Explore Blog

The Okwai – River T-shirt

Written by Arcia Tecun

Artist: Frances Ngo is the Conservation Manager of Outreach and the artist who produced this design which was commissioned by the Nature Center at Pia Okwai and the culture department.

In celebrating a living memory of place we are releasing a t-shirt and stickers that highlight many cultures which are representative of local, continental and global languages found in this region. The design features Wasan (Blue Heron) and Ha’nii or A’nii (Beaver) who live in and along Pia Okwai (Big Flow/River, Utah’s ‘Jordan River’). Wasan and Ha’nii or A’nii are in Newe Taikwa (the Shoshone/Goshute language), which is in the Numic branch of the Uto-Aztecan language family. A’nii and Wasan are aquatic dependent creatures and are indicators of the enduring integrity of Pia Okwai because they continue to survive despite a legacy of abuse and pollution of Utah’s Jordan River. This offers a hope for what might be with some more care and shared responsibility and respect for this important water, and all the life it sustains. The design of this t-shirt was created by Frances Ngo and also includes artistic representations of paa (water) to represent the okwai (river) along with several words for okwai in different languages.

One of the place names for this valley is Soonkahni which means many houses in Newe Taikwa. The Nuuch (Ute) Elder Forest Cuch has explained that this area was a buffer zone of shared space between many diverse Indigenous peoples (Nuuchiu-Ute, Newe-Shoshone, Newe-Goshute, their respective bands, etc.) (1). Let us honour the first peoples and continue to uphold the wisdom of place found in their language and culture. Let us also respectfully consider this knowledge in response to our contemporary realities. There is an expanding global community that now also calls this place home. In this spirit the Okwai-River t-shirt highlights a local Indigenous name first to honour the authority and elder status of local Indigenous peoples, and then adds many other languages and their words for river, which are representative of many but not all of the languages now spoken here. It is with a critical hope in ancestral values of respect and love for the earth that the many worlds we share in this space might be nurtured symbolically through the locally relevant representation in this design. Below are some cultural explanations and connections that are held in the various words for river on the Okwai-River shirt design:


Okwai is River for Newe/Neme: Newe is what Goshute and Shoshone peoples call themselves, which means ‘people’. Some Shoshone also call themselves Neme (another word/pronunciation for People) and Sosogoi (Those who travel on foot, Walkers, Walking People). Their language is known as Newe Taikwa also spelled Newe Daygwap. Newe Taikwa is in the Numic branch of the larger Uto-Aztecan language family. Okwai is one spelling for river and you may encounter others like Og-woi and Ogwa. Okwai means flow and also river. You can listen to different pronunciations of Okwai on the University of Utah’s Shoshoni language talking dictionary. Pia Okwai means big flow or river and is one of the Indigenous names for what is currently and commonly known as the Jordan River in Utah. A famous Newe/Shoshone woman that you may have heard of is Sacajawea/ Sacagawea/ Sakakawea. Sacajawea’s name is likely from the Hidatsa people and language, but she was Akaitikka (Lemhi or Northern Shoshone). While we may recognize Sakakawea as the guide who made the Lewis and Clark expedition possible and its natural history prerogatives, she is often not recognised as the significant naturalist and environmentalist that she also was. Additionally, we should also be more familiar with other important cultural and ecological Newe/Neme knowledge holders like Mae Timbimboo Parry, Rios Pacheco, Genevieve Fields and Rupert Steele, among many others.  


Paykwavat(ü) is River for Nuuchiu: Nuuchiu is what Ute peoples (Northern and Southern) call themselves and means the people. Utah took its state name from the Yuta/Ute people. Nuuchiu language is known as Núu’apaghapį or Nuu’apagay. Nuu’apagay is in the Numic branch of the larger Uto-Aztecan language family. You can listen to a pronunciation of Paykwavat(ü) on the Ute Mountain Ute online dictionary. The Ute Mountain Ute tribe’s White Mesa community is found in southern Utah and are related with Southern Paiutes and with the Northern Ute’s who are part of the second largest Indigenous nation occupied by the United States. Utah’s Black Hawk War with the Timpanogos/Snake Shoshone and several other Indigenous groups across what we currently know as Utah – is a significant part of the violent colonial history here. This conflict included ecological and social stresses as catalysts and whose consequences echo into our current society and circumstances.


Tooh Nílį́ is river for Diné: Diné is what Navajo peoples call themselves, which means people. Their language is known as Diné Bizaad and part of the larger Athabaskan language family. There are around 170,000 Diné Bizaad speakers in Diné Bikéyah (Navajo Nation/People’s Sacred Lands) with almost 8,000 speakers in the territories occupied by the state of Utah. Isaiah Cambridge is both Diné and Nuuch, teaches Diné Bizaad classes, and is a host at the Nature Center at Pia Okwai. He explained to me that while Tooh is listed in some dictionaries as river or stream, it refers to lots of water or continuous water, which comes to more clearly mean river when it is compounded with Nílį́. Tooh Nílį́ means water is flowing freely, a river. The Navajo Nation is the largest Indigenous nation occupied by the continental United States in the four corners region with a territory that extends across Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado and Utah.


Ātōyātl is river in Nahuatl: Nahuatl is in the Nahua branch of the larger Uto-Aztecan language family. This language is spoken by approximately 1.5 million people in Mexico, which got its name from the Mexica who are one of the Indigenous groups of central Mexico. The Mexica are commonly known as the Aztecs and their language is related to Indigenous languages in Utah. The principal deity and founder of the Mexica also had a bird connection with the hummingbird being part of their name. The name Aztec was derived from their creation story which begins in Aztlan or in one interpretation ‘the place of herons’, which some estimate a possible physical location to be in the northern part of modern day Mexico or even two possible locations in Utah (Southern Utah, Great Salt Lake-Antelope Island). However, some see it more as a spiritual homeland than focus on a physical location. We get many words commonly used in mainstream culture here from Nahuatl such as Coyote, Tomato, Chili, Axolotl, Ocelot and Guacamole. 


Nim Ha’ is river in K’iche’: K’iche’ is one of several Highland Mayan languages and part of the Quichean-Mamean branch of the larger Mayan language family of around 30 languages. K’iche’ is an ethno-linguistic group of Winaq/Wīnak, which is what many Mayans call themselves, meaning person/people. The K’iche’ language is spoken by over one million people in Iximulew (Guatemala). Nim Ha’ is the English spelling, whereas Nim Ja’ is the Spanish spelling. Nim Há is a compound word: Nim means big and Ha’/Ja’ means water. It can be interpreted as big flow or big water literally, or river more generally. Cosmovisíon Maya is an Indigenous worldview that sees interconnectedness with people and non-human animals on a planetary and cosmic scale through a unified system of astronomy, math, philosophy, well-being and more.


Vaitafe is river for Tonga and Sāmoa: Lea faka-Tonga is the Tongan language spoken by Kakai Tonga (Tonga people) and Gagana Sāmoa is the Sāmoan language spoken by Tagata Sāmoa (Sāmoa people). Vaitafe is a compound word where vai means water and tafe means flow, literally a water flow, or river more generally. There are more than 18,000 Kakai Tonga in Utah with 1 in 4 of all who live in the US calling Utah their home. Tagata Sāmoa are the second largest group of Moana people (Oceanians from eastern part of Pacific Ocean, ‘Polynesians’) in Utah. There were also several Sāmoans who resided at the Iosepa community in Tooele county that was established in the late 19th century. Tongan philosophy and culture has a value of Tauhi Fonua, which includes the meaning of caring for place or for the land.


Såddok is river in CHamoru: Såddok is the word for river in the CHamoru language, an Indigenous language and people of Guåhan (Guam), which is currently an unincorporated territory under US occupation. Chamorro is sometimes still used but is an older colonial Spanish spelling. This language is in the Austronesian language family related to ‘Polynesian’ and other Oceanic languages. They are peoples of Tåsi (Ocean in CHamoru) and make up part of the Oceanian/Pasifika communities in Utah from the ‘Micronesian’ region of the ‘Pacific’. We recently released a project about Sihek (Guam Kingfishers) conservation we are involved with right here in Soonkahni.


Pillap is river in Pohnpeian: Pohnpei formerly known as Ponape is one of the states in the federated states of Micronesia that became independent in 1979 after being a ‘trust territory’ that was ‘administered’ by the United States. People from Pohnpei are also of the Madau (Ocean in their language) and often also identify with Wehi (modern municipalities derived from ancestral lineages, territories and kingdoms/clans). 


Muliwai is river for Native Hawaiians: Native Hawaiians call themselves Kanaka (People) often expressed with appendages, such as Kanaka Maoli (one literal interpretation is genuine people, or otherwise an expression for being Indigenous people), or Kanaka ‘Ōiwi (People of the bones, ancestors buried in the land). Kanaka Maoli have a long history in Utah and have been here for nearly as long as European descended Mormon’s. They established a town known as Iosepa in the late 19th century along with other Moana (Ocean in eastern Oceanic languages) peoples and lived there until the early 20th century. The cemetery at Iosepa remains an important place for descendants, relatives and the broader community. Malama ‘Aina is a Kanaka Maoli philosophical and cultural value that includes the meaning of caring for and honouring the land.


Awa is river for Māori: Awa means river in te reo Māori which is the Indigenous language of Aotearoa (New Zealand) with a range of dialects. Māori is a general word for Indigenous peoples of Aotearoa and means ‘normal/ordinary’, yet many identify with their hapu (sub-tribe or clan) and/or waka (canoe their ancestors arrived on) among other important identifying markers. While the Iosepa community was populated by mostly Kanaka Maoli, there were also Māori who lived there. Today Māori are part of the more than 44,000 and counting Oceanians in Utah. Matauranga Māori (Māori knowledge systems) includes many proverbs about learning about and practicing conservation, including the application of the word ‘Kaitiakitanga’ or ‘guardianship’ to people and groups and actions that care for place, water and land.


Ilog is river in Tagalog: Ilog is the word for river in the Tagalog language. Tagalog is an Indigenous language of the Philippines, which is also at times referred to as Filipino. There are many languages in the Philippines, yet at times Tagalog is referred to as Filipino because it is one of the official languages and one of the most dominant ones. Tagalog is broadly spoken or understood to some degree across the Philippines along with significant imperial influences of Spanish and English. Tagalog is in the larger Austronesian family language group which is related to other languages in Oceania. Tagalog as a language is named after the Taga-Ilog, which is one of many Indigenous peoples in the Philippines and can be interpreted as ‘from or of the river, river people’. The Tagalog language and people carry the word river in their name.


نهر or nahr is river in Arabic: Earabiun is what the Arabic language is called in Arabic and nahr is how the word is spelled in English using Latin characters. Literary Arabic has a far reaching range from North Africa all the way to west Asia. The Arabic language has many diverse dialects and is also a cultural identity marker and/or ethno-religious marker for many peoples. The Arabic language is not only spoken and used on its own terms in Utah, but English itself has hundreds of words borrowed from or influenced by Arabic such as Algebra and Coffee. Spanish has thousands of words that are influenced by or borrowed from Arabic such as Guitarra and Limón. The Arabic language is part of the Semitic branch of the larger Afro-Asiatic language family.


Webiga is river in Somali: Somali is a name for a language and group of Indigenous peoples from East Africa. There are a variety of dialects that make up Somali languages, which are all part of the Cushitic branch of the larger Afro-Asiatic language family. Somali peoples currently make up the largest group in the refugee communities of Utah. Somalia along with Ethiopia and Yemen is in the cradle of the birthplace and regional/global spread of Kafeega/Qawha (Coffee), which has become an everyday consumed drink around the world. There are estimates that one in eight of all people currently on this planet imbibe Coffee on a daily basis. Something to reflect on next time you visit the bird feeder café at the Tracy Aviary liberty park campus. 


河 or Hé is river in Chinese: Zhōngwén is one expression to refer to Chinese language in Mandarin Chinese. Hé is the English spelling with Latin characters for ‘river’ in Zhōngwén. Mandarin Chinese is one of several Chinese languages and has subgroups within itself. Zhōngwén is often what is assumed to be ‘the Chinese language’ because it is the official language of China and the most widely spoken, being associated with the dominant Han Chinese ethnic group. Chinese people broadly defined have been in Utah since the mid 19th century, many who came with the construction of railroads and who were mostly Cantonese speakers. Today Chinese folks comprise one of the largest portions of the general category of Asians in Utah.


or Gang is river in Korean: Gang is the spelling of river with Latin characters in Hangug-in, which is the Korean language in Korean. Korean is part of the Koreanic language family which also includes Jeju. Koreans are part of a robust and growing Asian community in Utah. Hallyu is a term that refers to the Korean wave, which is a cultural phenomenon of a great global Korean influence over the last few decades. From film, music, fashion, cuisine, to language, South Korean popular culture in particular has become increasingly part of global pop culture. Whether it is K-pop idols, best picture films, or Korean bbq, South Korean pop culture influence has led to over two dozen Korean words being recently added to the Oxford English dictionary.


or Kawa is river in Japanese:  Kawa is the spelling of river with Latin characters in Nihongo, which is the Japanese language in Japanese. There have been Japanese people in Utah since 1882 which grew into larger communities up through the early twentieth century. During World War II the Topaz concentration/‘internment’ camp was built in Delta, Utah and was one of ten that were constructed during this time. Many Japanese-Americans who were held captive there were displaced from their homes in San Francisco, California. James Wakasa was shot and killed there in 1943 at the age of 63 for walking too close to the fence. There were approximately 11,000 people who were processed through this camp between 1942-1945. Those who endured this experience continued their lives throughout Utah and the United States. Japanese culture and language has also become very influential locally and globally including anime, ramen, sushi, karate, and more. The Japanese language is part of the larger Japonic-Ryukyuan language family.


Tus Dej is river in Hmong: The Hmong people and their language is Indigenous to Southeast Asia and other parts of East Asia. Tus Dej is one of the words in their language for river. Most Hmong people live in and across modern nations such as China, Thailand and Laos. However, many Laotian Hmong arrived in Utah during the late twentieth century as refugees. Many Hmong maintain connections to their Indigenous worldviews and practices that include intimate relationships to natural phenomena and a deep respect for nature.


မြစ် or Myit is river in Burmese: Myit is the spelling for river with Latin characters in Mranma Bhasa or the Burmese language. Mranma Bhasa is the official language of Myanmar, also known as Burma, which is derived from the dominant Bamar ethnic group in the country. Burmese is part of the larger Sino-Tibetan language group of which there are several other languages and ethnic groups in the country connected to this broader language family. There have been different ethnic groups from this country who arrived in Utah as refugees such as the Karen, Karenni and Rohingya peoples who have their own distinct languages that differ from Mranma Bhasa.


नदी or Nadee is river in Hindi: Nadee is the spelling for river with Latin characters in the Hindi language. Some interpretations of Nadee, sometimes spelled Nadi, include ‘a current or flow’. Hindi is the common expression for the Hindustani language that is an Indic language of South Asia and part of the Indo-Aryan branch of the larger Indo-European language family. Hindi is one of the fourth most spoken languages in the world and found in several countries like India, Nepal, South Africa, Fiji, Mauritius among many more, and it is also spoken in Utah and part of the broader Asian ethnic category here. It is important to remember that while they sound similar to a foreign ear, Hindi and Hindu are not the same thing, one is a language and the other is a religious practice and identity. People who speak Hindi are not necessarily Hindu and vice versa. Hindi cinema, commonly known as Bollywood has also become globally influential, and so has the word chai (tea in Hindi) which you may encounter at a local café. 


Река is river in Russian: Река spelled réka in latin characters is river in Russkiy yazyk. Russkiy yazyk is the Russian language in Russian. There are approximately over eleven thousand Utahns who are also Russians. There was also a Molokan Russian town in Park Valley, Utah, which is part of the state’s early twentieth century history. This town was established in 1914 with a dozen families and later disbanded across northern Utah and California. Russian derived English words include, ‘mammoth from mamont, stroganoff from stroganov, and beluga from belukha’. Russkiy yazyk is part of the East Slavic branch of the larger Indo-European language family.


Rijeka is river in Bosnian Rijeka is river in Bosnian and Croatian. The Bosnian language is known as Bosanski jezik in Bosniak (Bosnian) and is one of the three official languages of Bosnia and Herzegovina along with Croatian and Serbian. There were close to a few thousand Bosnian refugees who arrived in Utah in the nineties and this community later grew to more than seven thousand. There were many Southern Slavs in Utah including some from Bosnia and Herzegovina as early as 1890. Bosniak is part of the South Slavic branch of the larger Indo-European language family.


Fluss is river in German: The word fluss means river and is derived from the meaning ‘to flow’. There are approximately close to 9,000 German speakers in Utah today. Deutschland is the name for Germany in the people’s own language and means the land of people or the people’s land. Deutsche sprache is how you say the German language in German, derived from Deutsch which commonly means German today but has an older meaning of people, and sprache (language). Deutsche sprache is in the West Germanic branch of the larger Indo-European language family. Beginning with fur traders and extending to Mormon arrival and post-WWII migrations, Germans among these groups have been in Utah since the first European encounters here.


Rio or Río is river in Spanish and Portuguese: Rio in Español (Spanish) or Río in Português (Portuguese) is derived from the Latin word rivus meaning stream. There are approximately 475 million Spanish speakers worldwide and 10% of Utahns speak Spanish at home and 14% of people who live in Salt Lake County speak Spanish at home. There are approximately 260 million Portuguese speakers worldwide with 8-10,000 Brazilians living in Utah today. Spanish and Portuguese are considered Romance languages derived from the Italic branch of the Indo-European language family. While the terms Latin and Hispanic are complicated, with one referring to an arbitrarily defined geographic region and the other to European Spaniards specifically, they are nonetheless used to categorize primarily Spanish speaking peoples as well as in the case of ‘Latin’, Portuguese speakers in the United States. Having stated this, ‘Latinx/e/a/o’ peoples make up the second largest ethnic group in Utah and one third of the population in Salt Lake County. Spaniards and the later racially and ethnically mixed groups who spoke Spanish have been in what is currently the state of Utah since the late 1700s. What is currently Utah was previously under Spanish occupation and also a Mexican territory prior to becoming the 45th state under the United States occupation.


River is Okwai for English speakers: River is the common word for a stream or flow of water in modern English. English is in the Germanic branch of the larger Indo-European language family. However, the word river is a loan word that is derived from the Latin word ‘ripa’. Ripa is also the origin for the word ‘riparian’ which is a word common in conservation that refers to river banks and river or water ecosystems. Latin is in the Italic branch of the larger Indo-European language family and the ancestor language to modern romance languages such as Spanish, French, Italian and Portuguese. The United States of America does not have an official language, yet English is often assumed to be because it is the dominant colonial language most widespread and institutionalized. The state of Utah however has issued English as an official language along with many other states. Whether the state of Utah or the nation of the United States lists Indigenous languages as official ones or not, we can respect them as such regardless, because they are the elder languages of the places where we live. Indigenous languages of place are the sounds and expressions of the land and waters of a region co-evolved over time and it is a violent act of erasure to ignore them and impose another in its stead, rather than being an addition to. There were once hundreds of Indigenous languages spoken across the territories occupied by the United States in various forms with approximately less than 200 now spoken. We are currently facing an extermination of linguistic and cultural diversity globally with half of the languages on this planet no longer being spoken to children. This is a cataclysmic event that has ecological implications when we consider how Indigenous languages and cultures hold centennial and millennial knowledge as cultural symbols through speech like a symbiotic relationship in an ecosystem. The modern US version of the English language today has also been identified as having become a noun based language by the scholar Lewis Gordon, indicating a dramatic decrease in the many verbs that once held a greater presence in the language I am writing in. This is a reflection of becoming a ‘thing’ based culture that is increasingly distant from even its own ancestral roots and origins prior to changes that reflect the global economic and modern cultural logic of the last 500 years or so. My invitation is to value the importance of diverse languages, particularly ones with profound insights and connections to place and what they offer, which includes Indigenous, continental and global languages. This also includes remembering something beyond what dominant languages have become and what they used to be able to express. 

(1) Great Salt Lake and Great Basin Tribes, Shoshone and Ute Connections to Great Salt Lake, A History of Utah’s American Indians

Sign up with your email and be updated on all things Tracy Aviary!