In my previous post I told you about Ha Ha Tonka State Park, which is perhaps the most popular of Missouri’s state parks. Today, I want to zero in on a subject that’s been bothering me a while: The name.
From what I’ve been able to learn, a Colonel R. G. Scott, one of the first white men to own and/or write about the area, said that Osage Indians (basically, the “previous owners”) had told him they called the land Hahatonka, which supposedly meant “laughing water” (some sources give the purported translation as “smiling waters,” or some other variation).
Many sources repeat and repeat this etymology, which I think bears serious questioning, given the cultural sensitivity Americans have cultivated nowadays to partially rectify the injustices and cultural tramplings of the past.
Are we to take it that -tonka (used so often in tourism-associated names) means “water,” and that haha- means “laughing”? Come on.
Sure, in all languages, some words (like smack, slither, and plop) are onamatopoetic, but I remain skeptical about the Indians saying “haha” when they wanted to say “laugh.”
Honestly, I know very little about Osage or any other Native American languages, but something seems fishy here. From what I’ve been able to learn from Internet sources, tonka means “great” in the language of the Dakotas—as in Wakan-Tonka, “Great Spirit” (the adjective great follows the verb Wakan/spirit). And Minnetonka (a city name in Minnesota) is supposed to mean “great water.” (Minnesota, by the way, is supposed to mean “sky-tinted water”; mni- or minne- would be the “water” part.) This is in the Dakota language. I don’t know about the language of the Osage.
Tonka can also refer to a type of bean, a tonka bean, the fruit of a tree from Guinea. (Which is completely different.)
On the specific naming of our beloved state park, I’ve looked at several sources, and the one I’m most inclined to trust is Robert L. Ramsay, Our Storehouse of Missouri Place Names (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1973). Ramsay was a scholar who specialized in the study of place-names and constructed his book from painstaking and exacting historical research. And on page 42, he states: “Often the white man simply made up an Indian sounding name which actually means nothing at all, as he seems to have done in Hahatonka, Mendota, Mineola, Owasco, and Wasola.”
He mentions the place-name again in his section “Coined Names”: “The man who owned the land around Winnetonka joined what he supposed to be an Indian suffix -tonka to his own name Winn. Perhaps he modeled it upon Hahatonka, whose founder mistakenly thought he had derived it from Indian words meaning ‘smiling waters’” (116).
Maybe Colonel Scott, or whoever he learned it from, had simply heard it wrong or spelled it clumsily, or—this seems more likely—someone back there in history flat-out made it up.
In my recent ponderings, it’s occurred to me that new information might have arisen on the Ha Ha Tonka name. I asked a longtime member of the Missouri Board on Geographic Names, and he told me that Ramsay has not yet been superseded on this matter.
I’m absolutely not suggesting we discard this long-established, beloved, and honestly, rather silly place-name as “culturally insensitive” (the way I generally support the replacement of “squaw” place-names, which many Native folks find deeply offensive).
Instead, I contend that the name “Ha Ha Tonka” reflects an important historical fault line* in the region’s history: the acquisition of Osage lands by whites, and the collision, confusion, appropriation, and misappropriation of Native language and culture and territory—whether intentional or accidental—and all the “development” and marketing that has followed. It’s like the rubber toy tomahawks decorated with dyed turkey feathers that they used to sell at souvenir shops on the Bagnell Dam strip. Let’s just accept it for what it is.
* Pun intended, indeed.