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The Mesoamerican Origin of the Word: Etowah

The Mesoamerican Origin of the Word, Etowah
Its etymology will surprise you!

Best known as the name of a large “Mississippian” town site in northwestern Georgia, the word “Etowah” can be found as a place name in several states. In its Mvskoke form, it is also part of the title of the Principal Chief of the Muscogee-Creek Nation. The vast majority of Native Americans and scholars presume that it just one of those ancient indigenous words in the Southeast, whose meaning has been lost. They are quite wrong.

There is a popular web site, written by a highly respected PhD anthropologist, which published the following interpretation of the word, Etowah. By the way, the article was properly referenced to a book on the Southeastern Indians, written by another highly respected PhD anthropologist. “Etowah is derived from the English word, Hightower. When settlers first came into that region of Georgia and saw the tall mounds, they called them high towers and river that ran beside them the Hightower River. Etowah is the pronunciation of Hightower by the Cherokees, who lived around those mounds.”

OMG! Young people are paying $32,000 a year to be taught malarkey like that? Maybe we need to start Bubba Mountain Lion University to give them thar young folks some proper ehchewkashun!

The Pedigree of Muskogean Languages

Especially when studying Itsate, Hitchiti, Mvskoke, Koasati and Miccosukee words, scholars must realize that these languages evolved through the years in a very similar manner to English. How many of you have a clue what the words mean in the Anglo-Saxon saga of Beowulf? I can understand some of it because of living in Scandinavia for awhile. However, the majority of Americans don’t have clue what Old English words mean. The same could also probably be said for contemporary Native Americans in Oklahoma trying to understand the language of their ancestors from 1100 years ago.

The Archaic Muskogean proto-language has been highly influenced by the waves of immigrants into the Southeast, who followed the original Muskogean settlers . . . and also the languages of the indigenous peoples, who were living there before them. There is a parallel in English history. Northern Germanic peoples invaded Britannia, speaking a tongue somewhat akin to Friesian or Skånska. They picked up place names and a few geographical words from the Celtic peoples, they conquered. Then the Vikings and Danes invaded northern and eastern England. From them English borrowed the vocabulary of sailing and some more place names. Then the Normans replaced the English-Scandinavian elite in 1066.

For almost 200 years, the English commoners spoke an English increasingly influence by Latin and French, while the aristocracy spoke Norman-French. Modern English is an assimilation of these languages. Latin and French-Norman gave us most of the vocabulary used in government, law, clothing, high cuisine, medicine and science.

Totonac, Itza Maya, Putun Maya and Tamaule loaned the Creek languages the words associated with government, architecture, trade and those crops that were imported from Mesoamerica. The words for corn and beans in the Creek languages are of Itza Maya origin. Squash, sweet potatoes and sunflowers are indigenous words.

The original Muskogean settlers in the eastern Southeast probably spoke a language similar to Alabama, but without the Mesoamerican words, most modern Muskogean languages include to some degree. By far, Itsate, Hitchiti and Miccosukee have the largest Mesoamerican vocabulary. Miccosukees have stated that some branches of the Mayas can understand most of what they are saying.

Even though contemporary Muskogean languages are written with the English alphabet, the letters do not have the same sounds as English. This fact has caused many archaeologists to misinterpret places and miss important evidence. For example, the Muskogean “v” sound has always been a problem for European speakers. Depending on the indigenous dialect, the “v” can be something between a broad “a” and a flat “u,” an “aw” sound, or even like a Queen’s English broad “a.” Spanish speakers generally write it down as a “u.” English speaker write it down as an “a.”

There are at least three “s” sounds in Itsate, Hitchiti and Miccosukee, yet English and Muskogee Creek uses the same “s” for all three. There are many more examples. I am not the least bit fluent in any of the Muskogean languages, but to my ears, the pronunciation of Hitchiti Creek sounds very similar to the indigenous languages of southern Mexico.

I first stumbled upon the presence of Mesoamerican words in the Creek languages in 2004, when asked to write an online textbook on Creek architecture for Creek students. While glancing through my journal from the fellowship in Mexico, I suddenly realized that traditional Creek post-ditch houses were identical to traditional Totonac post-ditch houses. Out of curiosity, I looked up “casa” in a Spanish-Totonac dictionary. The word in Totonac was “chiki.” Chiki is also the word for house in the dialects of Creek originally spoken in most of Georgia, the Carolinas, Tennessee and Florida. Choctaws, Chickasaws, Alabamas and Muskogee Creeks originally used the Itza Maya word for “warm” – choko – to describe a thick walled post-ditch house for winter use. It now just means “house.” After I put those first Mesoamerican-Creek word connections in the online textbook, I was no longer invited to give lectures on Mesoamerican architecture at Southeastern universities and archaeological societies. Hm-m-m. methinks that there be something rotten in Denmark.

Tula, the Ancient Mother Town

An Archaic Period base camp on the Etowah River in northwestern Georgia.

An Archaic Period base camp on the Etowah River in northwestern Georgia.

Most Mexican anthropologists have concluded that Tula was the name of Teotihuacan. Traditionally, Mexican linguists have said that it meant, “Place of the Reeds,” but now they are not so sure. Whatever its origin, Tula came to mean “large town” in several Mesoamerican languages. The word “tula” is found in most dialects of Totonac and the western Maya languages.

Itza and several other Maya dialects use an “I” or “E” prefix to establish special importance. Thus, any town in the province of Chiaha (Salvia River or possibly, “Beside the River”) could be called Chiaha, but the capital was called I-Chiaha. Readers of the De Soto Chronicles are often confused because the Spanish writers seemed to mix the words “Chiaja” and “Ichiaja.” Chiapas means “Place of the Salvia” in Itza Maya. This prefix can be found in Creek place names and proper nouns, but most contemporary Creek speakers do not normally use the prefix to amplify a wide range of nouns as Maya speakers do.

The “I” or “E” prefix can also be found in some Cherokee place names inherited from Creek speakers. For example, the important Overhills Cherokee town of Echota was originally called Itsate (Itza Maya People in Itza) when absorbed by the Cherokee Alliance. Its “nickname” was originally “Cho-te,” which possibly meant “Cho’l Maya People.” Cho’l is a language spoken today in Tabasco. There were several towns named Itsate-Chote, so when the one on the Little Tennessee River became the Cherokee “capital,” it was set apart by being called E-chote. English speakers changed it to Echota. So the last Cherokee capital east of the Mississippi had a name of Itza Maya origin. The current capital in Oklahoma of the Cherokees. Talequah, is derived from the Creek word for bean, Talako, which comes from the Mesoamerican word for “bean,” talako, which comes from the Andean word for “lima bean.” That is why Cherokee speakers can give no meaning for either Echota or Tahlequah.

The Etymology of Etowah

Richard Thornton's artistic representation of what Etowah may have looked like.

Richard Thornton’s artistic representation of what Etowah may have looked like.

Etowah is the English spelling of the Cherokee word for the great town in northwest Georgia. Immigrants from “Etowah” in Georgia founded towns of the same name in SE Tennessee, on the French Broad River near Hendersonville, North Carolina and upstream from Charleston, SC.

Etvlwv is the contemporary Mvskoke (Muskogee) word for the mother town in NW Georgia and the nation as a whole. Talwa is a tribal town or capital of a province. Etalwamiko is the official title of the Principal Chief of the Muscogee-Creek Nation. The Second Chief’s title is Heneha, which comes from the Itza Maya title, hene ahau or “sun lord.”

Etulwv is the contemporary Kvsa (Upper Creek) word for the mother town in NW Georgia. Traditionally, only Upper Creeks were considered to be the direct descendants of Etowah and Kusa. They originally spoke a dialect of Itsate (Hitchiti) but during the past 250 years the Upper Creek language has been highly influence by Muskogee.

Etvliwa was the Lower Creek (Apalachicola) word for the mother town in NW Georgia. Taliwa was their name for a principal town. Apalachicola is extinct now, but was a mixture of Muskogee, Gulf Coast Choctaw and Palache (Biloxi.)

Tulase or Tvlase (Talassee) composed the branch of the Creeks that claimed to be direct descendants of the inhabitants of the “Etowah” province. Tulsa, Oklahoma gets its name from the Tulase. The word means “Offspring of Tula.” One of the largest branches of the Talassee Creeks was located in extreme western North Carolina (Graham County, Great Smoky Mountains) until forced out by the Cherokees in the early 1700s. Their capital town, Chiaha was located on an island in the Little Tennessee River. Chiaha relocated to SW Georgia and remained a prominent Creek town until the Indian Removal Period. Chiaha was NEVER located on an island in the French Broad River as stated in several books on the de Soto Expedition, written in the late 20th century by Southeastern anthropology professors.

E-tula was the Itsate (Archaic Hitchiti) and original name of the mother town in NW Georgia. Both the prefix and the core word are pure Mesoamerican. The Itsate Creek word, talula, is derived from that word and means a district administrative center with one mound. Talufa is the Muskogee Creek version of that word. Tallulah Falls, GA is the Anglicization of talula.

The politics of a Name

The main highway in Graham County, NC leading to the Smokies AND the two Cherokee reservations is named Tallula Road. There is a large Early Mississippian pyramidal mound and town site that gave the road its name, directly adjacent to US 129 – Tallula Rd. The mound receives no protection from the State of North Carolina and is not even on their list of Indian mounds in the state. Cherokee officials pretend that it’s not there because all the Pre-Colonial period artifacts around the site are typical of Etowah Mounds in Georgia.

Another frequently-seen place name in Graham County is Cheoah, which is the Anglicization of Chiaha – the capital of the Talassee Creeks. Both the mountain range where the Snowbird Cherokee Reservation is located and the local US Forest Service District Office are named Cheoah. In fact, 7 out of the 8 Native American place names in Graham County are either Muskogean or Mesoamerican. This heavy presence of non-Cherokee place names suggests that the Muskogeans left the region very late in the colonial era.

The reason that the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians has spent so much money and human energy opposing the idea that Maya Commoner immigrants came to the Southeastern United States as their civilization collapsed, is political. It has no basis in real Cherokee traditions. Famous Cherokee historians such as Principal Chief Charles Hicks stated that the Cherokees arrived in western North Carolina from northeastern Tennessee at about the same time that the English arrived in South Carolina. He said that they killed or drove off the Muskogean mound builders, whose provinces had been weakened by terrible plagues. He said that Big Tellico, near the NC-TN line, was their first principal town, not Kituwah.

During the last quarter of the 20th century, the Eastern Cherokees in collusion with some archaeologists from North Carolina and Georgia created a “new history” of their people that conflicted completely to what their leaders have always said. The new history stated that the Cherokees built the mounds in western North Carolina. The new history had the Cherokees arriving in the Southern Highlands at about the same time that hybrid Muskogean-Maya immigrants began developing “Early Mississippian” towns in the Southern Highlands. Clearly, if the public became aware that the Creek town of Chiaha was originally in Graham County, NC there would be problems. The public would be laughing at the North Carolina Cherokees claim now to have been in North Carolina for 10,000 years. A whole generation of tourist promotion literature would have to be thrown into the dumpster.

The involvement of some USFS offices in the mountains with the “Maya in Georgia” controversy is more complex. There have been repeated complaints by North Carolina citizens of ultra-rightwing activities in their district offices and charges of corruption related to timber sales in the Georgia mountain USFS offices. A disproportionate number of employees in the Gainesville, GA office of the USFS are from western North Carolina. Several claim to have a trace of Cherokee ancestry. There is also a long history of the federal government buying loyalty from federally recognized tribes by giving them financial aid in return for “doing what they are told.” In this situation it is not clear if the local USFS offices bought the Cherokees or the Cherokees bought the local USFS offices, or if they have been in bed together so long, that they are common law spouses. Whatever their relationship, their bed is a stack of cards.

The times are a-changing

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Richard Thornton is a professional architect, city planner, author and museum exhibit designer-builder. He is today considered one of the nation’s leading experts on the Southeastern Indians. However, that was not always the case. While at Georgia Tech Richard was the first winner of the Barrett Fellowship, which enabled him to study Mesoamerican architecture and culture in Mexico under the auspices of the Institutio Nacional de Antropoligia e Historia. Dr. Roman Piňa-Chan, the famous archaeologist and director of the Museo Nacional de Antropologia, was his fellowship coordinator. For decades afterward, he lectured at universities and professional societies around the Southeast on Mesoamerican architecture, while knowing very little about his own Creek heritage. Then he was hired to carry out projects for the Muscogee-Creek Nation in Oklahoma. The rest is history. Richard is the Tribal Historic Preservation Officer for the KVWETV (Coweta) Creek Tribe and a member of the Perdido Bay Creek Tribe. In 2009 he was the architect for Oklahoma’s Trail of Tears Memorial at Council Oak Park in Tulsa. He is the president of the Apalache Foundation, which is sponsoring research into the advanced indigenous societies of the Lower Southeast.

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