Indian Nomenclature and Legends
The name Mississippi is an amelioration of the harsher syllables of the Indian tongue from which it sprang. Dr. Lafayette H. Bunnell, late of Winona, Minnesota, a personal friend and old army comrade, is my authority for the names and spelling given below, as gleaned by him during many years’ residence among the Chippewa of Wisconsin and the Sioux (or Dakota) of Minnesota. Dr. Bunnell spoke both languages fluently, and in addition made a scholarly study of Indian tongues for literary purposes. His evidence is conclusive, that so far as the northern tribes were concerned the Mississippi was in the Chippewa language, from which the name is derived: Mee-zee (great), see-bee (river)—Great River. The Dakota called it Wat-pah-tah’-ka (big river). The Sauk, Foxes, and Potawatomi, related tribes, all called it: Mee-chaw-see’-poo (big river). The Winnebago called it: Ne-scas-hut’-ta-ra (the bluff-walled river). Thus six out of seven tribes peopling its banks united in terming it the “Great River”.
Dr. Bunnell disposes of the romantic fiction that the Indians called it the “Great Father of Waters”, by saying that in Chippewa this would be: Miche-nu-say’-be-gong—a term that he never heard used in speaking of the stream; and old Wah-pa-sha, chief of the Dakota living at Winona, assured the Doctor that he had never heard an Indian use it. The Chippewa did, however, have a superlative form of the name: Miche-gah’-see-bee (great, endless river), descriptive of its (to them) illimitable length.
Dr. Bunnell suggests the derivation of the name Michigan, as applied to the lake and state. The Chippewa term for any great body of water, like Lakes Michigan, Superior, or Huron, is: Miche-gah’-be-gong (great, boundless waters). It was very easy