Speakers in the Wood

In learning the language, the information I’m going to talk about here only matters if you get confused between Mohican and Mohegan. (They’re two different things with two different languages. I promise.) For some it’s just something that’s interesting to know. If you’re of Algonquian descent, this pertains to you. This talks about people and places that your ancestors’ ancestors came from. And besides, it’s cool.

Who were the Algonquian speaking people and why do I say it with such a mouthful of words?

Let me answer the latter first. I’m saying it that way because there are a large number of tribes that span from the American northeast to the midwest which are classified under a single umbrella: the Algonquian language. It’s just easier for me to start there: there’s a bunch of American aboriginals, and they all spoke the Algonquian language.

The thing is with this language, they all didn’t speak it exactly alike – no more than a New Yorker is going to sound like someone from the Deep South. In some cases the differences were getting extreme, and in some cases not to much.

Their cultures, too, followed the same pattern. It’s believed by historians that overall the Algonquian tribes shared similarities from tribe to tribe (for example, they were all patrilineal1). They also had differences, such as different dances around the circle or with marriage customs. Cultures fracture over time; that’s just human nature, and these folks had been running about early America being natural for at least 8,000 years before the unlucky folks in the northeast had their first European contact.2 Without *natural* change and adaptation, a culture (and sometimes the people as well) die.3

So the Algonquian language and the people who spoke it’s variations spanned a pretty large area: from the northeast in the New England Area, to the southeast, to the Great Lakes area, to parts of the midwest. There were other people in the southeast as well, who spoke a different language with completely different ways, but to keep things clear we’re not talking about them. Both groups of people together tend to be called the Woodland Indians, mostly because when the Europeans first came the land was far more forested than it is now (and the air was probably better). But because of a little confusion with the Woodland Period, which is a prehistoric period in American history and what you’ll probably find the most if you try the wrong internet search, let’s just stick to Algonquian people and call it a day.

Going back to where I mentioned that the Algonquian people covered a wide space of land on Turtle Island4, this means there were a lot of tribes. Over 30 as a matter of fact. Anthropologists have divided them into three classifications5.

The classifications are: Central Algonquians, Eastern Algonquians, and Subarctic Algonquians. The Central Algonquians are then divided into two subgroups, forest and prairie tribes, to make four classifications altogether.

  1. The Forest Tribes – confusing, when you think about it, because these tribes are associated with America’s midwest and prairie lands in modern times. But they didn’t always live there.
    • Chippewa
    • Menomini
    • Ottawa
    • Cree
    • Potawatomi
  2. The Eastern Algonquian
    • Micmac
    • Montauk
    • Malecite
    • Abnaki
    • Pennacook
    • Narraganset
    • Mahican
    • Wampanoag
    • Pequot
    • Delaware
  3. Prairie Tribes (Didn’t I say it could get confusing?)
    • Sauk
    • Shawnee
    • Kickapoo
    • Winnebago
    • Miami
    • Peoria-Illinois
    • Prairie Potawatomi (Mascouten)
  4. Subarctic Tribes
    • Montagnais
    • Naskapi

The ones that tend to be looked over the most in articles, academic writings, and even the media are those of the northeast, the northeastern Algonquian people. Robert Ritzenthaler theorized this may be because they were not only the first to make contact but the first to disappear. They were the first to be put on reservations and, for a variety of reasons not limited to the introduction of Christianity, were the first to lose most of their culture. They’re also, in my experience, some of the first to resist taking some of that culture back when involving spirituality and what Christianity has taught them is bad.

At least when I was going to elementary school, many people also acknowledged the impact the northeast tribes had on American culture. Despite the number of people not just here on Turtle Island but across the big water that somehow think Americans are just like all of the European countries and should and do emulate Mother England, American culture’s beginnings and language have been forever shaped by the northeastern tribes. We Americans are unique, just like everyone else, and the early native Americans had a hand in it.

It shows in American language with words such as moose (mos in Mohegan), succotash (suqatash), hominy, wigwam (wiqám), papoose (páhpohs), squaw (sqá)6, and pawpaw. It shows in place names such as Massachusetts and Connecticut. These words, names, and no doubt even some tiny parts of our day to day cultural weirdnesses, are one of many ways the tribes have managed to survive.7

When I say each tribe tended to speak a different version of Algonquian, I’m saying they each had their own dialect. Some tribes could understand each other easier than others. Today, a lot of those dialects have been lost.

There are revitalization attempts in some tribes to rescue what’s left of their own language, or to bring back to life languages that have died. This website deals mostly with the Pequot-Mohegan dialect of the Algonquian language. It is considered a dead language, but there are people out there crying, “It ain’t dead yet!” and suggesting it go for a walk.

Mohegan nanu Fidelia Fielding, or “Flying Bird”, is the person the Mohegan-Pequot language owes a big thanks to. She was the last speaker, so she wrote as much down as she could in her diaries and other books to preserve it. Without her efforts, not only would Mohegan not have a fighting chance but other languages that were able to recapture their syntax (structure) as well. It was mostly from her records that Dr. Stephanie Fielding pieced things together for you and me.

In the future, we hope to touch more on the lives and cultures of the northeastern tribes in particular as these are the ones mostly associated with the Mohegan-Pequot language. In the meantime, go back and pick out the words we slipped into here. This is how you speak a language. You use it, even if only by a little at a time until you have more than you realize.

We are still here, and our language shows it.


  1. relating to, based on, or tracing descent through the paternal line – https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/patrilineal, Merriam Webster Dictionary accessed online
  2. tanakiwin.com/wp-system/uploads/2013/10/a-History-of-the-Algonquins.PDF
  3. Synthetic changes tend to have the same effect.
  4. The American Continent, North America usually when referenced
  5. Woodland Indians of the Western Great Lakes, The
    Ritzenthaler, Robert E. & Pat. Waveland Press, Inc. 1983. pp.11-17
  6. Which is NOT a dirty word! Sqá simply means, “woman”. Those who think otherwise have fallen for misinformation.
  7. Which means when people demanded that Squaw Rock be given a name change because they insisted it was a dirty name, they were erasing the Algonquian people further out of history and out of our culture. Simply criminal. (And yes, they were told repeatedly it was not a dirty word.)

Occom’s Razors

Have you ever met an Indian princess? I don’t mean a pampered, dark-skinned beauty from India. I mean an American Aboriginal honey; the fair and self-sufficient daughter of her tribe. No? Got a reason for that. It has nothing to do with them being locked in lonely, ivory towers either. And no it’s not because Indians (read: Native Americans) are extinct.

The other red folks; they say, “There is no such thing as an Indian princess.”  And we laugh at people who lay claim to having a Cherokee princess in their family tree. There is no such thing. Why? Because we didn’t have kings.

But I will look you in the face and I will tell you very seriously that I am a princess.

It’s a joke of course, while not being one. Always has been  that way.

You see, my family tree has some fun things in it – the way all family trees do. First of all, it has my mother and my father. It has a host of other red folks, a few German or English folks (that does NOT make me part White! Keep your White thinking out of my blog post lol!), and yes a few Black folks. All family trees are like that.

When you dig deeper it has other fun things. It has… Pocahontas. Alleged, but it’s there.

It has a few kings, some princes, a couple of dukes. Considering who Pocahontas married, that’s not a surprise. They’d be there because nobility were the folks who first came over.

So I can officially tell you my great-great-grand whatever is a Disney princess. Ha! These are the jokes, laugh or go away.

It also has an excellent fellow by the name of Samson Occom. Who was he? A Christian minister, Mohegan tribe by birth, who (with help from others) founded my particular tribe, the Brotherton. And I am his blood descendant. Which means my ancestor is not only the leader, he’s the founder.

You don’t have to know all of that to get the joke – when I look at you and tell you I’m a princess. Har. After all, wasn’t it said by little Shirley Temple in a movie once that all little girls were princesses? I just happen to be the feather wearing kind is all.

I only bring this up because I’ve lately been trying to revive some publications that were historically put out by people involved with my tribe, and some things by super-great Grandpa himself. I was just reading an article someone wrote about him, and I laughed at how families will come around and do circles. He was into carpentry, specifically made small joining works. That’s what my last name means: a woodworker that makes specific types of furniture. (And yes, I am known to make something once in a great while.) He practiced book binding: which is close to the things I do and always have done. And of course he did a lot of hunting and fishing… family trades I grew up with, as my father was a shrimper and truck driver. And like my super-great-grandfather I used to be a very very devout Christian.

Even generations later the fruit doesn’t fall from the tree.

So as I find documents, clean them up, and slowly begin working with getting them into our publication menu for other tribal members to find and have a physical copy of I think to myself that I hope he would approve. I actually think he would, so I am not worried.

Just this week I finally got a cleaned up copy of Indian Melodies by Thomas Commuck in for publication. This is a songbook for shape-note singing…. yes, all hymns. It’s of historical importance, but this article isn’t about it’s history. There are a lot of articles to be found on that point already.

I almost printed it last year, but I was talked out of it. There was already a copy available, I was told. So I ordered that… and was sorely disappointed with what I got. The company didn’t even TRY to make the pages legible. It was all wasted paper. Also, it came from India. That shouldn’t be a sore point, but it was… I wanted this book back home where it belonged! I’m a Brotherton, I own a publishing company, and no one was going to talk me out of it twice. I have been working very very hard on it as a result.

I’m waiting on some physical copies to see how it turned out. Then it will be in the catalog if I like them.

Well, that’s enough roots moment talk from me. Got so much work to do. Catch you on the other side of the corn field.