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Alice Cooper Was Slightly Off, or Wisconsin Place Names and their Native Language Origins

By MPL Staff on Nov 5, 2014 8:51 AM
Photo by Ben Gordon on flickr

Anyone who has seen Wayne’s World remembers the scene where shock rock godfather Alice Cooper proclaims that Milwaukee comes from an Algonquin term for ‘The Good Land’. Well, it turns out Alice isn’t entirely accurate (or rather, the scriptwriters are a bit off in their research). Milwaukee does indeed translate to ‘Good Land’, but from terms originating in the Ojibwa, Potawatomi, and Menominee languages.

But Milwaukee is just one of many places that have names coming from words in the Native American languages in Wisconsin (itself having a name that has been attributed to the Chippewa and Menominee terms for ‘muskrat house’, but sadly this is not the most widely accepted origin). Our neighboring suburb of Wauwatosa comes from wawatessi, Ojibwa for firefly. Pewaukee comes from the Menominee word Pee-wau-nau-kee, which means ‘the flinty place’.

A few other highlights are Muskego, which derivates from the Potawatomi ‘mashkig-ong’, meaning ‘swampy place’, and Kenosha, which comes from the Potawatomi name for ‘Pike’. But my personal favorite is the interesting etymology of places like Fond du Lac. I know, you’re thinking ‘That is clearly French, I want none of that in my post about Native American place names, please and thank you!’ Well the term the Menominee used for the area that is now Fond du Lac was ‘wanika miu’, or ‘end of the lake’, which is precisely what the French ended up calling it. They just translated the term into their own language, and it has ended up sticking.

So where can you learn more about these terms? Well, a lot of the above info comes from a great book Indian Names on Wisconsin’s Map by Virgil J. Vogel, but there are other books that cover the topic at your local Milwaukee Public Library branch as well!



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