by John

A more recent book by Indiana University professor and linguist Michael McCafferty, an authority on Algonquian languages, casts doubt on most of the above theories, and his work illustrates the complexities of language that can often be imbedded in the naming of a place. In his book, Native American Place-Names of Indiana (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2008) Gc 977.2 M123n, McCafferty devotes a chapter on the Kekionga-Kiskakon question, and local historians finally have some answers to a question that has vexed them as they have grown dissatisfied with the blackberry patch tradition.

McCafferty agrees with Dunn that <Kiskakon> has an Ottawa derivation. Offering a richer explanation, he states that it was almost certainly derived from the common Gallicized Algonquian name for the bear totem band of the Ottawa tribe. However, he also clarifies how this Ottawa term came to be applied to this place, since the Miami, not the Ottawa, were the dominant tribe in this area. His explanation seems sensible: it was not that the Ottawa held this place, but that it was their term for this Miami-held place, since Ottawa would surely have had a name for this important area. The original word, before being altered by the French, may have been kiiskakkam or the longer kiskakkamikaang. “In sum, then,” writes McCafferty, “the French may have used <Kiskakon>, an old, comfortable Ottawa standard in lieu of the actual somewhat homophonous Ottawa expression.”

In continuing his analysis, McCafferty demonstrates convincingly that <Kekionga> did not derive from a corruption of <Kiskakon>, since it has no common linguistic root. It does not mean blackberry patch, nor does it stem from the Miami-Illinois word, (ah)kihkonki, meaning pot or kettle. One possibility, he suggests, is a different Miami word, (ah)kihkionki, pronounced [kihkioŋgi], a term that means “on the earth.” The Miami villages at Fort Wayne were located on a steep bluff on the St. Joseph River just north of the confluence, where the French built their second fort, Fort St. Joseph. A French-speaking British lieutenant, H. Duvernet, observed in 1778 that the rivers often overflowed their banks in the spring, drowning many of the Indian dwellings, but ground where the French fort was built stood on higher ground and was dry. “Thus, given the site’s geographical setting, one is inclined to see in Miami-Illinois (ah)kihkionki … as a term referring to the only suitable dry living space amid the surrounding, expansive swamplands and flood-prone valleys – on the earth rather than submersed in water.”

Even this interpretation is likely wrong, however, and McCafferty goes on to call <Kekionga> “a fun-house mirror” because of its inherent distortions. Since it does not appear in any French or British sources from the eighteenth century, one has to search other records. The Moravian missionary David Zeisberger wrote the name in 1784 as <Gigeyunk>. John Heckewelder, a colleague, called it <Kegeyunk> at about the same time, while the American general Josiah Harmar wrote in 1790 of <Kekaiogue> before his ill-fated expedition against the Miami villages later that year. All of these terms seem to be early variations of Kekionga, but the name has not been found in earlier sources.

After a lengthy analysis of the vowel sounds, McCafferty proposes another Miami-Illinois word for the word’s origin, kiihkayonk, pronounced [kiihkayoŋgi], a phrase meaning “at Kikaya” or “Kikaya’s Place,” with <Kikaya> representing a personal name in the Delaware Indian language for “Old Man.” The Miami retooled the name in their own dialect. Perhaps “Kikaya” represented General Anthony Wayne, who had defeated the confederated tribes at the Battle of Fallen Timbers and constructed Fort Wayne at the headwaters in 1794. With the Americans now firmly occupying the site, it would have been logical for the remaining Miami to use this term. However, the matter is still more complicated, since variants of <Kekionga> were in use in the 1780s. Perhaps the Delaware tribe had used <Kikaya> as a term of respect for the principal Miami chiefs and elders who had lived there before Wayne’s arrival. McCafferty proposes yet another similar word, čečaahkonki, meaning “at the sand-hill crane,” since the crane was the totem for the Miami and could be seen as a representation of their village. However, there is no contemporary documentary evidence for its use, even though it seems logical, since a similar word, waayaahtanonki, meaning “at the Wea,” was used to describe the Miami-Wea village near modern Lafayette.

In Native American Place-names of Indiana, McCafferty comes closer than any historian in unraveling the mystery of Kekionga, but his conclusions are by no means simple or clear-cut. As he has so meticulously revealed, the story of the name contains many layers, and none stands out as absolutely authoritative. When delving into the naming history of any place, whether it is here in Fort Wayne or elsewhere, expect that task to be muddy. The path may take the researcher into linguistic studies that go far beyond what one would expect in traditional sources. Merely opening a local history book may not offer up an accurate explanation.