Native American Naming Traditions

Written by Kathy Moore

“American Indians have played a central role in shaping the history of the nation, and they are deeply woven into the social fabric of much of American life.... During the last three decades of the 20th century, scholars of ethnohistory, of the "new Indian history," and of Native American studies forcefully demonstrated that to understand American history and the American experience, one must include American Indians.”

-Robbie Ethridge, Creek Country

Crazy Horse, Sitting Bull, Squanto, Geronimo, Sacajawea and Pocahontas… these are the names of a few famous Native Americans who played a very important part in the history of the United States.

Since the first settlers in the US were Native American it is not uncommon to also see Native American names of geographical locations such as Alabama, Illinois, Mississippi, Utah and Wyoming. In fact, twenty-six US states were named by Native Americans.

Native American naming traditions vary depending on each particular tribe. Typically, they are derived from nature, represented by an animal symbolizing desirable characteristics or a certain trait. A Native American name gives us an insight into the personality of the one who possesses it.

Take the famous examples mentioned above:

Crazy Horse (Tȟašúŋke Witk): Lakota: "His-Horse-Is-Crazy"

Sitting Bull (nicknamed Húŋkešni): Lakota Sioux Plains: "Slow"

Squanto (also known as Tisquantum): Patuxet Tribe: “divine rage”

Geronimo: Chiricahua Apache Tribe: "the one who yawns"

Sacajawea: Shoshone: "Bird-woman"

Pocahontas (Born Matoaka, known as Amonute) : Powhatan Tribe: "playful one"

Each name fulfills the purpose of revealing something about the character or temperament of the person or place. Names like these are still in use across America today. Some people receive more than one name, which reflects significant character changes during their lifetime. Legal names are given, but Native American names are earned.

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