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Native American Names for English-Speaking Children

Native American Baby Names: The Warning

On a weekly basis, we receive mail from some teenage girl (or occasionally boy) explaining that their parents gave them a Native American name and they now want to confirm the name's meaning or learn what tribe it comes from. The only problem is that the name in question is rarely Native American, and almost never has the meaning that they were told it did. Upon investigating this further, I found that there are dozens of "American Indian baby name list" sites on the Internet repeating the same list of 50-70 supposedly Native American girls and boys names... of which very few are genuine. No, Chenoa does not mean "white dove" in Cherokee, and Aiyana does not mean "blossom" or "eternal bloom." Kaya does not mean "little sister" in Hopi. Nadie does not mean "wise" in Algonquin. These and many other translations are flatly false and we have no idea where they came from.

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Other names on these lists do come from Native American words, but are inaccurately translated. For example, Kasa is widely claimed to mean "dressed in furs" or "fur-clad" in Hopi. The Hopi word kwasa means a dress or skirt, which must be where that idea came from, but it has nothing to do with fur, and there must be dozens of dogs out there inadvertantly named "skirt" because of this mistranslation. Some names are mistakenly claimed to be Native American when in fact they come from Hebrew, Greek, or another non-Native American language. Others are unrecognizable and just plain untraceable, claimed to mean "power of the moon" or "angel of precious stone" in some generic "Native American" language. Think about it: if these were real Native American names, why would no one even have any idea which language they are supposed to be in? And then there are still other names that were invented by white writers of old Westerns, romance novels, fantasy adventure books or role-playing games about pseudo-Native American barbarians in alternate universes--yet somehow find their way onto these lists of American Indian baby names anyway. Believe me, you haven't seen disappointed until you've had to break the news to junior-high-school-age Katet and Svaha that their names come not from Native American tribal tradition but from books written by Stephen King and Charles de Lint.

So please, whatever you choose to name your new babies, DON'T just pick a name randomly off a list of "American Indian baby names" on the Internet. Otherwise, sixteen years from now, they're going to be the ones emailing me for the crushing news that their names come from Shadowrun, or were made up by unscrupulous people trying to sell more books. Due to the high degree of sloppy research and/or deliberate deception involved in the baby name industry, I can't recommend using any baby name book or website for finding Native American names for a child; your money would be much better spent on a decent dictionary of the Native American language spoken by your ancestors. If you're determined to sort through baby name books, though, here's a page of explanations about some of the most common incorrectly translated Indian baby names we get email about, to help you separate some of the wheat from the chaff. If you've fallen in love with a Native American baby name that's not on that list and want to know if it has the meaning the Internet claims it does, feel free to contact us and ask.

On a related topic, I should also note that there has been a recent trend towards giving white children the names of Indian tribes as first names (Dakota, Cheyenne, Chippewa, etc.) This isn't necessarily the best idea, for two reasons: first, some Native Americans find the practice culturally and religiously inappropriate. It's difficult to explain why to outsiders, but think about how acceptable Biblical names like Mary and Jacob are to most American Christians, yet how unacceptable baby names like Christ or God would be. Tribal names have special meaning in Indian culture, and using them as first names isn't considered respectful in some communities. Second, the names of Indian tribes tend to have meanings that aren't that appropriate for a child's name. Dakota, for example, is a plural noun--it's akin to naming your son "Frenchmen." Chippewa literally means "puckered up" (a reference to the tribe's puckered moccasin style.) Your child may not thank you for a name like this when he or she grows up any more than the people you're trying to honor will.

Native American Baby Names: The Explanation

So with those warnings duly in mind, how can you find a Native American name for your child, then?

Well, it really depends what kind of name you are looking for. If you want a traditional Native American name, you will need to speak to an elder or religious leader in the tribal community you are associated with. Every Native American tribe has slightly different naming practices. In many, a true name is not given until after a baby is born, not until the child reaches puberty in some cases. In other tribes babies must be given names from their parents' own family or clan. Traditional American Indian names are often spiritually divined, unique to each individual, and/or related to an accomplishment, rite of passage, dream, or life event. Obviously, this is not something you are going to be able to replicate online, in a baby book, or from strangers. There is no way to get a traditional Indian name other than from an older family member, tribal religious leader, or an elder who has met you and probably your child in person.

However, if you are looking for a modern American-style baby name inspired by your Native American heritage, you do have two simpler options available to you:

1) Use a Native American variant of a Hebrew or Christian name, for example, Kateri (Catherine) or Atian (Stephen). This is the Native American equivalent of Spanish names like Catalina (Catherine) and Esteban (Stephen).

2) Use or adapt a word from a Native American language. This is the Native American equivalent of Irish names like Colleen or Shannon (neither of which is traditional as a person's name, but they do come from Irish Gaelic words and are popular as first names in the Irish community today.)

Native American-inspired names such as these are not traditional ones, nor will they be truly unique to your child (any more than Colleen or Catalina would be), but they may be interesting or attractive to you, and they may help your child make a pleasing connection with your heritage. And any time Native American languages get positive exposure in our culture, I consider that a good thing. So if you'd like to find your own Native American baby name, please browse through our free index of Native American languages to see if there are any words there that appeal to you, or buy a Native American dictionary in a language of your choice.

Native American Baby Names: Suggestions

There is one other option; we can suggest some possible baby names for you ourselves. Our nonprofit linguistic organization currently runs a fundraiser in which we offer Native American names for people's pets. We can use the same format to provide you with some ideas for Native American words to use as first names for a child. Please understand that we delete all requests for spiritual or 'medicine' names. The words we suggest are no different, spiritually speaking, than American Indian names you looked up in a language dictionary. If you are looking for an American Indian name with spiritual significance for yourself or for a child's naming ceremony, please talk to an elder in your community instead. No stranger can do this for you over the Internet.

On the other hand, if you're looking for an original first or middle name for your new baby and would like to honor your Native American heritage by using or adapting a word from your ancestors' language, then please fill out the form below. If you prefer, you can also write down this information and send it to our postal address:

Native Languages of the Americas
PO Box 385291
Minneapolis, MN 55438

We will email you five Indian names that match your criteria, along with their meanings, language, and pronunciations, and you can pick the one that appeals to you the most. Languages we can currently do this for include Abenaki, Alaskan Athabaskan, Aleut, Algonquin, Apache, Arawak, Bella Coola, Blackfeet, Caddo, Cherokee, Cheyenne, Chipewyan, Chippewa, Choctaw, Chumash, Comanche, Cree, Creek, Crow, Dakota Sioux, Dene, Delaware, Flathead, Haida, Hopi, Inuktitut, Kiowa, Kwakiutl, Lakota, Lenape, Maliseet-Passamaquoddy, Mesquakie, Mohawk, Mojave, Munsee, Muskogee, Navajo, Nez Perce, Nuxalk, Ojibway, Oneida, Osage, Pima, Potawatomi, Salish, Sauk, Seneca, Shawnee, Shoshone, Tohono O'odham, Tlingit, Ute, and Yaqui.

1. Are you having a baby girl or a baby boy? (Some American Indian languages mark the gender on a word,
so male or female Indian names would be different in those languages. Other languages have gender-neutral words.)
I'd like Native American boy's names
I'd like Native American girl's names
I don't know yet, so please send a few of each
I don't know yet, so please send only gender-neutral names

2. Why are you looking for a Native American name for the baby? (Do you and/or the baby have Native American
ancestry, and if so, do you know which tribe? Are you trying to honor someone in specific? Or are you just looking for a
beautiful and unique name and don't care so much where it comes from?)

3. Do you have a preference for which American Indian language or languages you are looking for?

4. Are you more interested in Native American variants of Biblical or other Western names, or words from Native
American languages to use as names?

I'd like Native American variants of Biblical or other Western names
I'd like names from Native American languages
I'm interested in both

5. Do you have a particular letter you would like the baby's name to start with, or does the first letter not matter?

6. Do you have any special meaning preferences?

7. Does the child have an older sibling? (Kinship terms from native languages often make nice English names, and
birth order is important to many languages.)

8. What month is the baby due? (The birth season makes a good baby name in some Indian languages.)

9. How concerned are you with being able to pronounce and spell the baby's name easily?
(If this is an important concern, we will suggest Indian names that are shorter and more similar to English pronunciation,
but they may also match your preferences less well.)
Doesn't matter, a long or complicated word is fine
Three syllables or shorter and not too complicated
Two syllables or shorter and sounds very close to English

10. We will get five suggested names to you within two weeks after receiving your payment. Is that soon enough?
No, I need the names right away--please ignore my language and meaning preferences if it will get me the names faster
Yes, two weeks is fine, it's more important for you to follow my preferences as closely as possible

11. Email address you want us to send the Native baby names to:

12. We can accept credit card payments via PayPal, or you can mail us cash or a check. We ask for a $10 donation for our nonprofit work in exchange for the naming suggestions. (Donations are tax-deductible.) If you don't want to give money, you can put a link to our organization on your website instead, or volunteer to help out with one of our projects.
I will make a credit card/PayPal donation
I will mail you a donation
I will link to your website or volunteer some time
No thanks, I'd rather not do any of those things

Additional American Indian Baby Name Resources

Animal Picture Dictionaries: Wolf, eagle, horse, and other animal names in many different Indian languages.
Indian Pronunciation Guides: Charts showing how to pronounce words and names in Indian languages.
Cherokee Indian Names: Online tutorial on how to spell and pronounce native names in Cherokee.
Blackfoot Indian Names: Online tutorial on how to spell and pronounce native names in Blackfoot.
Personal Names Among the Indian Nations East of the Mississippi: Essay on ancient tribal naming traditions.
Cradle Boards and Baby Baskets: Information and pictures about traditional Native baby carriers.

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