Native American Names
Introduction to Native American Names for Teachers
Among the Indian tribes of the United States all personal names
have a definite significance. Although there are diversities
in the customs relating to names among the various tribes, yet,
looking at these as a whole, personal names are observed to fall
generally into two classes: First, those which refer to sacred
rites; second, those which commemorate a personal achievement.
An Indian tribe is composed of a number of kinship groups or
clans. To each one of these, speaking generally, belongs the
hereditary duty of performing a certain rite and also the care
of the sacred objects connected with that rite. Each kinship
group or clan has a set of personal names, all of which refer
to the rite peculiar to the clan, or to the sacred objects or
to the symbols connected with the rite, and one of these names
is given to each person born within the clan. Names of this class
are generally retained by men and women throughout life and,
to a degree, are regarded as sacred in character. These names
have also a social significance, as they always indicate the
birth status of the person, for the name at once shows to which
clan or kinship group the bearer belongs. No one can exchange
his clan or birth name, any more than he can change his sex.
The names that belong to the second class are those which are
taken by an adult to mark an achievement. This must be an act
in which he has shown special ability or courage in successfully
defending his people from danger. Such a name, therefore, marks
an epoch in a man's life and is strictly personal to the man,
and, to a degree, indicative of his character or attainments.
It sometimes happens, although but rarely, that a man on such
an occasion may decide to take the name of a noted ancestor rather
than acquire an entirely new name, but the character of the act
of taking a new name is not thereby changed.
These facts concerning the significance of Indian personal names
throw light on the widespread custom observed among Indians of
never addressing men or women by their personal names or of using
those names in their presence. To do so is a breach of good manners.
The personal name, as has been shown, refers either to the religious
rites sacred to the bearer's clan or else to a notable act performed
by the man; in both cases the name stands for something that
is too closely connected with the life of the individual to make
it fit for common use. The difficulty of designating a person
one wishes to address is met by the use of terms of relationship.
Of course, in some companies these terms would be literally true
and proper, but there are terms which are used in a wider sense
and which do not imply actual kinship. (The subject of Indian
relationships and their terms is too complex to be entered upon
here.) There are terms which are employed merely to indicate
respect. For instance, "Grandfather" is used when addressing
or speaking of the President of the United States; "Little Father" and "Father" when
addressing or speaking of the Secretary of the Interior and the
Commissioner of Indian Affairs, both of whom rank below the President,
as is well known to the Indian. The use of terms of relationship
may appear strange to us, but there is, as we have seen, a reason
for it. This reason also explains why a child or an adult generally
stands mute when we address him by his personal name or ask him
what his name is; his silence is not to be attributed to "Indian
stolidity," which we ignorantly regard as a marked characteristic
of the race.
The bestowal of a name, whether the name is of the first or
of the second class already described, was always attended with
ceremonies. These differed among the many tribes of the United
States, particularly in their details, but fundamentally they
had much in common.