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Names and Identity: The Native American Naming Tradition

Native American naming traditions can enrich your sense of self.

This is the first article in the Psychology Today "What's in a Name?" series, in which we will ponder the psychological ramifications of names, beginning with our oldest naming tradition, that of the Native Americans. Using Juliet's famous question, "What's in a name?" I invited women to discuss anything they wanted about their given names.

Of all of the essays I received, the Native Americans had the most complex naming tradition, which can help the rest of us enrich our own sense of identity. Brooke (Wompsi'kuk Skeesucks) a Mohegan, notes that in the Native American naming tradition, names should change. Children receive names that are descriptive, they may be given new names at adolescence, and again as they go through life according to what their life experiences and accomplishments are. Society bestows a new name–a new name is earned. W.S. Brooke explains, "Some people are like lakes. They change very little as they age. (...) Some people are like rivers. When you trace the Mississippi, or any other river at its source, it can be very small. Later on it can be wide and strong. When it meets the ocean, it spreads out." In other words, names should change as the individual changes.

Before you say, "That's neither practical nor possible in modern society," pause for a moment and consider that we have a pale shadow of this Native American naming tradition: our nicknames. Although most of us have only one or two nicknames, some women have several and some have a veritable profusion, which continue into adulthood.1 Nicknames provide insight not only into the individual but also into how other people think of her–they are a double prism rather than a one-way mirror. Nicknames also serve as time markers. As Jennifer noted, "It is interesting when I think about it. I answer to most ‘J' names. I can tell who/where many of my friendships stem from by what name they call me." Unlike the Native Americans, most of us don't continue collecting new names once we become adults.

Many of the essayists describe growing into their given name. One essayist describes growing into her given name, accompanied with the delightful and common feeling of finally being "all grown-up"–a circular evolution going back to the name given at birth. The challenge with this circular evolution is to remember that once we have grown into our given names, we have not attained the goal but only started the journey. The Native American naming tradition inspires the individual to continue to change throughout life.

Native American names are drawn from nature. In industrialized countries, names based on nature gradually fell out of favor. Names like Rose, Fern, or Pearl were considered old fashioned and unsuitable for the workplace. Has our failure to maintain names drawn from nature broken our bond with the environment resulting in its unsustainable exploitation? Recent name studies indicate that names from nature are making a comeback in the United Kingdom with names like Olivia, Ruby, and Lily. The same trend is also occurring in the U.S. with names like Ashley (from the ash tree), Olivia (olive), and Chloe (green shoot). The U.S. names only whisper their ties to nature: it will be interesting to see if the trend continues.

Native American tribal names link an individual to a group of families. Phil Konstantine notes that many of the tribal names mean "people," "us," "human being," which reach even beyond a tribe to include all of mankind.2 Native American tribal names represent a much larger concept than most family names in Europe and America. Clan names still carry this broader concept of the human family although these names are still much more specific than what Konstantine describes-i.e., tribal names that represent "us". Imagine the psychological impact of growing up with a name that means "mankind" instead of "me."

Native Americans also have secret sacred names that only the individual and the medicine man know. We still find this tradition of spiritual names in the Hebrew and Christian tradition. Jews have a Hebrew name in addition to the name society knows them by, although whether this is a spiritual or cultural name or both depends entirely on the individual's personal beliefs. Catholic adolescents may choose the name of a saint they especially admire at confirmation. As opposed to the Native American naming tradition, people know the Hebrew or saint's name. Why do Native Americans keep their sacred names hidden? Have they grasped a profound spiritual and psychological reality we have not? If an individual suffers trauma or degradation but retains a secret core identity, that secret core identity has not been defiled: it can be used to help the individual regenerate and heal. This concept could be of great help to individuals suffering from trauma.

Native Americans inspire us to think about our names as allegory-with multiple dimensions. To remember that we are on a linear voyage in life, that we should be constantly changing and growing, that our identity consists in how we are seen and judged by others-by what we give, not by what we take. To remember that our names should remind us first of "us", not "me." To remember that making the world a better place means not only helping others but also caring for nature so that our descendants will enjoy the same bounty we have. To remember that every human being has a sacred spiritual core.

Now it is up to us to ponder and elaborate our own name stories so that we remember day to day the multiple dimensions of our identity—the inspiration and the commitments they entail.

With many thanks to the Native American women who shared their name stories.

1 Because this article is based on research for "Women, Their Names, & the Stories They Tell," only women's stories are included.
2 "This Day in North American Indian History," by Phil Konstantine: cf. also his website, Tribal Names.