Cherokee Place Names, Part 5

Cherokee Place Names, Part 5

Last summer, my wife and I drove back from Dillard, Georgia, where we had spent a couple of pleasant days. We came via Clayton and Highway 76, a delightful drive through these beautiful mountains of ours. On this route, the place names bring back the spirits of the old Cherokee people. Let’s look at a few of the places that lie along or near the way from Dillard back to Blue Ridge.

After reading some of my previous articles, a good friend of mine–whose intelligence I respect–asked me how in the world can one Cherokee word [itsa´ti] be the source of place names so different as Sautee and New Echota?

Well, different people hear foreign sounds often quite differently, and their attempted pronunciations sometimes do not even seem to be the same words. And, there were at least three (and probably four) different major Cherokee dialects with some varying pronunciations. Even the speakers of the same dialect had their own peculiarities of saying names. Time also alters English attempts at speaking and spelling old Cherokee place names.

Consider my own town’s name. “E-la-i-tse-yi” became Ellijay here (and also at Franklin, NC); it became Ellejoy up in Tennessee [and Georgia’s Ellijay was sometimes Ellijoy on old maps], and, down in Hall County, it is now Elachee. [The ts– in Cherokee is most often pronounced like a ch– or a j-; sometimes, it has the sound of z-, and there are other times when it just has the plain old ts– sound as in “fatso.”] And, don’t forget that we often mangle the pronunciation of everyday English words. When enough people mispronounce a word long enough, it eventually becomes the correct pronunciation. In a real sense, ignorance is what causes every language to change and evolve. That is why the Roman Latin of Caesar gradually changed into Italian (and Spanish, and Portuguese, and French, and Romanian, and a dozen other dialects, depending upon where the Latin was being used).

Right now, English is in a massive state of change. Most people, including a lot of English teachers and professors, haven’t noticed how much it’s changing yet. A hundred years from now, the way we speak and write now will seem really old-fashioned and probably very difficult to understand. Think for a minute of how the actors sounded in the oldest “talkie” movie you ever saw; it wasn’t just the overacting-it was their speech itself. Or, think of how your oldest grandparents used to speak. Do you speak the same way?

A little more about the Cherokee language needs to be repeated here, because not everyone has read (or remembered) the previous articles.

To English speakers, Cherokee is a very difficult language. Its grammar is so very different from English as to seem impossibly complex. It represents a totally different way of thinking. It has sounds that don’t exist in English, and it completely lacks the sounds we represent by the letters, b, p, v, and f. [These are called “labial” sounds, because the lips are used to make them. Try it: Notice that both your lips touch when you make the sounds of b and p, and you can feel that your lower lip touches your upper teeth when you make the sounds of v and f.] All the dialects of Cherokee now remaining don’t have an “r” sound, either; the “l” sound is used instead. (One extinct dialect did have the r sound; that explains why Tallulah and Terrora both came from the same Cherokee word.)

Lacking those sounds that we use in English without even having to think, old Cherokee speakers made “Polly” into “Qualla” and “Betty” into “Quedi.” The word for a housecat, an animal previously unknown to Indians, became “wesa,” adapted from the now old-fashioned English word “puss.” When Spanish explorers brought the first cows they ever saw, the Cherokee took the Spanish word “vaca” and pronounced it “waga”; that remains today the word for cow. “Asquani” became the Cherokee word for “Spanish”; it is still the word used for a Hispanic person. “Mary” became “Meli,” “Caroline” became “Kalalina,” and so on.

Cherokee vowel sounds are a lot like Spanish vowels; sometimes they are a bit more nasal or a little shorter or longer. There is one extra vowel sound that is very rare in English: it is the nasalized [“through the nose”] version of the u sound in but. Seeing that Cherokee words have no v sound, we use the letter <v> to represent that nasal u sound when writing Cherokee words in English letters. For example, “v-v” is one Cherokee word for “yes”; it is pronounced almost exactly the way we here in the mountains say “UH-huh” when we mean “yes,” too! Do you notice that “through the nose” sound it has?

Near the far northeastern corner of Rabun County lies the town of Satolah. It gets its name from the Cherokee “su-da’-li,” which means “six.” [I hyphenate between syllables in Cherokee words, so that they may be a little easier to read. Also, we need to say that the Cherokee sound of d is somewhere between the English t sound and d sound.] Down near Canton, Georgia, in Cherokee County, is a prominent Sixes Road, probably a translation of the same word; there is also a Satula Community in Cherokee County. That the two of these places are in the same vicinity would seem to indicate that they are both derived from “su-da’-li.” There is also a Satula Avenue in Athens, Georgia; Satula Mountain and Satula Falls are near Highlands, North Carolina.  [ I have heard the latter two pronounced as “Stooly.”]  But, without some very careful research–which I have not yet done on any of these names except Satolah–one must be very careful about such speculations. I know a person of Polish ancestry whose last name is Satula, and the word means “saddle” in Finnish. And, “Satilla” occurs in Wayne County; I recall driving across a Satilla Creek down there; that place name is highly unlikely to be of Cherokee origin.  On old maps, in fact, it is recorded as “St. Illa.”

Now, why would anyone choose the word “six” for a place name? Well, on the rolls of the Cherokee Nation in 1835 were men named “Six Killer” (and Sixkiller is still a name easily found among the Oklahoma Cherokee), “Three Killer,” and “Four Killer.” These names were most likely taken because of some repeated successes in battles against the Catawbas or the Creeks. So, Satolah is very probably a shortened form of “Su-ta’-li-di-hi,” Six Killer. I think the same may be said for Sixes Road, too. On a more mysterious level, medicine men sometimes referred to the sun, in ceremonies and rituals, as Sutalidihi; no one has any idea why. The source may have been some long-forgotten legend.  [See Nantahala, in Part 10.]

Near the head of Four Killer Creek, in Fulton County, Georgia, once lived a prominent Cherokee who name was Nvgidihi, or Nanketeehee, as it is more commonly written.  The name of the creek is a translation of his name.  I have read that the creek’s name is now often written Foe Killer Creek.

Moving from Satolah toward Clayton, we find Warwoman Creek and Warwoman Dell. There have been some wild legends about Cherokee Amazons, and, no doubt there were occasional instances of women who acted as warriors. However, that is not the meaning behind Warwoman Dell and Creek.

In the times before contact with white people so disrupted Cherokee ways, it was the women of the tribe who decided most questions of war and peace, and they alone determined the fate of captives. It was also these same mature women who sat in council to choose the War Chief [the “Red Chief,” for red was the color of war, just as white was the color of peace]. The leader of the women’s council was called the “War Woman” by some of the early white writers. The Cherokee actually called her “Tsi-ge-yu,” which is often translated as “The Pretty Woman.” The real translation is “I love her,” so the tribe’s most important woman was most often called “The Beloved Woman” in English. The Beloved Woman also decided the punishment that should be given to major offenders within the tribe; she could and did make life or death decisions. About the time of the American Revolution and continuing into the 19th Century, Nancy Ward was the most prominent Beloved Woman. I believe that some descendants of hers still live in the Georgia and Tennessee mountains.  She was the last Beloved Woman of the Cherokee until Maggie Wachacha was given that special title in the 1980s.  In April 2013, the Tribal Council of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians [who still live in the heart of the ancient Cherokee lands] designated Jerry Wolfe as the Beloved Man, the first time that title had been used in over 200 years.  Wolfe, who is in his late 80s, is a traditionalist, an expert in Cherokee history and culture, who speaks fluent Cherokee. He is also a veteran of WWII service in the U.S. Navy who was on a ship both at Normandy on D-Day and during the Japanese surrender in the Pacific.

One tributary of Warwoman Creek is Tuckaluge Creek, named for one of the several Cherokee villages called “Ti-qua-li-tsi.” One stood somewhere on Tuckaluge Creek, but the most important one of these towns lay about where Bryson City, NC, now stands. The meaning of the name is long forgotten, and I cannot analyze it. In Blount County, TN, the same word occurs as Tuckalechee.

We’ll continue from here in our next section.

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One thought on “Cherokee Place Names, Part 5

  1. Take the Cherokee name Nanyehi and imagine it pronounced by a man from Scotland.
    That’s how my great grandmother became Nancy.
    EufaAhalaHa became Euharlee. And weatherman still can’t pronounce it.
    It depended on where the white man was from, that made first contact with native people, and that man’s level of literacy, as to how a name was pronounced or written.
    Take a Cherokee word and imagine the white man from Scotland, Ireland, streets of London or Well Educated British accent wrapping itself around a word none of those tongues could wrap around.

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