Among the Mooyiinkweena

I’m in the field this weekend, deep in the heart of the heart of the country, waiting to see if this dog and the two bigger ones I found behind it will let me pass over this remote tributary of the Missouri River, and enjoying a post-vaccination family reunion. Field Notes will be back next Sunday.

In the meantime, here’s a wonderful piece for those who share my interest in the weird etymology of American place names—about how the name Des Moines originates not from the monastery that used to occupy the spot of one of America’s first malls, nor from the middle river between the Missouri and the Mississippi, but from a 350-year-old joke.

In 1673, the French explorers Father Jacques Marquette, a 36-year-old Jesuit, and Louis Joliet, a 26-year-old philosophy student turned fur trading entrepreneur, set out on a four-month canoe trip that confirmed the Mississippi River connected the Great Lakes with the Mer du Sud. In June of that year, the explorers met with a group of Peoria Indians at their village at the mouth of the Des Moines River. When Marquette asked the Peoria who lives up that river, they told him it was the Mooyiinkweena. Only in the last few years did the scholar of Algonquinian languages Michael McCafferty figure out what that really meant, explaining how the people of what became Central Iowa are to forever be known as “the shit-faces.”

(If you have university library access, you can read the full story in McCafferty’s 2015 article for the journal Names, “The Etymology and History of the Placename ‘Des Moines’.”)

Marquette and Joliet had the last laugh, as the expedition led to the creation of a riverine network of transcontinental trading posts that nearly exterminated the fur-bearing wildlife of an entire region. And a really sweet skate park.

Over at Artforum, you can read about the other reason I’m up here this weekend—finishing the launch of a new artists’ residency here that will provide emerging and established artists of exceptional merit with an experience of the working conditions my late brother Alex Brown found in Des Moines—the ability to make the work you want to make, free from the daily influence of being immersed in a major metropolitan scene but without the isolation of a rural residency, in an exceptional studio environment and a relaxed and pleasant living environment. I’m delighted to see this idea come to fruition, and stoked by the diversity and quality of the initial slate of artists. Artforum: Alex Brown Foundation Announces Inaugural Artist Residencies.

Have a great week.