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The Surprising Origin of the words, Maya and Miami

The Mayas did not call themselves, Maya. Their identity was based on the specific language or dialect spoken in a particular province or city-state.  They spoke, and still today, speak many dialects and languages. Some of those Maya languages are as different as English and Swedish.  The label, Maya, was given all of those diverse peoples by the Spanish.

This surprising origin for the word, Maya, was typical of the Spanish.  No Florida tribe ever called itself Timucua.  Timucua is the Spanish derivation of a tribe on the Altamaha River in Georgia, named the Tamakoa (Trade People in hybrid Itza Maya-Arawak.)  The Tamakoa spoke a language similar to those dialects spoken by the provinces in northeastern Florida that now are called Timucua, but they detested the Spanish and moved northward away from them.  In the 1700s, the Tamakoa were located in northeast Georgia near one of the sources of the Altamaha River.  By then, they were members of the Creek Confederacy.

You can blame Christopher Columbus’s brother

In 1502, Cristóbal Colón (Christopher Columbus) invited his brother, Bartolomé, and son, Fernando, to command a ship in his last voyage to the New World.   While sailing through the Bay Islands off the coast of Honduras, Bartolomé encountered a large Native American sea craft with at least 25 rows of oars.  In his log, Bartolomé wrote that the merchant craft was from Maiam.  That is the Late Medieval Castilian spelling of the word. Renaissance Period Spanish speakers spelled the word Mayam, because by then, a Spanish “y” had the “ē” sound in English.  The word was pronounced, Mă : ē : ăm, not Mă : yăm.

Mayam was a province on the northwestern tip of the Yucatan Peninsula.  It is now theorized by Mexican anthropologists that Mayam was originally a Toltec (Nahuatl) word, which perhaps referred to the cochineal beetle, used for dying cloth a vivid red color.

The Spanish eventually called the people in this region, Maya, and the peninsula, Yucatan.  English speakers assumed that a Spanish Y was pronounced like an English Y, and thus, Mă : yă was born.

The first Spaniards to make contact with the indigenous people living around Lake Okeechobee, Florida called them the Maiami, and the lake, Lago Maiami.  This name is clearly related to the original name of the northern Yucatan Peninsula.  Over time the word was contracted to Maiami and then evolved to Mayaimi. The early Anglo-American settlers in southern Florida contracted the word further to Miami. The Rio Maiami  became the Miami River, and ultimately the City of Miami.

During the time period when they encountered the Spaniards, the Mayaimi lived simple lives that revolved around fishing, hunting and the gathering of wild fruits and nuts.  However, in the period between around 300 AD and 1150 AD, they had one of the most advanced societies north of Mexico.  Their many towns contain temple mounds, ornate earthworks, ceremonial pools and large populations.  The towns were inter-connected with hundreds of miles of canals and raised causeways.  This is a trait that they shared with the people living in the Yucatan Peninsula.  The Mayaimi also used the artistic symbols, associated with the “Mississippian Mound Builders” hundreds of years before they appeared in other parts of the Southeast.  Around 1150 AD, some catastrophe, perhaps a Class Five hurricane or a plague, wiped out most of the Mayaimi population and caused the abandonment of the large towns. Their tribal name permanently disappeared from the maps after Great Britain took control of Florida in 1763.

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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.



    Hello Richard:

    Is this your site? We should get together and trade ideas and speculations of our concerns that so many other people and scholars know nothing about.

    We are running out of people to converse with on the Seminoles, Natchez, Apalachee, Oconee, Timucuas and many other extinct (only in people status-not blood).

    • It is our organization’s site. I did not create the website nor am I the webmaster. I am just the editor. The People of One Fire has several hundred members and as of last month 77,098 subscribers.


    Incidentally, we named my great nieces ‘Miami’ and ‘Myakka’, five (5) and six (6) respectively.


      Those are dumb names. Would you name a girl child Quaker, or Mohawk, or Ojibwa?


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