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Native American Names

In almost every culture throughout history names are incredibly important. Even now parents will spend months trying to decide what the perfect name for their child may be; it will define you for the rest of your life. In Native American culture the meaning is perhaps even more important and names were given in a far more different way.

The Native American people had many different and complex systems when it came to choosing names. These processes can vary greatly from tribe to tribe but there are several things they have in common. Often a child is given a descriptive name when they are very young. Throughout a person’s life they may receive different names that better fit them. As they reach adulthood it is sometimes granted for someone to pick their own name that would signify a trait they may aspire to be defined by.

This may sound like an extreme contrast to the way we are accustomed to giving and receiving names however it is not so dissimilar to the way we use nicknames, especially throughout youth. In many tribes different nicknames would be given out similarly, usually names that would describe an attribute of that persons. For example, before ‘Sitting Bull’(a Sioux Chief from South Dakota) received that name, he was called ‘Jumping Badger’, however he was nicknamed ‘Slow’ because of how long it took him to get things done. The idea is that these nicknames serve as a reminder, not only of a particular time but of how others think of you; this encourages positive change throughout life.

In some tribes they will perform a naming ceremony. This is usually started when somebody requests a name from an elder of the village. They will do this by offering a gift of tobacco or herbs, gifts are given and received with the left hand to symbolise the giving from heart to heart. Once the gift is accepted the ceremony can commence. Before it begins the elder will contemplate an appropriate name for the person through much pondering or sometimes in a vision or dream. The name will go unheard until the final moments of the ritual.

For the event a ceremonial fire is lit and a prayer circle is formed around it. Four guides are chosen by the elder; these act as witnesses to the naming and are each offered a gift by the recipient. Prayers are then spoken and the elder will explain his reasoning for the name and discuss it with the guides. Finally the name is announced, though it is not given immediately. The person must be deemed worthy of it which could take weeks, months or sometimes even years to achieve. If the receiver ever does anything to dishonour their name the guides have the power to strip them of it.

The Native American naming traditions helped define each individual throughout their entire life. Being able to pick their own name or being given a name helped people work towards their aspirations, it taught them their strengths and was a constant reminder to be the best version of themselves possible.

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