minohsayaki neehi ciinkwiaki ‘On Painted Hides and Thunderbirds’

Interpretation by David Costa

The Miami-Illinois word for a painted hide is minohsaya, found only in the Jesuit dictionaries of old Illinois. LeBoullenger translates this word as ‘peaux passées peintes’ (dressed, painted hides) and Largillier gives it as ‘peaux passees, peintes de plusieures couleur’ (prepared skin, painted in several colors). The etymology of this word is not entirely clear; the –(a)hsay final clearly means ‘hide, skin’, but the minw- initial on the front is of uncertain meaning.  A fair deal of vocabulary dealing with painting and decorating hides can be found in the Illinois dictionaries, such as Largillier’s ‹metchip8inagat8i› ‘painted robe’, ‹kipicat8irani8i› ‘robe decorated with copper’, ‹chich8c8antamenghi› ‘robe edged in copper’, ‹papateghin8i› ‘cloth or skin of various colors’, ‹mare8a8icate8i› ‘it (robe, skin) is badly painted’ and ‹katakiekin8i› ‘spotted/multicolored skin, hide’. Likewise, LeBoullenger has ‹ninta8iki ar8caï› ‘I paint on a skin, draw on a hide’, ‹nariti8ic8rai› ‘festival robe’, ‹atessanga ac8rai› ‘he paints his robe’ and ‹ac8renghigi rapit8ca kigig8› ‘she strings glass beads to her robe’.

The Miami-Illinois name for the thunder being is ciinkwia. In answer to the question of what kind of creature this represents, linguistic evidence from the other Great Lakes Algonquian languages is illuminating. Perhaps most notably, the Miami-Illinois word for ‘hummingbird’, neenimehkia, is clearly related to the word for ‘thunderbird’ in several other languages, possibly going back to the Proto-Algoquian period. Examples are Meskwaki nenemehkiwa, Shawnee nenemhki, Ojibwe animiki, and Menominee nenε·mεhkiw, all of which mean ‘thunderbird’, as well as the Plains Cree verb onimihki·wak ‘he thunders’. Since Miami-Illinois speakers are clearly the innovators here, this would seem to hint that centuries ago Miami-Illinois speakers started calling hummingbirds ‘thunderbirds’, probably indicating that it was a bird they associated with it. Another notable Algonquian word in this connection is Proto-Algonquian *pere·hsiwa; the Miami-Illinois form of this word, pileehsia, means ‘raven’. However, its cognates in Ojibwe (binesi), Plains Cree (piye·siw) and Munsee Delaware (pə̆lé·sə̆w) all mean ‘thunderbird’, while in Shawnee (pelehθi) and Menominee (penε·hsiw) its cognates mean ‘eagle’. In Meskwaki the designation of this bird name has been forgotten, but the related term pene·siwaya is given as ‘sacred bird skin, raptor skin’. Probably at a Proto-Algonquian level this was the name for some kind of supernatural bird, but that at later times this came to be associated by various groups with eagles and ravens.

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