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  • David Q. Hall

What's in a Name?

Native American tribes and families had many customs and reasons for the names that were given to people, or taken by them themselves during their lifetimes. Unlike many parents of today, who may give names to their children when they’re born because the name is “popular,” or is that of a relative like a grandparent, or use a common name with an unusual spelling because they want to be “different,” Native American names in a wide variety of tribes were given or taken because they bore special meaning and uniqueness about the person so named.

Sometimes a person, even a famous one, had a number of name changes during his or her lifetime, but again, almost always for a special, highly meaningful reason. Names could be theirs from birth, given by parents or their band. Often names were changed by the person themself after some great event in their lives. And names might be conferred upon them by others for important reasons. But again, names carried meaning and messages regarding that unique person and life.

One of the earliest Native American persons to be known to the European colonists and settlers who came into the lands that would become the United States of America was Pocahontas of an Algonquin tribe in what is now Virginia. Pocahontas was born about 1596, just before the founding of the English colony at Jamestown in 1607. Her birth name was Matoax, but her own people changed it when she was young to Pocahontas, meaning “playful one.” She herself changed it again, after her baptism and conversion Christianity, to Rebecca, after a person in the Bible. So, in only about 21 years of her life before she died, Pocahontas had at least three different names.

One of the most famous Native Americans in early, Revolutionary War America was a great Seneca chief who went through a number of name changes during his lifetime and is most remembered as “Red Jacket.” He was born in 1750 and in his youth, he was named Otetiani, the same name as the wooded hills around his village in Western New York. He took the name Red Jacket because of a special red coat he wore after it was given to him by his British allies during the American Revolution. In later life he was given the name Sagoyewatha, meaning “he who keeps them awake,” because of his outstanding speaking ability or oratory. In that respect, he could be said to have been superior to the poor author of this book, who as a Presbyterian preacher undoubtedly failed to keep some of his worshipers awake on Sunday mornings.

Another very well-known Native American ally of the British and enemy of the Americans, who were constantly stealing his people’s lands, was the great Tecumseh. Tecumseh was Shawnee, born about 1768, and especially know for “Tecumseh’s War of 1812.” His Shawnee name Tekoomse meant “shooting star” or “blazing comet,” because of a spectacular comet in the night sky. And the name stuck with him until his death in battle in 1813.

Born at almost the same time in what is now the state of Tennessee, in 1770, was another of the most famous Native Americans, Sequoia, or Se-Quo-Yah. His birth name given by his mother may be unknown, but the name “Sequoia” acquired early in his youth was meaningfully descriptive, meaning “lame,” or possibly “opposum enclosed” or caged, because of a disabling injury and crippling arthritis that he had to endure for the rest of his life. He was too limited physically to farm as so many of his people did. But he was highly intelligent, an inventor, and is probably best remembered for being perhaps the only person in recorded history to develop a written language all by himself for his Cherokee people. It was so successful that the Cherokees became more learned in writing than the white settlers that were taking their lands from them.

Another Native American woman who is well-remembered is Sacagawea, the legendary Shoshone guide for the famous Lewis and Clark journey of exploration in 1804-1806. She was born about 1788 near the Continental Divide at the border between what are now the states of Idaho and Montana. Her name at birth may be unknown, but the name she is always known by was said to be given to her by her husband when she was married as a teenager, and in Hidatsa Native American language means “Bird Woman.” It was one instance of being named after another, in her case, her husband’s mother.

One of the most famous Native American warrior chiefs of the Great Plains was Crazy Horse of the Oglala Lakota or Sioux. Some authors who have written about Crazy Horse have claimed that his name came from a wild horse that ran through the middle of the tipis in his village about the time that he was born. But that would seem to be fictional. He is one more example of a prominent Native American who bore different names at meaningful times in his life.

Crazy Horse was born in 1840. His birth name of Chan Ohan meant “among the trees,” which seemed to refer to a mother and child “one with nature.” But Crazy Horse was famous for his light-colored, curly hair, so at some point his mother gave him the nickname “Curly.” He himself took the name “Crazy Horse” not because of any wild horse, but because he had a spiritual vision one day of himself on a horse that “danced around” in an unusual manner. It seemed “crazy” to have a vision or dream like that.

Crazy Horse is famous yet today for being a lead war chief in the successful fight against George Custer and his 7th Cavalry, wiping out Custer’s entire unit of federal soldiers. But one of the facts about Crazy Horse that makes him a hero yet today and his name celebrated by many Native Americans is that even though he and his followers were eventually forced to surrender to federal troops and were forced onto a reservation, it is claimed that he never signed or put his sacred name on a treaty paper that would give Lakota lands to the U.S. government and white settlers.

Finally, one of the main characters in a Native American story in this series, The Brave Birch Tree, was a boy named Brave Hawk. Brave Hawk was given his name by parents who remembered the day that a small sharp-shinned hawk flew out of the nearby forest and perched on top of their bark-covered lodge in the middle of their village. It sat there, seemingly unafraid, and watched with its amazingly sharp vision for a few minutes, paying no attention to Brave Hawk’s parents or neighbors. Then, suddenly it swooped down to ground and snatched a fat meadow mouse that had crawled out of a basket of acorns that Brave Hawk’s mother had intended to grind into acorn meal and paste for cooking.

As the hawk flew off to take its mouse meal to its nest to feed its young chicks, the people who had seen the unusual incident all agreed, “that was one brave hawk.” It was Mother and Father’s wish that Brave Hawk would grow up to be as brave as that little forest hawk was. And he did, so his given name fit him well. He was Brave Hawk his entire life.

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