“Wolverine” in the Languages of North America

I recently found myself in a library with a large collection of resources on native North American languages – several shelves of dictionaries and grammars, old and new, of everything from Haida to Navajo, Salish to Koyukon. Thinking of the recent (re)discovery of wolverines in the Wallowa mountains of Oregon, I pulled down a thick orange dictionary to see whether the Nez Perce, the people who originally inhabited those mountains, had had a word for wolverine. And there it was: “se·’pin’isé·pin: ‘carrier of snowshoes.'”

I spent the next several hours pulling every dictionary in the section off the shelves and looking up the diverse ways that the nations of North America refer to Gulo gulo. Some of the dictionaries contained some interesting ethnographic insights as well, and in a couple of cases they permitted the reader to track back through the language to figure out the words’ derivations. In one case (Blackfoot), the dictionary provided an entirely inexplicable but very intriguing wolverine reference. It was an hour well spent, though I pity the librarian responsible for reshelving all 25 dictionaries. I later did some more searching online; links to online dictionaries are provided in the text.

Here’s a partial list of the discoveries, arranged by linguistic family, with my own observations in italics. I’ve used the language family terms in the map below so people can assess where the different words were spoken; I’m not current on the inevitable politics of naming and grouping these languages, so I apologize for any terms inappropriately used, but I wanted to provide the reader with some reference points. In the interest of being a super-linguist dork, let me add that I tried to track down all of the correct symbols involved in transliterating these languages, but WordPress has a limited repertoire. I glossed the rest as best I could. “Respect names” refer to words that were used in cases where people did not want the animal to know that they were talking about it, eg, after having recently killed one, or in times of other potential spiritual peril.

As a further note, many of these languages are endangered – most have fewer than 1000 speakers, and some have fewer than 50. I love languages as much as I love wildlife, so this kind of thing hits me hard. It hits me even harder when the wildlife component meets the language component – much of what is known about a given environment can be expressed so much more eloquently in the language that has evolved in concert with that environment. We can’t all learn an endangered language but, politically, we can at least support the rights to self-determination and education that help keep these languages around. Otherwise, we wouldn’t have fifty ways to say “wolverine” – we’d only have one. And that would be as much as a loss as the disappearance of the animal itself.

The language families of North America. From Wikimedia Commons.

Na Dene/Athabaskan

Ahtna: Nałtsiis

Also tl’akoltseni (hunting name), nunyae (respect name for wolves, wolverines, and bears; means something like “carnivorous creature.”)

The plant coltsfoot (petasites) was referred to as nałtsiis ke’, “wolverine’s foot,” and soft or rotten wood was referred to as nałtsiis tsedze, “wolverine’s wood.” The latter is interesting since denning female wolverines sometimes shred rotten wood as bedding material for their kits.

Deg Xinag: Niłtreth

Dena’ina: Nełchish (in the outer and upper inlet regions of S. Central Alaska); Idalsha (in the Inland and the outer inlet regions).

Also recorded were a number of nicknames, unfortunately not explained or elaborated upon: bank’ilkizi, vank’ilikidzi, ghusha, dghusha, veghusa, yes hughen’i, tl’uqelttseni, yun’eh ch’agheyula.

Dene Suline (Chipewayan): Naghai

Eyak: Kena’a. Eyak is now extinct.

Gwich’in: Nätröh, Natrayah

Holikachuk: Niłtseth

Koyukon: Nełtseel

Also: Neełkkaa’k’edenaatlkkele, derived from a stem kket, which means “to slip or to slide on snow.” The author of the dictionary speculates that this is due to the ‘twisted’ appearance of the wolverine’s tracks, although it might also mean that the Koyukon, like some of my friends, witnessed wolverines sliding happily down hills, apparently to amuse themselves.

Hubaagheyee from a stem baa, meaning ‘edge.’ This was a respect name used by women when there was a dead wolverine in the house, in order not to offend it. It meant something like “the one whose fur trims the garments.”

Nełkkaak’edenaatlkk’ele, derived from a stem kk’et, meaning “pair.” This literally means “the one that keeps its feet paired,” most likely referring to the wolverine’s two-by tracks. This was also used for martens, which make the same kind of tracks.

Dzehkenh, the white patch “on a wolverine’s neck,” derived from dzeh, meaning ‘earring’ or ‘ear base.’ (I’m assuming this refers to the throat patch, although it could also refer to the mask or a lighter patch of fur that sometimes runs along the back of the neck)

Doyonh, a respect name meaning ‘rich man’ or ‘master.’ Allegedly this word comes from Russian. It was used after a hunter had killed a wolverine, in which case the carcass would be set up in a sitting position and a feast brought and arranged before it. The hunter and village men might later come and eat the foods that had been offered; women were apparently prohibited from eating these offerings – although evidently not from hunting, since a woman was also cited as having killed and set up a feast for a doyonh. Wolverines were considered to have a strong -yeege’, or protective spirit, and only the hunter was allowed to actually consume the head meat if the animal was eaten. The skinned carcasses were usually cremated, sometimes with an offering, and the cremation spot was considered so powerful afterwards that it remained haunted. Merely passing by the place, even without knowing, was enough to cause rheumatism or other ills. (all ethnographic info from Sullivan 1942, cited in Jette and Jones, 2011)

Upper Kuskokwim: Niłtresh

Navajo: nothing reported for wolverine. Na-hash-chid is reported for “badger” in a Code Talker’s Dictionary from World War II. The Navajo are Athabaskan-speaking people who are far to the south of the core Athabaskan territory in the boreal forest; allegedly the Navajo arrived in the southwestern US relatively recently, perhaps around 1400 CE. Although Navajo territory is not wolverine habitat, I was interested in whether there might have been a carry-over word, since the northern Athabaskan languages offer such a rich array of variations for wolverine. It might be a bit of a stretch, but given the relationship of the badger to the wolverine, and the similarity of the Navajo word to the many other Athabaskan words for wolverine, perhaps this was a carry-over from former boreal days? Likewise, the word for badger in Apache, another southern Athabaskan language, is Naganshitn.

Tanacross: Nahtsith

Lower Tanana: Néłtréeth

Upper Tanana: Nahtsia. This dictionary also informs us that Nahtsia ch’uudelnih, “Wolverines are mean.”

Tlingit: nóoskw


Eskimo/Aleut

Central Alaskan Yupik: qafcik

Central and Naukan Siberian Yupik: qafsik

Seward Peninsula Inuit: qappik, qaffik

Malimiut and Nunamiut: qavvik

Western Canadian Inuit: Siglit, Caribou qavvik; Copper qalvik

Eastern Canadian Inuit: qavvik; South Baffin qaγik

North Greenland/Polar Eskimo: qaγvik

Greenland Inuit: qappik,”mythological animal” (the Greenland Inuit live in a region that has not, as far as we know, historically had wolverines. Perhaps they were hearing about this animal from other Inuit, and incorporated it as a mythological animal.)

Aluutiq: Alas’aamaakaq. Of which the dictionary writers observe, alas’aamaakamek tangeqsiilartua, “I have never seen a wolverine.”

Algic

Anishnaabemowim/Ojibwe/Chippewa: Gwiingowaage+g, Ogiinga’wage+g, Gwiingowaage+g, Ogwiinga’waaaage+g, Wiishkobijaaz+ag. Also listed are the words Ogwiingwa’aagewaayan+ag, “wolverine skin” or “wolverine bag.”

Blackfoot: Piinotoyi. This is straightforward. Next to this entry, however, was Issistsaaki, “wolverine in the form of a woman.” Reading further revealed Issistsaakiksi, “wolverine women,” and then the sentence Mátóomaitapiwa ámokskayi niitáí nikhatayi issistáakiiyi, áí pi’kakiiwa’ siyaawa, “The first people, those, they were the ones who were not afraid of the ones called wolverines, who became imposter women.” Will someone who knows Blackfoot PLEASE get in touch with me to explain what this is all about? I am very curious…..

Plains Cree: kihkwahâkew, “large wolverine,” kekwahâkes, “small wolverine” The text was unclear as to whether this refers to a size distinction, or whether these two terms refer to adults versus kits. Interestingly, Mongolians divide wolverines into “two kinds,” large and small, which they say correlate with sex and markings (males are always, in their view, larger and have distinct markings, while the females are small and dark. Kazakhs, on the other hand, have told me about large, dark males.) Nearby terms in the dictionary included “a grave,” “having a strong smell,” “s/he gives it a good talking to,” “s/he follows at a distance,” “being highly temperamental,” and “being hot tempered.” Because of the way the dictionary was structured, I don’t know whether any of these terms are actually related to ‘wolverine,’ but it was interesting since all of them are, in some sense, descriptive of wolverines or of habits or properties associated with them.

Rock Cree (Boreal forest): omiðacis, ominuthes (Robert Brightman, in his book Grateful Prey, recounts the story of a Cree man who named his snowmobile “omiðacis” because, like the animal, it had the ability to “go all over the place on the snow.”)

Innu: Kuekuatsheu (from which the word “Carcajou” derives….)

Siouan

Assiniboine: Wícena. Also Mnáza, “A small animal wicked as a bear, similar to a wolverine.”

Lakota: Škecáthanka.

Plateau Penutian/Sahaptian

Nez Perce: se·’pin’isé·pin, meaning “carrier of snowshoes.” Also referenced was “Sahaptin wašapa-ni, “packer.”” Sahaptin refers to a number of Nez Perce related tribes of the Plateau region, including the Yakama, Umatilla, Cayuse, and Palouse, although – in typical fashion – the term ‘Sahaptin,’ meaning “strangers to the land,” was bestowed on these tribes by their enemies, so they are now advocating for the use of ‘Ichishkíin Sínwit’ to refer to the groups in question. Neither the dictionary nor Wikipedia were able to clarify where, exactly, ‘Sahaptin’ is spoken or which of these groups provided the word wašapa-ni.

Salishan

Upriver Halkomelem: Shxwématsel, also used to refer to fisher or marten. Xwématsel means “lump on the back,” which seems more characteristic of gulos than of their martes cousins. The territory of the  Halkomelem covers a small coastal region and part of Vancouver Island; Vancouver did have its own wolverine subspecies, now probably extinct. Upriver Halkomelem were on the mainland; if anyone has information on whether the island Halkomelem had a word for wolverine, please let me know.

Salish: Cišps. The example sentence in the online dictionary is – typically – q˜o mawlx˜is t cišps, “The wolverine wrecked my tipi.”

Squamish: K’élk’ech

Iroquoian

I didn’t find any words for wolverine in any of the Iroquoian (Mohawk, Oneida, Onandaga) dictionaries I searched. I don’t know if this reflects the fact that the dictionary compilers didn’t ask about the word, whether wolverines never inhabited these regions, whether wolverines weren’t culturally important, or whether the word might have been lost since the species is no longer present (if it ever was in the first place; it may have been at the far northern edge of the Iroquoian range.) If anyone has information on this, let me know.

Unclassified

Tsimshian: Noosik, Noosü

Haida: Núusg

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7 thoughts on ““Wolverine” in the Languages of North America

  1. Awesome post 🙂 Was this a room in Saskatoon? I knew that place had to be awesome.

    no Apsalooke? 😦 interesting coincidence, since we can’t find wolverines in NW Wyoming now…

    that’s strange about the “Russian.” Maybe “boyar” after some weird consonant shift, or a reference to the use of the “khozyain” concept (Russian word meaning householder) by a number of Siberian peoples to refer to similar protective/dangerous/hunted spirits? (Damn I want to get ahold of some dictionaries of Siberian languages in Russian now…)

    also, my friend works on Siouan langauges (mostly southern ones, though) so he can probably put you in touch with some guys if you want to know more about any of those…

    • Thanks, Marissa. This list is definitely not exhaustive and I still don’t even have an idea of exactly how many languages were/are spoken in North American wolverine habitat, so I anticipate adding to the list as time goes on. I’ll look up Apsalooke sometime in the next round, but I was becoming way too obsessed with trying to track down every dialect and I actually had some work to do….:)

      I was thinking of tackling the Siberian languages next; I’m sure the Russians have a better collection of Siberian language dictionaries than we do over here, so any help you might offer would be awesome. 🙂 I did find a few old Russian dictionaries and since – thanks to you – I do indeed know how to say wolverine in Russian, I thought I could do some initial looking up – but any of the ethnographic insight would be totally lost.

      • Okay – I now have a word in Crow/Apsalooke: che’t-shesh (this is an approximate transliteration…), evidently related to the word che’t h’eseh, “wolf.”

  2. Regarding the wolverine women referred to by the Blackfoot: I remember a Wild Discovery episode on wolverines about ten years ago that included an interview with a Blackfoot individual. He explained how the Blackfoot traditionally viewed the wolverine as a trickster, and have a legend that says a wolverine will approach a lone hunter in the form of a woman and try to seduce him. I vaguely remember him saying that if she succeeds, bad things would happen to his spirit. The hunter is supposed to offer her a piece of meat, and if she is the wolverine she’ll throw the piece of meat over her shoulder, at which point the hunter should try to shoot her, although she seems to usually disappear in time.

    I couldn’t find many references to the episode, which is too bad because they followed Jeff Copeland in a study that I believe was conducted in the Sawtooth Mountains in Idaho and did a great job of following a female throughout the winter and spring as she hunted, selected a den (not sure if it was the natal den, but that’s what the narrator suggested), birthed two kits (although with the camera shots from within the den I’m inclined to think they cut to a captive female giving birth, but I can’t accurately say one way or another), and later interacted with a younger wolverine- around when it was just becoming apparent that young wolverines would stay within their mother’s home range for at least their first year.

    • Thanks for all the great info! I will look into getting a copy of that episode if possible. The Mongolians also talk about wolverines throwing meat over their shoulders, although I haven’t yet heard that wolverines appear in the form of seductive women (that is left to other sorts of spirits….)

    • I’ll continue to update this page as I learn new words for wolverine. One of these days I’m going to do a similar compendium for the Siberian languages as well.

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