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While I was out looking for more information I came across this site, and found John Kootnz's responses to his Frequently Asked Questions about Native American Names and their Meanings. What he has written speaks to how I feel. John has given his permission for us to include these FAQ's on this website. You may visit his website at ~ Spotted Wolf



     If the child is not Native American I might recommend against this. Please read everything below before you let this upset you! I don't recommend against Native American-inspired or connected names in and of themselves, but I do recommend against borrowing names from groups which view names as family or national property, or personal or religious mysteries. Apart from these moral issues, I will elaborate below on certain practical phonetic and orthographic difficulties as well.

     A very good general introduction to naming among Native American groups is: French, David H. and French, Katherine S. 1996. Personal Names. In: pp. 200-221. Handbook of North American Indians, Wm. C. Sturtevant, ed., Vol. 17, Languages, Ives Goddard, ed. Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC.

     Of course, if you and the child are Native Americans, you may already know where to start among your older relatives in the father's or mother's line, depending on your people's practices. If you don't know, then unfortunately I'm not really in a position to help you, as in nearly every case I don't know either. If possible, start by asking whoever you can ask if they know who you should ask.

     Sadly, losses occur, families don't always communicate well, and some people are not on good terms with their family or have lost contact with them for various reasons. You may not know who your kin are, or may have no close kin living, but if you do know anyone at all, this may be a matter in which they would feel inclined or obliged to help. I think that if you really are isolated, or fall in the cracks of a difficult interethnic or family situation, then you should feel justified in handling matters yourself.

     If the child is Native American, but you are not, then you may also not be sure where to begin. I would recommend starting with elder Native American relatives of the child, if this is at all feasible, recognizing that in some cases such situations are fraught with controversy and acrimony.

     In any case, if you have any questions about spellings or other linguistic issues for names, I recommend that you start in the nearest library.

     Let me now expand a bit on this issue of Native American names for non-Native Americans. It's quite appropriate to think of honoring the memory of individual Native Americans or the existence of Native Americans in general, or to think of preserving something of the numerous and varied Native American cultures. There's also nothing wrong with looking for something meaningful, different and interesting to present to a beloved child. But there are some problems that may not have occurred to you.

     First, consider the Euro-American naming pattern. European naming originates in the Christian practice of naming people after saints and Biblical figures. This has resulted in a large, shared fund of traditional names borrowed and adapted from other languages and necessarily obscure in meaning. Often these have a unique form in a particular language, e.g., John, Johann, Ivan, Juan, etc., but they are still meaningful primarily in terms of previous holders of the name, whether sainted, famous, or ancestral. In the language themselves they usually have no particular meaning. The fact that John, etc., derive from Aramaic Yohannon 'God is gracious/generous' has much less significance than the existence of various Saints and Apostles John, Kings John, actors John, father or grandfathers John, etc.

     In some cases names did once have meanings in a European language or in a closely related language, but the names have been in use so long that their form has changed, or the parts making them up have fallen out of use. Again the names have become meaningless sequences that derive their significance from previous holders of the name. So, Louis (once Frankish Chlodoveg(s) 'defender of the people' is pretty much in the same case as John, along with its variants Luis, Lewis, Ludwig, Lodovico, etc.

     Even protestant Christian and non-Christian Europeans generally name children after other people with one of these traditional, now meaningless names. This is not to say that other patterns don't occur, e.g., naming for virtues - Charity, Chastity, Hope - or using the last names of honored individuals - Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln - as given names.

     Since traditional names are often selected for their sound, people sometimes make up interesting sounding names along the same models. This seems to be more common among African Americans, but it s certainly not restricted to them. In fact, it is as often the spelling as the sound that matters. John is different from Jon, and Sean from Siobhan. People even introduce oddities or puns into spelling, like Bettye or Katelyn to give a name a different character.

     In many Native American groups, or at least the Siouan groups I know anything about, names are selected on quite another basis. They are, of course, not based on anything so ridiculous as the first thing the father saw after the child was born. (At least not as far as I know, Doctor-Presenting-A-Bill.) A typical situation, as exemplified among the Omaha and Ponca, is that the name is presented by an older relative, has been used previously, and is appropriate to the clan (extended male-descent nominal kin group) into which the child is born.

     Normally, also, the name would be, in the case of a male child, not currently in use by another individual, i.e., no one should use a name while another individual is using it. Traditionally a man might run through several names in the course of a life, though, often trading up as a name with more panache became available. This practice has caused historians investigating the history of the Omaha chiefly families a good deal of difficulty. In other cases, a person might switch to a nickname, often also of a traditional nature. In contrast to male names, female names need not be uniquely held, and might sometimes even be extremely widely held. They were also perhaps more stable, though not necessarily. Parents sometimes changed a child's name to confuse evil influences that seemed to be pursuing it, or to mark a rite of passage.

     Elsewhere these principles might be modified in various ways, e.g., other people might be able to present the names; names might be in some precedented form, but new; the kin group might be different or not figure; and so on.

     Another widespread principle is that the name would normally be transparent in meaning. Names of unknown meaning also exist, but they are not the norm as they are among Euro-Americans. An Omaha-Ponca example would be Kkawaha 'Horsehide', obscure since most people don't know that kkawa, ultimately from Spanish caballo, once meant 'horse', though this usage is still current in Osage. The modern word for 'horse' is s^aNge, originally 'dog'. Even a name with a clear meaning might easily be fairly obscure to outsiders, who would be ignorant of the situation that explained the name. An Omaha-Ponca example would be U'wedhathe 'field eater', a poetic trope for 'blackbird'. (In fact, this might refer to 'crow', since the name Waz^iNga Sabe, literally 'black bird', is said to refer to the 'raven', and bird terminology was often muddled in early contact situations.)

     The problems implicit in taking a Native American name in the situation outlined are several. First, you need a sponsor to present you with the name for it to be meaningful in the Native American way. The sponsor has to be entitled by age and integration into the proper kinship group to do this, and must know what names are available or how to make up new ones. They must know the child, too, to know what name would be suitable. The name's meaning and implications are as important as its form, even if the name is traditional. The sponsor has to be integrated enough into the group to be sure that no one else is using a name and to know which names are currently considered undesirable.

     Knowing what names are available or what patterns usable in making new names can be complicated. When names or name patterns are used traditionally by particular kin groups, rather than by the society as a whole, they come to have a sort of copyright attached to them. They belong to a particular subgroup - a family or a clan - and within the culture of that people are only used by that subgroup. Names might sometimes pass outside a subgroup by loan or gift, but using a name of this sort without permission would be bad manners at best and a theft of intellectual property at worst.

     You can see that if you admire Omaha culture, using an Omaha name for a non-Omaha person would be more or less unthinkable, or at least very difficult. On the other hand, there wouldn't be any particular problem with naming a place after someone with an Omaha name, and Omahas used to do this all the time themselves.

     Another cultural problem occurs with some non-Siouan people, for whom personal names are more or less private, even secret, and the whole idea of picking one out and announcing it around would be bizarre. This is the case among the Navajo, for example. Public names among the Navajo are often of foreign (English or Spanish) origin, for use by those who are not able to to use a kinterm instead, and are unwilling to deal with people on a basis of anonymity.

     So much for cultural problems. Now for spelling. Continuing, in my experience, the second problem with Native American names for non-Native Americans (and for places) is that the people who want them are really looking for something they won't find. They want, for example, a short sequence of English-compatible sounds, arranged in an English-compatible way, adding up to an English name that no one else has thought of. They want something that sounds neat - sort of like a Celtic name, maybe, familiar but transmuted - and preferably meaning something neat like 'Dances with Wolves' or 'Treads the Wind'.

     One problem with this has to do with English esthetics. Native American names - Siouan, anyway - tend to be longish, on the order of Ancient Greek or Biblical Hebrew names. Length in itself violates one principle of English esthetics, which is that names should be one or two syllables long, perhaps three with a hyphen in them somewhere in parts of the American South.

     Another problem is that the sound sequences and sometimes the sounds themselves sometimes aren't English compatible. They don't sound the least bit like a Celtic name - Meagan, or the ever popular Colleen, actually not a name, but just 'little girl' in Irish. They don't even sound like one of the generalized Eurasian names commonly appearing in fantasy novels, e.g. Thongor (sorry, Lynn), taking those as examples of what an English speaker might be looking for in a nice exotic name. Native American names do sound and look neat enough, it's true, but they may not be what you are subconsciously expecting, and your kid could end up spending the rest of his life explaining that the second and third syllables are supposed to have nasal vowels and that it means 'Orphan' (literally, 'He is a mother-lacking one'), e.g., Omaha-Ponca WahaNdhiNge.

     Another difficulty is semantics. That name 'Dances with Wolves' was actually made up for the novel by a white man (Michael Blake). Actually, a more typical Siouan name (drawing on Omaha-Ponca) would be 'Smoke Maker' ('He makes smoke') or 'Four Walker' ('Four walk') or 'Pale Ponca' or 'Any Hawk Woman'. Names tend to refer to some culturally-bound concept, not to moments of ecological insight or transcendental whimsy.

     In short, maybe you'd be happier with a nice Norwegian or Russian or Turkish name, which would be freely available, more than sufficiently exotic, and more in line with English esthetics. And, if you check out the meanings of a few Indo-European or Semitic names you'll find that typical meanings do include things like 'He loves horses' or 'She brandishes a spear'. 'He cavorts with canines' is certainly within reach, though you'll have to consult your local Germanist for details. (Maybe Wolftanzer?)

     All this aside, however, and supposing that you still have your heart set on a Native American name, you might consider naming your child after some historical Native American individual (or group) that you admire without seeking out a Native American name per se. In most cases the names in question have an accepted English form (Tecumseh, Cochise) or are actually English (Joseph) or Spanish (Geronimo). No harm is done, or no new harm anyway, and the risky process of finding and adapting something to English is avoided. I also think there's some chance that a translated name might escape the appropriation charge. Personally, I've always liked the sound of 'American Horse.'

     There are also a couple of non-names of Native American origin that seem to suit a lot of people's taste. Unfortunately, your child has to be a girl. These non-names usable as names (like Colleen) are Winona, from Dakotan WinuNna 'eldest child (female)', and Tanis, from Cree tanis 'little daughter'. The former is actually an ordinal or number name, a cultural practice common among Mississippi Valley Siouan groups. (The Romans used them for their daughters, for that matter: Prima, Secunda, Tertia, etc.)

In case, you're interested, the list of ordinal names for Teton Dakotan is: 
  Boy's Ordinal Names LCPA Girl's Ordinal Names LCPA
First Child C^haske' Chah-SKAY WinuN'na Wee-NOHN-nah
Second Child HephaN' Hay-PAHN Ha'phaN HAH-pahn
Third Child Hephi' Hay-PEE Ha'phistiNna HAH-pee-stee-nah
Fourth Child C^hathaN' Chah-TAHN WaN'ske WAHN-skay
Fifth Child Hakhe' Hah-KAY Wiha'khe Wee-HAH-kay

The list for Omaha-Ponca is:

  Boy's Ordinal Names LCPA Girl's Ordinal Names LCPA
First Child INgdhaN' IN-GLAHN WinaN' Wee-NAHN
Second Child INkhe' IN-KAY Sige' See-GAY
Third Child Kha'ga KAH-gah Asi' Ah-SEE
Fourth Child Khage' Kah-GAY Wihe' Wee-HAY
Obviously you can adapt the spelling to suit yourself.

     This approach has its risks. I had a tee-shirt made up for my eldest daughter when she was baby, with the inscription Winon on it. I kind of prefer the Siouanist's WinaN (albeit with nasal hook instead of the NetSiouan N) but the tee-shirt shop was short on nasal hooks, so I went with the LaFlesche version. This was strictly as a way of involving my family and child to some extent in the work I am doing and to acquaint my daughter in the long run with some elements of Omaha culture. It wasn't intended as a name or even as a nickname. I think of ordinal names, in any event, as something like a kinship term or title, rather than a name per se. I believe this is the spirit in which they must once have been used.

     Anyway, I thought that shirt was rather nice, but one day a woman asked me, rather suspiciously, "Mister, why does your little girl's shirt say 'Wino to the nth'?" Well, I still think the whole idea is rather nice, but I'm not quite sure what to do with the 200-plus million Americans who don't know that raised n is a diacritic indicating nasality, and seemed inclined to think that the shirt is some sort of advertisement for infant alcoholism. Maybe I'll put the n in line next time: Winon. That might work. Or maybe they'll just think I can't spell Winona. Meanwhile, WinaN outgrew that shirt a fair number of years ago, and now sees it as a treasured heirloom. I often see it on the floor in a corner of her room. In a few more years maybe she'll appreciate what it means.

     Since Winona and Tanis were girl's names, if you need a boy's name, you can try Teton Dakotan Washichun hokshila (Was^ic^huN hoks^i=la), meaning 'white boy, whiteman's child'. The Omaha-Ponca equivalent is Waghe izhinga (Wag^e iz^iNga). The spellings here are extemporized.

      I guess there's one final approach you might take. You could go to a library and consult some dictionaries for words in various Native American languages for meanings you think might make good names, like 'wolf' or 'flower' or 'corn'. If one strikes your fancy and you can devise an English spelling that pleases you, I guess you should go with it. Just remember the 'wino to the nth' effect.

     The thoughts embodied in this rather persnickety essay grow out of some experiences I've had with questions about Native American names for people and places. I have handled a few questions dealing with possible spellings of existing names for Native American people. I still keep getting questions about naming non-Native American children or children whose family's Native American connections are real but grown tenuous due to acculturation and intermarriage. If the acculturation shoe fits you, how about 'Orphan' (see above)? It seems appropriate.


     Some of the problems with naming children apply here, too, though primarily the esthetic ones. Oddly enough this question keeps coming up, so, with some inspiration from Dave Barry (or maybe Will Cuppy), I have come up with a little procedure.

     The procedure I would recommend is to go to the nearest reference library, go to the reference department, and ask the librarian to help you find a dictionary for the language that appeals to you. Then look in the English index for the word 'dog.' Use the word listed there. A nice reference librarian having a good day may be willing to do some of this over the phone. Even a mean one on a bad day will probably help you do it in person.

     I am simplifying somewhat. Specifically, to pronounce the form you find you may need to refer to the pronunciation key. Also, the form may not actually be a word. It may be a theme or a stem or a root, or, in layman's terms, part of a word. To convert it to a whole word you may need to refer to the native language side of the dictionary, or to a grammatical introduction or appendix. I recommend this in any case, as an interesting and mind-broadening experience. Generally speaking, even a reference librarian of heroic cast will prefer you to come in and do this yourself.

     If you do do it and you are stumped, you may be relieved to know that you now have a question that a linguist wouldn't mind answering. Xerox the relevant parts and mail them to the linguist of your choice, together with a cover letter explaining the situation. Include a picture of the dog.

     Of course, and now we are verging on the pedantic, you may feel that 'dog' is not a particularly interesting name. It's bit generic, shall we say? It could be anyone's dog, right? On the positive side of the ledger, however, it saves you figuring out how to construct a more satisfying name, which could involve you in fairly complex grammatical issues, and I can assure you that a great many people do name their dogs Dog, in English or otherwise.

     But the real advantage of the approach is that it takes very little effort and almost nobody will realize what you have done. They will be impressed with the name as it stands, and if you tell them that it means 'Champion Rex Out of Queenie' they will be none the wiser. If some of the more astute ones say it sounds awfully short for all that, you can explain that you just call the dog 'Champ' for short. If they ask for the full thing, just give an embarrassed little smile and claim that you've forgotten the rest of it. If they buy that, they're probably going to be pretty impressed, and if they decide to follow your example or check up on you, it'll be them trying to translate 'Champion Rex Out of Queenie', not you. Refer them to that reference librarian.

     Of course, it might be simpler just tell them it means 'dog' to begin with. They're still going to be pretty impressed, and there's less chance that they might come around later pointing out where your translation went wrong and laughing at you and your dog.

     To save you a little trouble, the word for dog in Dakota is s^uN'ka (SHOONG-kah). If you want something a bit longer, and if your dog can carry it off, you can call it s^uNkmaN'niNtu (shoong-MAH-nee-too), which is 'coyote'. I do not recommend this for a Chihuahua or anything else the size and texture of a coyote's lunch.

     In Omaha-Ponca 'dog' is s^i'nudaN (SHEE-noo-duh). The only non-literary Omaha dog name I've actually run into was Sa'be (SAH-beh) 'black one'. Actually, the dog's original name was 'Blackie' in English, but they translated it into Omaha for a children's book. If you want a literary name, there are always MaN'zedhaxaN (MAH-zeh-LAH-khan) 'He rends iron with his teeth' and IN'?edhas^iz^e (EEN-ay-LAH-shee-zheh) 'He shivers stone with his teeth', from the story of 'Orphan and the Watermonster'. However, I feel that most dogs will lose interest before you can get much of these out, unless you have something to eat in your hand, and in that case it's not usually necessary to use a name to get the dog's attention.
     This was received as a facetious question, but in my opinion, you could scarcely improve on Ho'thaNke (HO-tahng-kay) - I'd spell it Hotanke - which is Dakotan for 'Winnebago', unless maybe you wanted to go with the Winnebago version. I 'm not sure I would. I think they're still a little steamed about the whole thing.

The above questions and answers articles were written by John Koontz a linguist whose specialty is the Siouan languages, especially Omaha-Ponca, a Dhegiha (LAY-gee-ha or THEY-gee-ha)** language, spoken by the Omaha and Ponca peoples.

Thank you John for giving your permission to put these articles on the site.~~Spotted Wolf

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Updated October, 2007
Created June 19, 2005