Nero Ceefo

I believe the desire to pass down knowledge from generation to generation is encoded in our DNA. All of us want our children to be better off than we are. If we can impart knowledge of how to find bountiful hunting grounds or how to appease the gods, our progeny will have a better chance of survival. 

When I was a little boy growing up in Ft. Smith, Arkansas, my father taught me how to count to 20 in “Indian”. He never told me why this would be useful or even which “Indian” language this was. He said this was something he learned as a child and wanted to pass it along to me. Over the years my older brothers and I would compare notes and none of us remembered the cipher-rhyme the same. Our father died before he could teach our little sister the code so she learned it from a combination of brothers… she recites yet a fourth variation on the theme.   

Steve Archambault, my cousin Ruthie Stewart’s son, sent an email to my older brother asking about this counting system. Apparently Ruthie’s side of the family also had heard this Indian counting rhyme. Ruthie’s mother is my father’s sister. Steve sent this link which includes an interesting discussion of its possible origins but concludes that this is not “Indian” in origin.

Help solve the mystery. If you know the origin of Nero Ceefo, let me know. My speculation is that it was a ditty included in a story about Indians published in a book or magazine targeted to youngsters at the turn of the century. 

How to Count to 20 in Indian

Nero, Ceefo, CuttyCut, LongLong, LongMini, LongCo, CoMini, CoTie, TieMini, TieChew, ChewPin, PinChay, ChayMini, ChayWha, WhaMini, WhaTie, Chiglets. (Don’t write to tell me this is only 17, not 20. This is part of the mystery)

Listen below to my version of “Counting to 20 in Indian”. This is the version that I’ve passed along to my kids.

My brother Jim’s version goes like this: Neero seefo, cutti cut long, long mani tai chu, chu mani pen chay, chay mani chay wa, chiglas

Here’s another version from the Native Languages link listed above: nero, cefo, cutty, cutmany, cutlong, longmany, longco, comany, cota, tahmany, tayew, jewmany, gewben, benmany, bencha, chamany, chawah, wahmany, watch, chiglets

“Witch Stump” was a story by Hubert J. Davis appearing in his book “Myths and Legends of Great Dismal Swamp” published in 1981. The story tells about an old fellow who had been tormented by a witch. He had worked out a deal with an Indian who was in cahoots with the devil to get back at the witch by turning her permanently into a tree stump. The Indian sorcerer sprinkled magic powder on the witch while chanting “nero c-fore, cutta-long, long-many, long-co, co-many, co-ben, ben-many, ben-cha, cha-many, wa-cheagles”. The Indian’s spell worked and the witch was frozen as a tree stump and could no longer take on human form. Where did Hubert J. Davis learn about this mysterious Indian chant? There has to be a link somewhere between the source of this story and the rhyme that my father taught me. 

In 2005, James Doyle posted this question on the web site for Forsyth County Georgia: “My GG Gp was 15 1850 Forsyth Co Federal Census He married Lucinda Seymour She taught my dad to count to 10 in some Indian language nero see-fo cutty cut-a-long long-meny k-ben jue-ben waddley wadley-chink Could this be Cherokee ???? Or may be nothing Thanks Doyle”

The following email may contain the most accurate rendition of the rhyme. Michael grew up in Murray Kentucky. 

From: Michael Rowland 
Sent: Monday, April 07, 2014 3:06 PM
To: Jerry Presley
Subject: The Counting Chant 

I found your web page. Your story parallels the story our mother passed along to us. She said this was counting to 20 in Indian (sometimes the story had it Cherokee). I can still hear her voice, and I render it phonetically, thus: 

Nero, sifo, cutty; cutty-mini cutty-long, long-mini long-co, co-mini co-tare, tare-mini tare-jew, jew-mini jew-ben, ben-mini ben-cay, cay-mini cay-wa, wa-mini wa-tare, chicle. 

If you count the divisions, it does, indeed, come out to 20 units. 

Background: My mother was Joye Outland, a native of Calloway County, Kentucky, in the Jackson Purchase. She was born in 1907, and lived to the age of 97. She married Edgar L. Rowland, also of Calloway County, though he had relatives (Gatlin Rowland and family) who lived in Arkansas. 


Listen below to Michael’s version of “Counting to 20 in Indian” as taught to him by his mother