Okay, can I just say I am particularly loving Minnesota today?! Mac and I headed out this morning to Fletcher Creek landing and stopped on the way at Little Elk River, which the sign says had been inhabited by native people since at least 400 BC. The westernmost outpost of the French fur trade was located there in the 1750’s, and more recently, Chief Hole-in-the-Day (Bug-O-Nay-Ge-Shig) lived there, and a mission and townsite were there as well. It’s prairie now, and Mac and I had a bit of a walk as the fog dissipated. A beautiful spot, full of ghosts.

After Mac headed off in the kayak, I drove over to Belle Prairie County Park, where I am sitting completely alone in a pine grove that the DNR map tells me is tended by the Franciscan sisters who have a convent nearby. I waved at Mac as he passed in the kayak — the pine grove overlooks the river. And if all this weren’t enough, there is a power outlet in the shelter, so I am charging up my computer as I write. Gotta love it!

I think I’m going to have to learn some Ojibwe. I finished reading Michael McNally’s book last night, and the few little threads of Ojibwe language that he explains in the book make me understand that there is huge richness in this language I would like to know more about.

For example, the verb nagamo means both to sing and to pray; ”song and prayer being linguistically inseparable.“ [p. 119] The word gashkendam ”combines in one semantic field associations with lonesomeness, grief, affliction, dejection, homesickness, and melancholy.“ [p. 119] And ”Larry Cloud Morgan closely associated the drum (dewe-igan) with the heart (de-) and with truth (debwe-) and with sound (wewe-), a morpheme that itself connotes particular kinds of wavelike or circular, returning motion.“ [p. 187]

Mac and I have also been dipping into Henry Schoolcraft’s journal most evenings: he’s this totally entertaining combination of adventurer and nerd, and you can’t help but be tickled by him. Here are a few excerpts relating to language specifically:

from late 1822:

In going out to dinner at 3 o’clock, a sheet of paper containing conjugations of verbs, which had cost me much time and questioning, had fallen from my table. On returning in the evening, I found my dog, Ponty, a young pet, had torn my care-bought conjugations into small pieces. What was to be done? It was useless to whip the dog, and I scarcely had the courage to commence the labor anew. I consequently did neither; but gathering up the fragments, carefully soaked the gnawed and mutilated parts in warm water, and re-arranged and sealed them together. And before bedtime I had restored the manuscript so as to be intelligibly read. I imposed this task upon myself, but, had it been imposed by another, I would have been ready to pronounce him a madman.


Devoted the day to the Indian language. It scarcely seems possible that any two languages should be more unlike, or have fewer points of resemblance, than the English and Ojibwa. If an individual from one of the nomadic tribes of farther Asia were suddenly set down in London, he could hardly be more struck with the difference in buildings, dress, manners, and customs, than with the utter discrepance in the sounds of words, and the grammatical structure of sentences. The Ojibwa has this advantage, considered as the material of future improvement; it is entirely homogeneous, and admits of philosophical principles being carried out, with very few, if any, of those exceptions which so disfigure English grammar, and present such appalling obstacles to foreigners in learning the language.


5th [Jan] Gitche ie nay gow ge ait che gah, “they have put the sand over him” is a common expression among the Indians to indicate that a man is dead and buried. Another mode, delicate and refined in its character, is to suffix the inflection for perfect past tense, bun, to a man’s name. Thus Washington e bun would indicate that Washington is no more.


The Chippewas are apt to connect all their ghost stories with fire. A lighted fire on the grave has a strong connection with this idea, as if they deemed some mysterious analogy to exist between spirituality and fire. Their name for ghost is Jeebi, a word rendered plural in ug.

I am hereby proposing that the early 20th century expression ”heebie-jeebies” is a rhyming expansion of the Ojibwe word for ghost. Richard, you’re the linguist, what do you say?!?!

3 thoughts on “”

  1. Everything you ever wanted to know about “Heebie-jeebies”, and then some (This, as you know, is my geeky idea of fun):

    According to the Oxford English Dictionary: the “heebie-jeebies” are “a feeling of discomfort, apprehension, or depression; the ‘jitters’; delirium tremens; also, formerly, a type of dance.”

    The phrase “heebie-jeebies” is widely attributed to Billy De Beck (1890–1942), a famous American comic strip artist. Its first appearance was in one of his Barney Google cartoons in the New York American on 26 October 1923: “You dumb ox — why don’t you get that stupid look offa your pan — you gimme the heeby jeebys!”.

    Where the term came from (other than De Beck’s imagination) is open to question. T’Jeebie’ is indeed cited as a native American term noted by Longfellow in his glossary of terms in his poem ‘Song of Hiawatha’. He says it means ‘ghost’ or ’spirit’.

    Within a few months of De Beck’s cartoon, “heebie-jeebies” started to be seen everywhere. Here, from the Iowa Davenport Democrat And Leader of 21 May 1924: “ To see half a hundred derby finishes and never have the heebie jeebies argues a wonderful constitution, even for a Kentuckian.”

    By 1927 at the latest, it had reached the UK; see this, from Punch magazine in February that year: “It is interesting to observe that in spite of artificial sunlight, television, winter sports and the heebie-jeebie there are still some stalwarts who stand by the old traditional amusements of the English people.”

    There was a dance at about the same time, and a song in 1926, both said to have originated from Native American witch-doctor chants before human sacrifices. But the dance and the song both seem to be later than the first appearance of the phrase.

    “Heebie-jeebies” has sometimes been thought to have anti-Semitic connotations because of its unfortunate resemblance to the slang term “hebe” (a cropping of “Hebrew”), which is an anti-Jewish epithet. De Beck’s use of the term was, though, apparently innocent of any racial or ethnic animosity.

    De Beck, by the way, also invented the terms “hotsy-totsy” (a term of approval) and “horsefeathers” (meaning “utter nonsense”)

    “Heebie-jeebies” must have caught the popular imagination immediately, since the dance of that name appeared a scant three years later, in 1926.

    Check this out:

  2. I think it would be gre!at for you to learn some Ojibwe

    There are a lot of “native” languages in this country…. wouldn’t it be great if they were TAUGHT IN SCHOOL?! Or for that matter the real American history…

    Ya’at’eeh… (howdy) that’s as far as I’ve gotten along in Navajo. Pretty complicated tongue… it was the Navajo language that won the Pacific in WWII. The Army cleverly used Navajo in their coded messages which turned out to be impossible to break. There is a good code breakers exhibit at the McDonalds in Kayenta, AZ… next to a great espresso/internet place if you decide to head down the Colorado next!

    Sadly Navajo is a dying language today. It is not being taught in many of the reservation schools and many of the younger generation do not speak it at all. I can only imagine this is probably true of many other tribes… (the Hopi seem to be making more of an effort to keep their traditions and language alive).

  3. Dearest Eve,

    I’ve spent time in the last couple of days doing what I wanted to for the last couple of weeks, catching up on your journey. It’s been wonderful to hear about it so far along with your reflections. I think this is thrilling that this is what became of what you were talking to me and Robin about it at Mary’s House Eucharist!!

    Your journey is putting me in touch with a lot of what I enjoyed in my childhood. My dad always took me with him on summer vacations where we would camp and hike all over the West (and maybe a couple of times in the East). My most memorable encounter with the Mississippi was when I was driving across the country from California to Virginia before starting a new job. I was overwhelmed by how big the river was and was sad I didn’t have time to take it in more. My more frequent river encounters have been with the Snake River in Wyoming and the Colorado River.

    In hearing you talk about the Ojibwe, it makes me think a lot about the different Native American populations I’d learn about, encounter and see remnants of (in ruins, etc.) in these places I traveled as a child and teenager. I was always fascinated by the relationship with nature and the land and feel like I absorbed a lot of that into my own soul. I feel most at peace when I am hiking or camping or somewhere along any sort of shoreline. How’s that for someone who also loved her urban NYC life!?

    Thank you for inviting us all into your kayak, car and on your bike! This is so wonderful and I am so happy for you. I begin a new leg of my own journey tomorrow… Yale Divinity School orientation! I look forward to continuing with you on yours.

    xoxo Jenny

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