What’s in a name? Cultural significance of Native American monikers

When naming their children, parents usually consider several factors, from family names passed down through generations, to names that reflect their hope for a child’s future behavior. In Native American cultures, choosing a child’s name is a complex process influenced by social hierarchies and personal characteristics. Adding even more layers to an already rich process, Native American names usually change over an individual’s lifetime to reflect milestones, accomplishments and actions.

Changing to fit the person

Mohegan tribeIn the Mohegan tribe in upper Connecticut, children receive descriptive names when they’re young. As they grow into adolescence, they receive a new name that reflects their experiences. Names may even change several times over a lifetime. Mohegan tribe member Brooke Wompsi’kuk Skeesucks says that the number of names people have reflects their personality; she explains that some people are like lakes, in that they change very little over time, while others are like a river that narrows and widens as it flows, eventually spreading out when it reaches the ocean.

Perhaps the closest parallel in modern U.S. culture lies in the nickname. Most people collect one, two or even several nicknames throughout their lives, starting with pet names in infancy to childhood nicknames and beyond. These nicknames can often serve as reminders of past relationships and selves; in contrast, the Native American tradition of changing names encourages individuals to continually strive to grow and change over time.

Natural connections

Many Native American names, both for people and places, are drawn from nature. In fact, many names of places and natural features across the U.S. stem from their original Native American name, such as Chesapeake, which roughly translates to “great shellfish bay” in the language of the region’s first inhabitants. Other place names seem to be the result of early settlers’ mispronunciations; for instance, Lake Tahoe stems from the Washoe tribe’s word for lake, da’aw.

When it comes to naming people, nature also plays an important role for many Native American tribes. For instance, the Cherokee name Adsila means “blossom,” the Sioux name Mahka means “Earth,” and the Winnebago name Ahusaka translates as “wings.” Often, names combine action with nature, such as the Cherokee name Adahy, which translates to “lives in the woods,” the Cheyenne name Minninnewah, which means “whirlwind,” and the Chickasaw name Omba, or “rain.”

Bestowing a name

Apache chiefIn many Native American cultures, the process of bestowing a name upon an individual includes ceremonial components like special attire. While every group has its own naming rites and rituals, most share some common elements.

Tribal elders may guide the naming process, leading ceremonies and even choosing names. While other family and tribal members may be present, sometimes a name is considered to be sacred, and therefore not made known publicly. Other naming ceremonies announce an individual’s name for all to hear. Often, naming ceremonies are accompanied by gift giving, singing, dancing, feasting or prayers.

Native American names still permeate U.S. culture. Many places and natural features across the country reflect the names that this land’s original inhabitants provided, each with a special meaning.

Cassandra Lynne

Cassandra works for Good Morning Bloggers. Her interest in Native Americans comes from her grandfather, who is part Seminole Indian.

See also Cassandra’s article on Four Native American cultures that shaped the US; and articles on the Trail of TearsNative Americans and the Civil War, and the White Indian Chief.