The use of words meaning 'redskin' and 'whiteskin' in the Meskwaki language

Ives Goddard
Department of Anthropology
Smithsonian Institution


ABOVE: The first known use of the word redskin to be published contemporaneously, as reprinted in Niles' Weekly Register (Baltimore) for October 14, 1815, from an issue of The Western Journal (St. Louis) that does not survive. Shown is the first paragraph of the official translation of the speech that the Meskwaki chief Black Thunder made on July 20, 1815, in the treaty council at Portage des Sioux, Missouri Territory. Addressing Gov. William Clark according to Indian convention as "My Father,'' he referred to Indians and Europeans in the Meskwaki language as "red skins and white skins.'' These were idioms current in several Indian languages of the area which were translated into Mississippi Valley French as Peaux-Rouges and Peaux-Blanches, and from French into local English. C
redit: Smithsonian Institution, Dibner Library. Photograph by Jane Walsh.

RIGHT: A page of a traditional history written in the Meskwaki language in 1914 by Charley H. Chuck (1867-1940). Indians are referred to as "e sa wi na me ska ta'' and "mesgi na me ska ta'' (lines 12-14) and Europeans are called "wa be ski na me ska ni tti ni'' (lines 18-19). These are vernacular spellings of eesaawinameshkaata 'one with brown skin' and meeshkwinameshkaata 'one with red skin' (both meaning 'Indian'), and waapeshkinameshkaanichini, an inflected form (called the obviative) of waapeshkinameshkaata 'one with white skin, white person'.

Chuck's historical text documents the Meskwaki words that Black Thunder would have used in his 1815 speech and which his interpreters translated as "red skins'' and "white skins.'' The word for `European' is still used by Meskwaki speakers today, but the word for `Indian' is now nenooteewa. Credit: Ms 2782, page 9. National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution.