Native American Names for English-Speaking Children
Native American Baby Names: The Warning
On a weekly basis, we receive mail from some teenaged 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.
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 a Native American language. 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.) I'd recommend against this, though, for two reasons: first, many 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 to the people any more than naming your baby God would be interpreted as honoring God. Second, more
practically speaking, the names of Indian tribes tend to have meanings that would strike most Americans as odd. Dakota, for example, is a plural noun--it's
akin to naming your son "Frenchmen." Chippewa literally means "puckered up." 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 traditions. 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 an everyday 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 are inspired by Irish Gaelic words).
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. 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 since it is against
Orrin's religion to give a spiritual name to a person he has not met. 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 along with cash or a check (made out to Native Languages of the Americas) to our postal address:
Native Languages of the Americas
8400 Normandale Lake Boulevard, Suite 920
Minneapolis MN 55437
We will email you five Indian names that match your criteria, along with their meaning, language, and pronunciation, and
you can pick the one that appeals to you the most. Languages we can currently do this for include Abenaki, Algonquin, Apache, Athabaskan,
Bella Coola, Blackfoot, Caddo, Cherokee, Cheyenne,
Chipewyan, Chippewa, Choctaw, Comanche, Cree, Creek, Crow, Dakota Sioux, Dene, Delaware, Haida, Hopi, Inuktitut, Kiowa, 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, and Yaqui. Please realize that some Indian names may be difficult for you to pronounce, since
tribal languages are so different from English. We can try to give you short words to make it easiest for you, but we are not responsible
if you don't like or can't pronounce the names we suggest. You're still welcome to adapt one of these words into a name you can
pronounce and say it was "inspired by a Native American word" if you like. That is how half the rivers in America got named, after all.