I saw Black Panther on opening weekend – in Oakland, California, birthplace of the film’s director, Ryan Coogler – and have been thinking ever since about the names in the movie. I’m not a comic-book fan and had never read the source material or seen Captain America: Civil War, the 2016 film that introduced the Black Panther character to movie audiences, so I came to the experience with fresh eyes and ears.
And I came away with questions. Where, for starters, did “Wakanda” – the name of the tiny, technologically advanced African country that’s home to the Black Panther character – come from?
The fictional country of Wakanda, via SciFi Stack Exchange. Theories vary about Wakanda’s location; see the comments on the entry.
I intended to do some research, but one thing and then another got in the way until last week, when I was listening to an audiobook of Jane Smiley’s Early Warning, the second novel in her “Last Hundred Years” trilogy. (The narrator is Lorelei King, who is excellent.) This sentence, in a passage about some characters in Des Moines, Iowa, made me sit up and take notice:
Ed seemed to be holding up, though his family were not already members of the Wakonda Country Club, but over there in Davenport, where they were from, his father and his uncle did play plenty of golf on the public course.
Another Wakonda (pronounced exactly like “Wakanda”) – but in Iowa, not Africa. And not fictional, either, as I discovered:
Since 1922, Wakonda has been a part of the Des Moines landscape, offering a full golf, sports and dining experience. Located just minutes from downtown Des Moines and the most historic neighborhoods in the Metro, we are the premier club of Des Moines.
Coincidence? Probably not, as it turns out.
Wakonda, Wakanda, and Wacanda have a long history in North American place-naming and literature. According to the Native Languages site, “Wakonda is the great Creator power of the Osage, Omaha, and Ponca tribes. Wakonda is an abstract, omnipresent creative force who is never personified in traditional Siouan legends, and in fact did not even have a gender before the introduction of English with its gender-specific pronouns.”
Peter Manseau, curator of American religious history at the Smithsonian, analyzed “the surprising religious backstory” of Wakanda for the Washington Post last month:
Wakanda also was something more. Recorded in some sources as Wah’Kon’Tah, it was both a source and a destination: a place from which all goodness emerged and to which all aspired to journey.
“According to their religious code,” a report called “The Far West” in the Nashville Tennessean noted in 1873, “there is a future state. It consists in a place of pleasure and repose, where the prudent in council, intrepid and courageous warriors, indefatigable hunters, and the kind man will obtain an eternal recompense.”
The name of this place? “Wak-an-da,” the Tennessean wrote, “or the country of life.”
Lee and Kirby likely did not look to 19th-century newspapers or ethnographic reports to name their own abode of intrepid and courageous warriors. But by the time they introduced Black Panther and his kingdom, Wakanda lingered in parts of the United States as a haunting remnant of displaced languages and beliefs. As Wakanda, Wakonda, and Waconda, it had become a commonplace name throughout the Midwest, and, most intriguingly when considering its afterlife as the distant realm of superheroes, in the mid-20th century it was a popular name for summer camps in the mid-20th century, those ephemeral nations of experience that seemed to appear only when children fled the familiar to join a magical land.
.@plmanseau Great @washingtonpost article. My grandfather, Jack Kirby, self taught, well versed in religion and philosophy, researching his Western comics in the 50’s &60’s, predating #BlackPanther, no doubt would have encountered and understood the significance of #Wakanda. https://t.co/vlsHrikdR3— Kirby4Heroes (@Kirby4Heroes) March 7, 2018
In a February 20 article, “Offensive or Not?”, in Indian Country Today, Vincent Schilling interviewed several Osage tribal members about the use of “Wakanda” in the film. Black Panther wasn’t the first film to use the name, said Osage News editor Shannon Shaw Duty:
Even though the fictional territory had been created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby in 1966, the first time Shaw Duty says she had heard Wakanda used in a film was by Dan Aykroyd in Ghostbusters.
“In the original Ghostbusters film, when Dan Aykroyd is explaining where he thought up the Stay Puft Marshmallow man, was when he was a little boy at camp Waconda. Wakanda and Waconda sound the same, but Wah.Kon.Tah is pronounced a little bit differently.”
Three years before Lee and Kirby dreamed up the Black Panther story, Ken Kesey invented the fictional town of Wakonda, Oregon, in his 1963 novel Sometimes a Great Notion. Last year Aaron Mesh set out to find Wakonda for a story in the Willamette (Oregon) Week:
There is no town of Wakonda. There is no Wakonda Auga River. These places existed only in the mind of Ken Kesey, who is dead, and in the pages of his logging novel Sometimes a Great Notion, which is long. You can get lost in the pages, but you won't find directions.
Yet a sort of roadmap to the home of the fictional Stamper family does exist. "All up and down the West Coast," Kesey wrote in 1963, "there are little towns much like Wakonda. Towns dependent on what they are able to wrest from the sea in front of them and from the mountains behind, trapped between both."
And a half-century before that, writes Peter Manseau, Edgar Rice Burroughs (the creator of Tarzan) wrote The Man-Eater – published posthumously in 1957 – in which the fictional Wakanda people attack a “little American Methodist mission in the heart of the African jungle.”
The Native American connection is only one of several possibilities for the origin of “Wakanda” in the Black Panther comic. According to a Wikipedia entry, it may be related to the Kenyan tribe Kamba, Akamba, or Wakamba; or to the word kanda, which means “family” in Kikongo, one of the Bantu languages spoken in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
“Wakanda” may or may not be an invented name, but the language spoken by characters in the Black Panther film when they aren’t speaking (accented) English is 100 percent real isiXhosa, one of South Africa’s 11 official languages. Read about it; learn how to speak it; read an interview with the film’s dialect coach.