The Wetfoot Blog

Thursday, January 27, 2011

What does "Manito-wish" mean?

Odds are, it’s going to come up.

In all of the Camp Manito-wish YMCA programs that I have staffed, in conversations with my friends and family, and in introducing Camp Manito-wish YMCA to new staff and parents, I am always asked the same question: What does "Manito-wish" mean?

For the simple answer, we turn to "Course Set for Manito-wish: The History of Camp Manito-wish YMCA" (Second Edition) written by Jon Helminiak:
… Wones traveled to the nearby Lac du Flambeau Indian reservation to ask the Chippewas about the meaning of "Manitowish." They answered that "Manitou" means the Great Spirit and "wish" means dwelling place. It was then decided that the word as correctly used at Camp Manito-wish would be spelled with a hyphen. In this way, Wones reasoned, the Indian word "Manito" and the English word "wish" would be combined to convey the wish of the Great Spirit for "all to achieve what is best for themselves."

For those who love history, Camp Manito-wish YMCA, and the history of Camp Manit-wish YMCA, a more scholarly answer is warranted.

In 1919, Walter "Daddy" Wones chose to name his new camp after the local waterways. If you remove the hyphen, you are left with the name of a river and a lake that were important to the Lac du Flambeau Band of the Lake Superior Chippewa Indians who settled in the North woods centuries ago. Manitowish comes from the common language of the Aanishinaabe people—or, more locally, the Ojibwe people—who spoke Aanishinaabe-mowin.

Several factors contribute to the inability to determine the exact meaning of the word Manitowish. Research returns some interesting notes.

The Milwaukee Journal reported in 1926 that man-i-do-wish means "spirit." This may have come from a 1908 book that details the names of all stops on Upper Midwest railways. It is generally understood now that the word Manidoo (and sometimes Manitou) does indeed mean "spirit" or "creator" or "God."

A frequent visitor to Manitowish Waters published an article in the in the New York Times Magazine claiming that Manitowish means "spirit" because it is "a reference to the heavy mists that can settle on the lakes."

"Indian Names on Wisconsin's Maps," a book first published in 1991 by the University of Wisconsin Press, notes that Manitowish was Ojibwe for "small animal," possibly referring to a marten or weasel. The book also suggests that Manitowish may be related to Manito-waise-se, a name for "bad spirit."

In that translation, waise-se might be an alternate spelling for wese which means "tornado" or "storm." The personification of natural forces was common in the Aanishinaabe cultures, and Manito-waise-se could have referred to a mischievous spirit observed in strong winds.

If Manitowish did refer to a "bad spirit," then that spirit would be more of a trickster than a demon. I would attribute that sort of spirit to the reason why poorly moored canoes float downstream from campsites at night.

Aanishinaabe-mowin is a continually evolving language with countless dialects and translations. While we may never know exactly what Manitowish meant to the Lac du Flambeau, we can be certain that Manito itself does mean "Great Spirit."

Visit Camp Manito-wish YMCA at any time, and you will find that the Great Spirit is alive in the North woods and that the Camp Manito-wish YMCA staff is working hard to facilitate a Manito-wish experience: one that will let you achieve what is best for you.

Take care,

Tim Collins
Staff Coordinator