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The Multifaceted Native American Naming Tradition

Reviving your sense of self.

The new year and its associations with new beginnings is the perfect time to contemplate Native American naming traditions and what they have to offer our modern society. The Native American naming tradition is multifaceted, offering multiple dimensions and ever changing opportunities with which to enrich one’s sense of self.

Native Americans have a fluid naming tradition—i.e., they can earn new names. A Native American wise woman explained this concept to me with nature imagery. Some people are like lakes; they change very little during their lifetimes. Others are like rivers that may change dramatically from their small beginnings to become mighty rivers that travel all the way to the sea. Native American children are given names that suit their personalities. If a name is given and proves to be a bad fit, the child’s name is changed. At adolescence, the given name may be changed again. As the adult progresses through life, new names can be awarded. Family and society award the new names, which provide the individual with a strong social bond to community as well as family. This naming tradition helps to motivate the individual to grow throughout life.

A Native American name can reflect your personality, what you accomplish, or what happens to you. The name Dancing Wind sounds beautiful to our ears, but Native Americans know that the dancing wind is an image for the tornado. This name warns of a volatile, angry disposition. It serves as a warning to others as well as an incentive to Dancing Wind to earn a new name. The name Bear is a common name like John. If the name is changed to Wounded Bear, society knows the individual is suffering and needs special care. If an individual accomplishes great things, a new name like “Eagle Eye” may be given to recognize the individual’s clear-sighted perception as well as a special connection between heaven and earth, i.e., with the spiritual world. The Native American naming tradition inspires the individual to strive to be better, to heal, and to evolve. The bond between society and the individual is very personal.

Our Western naming tradition is quite different. Children traditionally received the name of relatives—a custom that looks to past history and culture. As children we may have a nickname or a series of nicknames which provide a sense of evolution, but once we grow into our full given name, there is a sense of being “all grown up,” an implied stopping point. We can continue our sense of evolution by adding various degrees to our names, which indicate that we have developed certain fields of expertise, which are not, however, a measure of our character. As opposed to the Native American naming tradition, modern society has traditionally turned more to external,rather than internal, inspiration for naming the individual.

Native American names are drawn from Nature, which provides the child with a strong sense of being part of the natural environment. Names drawn from nature, like Lily, Rose, and Violet, were dropped almost completely as women entered the western workforce. However, as the Western world has become more and more concerned about the environment, names drawn from nature are making a come back, although they are more subtle—e.g., Chloe (green shoot), Olivia (olive), Logan (little hollow), Brandon (hill covered with broom). A return to more names drawn from nature would provide stronger bonds with our environment.

Native American names provide insight into the individual, a strong social bond, inspiration, and a link to the natural world from which they are drawn. In addition to the psychological, social, and environmental dimensions of their names, Native Americans also have an added spiritual dimension with a secret, sacred name that is known only to the individual and the medicine man. If an individual has a secret sacred name that represents a pure essence, it can never be contaminated, no matter what happens to “the outside” name. This secret sacred name provides the individual with a pure spiritual core from which to regenerate should the individual experience any trauma. A secret spiritual name might help our soldiers leaving for combat duty. Native Americans also have special ceremonies for soldiers returning from war to reintegrate them into society, another practice our military should consider.

In Western culture, we also have a tradition of spiritual names with biblical names like Moses, Joshua, Elizabeth, Anne, and Mary. In the Catholic tradition, adolescents are encouraged to pick a saint who appeals to them and after confirmation, they pray to that saint for guidance and protection. Middle names may be saints’ names, e.g., Anne Marie, or even the name of the savior in Spanish culture: e.g., Santiago Jesús. (Jesús ranked as #68 in most popular given names for Latino boys in 2012.) Mohammed is a common Islamic given name as is Isa (Jesus). Different religious traditions maintain a spiritual naming tradition in modern culture although the spiritual name is not as personal as in the Native American naming tradition.

The Native American naming tradition is extremely complex with psychological, social, environmental, and spiritual dimensions inherent in every given name. Because they have the concept of an evolving name that can be earned, their naming tradition inspires them to continue to grow throughout their lives. Inspired by their tradition, we can seek inspiration and regeneration in our given names. In thinking about your given name and in discussing your children’s given names, create as many links as possible to these four dimensions—the psychological, social, environmental, and spiritual. Do this for your children a s well as yourself. Find examples from your life and your children’s lives (a moment you are proud of or a spiritual insight), examples from the lives of family namesakes, and with the lives of others with the same name in history as well as the present. To include as many dimensions as possible, give each letter of your given name a special meaning so that your given name is a constant source of inspiration and growth throughout your life.