Bestowing a New Name

by Alice C. Fletcher

The bestowal of a new name upon an adult generally took place at some tribal ceremony when all the people were gathered together. In this way as much publicity as possible was given to the act. Among the Pawnee tribe there were three requirements that had to be met in order to take a new name:

First, a man could only take a new name after the performance of an act indicative of ability or strength of character;

Second, the name had to be assumed openly in the presence of the people to whom the act it commemorated was known;

Third, it was necessary that it should be announced in connection with such a ritual as that here given.

These three requirements indicate (1) that a man's name stood for what he had shown himself to be by the light of his actions; (2) that this was recognized by his tribesmen, and (3) that it was proclaimed by one having charge of mediatory rites through which man can be approached by the supernatural.

The old priest who gave the following ritual and explained it said: "A man's life is an onward movement. If one has within him a determined purpose and seeks the help of the powers, his life will climb up." Here he made a gesture indicating a line slanting upward; then he arrested the movement and, still holding his hand where he had stopped, went on to say: "As a man is climbing up, he does something that marks a place in his life where the powers have given him an opportunity to express in acts his peculiar endowments; so this place, this act, forms a stage in his career and he takes a new name to indicate that he is on a level different from that he occupied previously." He added: "Some men can rise only a little way, others live on a dead level." He illustrated his words by moving his hands horizontally. "Men having power to advance climb step by step." Again he made his meaning clear by outlining a flight of steps.

The following ritual is recited on the occasion of taking a new name and is a dramatic poem in three parts. The first gives briefly the institution of the rite of changing one's name in consequence of a new achievement; the second shows how the man was enabled to accomplish this act. It begins with his lonely vigil and fast when he cried to the powers for help; the scene then shifts to the circle of the lesser powers, who, in council, deliberate on his petition which makes its way to them and finally wins their consent; then the winds summon the messengers and these, gathering at the command of the lesser powers, are sent to earth to the man crying in lonely places, to grant him his desire. This part closes with a few vivid words which set forth that only by the favor of the powers had the man been able to do the deed. The third part deals with the man's names—the one to be discarded and the one now to be assumed. The ritual is in rhythmic form, impossible to reproduce in English. The following rendition contains nothing which is not in the original text as explained and amplified by the priest.

The ritual was intoned in a loud voice; the man who was to receive a new name stood before the priest where he could be seen by the entire assembly.


  Harken!   'Twas thus it came to pass:
      In ancient days, a Leader and his men
      Walked this wide earth, man's vast abode
      Roofed by the heavens, where dwell the gods.
      They reached a place the spot no man can tell,
      Faced dangers dread and vanquished them;
      Then, standing as if born anew to life,
      Each warrior threw away the name
      That had been his ere yet these deeds were done.
  Harken!   The Leader and his men
      Made there the Vict'ry song, and set the mark
      Ye must o'ertake, if ye would be like them!
  Harken!   The Leader and his men
      Turned then toward home. Their Vict'ry song
      Proclaimed them near; the village rose,
      Looked toward the hill, where on the top
      Stood the brave men, singing their song,
      Heralding thus the favor of the gods
      By which they had surpassed all former deeds—
      Made new their claim to be accounted men.
  Harken!   And whence, think ye, was borne
      Unto these men courage to dare,
      Strength to endure hardship and war?
      Mark well my words, as I reveal
      How the gods help man's feebleness.
      The Leader of these warriors was a man
      Given to prayer. Oft he went forth
      Seeking a place no one could find.
      There would he stand and lift his voice,
      Fraught with desire that he might be
      Invincible, a bulwark 'gainst all foes
      Threat'ning his tribe, causing them fear.
      Night-time and day this cry sped on,
      Traveling far, seeking to reach—
  Harken!   Those places far above,
  Harken!   Within the circle vast
      Where sit the gods watching o'er men.
  Harken!   This poor man's prayer went on,
      Speeding afar into the blue
      Heavens above, reached there the place—
  Harken!   Where dwell the lesser gods,
  Harken!   And great Ti-ra'-wa, mightier than all!
  Harken!   It was because a god
      Received this prayer, considered it,
      Favored its plea, and passed it on
      To him whose place was next, in that grand ring,
      Who in his turn received the prayer,
          Considered it, and sent it on—
  Harken!   Around that circle vast,
  Harken!   Where sit the gods above.
  Harken!   And thus it was the prayer
      Sent by this man won the consent
      Of all the gods. For each god in his place
      Speaks out his thought, grants or rejects
      Man's suppliant cry, asking for help;
      But none can act until the Council grand
      Comes to accord, thinks as one mind,
      Has but one will all must obey.
  Harken!   The Council gave consent;
  Harken!   And great Ti-ra'-wa, mightier than all!
  Harken!   To make their purpose known,
      Succor and aid freely to give,
      Heralds were called, called by the Winds.
      Then in the West uprose the Clouds
      Heavy and black, ladened with storm.
      Slowly they climbed, dark'ning the skies,
      While close on every side the Thunders marched
      On their dread way, till all were come
      To where the gods in stately council sat
      Waiting for them. Then bade them go
      Back to the earth, carrying aid
      To him whose prayer had reached their circle vast.
      This mandate given, the Thunders turned toward earth,
      Taking their course slantwise the sky.
  Harken!   Another followed hard—
      Lightning broke forth out of the cloud,
      Zigzag and dart, cleaving their way
      Slantwise to earth, their goal to reach.
  Harken!   For these two were not all
      That hastened to proclaim the god's behest—
      Swift on their wings Swallows in flocks
      Swept in advance, ranging the path,
      Black breasts and Red, Yellow and White,
      Flying about, clearing the way
      For those who bore the message of the gods
      Granting the man courage to dare,
      Strength to endure, power to stand
      Invincible, a bulwark 'gainst all foes.
  Harken!  'Twas thus it came to pass:
      The Leader grasped the help sent by the gods;
      Henceforth he walked steadfast and strong,
      Leading his men through dangers drear,
      Knowing that naught could strike at him
      To whom the gods had promised victory.
  Attend!   Once more I change his name.
  Harken!   Ri-ruts'-ka-tit it was
      We used to call him by, a name he won
      Long days ago, marking an act
      Well done by him, but now passed by.
  Harken!   To-day all men shall say—
  Harken!   His act has lifted him
      Where all his tribe behold a man
      Clothed with new fame, strong in new strength
      Gained by his deeds, blessed of the gods.
  Harken!   Sha-ku'-ru Wa'-ruk-ste shall he be called.

Next: Taking an Indian Name in Camp

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