Fanimingo and Civility.

I’m reading Nicole Eustace’s Covered with Night: A Story of Murder and Indigenous Justice in Early America, which won the 2022 Pulitzer Prize in History and deserved it — it’s very well written, tells a gripping story, and shines a new light on colonial history, focusing on a murder case in 1722. I’ll quote here a passage from Chapter 2 explaining the odd-sounding titles by which Taquatarensaly (also called Tioquataraghse, among other spellings), who played a vital role in events, was known:

Pennsylvanians’ uncertainty about how to describe Taquatarensaly’s function reflects their basic unfamiliarity with Indian ways. As a descendent of the Susquehannock Indian Nation, also known as the “Mingos,” Taquatarensaly is heir to a long tradition of Native American diplomacy. Native peoples of the American southeast have a specific title for a man who smooths relations between peoples by taking up membership in more than one society. Such a man acts simultaneously as a war captain who protects his people and a spokesman able to intercede for both his own people and for any other peoples who formally adopted him as one of their own. They refer to such people by the title “Fanimingo.”

English settlers have at least a glancing awareness of the term, mentioned in a letter written by a colonist named Thomas Nairne in 1708. According to Nairne, it is usual for a family in want of protection to choose “some growing man of esteem in the wars” and “claim him for the head or Chief of their family.” The man so chosen is addressed thereafter as “chief” and honored with presents. In return, he is “to protect that family and take care of its concerns equally with those of his own.” Nairne indicated that an analogous procedure could be used by “two nations at peace” who could designate a fanimingo to go between them. Each is to “chuse these protectors in the other” and, between them, these representatives are “to make up all Breaches between the 2 nations” should any occur. Such a go-between identifies equally with his family or nation of origin and with the one that ritually adopts him.

Captain Civility’s multiple memberships in the varied Native nations who claimed him; his role as spokesman for a diverse array of Susquehanna River valley peoples, including a range of Algonquian and Iroquoian groups; and his frequent contacts with European colonial leaders all stem from the role he performs in the tradition of the fanimingo. In fact, the word “Mingo” itself means chief. Local Algonquian groups call Iroquoian-speakers at Conestoga “Mingos” in recognition of the leadership positions that they have recently assumed in the region. Civility’s prominent role as war captain, spokesperson, translator, and go-between for multiple regional peoples—all the duties expected of a “Fanni Mingo”—is one he is positioned to play not only by virtue of his own qualities but also by means of his nation’s designation as “Mingos” or chiefs.

Although Pennsylvania colonists have no direct familiarity with the precise term “fanimingo,” when they call Taquatarensaly “Civility” they are using a word with much the same meaning. This old moniker from colonial Maryland may very well have originated as a rough translation for the Indian job title. When seventeenth-century Maryland colonists met such a diplomat and tried to understand the nature of his role, they would have searched for English words and concepts that could encapsulate the Susquehannock tradition of assigning a person to take up membership in multiple communities, serving as the living embodiment of civil society.

The original English connotation of “civility” is of “senses relating to citizenship,” including “a community of citizens regarded collectively. Seventeenth-century Susquehannock leaders given the title “Civility,” who labored both to protect their own people and to create leagues with colonists, were doing nothing if not attempting to create a collective community—one that could encompass both Natives and newcomers. Far from conveying either a backhanded compliment to or a sarcastic critique of so-called savages, then, the title “Civility” may simply have been the best available early seventeenth-century English translation for a unique Native leadership position, one in which a designated protector used ritual relationships to unite disparate peoples.

The OED’s entry for Mingo (created March 2002) says:

Etymology: < Dutch Minquaas, plural (1625 in J. De Laet Nieuwe Wereldt; 1656 in form Minquas; 1659 in form Mingaes) < Northern Unami Delaware *ménkwe:w (compare Southern Unami Delaware (Oklahoma) ménkwe) < proto-Eastern Algonquian *me:nkwe:w.
The γ. forms [Mengua, Menguy, Mengwe, Mengwi, Mingwee] represent a learned reborrowing directly from Unami, popularized by the writer James Fenimore Cooper in the 19th cent.; most of the examples of these forms are in the plural (unchanged).

Frequently derogatory. Now historical. […]

Originally: a member of the Susquehannock people or of any of several related Northern Iroquoian groups of interior Pennsylvania. In later use: a member of an Iroquois Indian group, mostly Senecas, who were not affiliated with the League of the Iroquois and whose modern descendants are the Oklahoma Seneca-Cayuga.
The term is also occasionally used to refer to a member of the Iroquois people inhabiting the valley of the Alleghenny–Ohio river, where they fell outside the immediate oversight of the chiefs of the League of the Iroquois in western New York.Formerly also with preceding distinguishing adjective, as black, little, white Mingo, referring to specific groups.

1648 B. Plantagenet Descr. Prov. New Albion iv. 23 Above Watcessit South-West, are the black and white Mincos neer three hundred men.

They do not have a corresponding sense of civility, but that may be too localized a term for them to include.


  1. one of most interesting of the five or six books contained in graeber & wengrow’s The Dawn of Everything* is about this mode of indigenous north american intercommunal relations**, in particular as practiced by the wendat (who the french colonizers called ‘huron’). they make a pretty persuasive argument for its deep influence on the emerging european enlightenment [sic sic sic]. this makes me wonder if part of what shaped the enlightenment category of “civil society” is the calquing of “fanimingo” to “civility”.

    * i do wish they’d published the material and thinking that’s in the doorstop as five or six much shorter books, though the divisions i see are not necessarily ones they would’ve made. i think 2 or 3 of them would have been amazing in a way the giant volume as a whole isn’t quite.

    ** i don’t think it makes sense to shoehorn it into “diplomacy”, which is a far narrower thing and based on state structures and imperatives that weren’t present in the region.

  2. Various Algonquians called the Susquehannock and some other Iroquoians “Mingos”, but some Algonquians had another similar term:

    >The Lenape, an Algonquian-speaking people, referred to them (the Susquehannock) by an exonym, Mengwe. An anonymous Lenâpe-English dictionary published in 1888 said this literally means “glans penis”.[7] Wallace gives “treacherous” as the translation of Minquas.[6] Dutch and Swedish colonists derived their term of Minquas for the people from this term.

    While the wiki bullet point reads “citation needed”, searching for the terms gives an article from the Journal of American Folklore, in 1888 as the wiki text mentions:

    Many other old works seem to mention the term Mengwe for Iroquoians, though I don’t see other old works that mention the penis derivation. A Smithsonian Bureau of Ethnology publication from 1894 says that Mengwe and Mingo are the same word, and further gives “Mangoae” as the form used “on the sound”, seemingly Albemarle, and they give the meaning “stealthy ones”.

    So chiefs, dicks or stealthy ones. Is it a single word with a range of meanings? While I regret the usage, in some circles today, Big Swinging Dick does seem to mean something like chief. Or is it a pair of words and a pun, with the Algonquians telling their Iroquoian masters they call them chiefs, while calling them sneaky dicks behind their backs?

    And what connotations is “fani” bringing to the mix? A surprising number of references that you can find to fanimingo are talking about the same (a similar?) institution among the Chickasaw, yet there is also a particular Chickasaw diplomat of the 1720s whose name is Fanimingo, which is said to mean Squirrel King. The fani portion does mean squirrel. (Philadelphia, MS was “Fani Yakni” or “Squirrel Country.”) But Chickasaw is Muskogean. The Fani Mingo of the Chickasaw is also called a “calumet chief”.

    In fact, I don’t find any reference to Algonquian “fanimingo”, making me wonder whether Eustace is importing the term opportunistically and ahistorically, because she finds it helpful. If so, she should state that more clearly. (Or maybe she has done so, outside the portion that Hat quoted.)

  3. PlasticPaddy says

    Could squirrel refer to the fur, i.e., someone with squirrel fur trim, tassel or other adornment?

  4. In fact, the word “Mingo” itself means chief

    This is very far removed from my bailiwick, but it seems to me that the mingo in fanimingo is distinct from the Mingo entered in the OED, that is, the Algonquian name for Iroquoian peoples seen in Unami ménkwe “Susquehannock; Iroquoian” (unless Proto-Eastern Algonquian *me:nkwe:w is of Muskogean origin, but that does not seem at all likely to me; Unami for ‘chief’ is sakima, from Proto-Algonquian *sa·kima·wa).

    A word for ‘chief’ in Mobilian Jargon is mingo, and ‘squirrel’ was fanni. See pages 274 and 312 under the headings CHIEF (2) and SQUIRREL, in Emanuel J. Drechsel (1996) “An Integrated Vocabulary of Mobilian Jargon, a Native American Pidgin of the Mississippi Valley” Anthropological Linguistics Vol. 38, No. 2, available
    here. This word is evidently of Muskogean origin (Choctaw mĩko, Chickasaw minko’, Koasati and Alabama mi(:)kko, Muskogee (Creek) and Seminole mi:kko).

    Fanimingo is most likely originally a Choctaw or Chickasaw word meaning ‘squirrel chief, squirrel king’. From Joshua Piker Okfuskee: A Creek Indian Town in Colonial America, p. 214, note 14:

    “Fanni” is the Chickasaw word for squirrel; “Mico” was the Creek honorific for their towns’ most important headmen. Michael Green, personal communication, suggests that, since “Fanni” had no meaning in the language most Creeks (including the Okfuskees) spoke, they most likely borrowed the title from the Chickasaws or Choctaws, who called such men Fanni Mingo.

    (I will add another comment directly below. I hope that by splitting it I will avoid the spam filter.)

  5. Here is a sound file for Chickasaw ‘squirrel’, and here is one for Chickasaw ‘chief’. And here are links to the entries for Choctaw fạni ‘squirrel’ and miⁿko ‘chief’ in Cyrus Byington (1915) A Dictionary of the Choctaw Language. (The apparently represents /ə/ and the superscript ⁿ marks nasalization of the vowel.)

    For an account of why the squirrel should be a considered a mediator, there is a synthesis and interpretation of Choctaw myth from a Choctaw scholar and author on p. 77ff in Leanne Howe (2014) ‘Embodied Tribalography: Mound Building, Ball Games, and Native Endurance in the Southeast’ Studies in American Indian Literatures Vol. 26, No. 2, available here.

    Maybe other LH readers can find more on this interesting word fanimingo.

    (I hope that by splitting my comment in two it will escape the spam filter.)

  6. Is there any evidence that native people in Pennsylvania ever used the term fanimingo? Or had a similar one? Nairne, who Eustace uses as evidence the English colonists” had passing familiarity with the term, worked in the Carolinas. I’m starting to wonder whether Eustace is using word salad to make a point the evidence doesn’t entirely support.

  7. She directly admits that “Pennsylvania colonists have no direct familiarity with the precise term “fanimingo,”” so yeah, no: it looks like just an assumption that a concept from the southeast should probably correspond well to realities much further north, which seems hardly justifiable.

  8. An anonymous Lenâpe-English dictionary published in 1888 said this literally means “glans penis”. Wallace gives “treacherous” as the translation of Minquas.

    For LH readers who are curious, the following is the dictionary entry giving the meaning ‘glans penis’ (scan available here):

    Mengwe H., an Iroquois; (lit., glans penis. A.)

    The Wikipedia entry says this dictionary is anonymous, but the preface gives an account of the origin of the manuscript of the dictioinary and explains who A. is:

    So far as the history of the MS. is concerned, I can add nothing to what was stated in “The Lenape and their Legends,” which is as follows : —

    “It is probable that Mr. Dencke was the compiler of the Delaware Dictionary which is preserved in the Moravian Archives at Bethlehem. The MS. is an oblong octavo, in a small, but beautifully clear hand, and comprises about 3700 words. The handwriting is that of the late Rev. Mr. Kampman, who was missionary to the Delawares on the Canada Reservation from 1840 to 1842. On inquiring the circumstances connected with this MS., he stated to me that it was written at the period named, and was a copy of some older work, probably by Mr. Dencke; but of this he was not certain.”

    The Rev. C. F. Dencke, here alluded to, was missionary to the Delawares at New Fairfield, Canada, for a number of years after the war of 1812. The MS. of Mr. Kampman was carefully copied and enlarged by the addition of words from the MSS. and printed works of Zeisberger, Heckewelder and Ettwein. These additions have, in the printed copies, been indicated by the capital letters, Z., E., and H. In this condition the MS. was submitted to the Rev. Albert Seqaqkind Anthony, a born Lenape, and perfectly familiar with the language of his nation as spoken by that colony of it resident on the Six Nations Reservation, in Ontario, Canada. In this colony, the usual dialect is the Minsi…

    Mr. Anthony kept the MS. by him for some months, giving its contents careful attention, and subsequently the two editors met and passed in review every word in the Dictionary. The numerous notes and corrections in brackets, with an appended capital A., are the emendations suggested by Mr. Anthony from the present stand point of the language and from the dialect of his ancestral sub-tribe. The latter differs somewhat from that employed by the compiler of the Dictionary. The grammatical forms employed indicate that this was the Unami (Wonami).

    This etymology of an exonym from ‘glans penis’ is interesting to me. I wonder if there are semantic parallels to this among disparaging exonyms elsewhere. (Yiddish ערל in reference to the foreskin seems a special case and does not refer to a specific ethnicity. For the opposite — neutral or favorable words for ‘man’ from ‘penis’ — there is Akkadian ayyaru ‘young man’ (attested already in Old Akkadian) if this goes with Arabic أير ʾayr ‘cock, dick’, and also Hittite pišna-, pišena- ‘man’ (‘adult male human being’) originally *‘one having a penis’ or the like (cf. Vedic pásas- ‘penis’, Latin pēnis < *pes-n-i-, etc.).)

    Or was Anthony’s ‘glans penis’ originally simply *‘the stealthy one, the treacherous one’? This is interesting to me because of the proposed etymologies of Greek μήδεα ‘male genitals’ from μήδεα ‘counsels, plans, arts, mostly with collat. notion of prudence or cunning’ and Latin mentula ‘dick, cock’ from mēns ‘mind’.

  9. She directly admits that “Pennsylvania colonists have no direct familiarity with the precise term “fanimingo,”” so yeah, no: it looks like just an assumption that a concept from the southeast should probably correspond well to realities much further north, which seems hardly justifiable.

    Rats. And then there’s the dubious etymology of “cockloft.” It would seem she’s one of the many scholars who deal with language in a more slapdash way than with their specialty.

  10. Lars Mathiesen says

    One dozen dickheads, twelve mengwe, nothing to see here.

  11. I wonder whether Magua, the villainous Iroquoian character from The Last of the Mohicans, got his name ultimately from *me:nkwe:w. *n would drop before *k, and *e: becomes something like /a/, in Mohegan (and in Abenaki, and Wôpanâak)…

  12. >She directly admits that “Pennsylvania colonists have no direct familiarity with the precise term “fanimingo,””

    She does.

    But she leaves open the interpretation that this wasn’t merely because no Indigenous people living within hundreds of miles used the word, but rather because of their ignorance of *local* Indigenous people. And she generally seems to invite the reader to assume that misunderstandings are because of Anglo-American ignorance, so it wouldn’t be a leap for a reader to believe that’s what she’s telling them.

    The more genuine way of writing that sentence is “neither the Pennsylvania colonists nor the native people they lived among had any direct familiarity with the precise term…” But that would have showed her hand, rather than dumping on the English.

    Despite it all, the book does sound interesting. Thinking of buying.

    I with I could propose that mengwe join moccasin and mugwump on the list of Algonquian terms in English, with a meaning of boss who’s a dick. It’s onomatopoeic for me.

    But the fact that some Algonquians used the term to mean Iroquoians makes it problematic.

  13. David Marjanović says

    and also Hittite pišna-, pišena-

    and its apparently direct Germanic cognate Finn.

  14. @Xerîb :

    i’m not sure how different yiddish “orl” is: i don’t have a good sense of either whether there was a lenape/haudenosaunee difference in genital fashion (or another physical reference: a specific kind of hairstyle or hat would be my first guess), or, importantly, of the historical usage of the word. if “orl” was used for muslims (local ottoman or tatar folks, or more broadly), then it would be a global exonym, and not much of a parallel. but if in practice it was only used for christians, then i’d say it parallels the lenape usage on a somewhat larger overall scale: ‘the powerful regional group who’s most immediately dangerous to us’.

  15. That OED entry for Mingo is another of the handful of revised entries that actually give Proto-Algonquian reconstructions, or in this case Proto-Eastern Algonquian, despite their anti-proto-language policy. I’m still wondering how that got in. The other odd thing about this etymology is that it’s one of three words in the OED derived from this same ancestor, but all three cite it slightly differently:

    Mingo < Dutch … < Northern Unami Delaware *ménkwe:w … < proto-Eastern Algonquian *me:nkwe:w.

    Maqua [Massachusett exonym for Mohawk] Partly < Massachusett Mauquawog (plural), and partly < Dutch Maquaas (plural, 1614) < Mahican ma:kwa: , both ultimately < Proto-Eastern Algonquian me:nkwe:w Iroquoian.

    Mangoak [exonym for a probably-Iroquoian-speaking people in North Carolina] < Carolina Algonquian and Virginia Algonquian, with -ak, plural suffix < Proto-Eastern Algonquian *mēnkwēw enemy Iroquoian.

    Nitpicks: long vowels spelled with macrons in one entry and colons in the other two? and they forgot the asterisk on *me:nkwe:w in one entry. More importantly, why is the gloss ‘enemy Iroquoian’ in one entry, simply ‘Iroquoian’ in another, and no gloss at all in the third? Shouldn’t they be consistent?

    All three OED entries must have been drawing on the Handbook of North American Indians: Northeast (1978), where these and other cognate names are said to be derived from “Proto-Eastern Algonquian *me·nkwe·w, an unanalyzable form with no known etymology,” not found outside Eastern Algonquian. I don’t believe Wikipedia knows more than the Handbook; I expect the Handbook left out the ‘glans penis’ and ‘stealthy, treacherous’ interpretations because they didn’t meet their standards of evidence, not because they didn’t know about them. (If they’d foreseen the internet, they probably would have given some space to debunking unfounded etymologies and not just ignored them.)

    Ives Goddard (author of the Delaware chapter in the Handbook) is certainly familiar with the work of Albert Seqaqkind Anthony; it’s the source for his article on the origin of Manhattan as ‘place for gathering wood to make bows’. If he left out Anthony’s ‘penis’ gloss, I expect he had reason. And ‘glans penis’ and ‘stealthy’ are more likely just two different eggcorns than two meanings of the word. Let’s not build a house of cards on this.

  16. i’m not sure how different yiddish “orl” is

    You’re right. It may be more similar to the Lenape situation than I expected.

    I was wondering if the meaning ‘glans penis’ given by Anthony for the reflex of *me·nkwe·w originated as a joke like French Charles-le-Chauve (the glans as ‘the sneaky little Iroquois’ or the like) — although as far as I can gather, Lenape men originally shaved most of their head and used red ceremonial paint in a way similar to that of Iroquois men. This led me to the following, from Egerton Ryerson Young (1892) Stories from Indian Wigwams and Northern Camp-fires, p. 83 (available here):

    Generations ago the Iroquois and some other tribes practiced the rite of circumcision, and although they have given up the custom, having lost the tradition why it was practiced, yet that it was customary among them is also attested by the fact that even to this day when the Munceys and Iroquois quarrel the former in derision reproach them with having practiced this rite in olden times.

    But I have no idea how reliable an ethnographer Young is (after making allowances for his perspective as a missionary), or whether he interpreted these insults correctly.

  17. I wonder if there are semantic parallels to this among disparaging exonyms elsewhere.

    I found this page on the Maiawali people of Queensland:

    Hill describes them as practicing both circumcision and subincision. They may only have accepted the latter rite in the early days of settlement, as other data suggests they did not practice it. The Malintji were related but refrained from both initiation procedures…
    Alternative Names: … Puruga (literally, ‘penis people’ from their having accepted circumcision).

    ‘Literally’, in which language? The museum page simply reproduces the entry in Tindale’s Aboriginal Tribes of Australia (1940). The Wikipedia says the Maiawali spoke a variety of Pitta Pitta. But was it an exonym?

  18. Trond Engen says

    The senses “glans penis”, “stealthy” and “king” could be united as “head”.

  19. David Eddyshaw says

    Na’ab “king” in Kusaal also means “afterbirth.”
    “Afterbirth” has never really come into its own as a royal title; I blame the patriarchy.

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