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Native-American Names

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What's in a Name

The ancient tribal tradition of the Delaware Indians of Oklahoma bestowed the function of name-giving on those individuals blessed with visions inspired by the Creator. They also took great care to choose names with elements that would serve the bearers well throughout their lives.

What's in a Name

Popular 1940s actress Tallulah Bankhead's given name comes from the Choctaw word meaning “leaping water.”


Another reason for being careful when choosing Native American names is the simple fact that the meanings behind them often aren't appropriate when used by anyone other than the individual to whom the name was originally given.

For being able to claim ownership of the only truly American names, the Indians of the “New World” have had little or no impact on the personal names used in the United States until very recently. Today, there's no denying the current trend for capturing some of these names for use by people of other ethnic backgrounds. Part of it may be driven by the current fashion of using place names as first names; if you choose a name like Dakota or Wyoming for your baby, you are, by default, giving your child a Native American name. The popular movie Dances with Wolves that was released nearly a decade ago also had a lot to do with the popularity of this name fashion. Names with Native American connections, such as Dakota and Winona, were uncommon before the movie came out; they greatly gained in use following its release.

Travel much beyond this, however, and you may very well be going where you shouldn't without even realizing it. Of course, the chances are pretty good that choosing one of these names will never be the source of a significant culture clash for either you or your child. However, unless you're a Native American (in which case you've probably already consulted a tribal elder for help in choosing a name), or you're adopting a baby with this heritage, it still may not be the best idea—even if you have the best of intentions—for the following reasons:

  • Traditions vary widely among tribes. What may be an acceptable borrowing of a name to some tribes may be unthinkable to others.
  • In some tribes, the use of names is highly restrictive. Certain names can only be used by specific families within the tribe, and can only be transferred by loan or gift. Using a name of this sort without first receiving permission could be considered an enormous faux pas or even theft. At a minimum, it's an affront to a specific culture and race.
  • For some Native American tribes, personal names are kept very private, sometimes even secret, and reserved for use only among other members of the same tribe. When members of one of these tribes are with people not of their own group, they'll often use “public” names instead of their true given names.
  • Many Native American names are created specifically for the bearer or to describe various stages of the bearer's life. For this reason, there are very few common Native American names.

Names such as Woo-ka-nay (“arched nose”), which was the real name of the Cheyenne warrior Roman Nose, or Wa Tha Huck, the original name of legendary Indian athlete Jim Thorpe (it means “bright path”), are clearly names chosen by tribal elders and given to specific people. As such, they really aren't appropriate for use by others.

What's in a Name

The Siouan name Winona is found in 28 states. In some cases, the name celebrates the fictional mother of Hiawatha as found in Longfellow's Song of Hiawatha. Other uses of the name refer to the cousin of Wabasha, the last Siouan chief.

Alphabet Soup

An ordinal name is a name that denotes the order in which children are born.

Still, there are ways of integrating Native American influences into given names if you really want to do so. Using words from Native American languages that relate to elements of nature—such as Tawa, the Hopi word for sun—is the approach taken by many parents who choose this name fashion. Some ordinal names, such as the Sioux name Winona, which means “eldest female child,” are also in common use and can be used by non-Native Americans. Tribal names in common use, such as Dakota, are also acceptable, as are geographic place names.

Sources for these names include:

  • Native American chronologies and encyclopedias
  • Tribal histories and almanacs
  • Books on Native American mythology and terminology
  • Books on various aspects of Native American culture

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Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to Baby Names © 1999 by Sonia Weiss. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

To order this book visit the Idiot's Guide web site or call 1-800-253-6476.


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