The Use of the Mingo Language in the Last Half of the Twentieth Century

Thomas McElwain

Mingo is a northern Iroquoian language of people politically distinct from the League Iroquois originally inhabiting the Ohio drainage in western Pennsylvania, eastern Ohio, and northern West Virginia. It has not been the primary means of communication for any community since the disintegration of the Northwestern Confederacy. Its use as a second language in certain enclaves in certain situations has preserved it down to the end of the twentieth century. This study documents aspects of the change in its use as the primary daily means of communication to its present state.

Identity and Language

There are some peculiarities about language loss and identity among eastern woodland native peoples which may not be evident in other communities. Although the process of language loss may have been similar to language loss in non-indigenous groups, its association to identity seems contrastive. Whether or not retention of a language has been vital in the retention of national identity among non-indigenous people, language does not appear to have the same role among eastern woodland communities. Identity is vitally associated with other factors in the native communities, so that loss of language does not seem to have much effect on it. People retain a strong native identity over several generations without access to a native language. Language loss should not therefore be taken as an indicator of identity loss among Mingos.

History and Prehistory

Black Mingo is historically an umbrella term applied to those Iroquoian-speaking peoples of the Ohio Valley who opposed the Iroquois League, the confederation originally comprised of the Mohawks, Oneidas, Onondagas, Cayugas and Senecas in New York State. Before the formation of the League, the Mingos were merely the Iroquoian-speaking peoples of the Ohio Valley and it tributaries in what is now West Virginia, western Pennsylvania, and eastern Ohio. The distribution of Iroquoian languages including North Carolina coastal area and mountain Cherokee, and Huron in the northwest and St. Lawrence Iroquois in the northeast, along with the divergence of languages suggests a fairly long occupation of these areas by Iroquoian speakers.

The prehistoric types of artifacts show diversity in the area in archaic times. Witness the east-west belt of "narrow point" dividing the northern Iroquoian speakers from the southern speakers and cutting across the Mingo homeland [Tuck 1978: 29]. Although we do not know whether the "narrow point" makers were ancestors of the Mingos, the archeological diversity between the areas is of long standing. There are two things that archeology can tell us with certainty: the Mingo homeland was continually settled from Paleo-Indian times (note the Meadowcroft site at the center of the area with artifacts dating between 11,300 B.C.E. and 14,225 B.C.E.) [Funk 1978: 16]; and the evidence is for a certain amount of diversity between the Mingo homeland and the League homeland.

The distribution of the Adena-related sites is a point in example, being found in the Mingo homeland, but not the League homeland, where the Meadowood phases reflected the culture of southeastern Ontario and southern Quebec [Tuck 1978: 39], which developed into the Point Peninsula culture described by Ritchie [Tuck 1978: 41]. The Middle Woodland period saw an east-west division with the Point Peninsula culture in the area from which eventually arose the League, and the St. Lawrence Iroquois on the northeast, and the rest of the Iroquoian speaking area from the Neutrals on the north to the Cherokee on the south being within an area of divergent Middle Woodland complexes about which little is known [Fitting 1978: 47].

For a long time it was believed that the so-called Mississippian traits included the Iroquois and were late-comers to the area, which would mean that the diversity described so far was not relevant to either Mingos or League Iroquois [Fitting 1978: 52]. However, there is also much evidence for in situ development into Iroquoian cultures [Fitting 1978: 55]. The Fort Ancient-influenced Monongahela complex [Fitting 1978: 55] is a Late Woodland horizon that coincides with the Mingo homeland and distinguishes it from the League homeland. Just as the earlier Adena culture held an influence over the area, so the Fort Ancient culture extended its influence up the river in later times to the Monongahela horizon. None of these can be identified with certainty as being Iroquoian speakers, but there is no reason to think that the Mingo homeland ever lacked Iroquoian speakers, since it lies in the middle of the north-south distribution of Iroquoian languages. What appears to be evident is that the inhabitants of Mingo country have always been somewhat different from the inhabitants of the League area.

What we know of Iroquoian life is mostly based on French descriptions of the Huron in the early seventeenth century. It is obvious that mere ecology would make a difference for people several hundred miles further south in the Mingo homeland. In fact, the more easterly Susquehannocks, also known as the White Mingo, probably share basic cultural traits with the Mingo or Black Minqua in the sixteenth and early seventeenth century. On the other hand, it is even more likely that the Black Minqua are synonymous with the Erie. Seventeenth century threats from the Iroquois League tended to unite the whole southern tier of peoples from the Erie on the northwest to the Susquehannock on the southeast. Susquehannock culture seems to have been a blend of Huron-like Iroquoian traits and Delaware-like traits: female horticulture and male hunting, trading, and diplomacy [Jennings 1978: 364]. The Susquehannock were much influenced by the trade situation with New Sweden. The Black Minqua further west probably tempered the Iroquoian traits with borrowings from the Shawnee, reflecting the ancient configuration of influence from the southwest: Adena and Adena-related, Fort Ancient and Monongahela, and finally Shawnee and Iroquoian. The Mingos were decimated by the Iroquois League precisely because they were enmeshed in the fur trade.

The Black Minqua fared differently from the Susquehannock in the Beaver Wars of 1649-1656. By ceding lands and making an alliance with Maryland, the Susquehannock were able to hold their own against the Iroquois League. The Erie held their own, even if the positions in western New York were relinquished, until 1654. The League claims of Erie provocation, especially at the incitement of Huron refugees, may be true. A consolidated League attack destroyed the Mingo (Erie) settlements on the southern shores of Lake Erie in early autumn of 1654. Retreat southward into the heart of the homeland was the only recourse [White 1978: 416].

The Mingos more or less disappear from history for a hundred years. In the meantime, during the 1750s a group of people left the homeland in West Virginia and finally settled in Sandusky, Ohio. They were joined there by refugees from the Iroquois League and finally went to Kansas and then Oklahoma, where they presently form the Seneca-Cayuga Nation and speak a language somewhat different from both SNI Seneca and West Virginia Mingo.

The association of a minority of the Mingos with the Northwestern Confederacy brought them to light again and most historical references to them are in connection with the Shawnee or Delaware in the latter half of the 1700s. But by this time the breach with the League had healed, and the Iroquois League supported Mingo claims against the colonial powers.

The Use of the Mingo Language

One of the earliest documented Mingo texts is the speech of Chief Logan:

I appeal to any white man to say, if ever he entered Logan's cabin hungry, and he gave him not meat; if ever he came cold and naked, and he clothed him not. During the course of the last long and bloody war, Logan remained idle in his cabin, an advocate for peace. Such was my love for the whites, that my countrymen pointed as they passed, and said, "Logan is the friend of the white men." I had even thought to have lived with you, but for the injuries of one man. Col. Cresap, the last spring, in cold blood, and unprovoked, murdered all the relations of Logan, not sparing even my women and children. There runs not a drop of my blood in the veins of any living creature. This called on me for revenge. I have sought it: I have killed many: I have fully glutted my vengeance. For my country, I rejoice at the beams of peace. But do not harbor a thought that mine is the joy of fear. Logan never felt fear. He will not turn on his heel to save his life. Who is there to mourn for Logan? - Not one.

This speech has been studied over the last two hundred years to demonstrate that Logan was mistaken in the identity of the murderer. Few have stopped to consider that what was of importance was the fact of the murder, and not who committed it. The importance of Logan is far greater than his error, for which he is famous, just as Thomas Jefferson, who shared his error, is justifiably remembered for other things. Logan erred also in his estimation of posterity. There are descendants of Logan today, some of whom might have understood the original speech had they heard it. Furthermore, there are still those alive today who remember Logan and the Mingos, if only because they live in counties or towns bearing their names.

One of the significant things is that Logan refused to sign the peace treaty because of the murder of his family. By so doing he perhaps unwittingly turned the tide of Mingo history. There is no treaty between the Mingo nation and France, Britain, or the United States. The Mingos remain a free and sovereign people who have chosen to reject the principle of representative government down to the present day. There is no Mingo political entity, nor has there been one since Chief Logan ratified the traditional Mingo position not only against the Iroquois League, but against all representative government. Mingos still maintain self-control and neighborly co-operation as the only acceptable form of government. That has not prevented some descendants from running for public office, however.

What follows is not based on fieldwork as such, but on what I remember of family tradition. From the Mingo point of view, the indigenous peoples have the right of sovereign self-government. Mingos have historically chosen the path of community self-definition without representation within the framework of indigenous houses on the continent. This means that Mingos do not recognize the authority of non-indigenous agencies, although in practice they might either take advantage of them or submit to their regulations. Such submission does not imply any more recognition of their jurisdiction than giving over one's wallet to a mugger implies acceptance of mugger authority. Both the United States and Canada are no more than guest worker unions with no jurisdiction over Mingos. The fact that guests have been on the continent for several generations does not imply that they are no longer guests. The fact that such guests, who are for the most part welcome in the country, have a tradition of behaving badly does not imply a conquest either. If they were truly the extension of the Roman empire their constituents would be able to pronounce E pluribus unum. They have the possibility of adoption or "naturalization" into the eastern woodland peoples just as people can be naturalized into legitimate nations such as Finland or Denmark. If they have chosen to remain guests over many generations, they are free to so choose, but they are not free to set up government on earth where a viable society has been in place continually for hundreds of years. Such pretension is merely bad behavior in guests.

Because of the bad behavior of the guest worker population, Mingo ceased to be used as a public language after the border wars. What public use of the language was still being made in the early 1800s was effectively suppressed by Removal. The mountain hide-outs of West Virginia provided refugees, mostly Cherokee, with places to escape Removal. The message spread quickly among the Mingos to hide their native identity for fear of Removal. This was done by speaking Mingo only in private and denying native identity in public.

The latter half of the 19th century was just as destructive of the public use of Mingo. Although the fear of immediate Removal may have dissipated, the Indian Wars in the West strongly influenced indigenous identity in general. The mountain Mingos had no contact with the Sioux, who seemed as foreign to them as any people on earth. The Mingos at that point saw no benefit in identifying themselves as Indians at a time when Indians were synonymous with the war-ridden peoples hundreds of miles to the west. Strangely enough, the events taking place in the West provided another death-blow to both identity and the public use of the Mingo language. Thus the political situation throughout the 19th century meant that Mingo as a spoken language was kept a closely guarded secret that did not come out at any time as long as it was still spoken.

An exception to keeping Mingo in the home in the 19th century was its use as a means of communication with the people of the Seneca Nation of Indians who split off from the Iroquois League before the middle of the century. The Allegany and Cornplanter Senecas kept up a lumber trade in Pittsburg by floating timber down the Allegany River. There were constantly groups of Senecas in Pittsburg over a number of decades. At the same time, the Mingos came from West Virginia and the surrounding areas of Ohio and Pennsylvania to sell barrel hoops in Pittsburg. This continual contact with Seneca-speakers may have prevented the demise of Mingo as a spoken language for as long as it lasted. It appears to have been going on even into the twentieth century, for mountain people in West Virginia are called "hoopies" or by corruption "hooties" by the town dwellers even today.

Mingo communities remained viable and economically solvent throughout the first half of the twentieth century. The contact with the Senecas dried up as the market for handmade barrels disappeared. But new avenues of income came in to supplement hunting and agriculture. Many Mingos found a way to earn cash by gathering ginseng, a means of income that continues to be of some importance even today. Up until WWII the Mingos remained untouched and isolated in their mountain communities. There were some who met the Great Depression by retreating back into the hills, from which they had been enticed by the economy of the 1920s to take jobs in small-town industries. But it was WWII that changed Mingo life for all time. The returning GIs were not content with former life and began to look for education and jobs out of the State. Many became factory workers in Ohio, or construction workers even further afield.

I am able to continue the profile at this point from my own memories. In the 1950s there were several ways of relating to Mingo identity. One had continued strong from the 1920s, and that was a minimizing or denial of Indian identity because of the desire to integrate into the small-town work force. The other was a reaction to that by a conservative party, very often made up of women who did not have to meet fellow workers directly and who wanted to preserve their traditional ways, including their ways of speaking. By the beginning of the 1960s both strong attitudes had mellowed, and people had fairly consistently begun to see themselves as Indian descendants rather than Indians. It was at this time that most of the native speakers of Mingo that were left died. From the 1960s on, speakers of Mingo have been limited to individuals who may know a few expressions and a list of common words.

Insofar as is known, Mingo was not used as a means of communication by anyone during the 1970s and 1980s. Individuals with a knowledge of a few expressions and a lift of common words can still be found among those born in the 1970s, however. In 1974 I myself visited the Seneca Nation of Indians with my parents. We talked with Mrs Plummer in the records office, who told us that in her experience a number of West Virginia Mingos had come into the office, but that none of the Mingos were demonstrably related to people on the Seneca Nation rolls. For various periods between 1974 and 1976 I worked for the SNI Education Program as a language consultant. Not having any linguistic education, this was entirely based on the fact that Mingo and Seneca were mutually intelligible. It is possible that my own Mingo speech was somewhat affected by the Seneca experience, but in fact I never actually held a conversation in the native language with anyone but Arnold and Sadie Doxtator, for the last time in 1981, when I also spoke with Frank Pierce. Otherwise, I used English.

In 1996 I was approached by Jordan Lachler, a graduate student in linguistics, who had been studying Seneca and other northern Iroquoian languages. He was especially interested in lexicography and wanted to compare Mingo with other closely related languages. Finding that I was still able to produce some anecdotes in the language, he and another graduate student in linguistics produced an internet website including texts and a search dictionary that is still growing, having at the present time about 3000 entries. Up until that time Mingo speakers had used the terms Seneca and Mingo interchangeably in English, but when the SNI expressed a desire to distance itself from the project, we refrained from using the term Seneca altogether. The Mingo terms are kwe'w, Untawa'k', and Unysht.

Mingo on the Internet has been very popular. Hundreds of people have joined the mailing list, and scores the discussion list. A majority of these are of Mingo descent, and a good proportion of them are resident in the Mingo homeland of the Ohio drainage. Some Mingo descendants have been found as far away as Australia, and there are people active on the discussion list as far away as Israel. It can be accessed at where information on the language is generally available. Regular Mingo immersion camps are planned to take place in West Virginia beginning in the summer of 1998. Several Mingo descendants have already attained a certain degree of skill in the use of the language.

Fitting, J. E. 1978. Regional cultural development, 300 B.C. to A.D. 1000 in (ed.), Bruce G. Trigger. Handbook of North American Indians, vol. 15. Northeast.

Funk, R. E. 1978. Post-Pleistocene adaptations in (ed.), Bruce G. Trigger. Handbook of North American Indians, vol. 15. Northeast.

Jennings, F. 1978. Susquehannock in (ed.), Bruce G. Trigger. Handbook of North American Indians, vol. 15. Northeast.

Tuck, J. A. 1978. Regional cultural development, 3000 to 300 B.C. in (ed.) Bruce G. Trigger. Handbook of North American Indians, vol. 15. Northeast.

White, M. E. 1978. Erie in (ed.), Bruce G. Trigger. Handbook of North American Indians, vol. 15. Northeast.