No, “Oklahoma” doesn’t mean “red people”

3 min readJan 31, 2017


Halito, a̱kana! Sʋ hohchifo yʋt Alhakofi micha Chahta ohoyo sia. Chahta anumpa anumpoli la hinla. Chahta anumpa kil api̱sa!

Let’s have a little lesson in Chahta anumpa, the Choctaw language. Informational websites all over the Internet translate the word “Oklahoma” as “red people.” Both individual people and news organizations alike love to use this vastly oversimplified translation of Oklahoma to justify using the racial slur “redskins” against both Choctaw and non-Choctaw people.

The term “Oklahoma,” while also used by Choctaw Chief Oklahoma, was coined again later by Choctaw Chief Allen Wright during the naming of the state 40 years after Chief Oklahoma’s tenure ended. The words “okla” and “humma” are also Chickasaw (Chikashshanompa’), as Choctaw and Chickasaw are very similar.

Do any of these people speak Chahta anumpa? Heck no, they’re just repeating the same ignorantly simple translation over and over. Saying “Oklahoma” means “red people” is like saying every Notre Dame football player was born in Ireland. It’s like saying “carte blanche” means “white card.” It’s like saying a black sheep in the family is evidence of beastiality.

So how should we translate “Oklahoma?”

“Oklahoma” is indeed derived from two Choctaw words, “okla” and “humma.” The latter is spelled various ways, sometimes with an o or u as the second letter and sometimes with one or two m’s.

okla, n., a people; a tribe; a nation; citizens; folks; persons; men; population; a tongue; a multitude; inhabitants;

“Okla” primarily means a group of people who share a culture and language. Of the 11 primary definitions given in Byington’s A Dictionary of the Choctaw Language, only two of them do not encompass this connotation of belonging and shared culture and language. Those two, “persons” and “men” are the simplest most generic possible translation for the word “okla,” and they basically only apply when you’re using “okla” as the personal pronoun “they.” When Choctaw speakers think of the word “okla,” we think of OUR people. It’s broadest and most generic definition should be “the Choctaw Nation.”

humma, n., red; crimson; redness; rouge; scarlet.
humma, homma, a., red; angry; inflamed, as a sore; flagrant; florid; fresh; roseate; ruby; ruddy; sanguinary; scarlet; tawny, Matt. 16: 2, 3.
humma, v. n., to be red; v. a. i., to flush; to glow; to redden.
humma, pp., reddened; tanned red; made red; “ikhummo”, pp., not tanned; raw, as a hide.
humma, adv., redly.
humma, an addition to a man’s name which gives him some distinction, calling on him for courage and honor. The “na humma” may not run or turn the back on the field of battle.

Oh boy. So which of these 27 definitions is the one we should use for “Oklahoma?” It’s really easy to look at this list and just pick the first one. However, the whole first line is nouns only! But the next four lines also focus on the color red. Let’s look at that initial assertion: that “Oklahoma” means “red people.” Now look back at those definitions. Not a single definition in those first 5 lines on “humma” from the dictionary apply to people. But look at line 6. All of a sudden we have a good reason to use the word “humma” to describe people.

“Humma,” when applied to people, is an honorific. It’s a title. Earning your “humma” name is more like being knighted. It’s a confidence placed upon you that your bravery has been proven, your loyalty is without doubt, your honor is steadfast, and your ability is great enough that you’ve earned your place among the Choctaw elite. In this case, it doesn’t mean “red man.” How could this honorific possibly mean that this Choctaw person is the same as every other Indian? It has to mean the opposite. No, it means “courageous,” “brave,” “honorable” and could even possibly be translated as “elite” or “set apart.”

So, you see, it is ignorant to assume that because “okla” means “people” and “humma” means “red” that “Oklahoma” means “red people.” The words just don’t go together that way. It’s easy to see unless you either 1) don’t understand English or 2) don’t understand Choctaw.

Oklahoma means:

  • “honorable Nation”
  • “a brave people” (not “some brave people”)
  • “courageous Nation”

There is simply no room in the Choctaw language for “Oklahoma” to mean “people who are red.”




Oka kashofa ohoyo. Chickashsha yakni ibachukkoa ʋtta li. Chahta urban Native, enrolled. Western Science does not inform Indigenous truth. She/Her.