Indian Naming

Among the Indians personal names were given and changed at the critical epochs of life, such as birth, puberty, the first war expedition, some notable feat, elevation to chieftainship, and, finally, retirement from active life was marked by the adoption of the name of one’s son. In general, names may be divided into two classes: (1) True names, corresponding to our personal names, and (2) names which answer rather to our titles and honorary appellations. The former define or indicate the social group into which a man is born, whatever honor they entail being due to the accomplishments of ancestors, while the latter mark what the individual has done himself.

There are characteristic tribal differences in names, and where a clan system existed each clan had its own set of navies, distinct froth those of all other clans, and, in the majority of cases, referring to the totem animal, plant, or object. At the same time there were tribes in which names apparently had nothing to do with totems, and some such names were apt to occur in clans having totemic navies. Most Siouan clans and bands had names that were applied in a definite order to the boys and girls born into them. A Mohave child born out of wedlock received some ancient name, not commonly employed in the tribe. Among the interior Salish, where there were no clans, names were usually inherited in both the male and female lines for several generations, though new names were continually introduced that were taken from dreams or noteworthy events. Loskiel records that a Delaware child was often named in accordance with some dream that had come to its father. According to Ross, a father among some of the northern Athapascan tribes lost his name as soon as a male child was born and was henceforth called after the name of his son; a Thlingchadinne changed his name after the birth of each successive child, while an unmarried man was known as the child of his favorite dog. Among the Maidu infants might be named with reference to some incident occurring at the time of birth, but many received no names other than such general appellations as ‘child,’ ‘baby,’ or ‘boy,’ until they were old enough to exhibit some characteristic which suggested something appropriate. The father and mother addressed a boy all his life by his boyhood name. A girl, however, received different successive names at puberty, childbirth, and in old age. The Kiowa, being without clans, received names suggested by some passing incident or to commemorate a warlike exploit of some ancestor. Sometimes, however, they were hereditary, and in any case they were bestowed by the grandparents to the exclusion of the parents. Young men as they grew up usually assumed dream names, in obedience to visions.

The naming of a rich man’s child among the coast Salish was accompanied by a great feast and distribution of property, and an invited chief publicly announced the name given. Names even originally belonging to the higher class were bestowed upon young people among the Haida and Tlingit when their relatives bad potlatches, and it thus resulted that names individually acquired became in time hereditary and were added to the list of common manes owned by the clan.

The second name, or title, was sometimes, as has been said, bestowed on account of some brave or meritorious action. Thus a Pawnee “was permitted to take a new name only after the performance of an act indicative of great ability or strength of character,” and it was done during a public ceremonial. Among the Siouan tribes a similar custom seems to have prevailed, but among the Haidu of California entrance into the secret society took its place as a reason for the bestowal of new titles. On the northwest coast a man adopted one of the potlatch, or sacred, names of his predecessor when he gave the mortuary feast and erected the grave post. At every subsequent potlatch he was at liberty to adopt an additional title, either one used by his predecessor or a new one commemorative of an encounter with a supernatural being or of some success in war or feast giving. Along with his place in a secret society a Kwakiutl obtained the right to certain sacred names which had been received by the first holder of his position from the spirit patron of the society and were used only during the season of the ceremonial, like the titles employed in the fraternal and other societies of civilized life. The second name among this people also marks individual excellence rather than the attainment of an hereditary position, for the person did not succeed to the office, but had to pass through a long period of training and labor to be accepted. After a man died his name was held in abeyance for a longer or shorter period, and if it were taken from the name of some familiar object, the name of that object often had to be altered, but the taboo period was not longer than would allow the person’s successor to collect his property and give the death feast, and a simple phonetic change often satisfied all scruples. Changes of this kind seem to have been carried to greater extremes by some tribes, notably the Kiowa, where, on the death of any member of a family all the others take new names, while all the terms suggesting the name of the dead person are dropped from the language for a period of years. Among the coast Salish a single name was often used by successive chiefs for four or five generations. Among the Iroquois and cognate tribes, according to Hewitt, the official name of a chieftaincy is also the official name of the officer who may for the time being become installed in it, and the name of this chieftaincy is never changed, no matter how many persons may successively become incumbents of it. Unlike the Indians of most tribes, a Pueblo, although bearing several names, usually retained one name throughout life. In many tribes a curious custom prohibited a man from directly addressing his wife, his mother-in-law, and sometimes his father-in-law, and vice versa.

Names of men and women were usually, though not always, different. When not taken from the totem animal, they were often grandiloquent terms referring to the greatness and wealth of the bearer, or they might commemorate some special triumph of the family, while, as among the Navaho, nicknames referring to a personal characteristic were often used. The first name frequently refers to something which especially impressed the child’s mother at the time of its birth. Often names were ironical and had to be interpreted in a manner directly opposite to the apparent sense. A failure to understand this, along with faulty interpretation, has brought about strange, sometimes ludicrous, misconceptions. Thus the name of a Dakota chief, translated ‘Youngman-afraid-of-his-horses,’ really signifies ‘Young man whose very horses are feared.” Where the clan system did not flourish, as among the Salish, the name often indicated the object in nature in which a person’s guardian spirit was supposed to dwell. Names for houses and canoes went by families and clans like personal names and property in general.

Names could often be loaned, pawned, or even given or thrown away outright; on the other hand, they might be adopted out of revenge without the consent of the owner. The possession of a name was everywhere jealously guarded, and it was considered discourteous or even insulting to address one directly by it. This reticence, on the part of some Indians at least, appears to have been due to the fact that every man, and every thing as well, was supposed to have a real name which so perfectly expressed his inmost nature as to be practically identical with him. This name might long remain unknown to all, even to its owner, but at some critical period in life it was confidentially revealed to him. It was largely on account of this sacred character that an Indian commonly refused to give his proper designation, or, when pressed for an answer, asked someone else to speak it. Among the Maidu it was not customary, in addressing a person, to use the name descriptive of his personal characteristics.

In modern times the problem of satisfactorily naming Indians for purposes of permanent record has been very puzzling owing to their custom of changing names and to the ignorance on the part of persons in authority of native customs and methods of reckoning descent. According to Mooney, Setimkia, ‘Bear bearing down (an antagonist),’ the honorable war name of a noted Kiowa chief, is mistranslated `Stumbling Bear.’ Tenepiabi, ‘Bird coining into sight’, has been popularly known as ‘Hummingbird’ since he was a prisoner in Florida in 1875, probably a mistake for ‘Coming bird.’ Hajo, a Creek war title signifying ‘recklessly brave,’ is popularly rendered ‘crazy,’ as in the case of Chito Hajo, leader of the Creek opposition to allotment, whose name is popularly and officially rendered ‘Crazy Snake.’ Even when translated correctly an Indian name often conveys an impression to a white man quite the reverse of the Indian connotation. Thus ‘Stinking Saddle Blanket’ (Takaibodal) might be considered an opprobious epithet, whereas it is an honorary designation, meaning that the bearer of it, a Kiowa, was on the warpath so continuously that he did not have time to take off his saddle blanket. ‘Unable-to-buy,’ the name of a Haida chief, instead of indicating his poverty, commemorates an occasion when a rival chief did not have enough property to purchase a copper plate he offered for sale.

In recent years the Office of Indian Affairs has made an effort to systematize the names of some of the Indians for the purpose of facilitating land allotments, etc. By circular issued Dec. 1, 1902, the office set forth the following principles governing the recording of Indian names on agency rolls, etc:
(1) The father’s name should be the family surname;
(2) the Indian name, unless too long and clumsy, should be preferred to a translation;
(3) a clumsy name may be arbitrarily shortened (by one familiar with the language) without losing its identity;
(4) if the use of a translation seems necessary, or if a translation has come into such general and accepted use that it ought to be retained, that name should be written as one word.


Hodge, Frederick Webb, Compiler. The Handbook of American Indians North of Mexico. Bureau of American Ethnology, Government Printing Office. 1906.

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