Indian Names

by Alice C. Fletcher

INTRODUCTION.—Among the Indian tribes of the United States all personal names have a definite significance. Although there are diversities in the customs relating to names among the various tribes, yet, looking at these as a whole, personal names are observed to fall generally into two classes: First, those which refer to sacred rites; second, those which commemorate a personal achievement.

An Indian tribe is composed of a number of kinship groups or clans. To each one of these, speaking generally, belongs the hereditary duty of performing a certain rite and also the care of the sacred objects connected with that rite. Each kinship group or clan has a set of personal names, all of which refer to the rite peculiar to the clan, or to the sacred objects or to the symbols connected with the rite, and one of these names is given to each person born within the clan. Names of this class are generally retained by men and women throughout life and, to a degree, are regarded as sacred in character. These names have also a social significance, as they always indicate the birth status of the person, for the name at once shows to which clan or kinship group the bearer belongs. No one can exchange his clan or birth name, any more than he can change his sex.

The names that belong to the second class are those which are taken by an adult to mark an achievement. This must be an act in which he has shown special ability or courage in successfully defending his people from danger. Such a name, therefore, marks an epoch in a man's life and is strictly personal to the man, and, to a degree, indicative of his character or attainments. It sometimes happens, although but rarely, that a man on such an occasion may decide to take the name of a noted ancestor rather than acquire an entirely new name, but the character of the act of taking a new name is not thereby changed.

These facts concerning the significance of Indian personal names throw light on the widespread custom observed among Indians of never addressing men or women by their personal names or of using those names in their presence. To do so is a breach of good manners. The personal name, as has been shown, refers either to the religious rites sacred to the bearer's clan or else to a notable act performed by the man; in both cases the name stands for something that is too closely connected with the life of the individual to make it fit for common use. The difficulty of designating a person one wishes to address is met by the use of terms of relationship. Of course, in some companies these terms would be literally true and proper, but there are terms which are used in a wider sense and which do not imply actual kinship. (The subject of Indian relationships and their terms is too complex to be entered upon here.) There are terms which are employed merely to indicate respect. For instance, "Grandfather" is used when addressing or speaking of the President of the United States; "Little Father" and "Father" when addressing or speaking of the Secretary of the Interior and the Commissioner of Indian Affairs, both of whom rank below the President, as is well known to the Indian. The use of terms of relationship may appear strange to us, but there is, as we have seen, a reason for it. This reason also explains why a child or an adult generally stands mute when we address him by his personal name or ask him what his name is; his silence is not to be attributed to "Indian stolidity," which we ignorantly regard as a marked characteristic of the race.

The bestowal of a name, whether the name is of the first or of the second class already described, was always attended with ceremonies. These differed among the many tribes of the United States, particularly in their details, but fundamentally they had much in common.

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