Where does the name Waxahatchee come from?

Katie Crutchfield strums a guitar beside Waxahatchee Creek in this still from the music video of “Coast to Coast.”
Waxahatchee is a Brooklyn-based music project headed by Katie Crutchfield.

The music press tell us that Waxahatchee is the name of a creek in Alabama. In January 2011 Crutchfield “was living at her parents’ house on Waxahatchee Creek, nursing the bruises of a few bad relationships and wondering what to do with her adulthood.” A severe snowstorm, unusual for Alabama, confined her to the house, and she started writing music: “song after song about loneliness, ambivalence and relationships failing to last or fulfill.” 1

Now there are two albums, American Weekend and Cerulean Salt. She’s playing tonight at Bottletree Café here in Birmingham. So this seems like a perfect time for me to geek out about exactly where the name Waxahatchee comes from, and what it meant.

The name contains a mystery.

Indian names

If you’re one of those people who’s satisfied to hear that Waxahatchee is “an Indian word,” you can stop reading. Go sit under your nylon-stringed dream catcher. If you care to know which Indians, what language they spoke, and so on, then read on. Continue reading “Where does the name Waxahatchee come from?”

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How Opa-locka got its name

View of a white building with a dome and tower, resembling a mosque, with palms and a live oak in the foreground.
Opa-locka City Hall. The Moorish architecture has been typical of the city since its founding by aviator Glenn Curtiss in 1926. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Locator map of Opa-locka, FloridaOpa-locka is a small city in the Miami metropolitan area of south Florida.

Its unusal name is supposed to have an Indian or “Native American” origin. But there is no documentation for the name before about 1926. That’s when the aviator Glenn Curtiss founded the city, during the 1920s craze for Florida real estate.1

When Curtiss first scouted the site, he was told that its “Indian name” was “Opa-tisha-wocka-locka.” He shortened this to “Opa Locka,” which sounded vaguely “Arabic-Persian” to him. This was the era of wildly popular “Arab” movies such as The Sheik and The Thief of Bagdad. So Curtiss dressed up Opa-locka in fanciful Moorish style to match the mood of the time.

The original name of the site almost certainly comes from the Creek/Seminole language. Most likely, it was Vpelofv rakko (“up-pee-LO-fa THLA-ko”), meaning “big hummock.” A hummock (or hammock) is an area of raised land within a swamp.2 Continue reading “How Opa-locka got its name”

How Mother Earth immigrated to America

Mother Earth is a woman who needs no introduction.

In the Old World, she’s been written up and talked about for a long, long time. Her stock was probably lowest around the sixteenth century, but since then she has come roaring back. Now pagans, poets, and environmentalists sing her praises, and everyone else has heard of her. (She has her own holiday, although people aren’t clear about which day it should be observed on.)

As best I can tell, though, she never visited the New World until after the Old World colonized it. She’s an immigrant. Continue reading “How Mother Earth immigrated to America”

Creek language treasures

Creek beaded pouch, early 1800s, from the Ulster Museum collection.
The Creek Language Archive just gets better and better. The website recently added Creek Texts by Mary R. Haas and James H. Hill, a trove of transcribed manuscripts in the Creek language on a variety of interesting subjects.

…este nak kērrvlket hvsoss-elecv sehokēpofv tat,
nake kērrulke ensukcv fvcfvkē omet sehok’t omvtēt omēs.

…and when gitlalgi (“knowers”) were in the southeast,
it was as if their pockets were full [of knowledge].

That’s from “Belief about the ihosá” [PDF]. Creek Indians gave the name ihosá to the being that causes people to get confused and lose their way in the woods. But for those who know, the ihosá can also give power.

The “pockets” mentioned in the text would have resembled the beaded pouch shown in the picture. These were usually attached to a broad, decorated shoulder strap. In fact, the colors in this pouch are subdued compared to most I’ve seen. I guess old-time Creek hunters would not have gone for Mossy Oak gear. (This pouch is further described here, although it’s wise to be skeptical about the specific provenance, i.e., “made for Tuskina, Chief of the Creek Indians, by his daughter”.) Continue reading “Creek language treasures”

Indian talk: The Long Man

One of the Indian phrases we white folks like to throw around now and again is the name “Long Man” or “Long Person” for a river. We tend to do this with the idea that Indians had some “primitive” idea of the river as a god of some kind. The fact is, the name and idea of a “Long Man” only occurred in some Indian cultures, in specific contexts.

Cherokee Indians do have a name for the conscious spirit of a river or stream, whose voice is said to speak in the waterfalls and rapids. Such a spirit is called ᏴᏫ ᎬᎾᎯᏔ (yvwi gvnahita), a long man or long person. In a 1900 report, ethnographer James Mooney referred to this being as a “river god,” but that seems to be a lazy and inaccurate comparison. I’ve found no evidence that Cherokees worshipped or sacrificed to these beings. Rather, they believed (and I suppose still believe) that a river has a consciousness, the wisdom of great age, and a capacity to teach lessons to receptive humans. Continue reading “Indian talk: The Long Man”

Sylacauga, or the Buzzard Roost

Comrade Kevin mentioned (here) that the name Sylacauga (a city in Alabama) is often translated as “Buzzard Roost.” That reminded me of a historical tradition in Atlanta that the city occupies the site of “Indian towns” called Buzzard Roost and Standing Peachtree.

For now I’ll ignore Standing Peachtree and concentrate on Buzzard Roost.1

A historical marker near Atlanta spells the Muskogee (Creek Indian) name for Buzzard Roost as Sulacauga. That suggests a close tie between Atlanta’s Buzzard Roost and Alabama’s Sylacauga (pronounced “sil-la-caw-ga”).

And sure enough, a Creek-English dictionary derives the place name Sylacauga from the Creek sule-kake (sounds like “so-lée-gáh-kee”), “two buzzards sitting.” Continue reading “Sylacauga, or the Buzzard Roost”