Minnedosa was Flowing Water and Minnesota was Cloudy Water. I wondered if other place names derived from the same watery source.

The search began in the upper Midwest of the United States and in the upper Great Plains on both sides of the U.S. – Canada border where Siouan languages flourished during the pre-contact era. Siouan wasn’t a single language and the Great Sioux Nation was not a single tribe. Three distinct groupings with numerous subgroups formed the Sioux: Lakota, Western Dakota and Eastern Dakota. The term for water seemed to be substantially similar across them set of them, though: Mni.

The Dakota Dictionary Online provided an example, "Mni sni daktaå yaçiå he?" — Would you like a drink of cold water?

The Lakota used the same word for water. It was featured as the Lakota Word for the Day on March 21, 2012.



Mni seemed to be pronounced closer to MNee. I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised to learn that modern place names using Mni as a root tended to anglicize its pronunciation.

Actually, as I dug further, Minnesota turned out to be a little more complicated than my original findings. Both variations still tied back to Mni.

There are a variety of opinions about the Dakota word for Minnesota. Some Dakota speakers pronounce the word Mnisota, which can be translated as clear water referring to the Minnesota River. Others say it Mnißota, or cloudy water, describing the morning mist that rises over the lakes and valleys in Southern Minnesota during the warmer months

By far, the most common geographic adaption of Mni as a prefix was Minnehaha. I found Minnehaha in dozens of locations and geographic features on both sides of the border, with many situated well beyond the traditional Siouan range. They were so common that it wasn’t worth listing them. It would have taken-up the entire article with 92 occurrences in GNIS alone, including towns, counties, streams, ponds, islands, schools, churches, parks, and cemeteries.

"And he named her from the river,
From the water-fall he named her,
Minnehaha, Laughing Water."

One can thank Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and his 1855 poem, The Song of Hiawatha, for the endless proliferation. Minnehaha was Hiawatha’s lover in this immensely popular poem and it became fashionable to name things in her honor during the latter 19th Century. Minnehaha was fictional, however Longfellow named her for a real feature: Minnehaha Falls (map) near Fort Snelling, Minnesota


Minnehaha Falls
SOURCE: Flickr by zman z28 via Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) license

Longfellow had been inspired by a photograph of Minnehaha Falls (not this one, of course) although he chose to set the poem on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, on the southern shores of Lake Superior. Minnehaha did not translate as "laughing water" — contrary to Longfellow’s misconception — it actually meant falling water, or waterfall. Minnehaha Falls created a redundancy, a Waterfall Falls.

Mni found its way into several other places:

  • Minneapolis, the largest city in Minnesota translated as Water plus the Greek term polis, or city. Minneapolis is Water City.
  • Minnewaukan, North Dakota (and presumably Minnewakan, Manitoba) translated as Spirit Water.
  • Minnetonka, a suburb near Minneapolis, translated as Big Water or Great Water
  • Minnetrista, Minnesota translated as Crooked Water.
  • Minneiska, MN translated as White Water, for turbulence at the confluence of the Mississippi and Zumbro rivers.



View Larger Map

I think my favorite was Minneota, Minnesota. It translated as Much Water. That’s not why I liked it, though. I simply enjoyed the close similarity between Minneota and Minnesota; and it rolled of the tongue nicely. The town seemed to have fun with it too. They can be fans of their nearest professional American Football team, the Minnesota Vikings, and their local high school team, the Minneota Vikings. I imagine that football alumni who say they once played for the Minneota Vikings probably don’t mind when people hear it wrong and assume they played professionally.

On June 13, 2013 · 6 Comments

6 Responses to “That’s Siouan for Water”

  1. Greg says:

    I’ve wondered similarly about -wau-. Milwaukee, Waukegan, Wausau, Waukesha, Waupaca, Ashwaubenon…

  2. Craig says:

    I am sure readers more versed than I in the matter can weigh in, but I have been reading several blogs lately where it has been brought up that the term “Sioux” is an exonym that is considered offensive by many of the Lakota, even though the current linguistic classification of the languages is still “Siouan”.

    • I wasn’t aware of the current sensitivity Craig, so thank you for bringing it to my attention. A quick check shows that perhaps it hasn’t been resolved one way or the other, yet. For example, the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe describes itself as Lakota but also uses Sioux (including the Internet domain sioux.org). Of course I don’t want to rely too heavily on something like that either, as it may be using an out-of-date description for some other purpose (e.g., NAACP uses a superseded term to form part of its acronym but the acronym itself has widespread name recognition so it’s retained). I certainly don’t want to offend anyone; just recognizing that it’s a complicated set of issues.

      I’ll keep a watch and make adjustments if it reaches a tipping point… like the name of a certain Washington, DC professional football team that, in my mind, arrived there quite some time ago.

      • Greg says:

        I have a not-too-PC friend who’s fine with the name Redskins so long as the Cowboys change their name to the Palefaces.

  3. weekendroady says:

    Unfortunately, the only Minneota Viking to make it to the NFL, Les Josephson, spent his entire 11-year career with the Rams…

  4. Thias says:

    Following this article, you might like this map Slate published:

    http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/map_of_the_week/2013/06/literal_meanings_of_places_in_the_u_s_map.html

    They should have added the famous “Great Tit National Park” in Wyoming, though.

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