Loanwords and Mascots: American Indianisms in the English Language


By Kyle C. Wyatt

© 2005


English and Indigenous Languages of North America

Anglophone speakers have long mediated Indigenous loanwords through Spanish, French, Portuguese, and other European languages. Unlike French fur traders, for instance, who experienced frequent cultural exchanges with American Indians and First Nations people of Canada, English settlers shared little two-way contact with North America’s oldest residents. Generally, interactions were brief, and often militant in nature, as English adventurers suppressed and supplanted Aboriginal populations. Consequently, despite more than four sustained centuries on the continent, the English language has only superficial borrowings from North America’s Indigenous languages (Cutler 141).


Indigenous words borrowed secondhand from European languages include bayou, canoe, Caribbean, caribou, chocolate, hammock, hurricane, potato, tobacco, toboggan, tomato, and totem. Though English did borrow some words and place names directly – skunk, manitou, and Roanoke are examples – the lexicon’s Indigenous loanwords reflect a long-standing racial bias toward North America’s Aboriginal populations. Richard Bailey argues, “English has accumulated its [Indigenous] wordstock as an incidental consequence of the extension of anglophone power” (67, italics mine).



Incidental loanwords borrowed directly from Indigenous languages reflect the patronizing curiosity English settlers had for Native life and customs. As a novelty, anglophone speakers incorporated powwow, wigwam, moccasin, squaw and other words to describe Indigenous culture; they also adopted names such as moose, opossum, and raccoon for distinctly North American wildlife. Despite the occasional loanword, a more insular approach to Indigenous language prevailed among English settlers. Cotton Mather, the influential Puritan minister, explained the reluctance to accept linguistic borrowings: “the best thing we can do for our Indians is to Anglicise them in all agreeable Instances; and in that of Language, as well as others” (qtd. in Bailey 73).


In anglicizing North America, settlers largely adapted the English lexicon to describe their new world. Culturally chauvinistic, this more frequent linguistic practice ignored existing Indigenous languages and adjusted English words and phrases in order to rename elements of Aboriginal society. John L. Cutler defines these English words and phrases as Indianisms: any “English words or phrases specifically related to Indians” (124). As settlers increasingly used Indianisms, the already low rate at which anglophone speakers adopted Indigenous loanwords decreased further.


The most obvious and ubiquitous Indianism is Indian itself. Though accepted by many today, Indian not only erroneously denotes people who do not live in India, it also fails to distinguish between North America’s heterogeneous Aboriginal cultures. Instead of adopting tribal names Indigenous nations have in their own languages, anglophone speakers have used Indian, First Nations, Native American, and other blanket phrases that follow the changing trends of political correctness. Other popular Indianisms include Great Father, Indian summer, Indian giver, and buck. The later as a term for the American dollar is the clipped form of buckskin, an early form of currency between English and Indigenous traders.


Since Henry Wadsworth Longfellow published The Song of Hiawatha (1855) and the 1890 US Census officially closed the American Frontier, popular culture has increasingly romanticized American Indians – often emasculating all Aboriginal groups by referring to the singular American Indian. In romanticizing “the Indian,” the American public has trivialized the very cultural icon it has sought to appropriate. C. Richard King and Charles Fruehling Springwood characterize this misappropriation as the “celebration of the Indian sacrifice in the name of imperial progress according to the divine plan of Manifest Destiny” (9).


The American consciousness has, in part, defined the iconic Indian through the visual connotations of well-known Indianisms. Loanwords – such as squaw, tepee, and tomahawk – and Indianisms adapted from the English lexicon – such as brave, chief, redman, redskin, and savage – universally apply to and spice up the Indian myth; they create a collective lack of specificity in regards to the geographic distribution, tribal affiliation, and cultural nuances of the hundreds of unique Indigenous populations in North America. Regardless of whether he comes from Florida or Idaho, Nebraska or Arizona, the Indian always has red skin, dons a feathered headdress, wears moccasins, lives in a tepee, and whoops loudly as he twirls a tomahawk, throws a spear, and shoots bows and arrows.  Though many such Indianisms are stigmatized today, the images they convey remain pervasive, ubiquitous features of American culture (King and Springwood 2). Those same Indianisms also continue to symbolize athletic teams at every level of the American sporting industry.



In his 1602 “An Epistle concerning the Excellencies of the Engliih Tongue,” Richard Carew describes the way English appropriates linguistic features of other languages: “For our owne parts, we employ the borrowed Ware so farre to our advantage, that we raise a profit of new words from the same Stock, which yet in their owne Country are not marchantable.” Though Carew could never have imagined the multi-billion dollar sporting industry that would exist in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, his comments eerily apply to the profitable anglophone exploitation of Indianisms. Nowhere does the American consciousness more explicitly illustrate the visual associations of Indianisms than Indian mascots.


With the symbolic close of the frontier and the perpetuation of the Indian myth, anglophone America has historically justified its use of racist mascots as honoring the legacy of the American Indian – the same Indian that the American consciousness remembers annihilating in Hollywood movies, in childhood games, and across vast stretches of the continent. Carol Spindel explains, “Mascots don’t live in the real world, but in the rarified imaginary space created by the overlapping bubbles of two of our most cherished myths—sports and Indians. This doubling of mythology protects them; well-polished, transparent, it is completely invisible to most American eyes” (18).


Increasingly, organizations have recognized the linguistic and visual racism connected with the continued appropriation of Indianisms in the naming of athletic teams and mascots. In August 2005, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) made the controversial decision to implement restrictions on Indian mascots in championship events. The Linguistic Society of America, the American Psychology Association, and an increasing number of newspaper editorial boards have also expressed opposition to Indian mascots at any level of sports. The editors of The Oregonian and the Minneapolis Star Tribune, for example, no longer print team names or mascots with Indianism affiliations.


Google any of the following mascots and consider why organizations such as the NCAA and the American Psychology Association voice objections:


In late 2005, the Linguistic Society of America singled out the University of Illinois for its mascot, Chief Illiniwek. Barefoot, dressed in full-length leather and beads, and wearing an orange and white war bonnet, Chief Illiniwek represents the state of Illinois’ flagship public university. He looks like the classic American Indian – ready to perform a sun dance, scalp a cowboy, or perform in Buffalo Bill Cody’s visual spectacle. On their website, the Honor the Chief Society defends the choice of Illiniwek as a way of embodying the “attributes valued by alumni, students, and friends of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. The tradition of the Chief is a link to our great past, a tangible symbol of an intangible spirit . . .” (italics mine). The Society also notes that Coach Bob Zuppke first used the Indianism Illiniwek in the 1920s and adds, “Coach Zuppke was a philosopher and historian by training and inclination.” However, with American Indians representing only .2% of the university’s student population, it is difficult to see Illiniwek as anything other than a misappropriation of the Indian myth (Facts 2005).


The University of North Dakota’s mascot sports the prerequisite gathering of feathers and looks appropriately noble. Native students represent just under 3% of North Dakota’s student population, so an Indian mascot in Grand Forks may seem more appropriate than in Urbana, Illinois (2005-2006 Student Body Profile). Still, with white students accounting for over 90% of its population, the University of North Dakota’s use of Sioux – the term Europeans have carelessly used to collectively describe Nakota, Lakota, and Dakota peoples – reflects the anglophone control of the Indian myth. Linguistically, the University of North Dakota has marketed its mascot in clever ways: at the campus hockey arena, fans buy Sioux-per dogs instead of hotdogs and Sioux-venirs instead of souvenirs.


The Washington Redskins represent the quintessential anglophone appropriation of Indigenous culture. Vine Deloria argues, “With the increasing number of sports teams changing team names, those that remain are on shifting, sinking grounds, and consequently we can now see a determined racism emerging: for example, the Washington Redskins owner, who is adamant about keeping the name. No one realizes the image of Americans seen by the other nations of the world – in the nation’s capital the football team has the most derogatory mascot in the world” (xi). In April 1999, the Federal Trademark Trial and Appeal Board recognized the overt racism of the Redskins and said the disparaging use of American Indians the violated the law. Even after the Board voided the trademark rights of the team, the Redskins have continued using their name and the red-faced, feather-wearing mascot.


In 2002, a University of Northern Colorado intramural basketball team developed the Mighty Whites mascot – a satirical portrayal of a 1950s white man. The Mighty Whites mascot received national media attention and symbolically challenged the countless Indian team names and mascots that exist at all levels of the American sporting industry.


High schools across the country, however, continue to name their teams the Indians, the Redskins, the Braves, the Warriors, and the Red Raiders (King and Springwood 2). In addition to the Fighting Sioux and the Fighting Illini – both appropriately militant in the perpetuation of the Indian myth – the University of Utah has the Utes, Central Michigan University uses the Chippewas, and fans of Southeastern Oklahoma State University cheer on the Savages each Saturday in the fall. Professional teams such as the Kansas City Chiefs, the Atlanta Braves, and the Cleveland Indians also persist in misusing mascots in an extraordinarily profitable industry.



Four hundred years ago, Carew correctly characterized the tendency of anglophone speakers to profit from the selective appropriation of other languages. Except for novel loanwords reflecting the curiosities of settlers, borrowings from Indigenous languages rapidly decreased as Europeans consolidated power in North America (Bailey 71). Instead of loanwords, settlers adapted English to describe the world they attempted to anglicize; many of those adaptations survive in the lexicon as Indianisms, which can carry significant racial overtones. In visually representing Indianisms, American Indian team names and mascots (as well as corporate logos) reveal embedded, often unconscious national perceptions of the mythical Indian. The continued use of such mascots is not, as the Honor the Chief Society argues, a matter of educating the American public of “its” Native heritage. Truly valuing Indigenous survival, culture, and language means quite the opposite.



Bibliography and Further Reading


Indigenous Terminology

Baldrige, Dave. “American Indian or Native American: Which is OK?” Network of Multicultural Aging. 2003. American Association on Aging. 9 Nov. 2005. <>.

“Terminology Guidelines.” The Commission of Racial/Ethnic Diversity. 2000-2001. Pennsylvania State University. 9 Nov. 2005 <>.


Aboriginal Loanwords and Place Names

“Aboriginal Places Names.” Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development. 2 Nov. 2004. <>.

Bailey, Richard W. “ English Abroad.” Images of English: A Cultural History of the Language. Ann Arbor: Michigan UP, 1991.

Cutler, Charles L. O Brave New Words! Native American Loanwords in Current English. Norman: Oklahoma UP, 1994.

Gangier, Gary. “Places – Origins of Names.” Central Quebec School Board. 9 Nov. 2005. <>.


American Indian English

Bartelt, Guillermo. Socio- and Stylolinguistic Perspectives on American Indian English Texts. Native American Studies 8. Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen, 2001.

Leap, William L. American Indian English. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1993.


American Indian Mascots and Logos

Bellfy, Phil. Indigenous Imagery in Corporate Logos. American Indian Studies Program. Michigan State University. 13 Nov. 2005. <>.

“Chief Illiniwek – Media Watch.” 4 Sept. 2005. Chief Illiniwek Educational Foundation. 14 Nov. 2005. <>.

“Chief Illiniwek Resolution and Motions.” LSA Bulletin. Oct. 2000. Linguistic Society of America. 9 Nov. 2005. <>.

Deloria, Vine, Jr. Preface. Team Spirits: The Native American Mascots Controversy. By C. Richard King and Charles Fruehling Springwood. Lincoln: Nebraska UP, 2001.

Fighting Whites Online Store. 14 Nov. 2005. <>.

Hofmann, Sudie. “The Elimination of Indigenous Mascots, Logos, and Nicknames: Organizing on College Campuses.” The American Indian Quarterly 29 (2005). Project Muse. University of Toronto. 14 Nov. 2005. <>.

---. “Pushing Some Buttons.” National Coalition on Racism in Sports and Media. 12 July 2005. American Indian Movement. 9 Nov. 2005. <>.

Johansen, Bruce E. “Putting the Moccasin on the Other Foot: A Media History of the ‘Fighting Whities.’” Studies in Media and Information Literacy Education 3 (2003). University of Toronto Press. 9 Nov. 2005. <>.

King, C. Richard, and Charles Fruehling Springwood. Team Spirits: The Native American Mascots Controversy. Lincoln: Nebraska UP, 2001.

Spindel, Carol. Dancing at Halftime: Sports and the Controversy over American Indian Mascots. New York: New York UP, 2000.

Teters, Charlene. “Introduction.” National Coalition on Racism in Sports and Media. 12 July 2005. American Indian Movement. 9 Nov. 2005. <>.

Willenz, Pam. “APA Calls for Immediate Retirement of American Indian Sports Mascots.” 18 Oct. 2005. American Psychological Association. 9 Nov. 2005. <>.

Williams, Bob. “Guidelines for Use of Native American Mascots.” 5 Aug. 2005. National Collegiate Athletics Association. 9 Nov. 2005. <>.


Cited Statistical Information

2005-2006 Student Body Profile. 2005. University of North Dakota. 20 Dec. 2005. <>.

Facts 2005. 2005. University of Illinois. 20 Dec. 2005. <>.