Injun trouble in Alabama

Gambling proprietors in Alabama have been trying to pass off their slot machines (prohibited under state law) as a form of bingo (legal in some counties). Gov. Bob Riley is trying to stop them with a special task force and mostly successful lawsuits. Warnings of impending raids have recently forced the shutdown of several giant bingo farms that siphon off hundreds of millions of dollars a year from customers.

The gambling industry is fighting back with a barrage of TV ads lampooning the governor and calling for a statewide referendum to legalize gambling. Naturally, this would be done on terms favorable to the big establishments, protecting them from competition.

One of the industry’s favorite tactics is to portray Riley as a pawn of the Mississippi Choctaws, whose casinos lure customers from Alabama. The ads imply, without actually saying so, that Riley is trying to kill off Alabama bingo farms because they would compete with established Choctaw casinos. The inference is that Riley must have taken bribes from the Indians. Continue reading “Injun trouble in Alabama”

On Indian place names

I’ve been thinking lately about the petty crimes we Americans have performed on place names that come from Indian languages. There are a ton of them, from Massachusetts to Seattle, and from Alabama to Wyoming.

Confronted with these mysterious names (which we white folks made even more mysterious by corrupt pronunciation), some historians and other writers have indulged in making up stories about where the names came from. Continue reading “On Indian place names”

Saturday baroque: Les Indes galantes

I’m always interested in European images of American Indians. So this week I have for you a clip from a recent staging of the 1736 opéra-ballet Les Indes galantes, by Jean-Philippe Rameau.

In good orientalist fashion, the work lumps together stories of Turks, Persians, and American Indians under the heading of “the gallant Indies.” This dance is from the fourth and final part, “Les Sauvages,” in which the chief’s daughter, Zima, chooses an Indian called Adario for her lover, rejecting the advances of both a Frenchman and a Spaniard. (You can spot the two European rivals in the background toward the end of the dance.) Continue reading “Saturday baroque: Les Indes galantes”

Why Indians say ‘ugh’ (part 2)

A boy plays Indian on a valentine from the 1950s. (Credit:
A boy plays Indian on a valentine from the 1950s. (Credit:

While making my case for a Creek/Muskogee origin of “how,” I also mentioned that an 1872 document uses the stereotypical “ugh” to represent speech at a Creek Indian council. (See here.) But this witness (Michael Johnston Kenan) was describing events that occurred almost half a century before he wrote them down in 1872. So it seems likely that the omnipresent “ugh” had distorted Kenan’s memory of the actual Creek expressions.

Where did this odd little syllable come from? Was it an attempt to represent an actual word from a specific Indian language?

My working hypothesis is that “ugh” sprang from the fertile imagination of James Fenimore Cooper, who used it in his fiction to signal an essential difference between Indians and non-Indians. The popularity of Cooper’s tales helped make “ugh” the most widely recognized (and most demeaning) marker of “Indian” speech. Continue reading “Why Indians say ‘ugh’ (part 2)”

Why Indians say ‘how’ (part 2)

A 1950s valentine derives humor from Indian stereotypes. (Credit:
A 1950s valentine derives humor from Indian stereotypes. (Credit:

In a previous post about the stereotyped Indian utterances “how” and “ugh,” I noted that “how” appears to be derived from the Muskogee Creek word hvo (pronounced “haw”).

I could be wrong. Back in 1986, Cecil Adams of The Straight Dope argued for another group of American Indian languages. Someone had asked Adams whether Indians ever really used “how” as a greeting. He replied that no, they didn’t, but that in several Siouan languages of the Great Plains (Lakota, Dakota, and Omaha), there is a word that serves as “a sort of all-purpose introductory adverb or interjection.” That word is variously spelled ho, hao, hau, or howo.

The resemblance to Creek hvo, another multi-purpose affirmative interjection, is striking. Even though the Creek language is only distantly related to the Siouan languages, much like English is related to Persian.

But wait a minute, I hear you saying. Cecil Adams is just this guy who churns out snarky columns for “alternative” newspapers. A self-appointed know-it-all. Why are you taking him seriously? Continue reading “Why Indians say ‘how’ (part 2)”

Why Indians say “how” and “ugh”

Generations of white people have imagined and written about Indians who say “how” or “ugh.” These are the two syllables that represent “Indian language” to many if not most of us. It’s still commonplace for Americans today to think of “Indian” as if it were a single language, spoken from sea to shining sea — […]

Ward Churchill scores again


I wonder whether it’s worth bringing up his name again.

Ward Churchill is a disgrace. It’s something of a shame that his firing became a cause célèbre, because this is a man who would probably deny to others, if he could, the academic freedom he so loudly demands for himself. Still, freedoms are not meant to be granted only to the well-behaved. A jury is convinced that Churchill was fired for exercising a First Amendment right.

The jury awarded him — shrewdly, I thought — one dollar in damages.

Now, as Gary Kamiya reports at, another judge will decide whether Churchill is entitled to further recompense from the university that dismissed him. Whatever the outcome, I agree with Kamiya’s assessment of the damage that Churchill has done to American Indian studies:

To put it mildly, Churchill was not an ideal poster child for the cause of academic freedom. If right-wing critics of the university had set out to create a perfect caricature of a tenured radical who sacrifices scholarship for advocacy, they couldn’t have come up with a better one than Churchill. … The ultimate lesson of the Churchill case is that no cause, however just, benefits from being taken up by a propagandist. Scholarship must be sacrosanct. Rules of evidence must be followed. You can’t assert things that you want to believe are true, no matter how morally right or practically beneficial those assertions may be, and then distort or make up evidence to support them.

For an example of how to do it right, see the well-lived life of John Hope Franklin. Continue reading “Ward Churchill scores again”